On April 14, 2022, a group of writers, many with formal ties to Oxford University Press, sent an open letter to the publisher asking for accountability. That request, complete with over 800 signatures gathered publicly on Twitter, was in response to the upcoming publication of a book, Gender-Critical Feminism, by Australian academic Dr. Holly Lawford-Smith. Lawford-Smith, who has previously published work decrying lockdown measures, had already received criticism for her views on gender in the past—specifically, for a website she launched, noconflicttheysaid.org.
Dr. Eugenia Zuroski, an associate professor at Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster University and author of OUP title A Taste for China, was one of the people coordinating the letter. She said that her impetus in writing it was to call attention to what she and many others feel is a not so subtle message to embolden those who use anti-trans rhetoric.
“My initial reason for speaking out was alarm, as an author with the press, as an academic, and as a cis person in community with trans people,” Zuroski said. “The movement that promotes itself as a ‘school of thought’ under the euphemism of ‘gender-critical feminism’ is an organized intervention in institutional and governmental policy whose objectives are to eliminate basic human rights for trans people—not, as it claims, a set of philosophical ideas.”
The Trans Journalists Association for its part, has labeled gender critical feminism as “hateful ideology”—a concern that the aforementioned open letter engaged with directly.
“The very title of her forthcoming publication with OUP is an anti-trans dog whistle: a turn of phrase designed to sound academic that serves instead as a rallying cry for people who believe that trans people do not and should not exist," the letter states. "This sleight of hand has allowed the anti-trans movement to claim that any refusal of their bigotry is an attack on ‘freedom of speech’ or the ‘free circulation of ideas’ in public and in the academy.”
Oxford University Press’ managing director, David Clark, sent a formal reply on April 27, defending the press’ decision and wrote that he wanted “to clarify that the press does not advocate through its publications for any particular views, political positions, or ideologies. Equally what we publish is not reflective of—nor influenced by—the personal views of our employees.”
Dr. Nathan K. Hensley, an associate professor at Georgetown and the author of previous OUP title Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty, was another collaborator on the letter. He, like many of those involved, is worried that OUP is legitimizing hate with the publication of the book. “That's how the laundering of this kind of culture war polemic gains credibility in the public sphere and it's a process of transformation and the providing of cover to ideological extremism under the rubric of scholarship. And, it's disappointing to see a press like Oxford getting sucked into a process like that.”
Hensley is concerned that the acceptance of Lawford-Smith’s book, set for release in August, is a case of profits being placed over its scholarly value, which he sees as negligible given that anti-trans rhetoric was stirred up on social media even as discussions about the letter were forming. “It's clearly going to create controversy that will sell books and that effort to give scholarly cover and profit from what is essentially an unscholarly intervention into a right-wing culture war, discourse engine,” he said. “It devalues the real scholarship that that has appeared under the press’ name, in my opinion.”
When reached for additional comment, a representative of the press reiterated the house’s stance via email: “Our mission and unwavering focus on scholarly integrity guide everything we do and underpin our commitment to publishing a wide spectrum of peer-reviewed research globally, from different disciplines and viewpoints. Every academic title published by OUP is assessed by the Delegates of the Press, and undergoes a rigorous review process to ensure the quality of the scholarship we publish. The book was thoroughly reviewed, including a round of supplementary reviews with experts in particular areas.”
That review process was not disclosed, with the April 27 letter citing the confidentiality of the reviewers. For Zuroski, the issue isn’t just about the lack of scholarly rigor present in the book, or any hate that may come from the book’s release, but that the publishing of this book calls into question the process the press uses and the role that others affiliated with OUP now find themselves in. She called the letter “an act of care.”
“Scholarly publishing, as I understand and practice it, is a set of living relations among people in a common, if broad, endeavor. A press is a community. And when such a substantial part of that community raises an alarm about harm, bigotry, and violence being enacted under the auspices of the press's productions, it merits a careful response from those entrusted with the press's operations.”
Zuroski is unsure what the next steps are for those who penned and supported the letter, but she said that the commitment of those in the scholarly sphere goes further than one book, by one author, with one press.
“We expressed our concerns and they dismissed them; we offered suggestions and they ignored them. I, and I imagine many of the cowriters and signatories of our letter, must now decide what our relationship will be to a press that had an opportunity to take responsibility for its involvement in social harm and chose not to. But the struggle against transphobia and other modes of bigotry isn't centered on Oxford University Press. We will keep mobilizing against hatred and systemic violence where it matters most.”
This article has been updated to reflect the current titles of Hensley and Zuroski.