That which unites us is greater than that which divides us…
… that means, for women, the need to defend our right to be considered as an autonomous sex-class. It has brought vast numbers of oh-so-very different women together to compare, to learn, and to act. The tremendous Woman’s Place UK event hosted by UCL Women’s Liberation SIG on Saturday, and the ‘Women’s Declaration‘ gathering of Labour Party women from across the UK on Sunday, are a watershed moment in a joyous and fast-growing phenomenon.
It was exciting when WPUK first got going, with the determined intention to make a space for women to have the conversations that needed having, that our political parties and trade unions, blinded by poorly managed representational systems, didn’t bother having. We did it for ourselves. It was very shocking, the sabotage, abuse and slander we immediately faced as a result.
The growing of the movement
It took a while to work out what was really going on. Now we know that enough of us have worked it out, there is no stopping us. A couple of years ago, it was maybe a hundred women at a time (with a few male allies) gathering to force a space for us to talk about whether and how the proposed reforms to the GRA would affect women’s legal rights (nobody had asked us, before changing their practices so we had to arrange it). On Saturday 1st February, around a thousand women (with a few male allies) congregated at UCL in Bedford Way, London, and realised we have achieved breakthrough.
But it’s not just the slanderous idea that we are ‘anti-trans’ that has brought violent opposition to meetings of women like us. That, we realise, is just the latest manifestation of something else.
Your Impact Studies are your new Toffee Hammer
When I used my little press to produce Ann Kramer’s Turbulent Spinsters, a book about suffragettes in Hastings and St Leonards, I was particularly pleased with the marketing strapline we thought up for it, “fish heads, fire-raising and force-feeding” because that is, in short, what happened in Hastings when women as a sex-class raised their heads to talk about something a lot of women wanted back then. (Actually, when the suffragettes gathered in Hastings, everything up to and including chairs got thrown at them, but it was the fish-heads thrown at women at the beach gatherings that people remembered, and of course any ‘not nice’ behaviour by women – they remembered *that* alright).
Just be nice
At the UCL/WPUK Women’s Liberation event on Saturday, the thousand or so women who attended were greeted by a couple of dozen protesters, who were herded into a little paddock by security. Someone had set up a Facebook event to gather opposition to the women’s conference, and there they stood, watching the thousand or so women – women of all ages, types, colours, orientations and opinions – gather to discuss their political and social position as a sex-class, and the issues they need to address as a result.
The little protest’s banners made many women want to weep. They made no sense, they showed a complete lack of political understanding, and the only recognisable sentiment they presented was the good old ‘just be nice’ line that’s been used in attempts to shut down women’s politics since politics was invented.
The irony there is that ‘just be nice’ is such an appallingly old fashioned, gender-bound argument – and it’s been a problem throughout our campaign. So many women have sucked up gender-expectations so efficiently that they just thought ‘oh well, if sex-based rights hurt trans people we’d better just give them all up.’ The government has treated women like my mum used to treat me, making sacrifices on my behalf, and telling me to ‘just be nice’ if I complained. Well I say – to mum and to government – no – just think it through. If you stop assuming women and girls don’t matter and get the relevant professionals to think this one through, you might just find an answer that works for everyone. And on the subject of GRA reform, that’s all we were asking for.
Women’s problems are threaded through with those pernicious gendered expectations. Our conference discussions were dominated by things like violence against women and girls, the bullying, abusing and silencing of so many women in politics, the ‘disappearing’ of women as a sex-class in official statistics and its consequences, FGM and other forms of surgery often seen as ‘corrective’ to women according to various cultures’ gender rules, prostitution, trafficking and other aspects of ‘the sex industry’, which almost exclusively uses women and girls to pander to male wishes – the list is long and varied but sooner or later, most conversations come down to the problem that has brought us up against the trans lobby…
Stand up and fail to be counted
It is signally impossible to address any of women’s concerns in society unless our governments and other organisations disaggregate their figures according to sex, and therefore we need to talk about, and write about, sex; not gender (social rules which dictate ‘normal’ male and female behaviour); not gender identity (the way a person sees themselves in relation to those social rules) but good old biological sex, the first and deepest-set characteristic of most life-forms on this planet, observed and observable by science and everyone else since we worked out where babies were coming from.
There is no evidence
We’ve seen in recent months a series of articles saying there is no evidence for many of women’s political claims. Next time you see one of those articles, please consider this: if a crime isn’t reported, there is no evidence of that crime. If someone doing an ‘impact assessment’ doesn’t ask the right questions, there is no evidence for what is actually going on. Collecting meaningful, accurate figures on the experience of women (or disabled people – or poor people) is a rarity and, as proving a negative is next to impossible, that means the experience of women (and other undervalued groups) is unidentifiable in most reports. When data-gathering from women’s point of view is done properly, it is done mainly by women’s groups, not government or business organisations. That, above all, is something we need to change but there’s a change happening that we most definitely don’t want – women’s organisations are being pressured to take people’s sex on their say-so, or to not ask at all, on pain of losing funding. That leaves the field open for lazy journalists and politicians to write off all our issues with the statement “there is no evidence.”
What’s the fuss about?
A couple of examples of what we talked about on Saturday: what is known as ‘the gender pay gap’. It is supposedly getting smaller, this gap. Hooray – or it would be hooray if not for the fact that it’s been getting smaller since the fashion for mature, affluent, extremely highly paid males of a certain type to start declaring themselves female (and of course, their income to have been earned by a female) when they are at the peak of their six- or seven-figure salaried careers. It will not take many multi-million pound earners doing that to make the ‘gender pay gap’ completely disappear.
And here’s one I learned from the Women’s Budget Group on Saturday. The average pension pot for a man on retirement in this country is £175k. Obviously, most of us don’t have that much – big earners always make averages look enormous to most people – but the average pension pot for a woman on retirement is £17k. So most women are likely to end their lives in poverty – their reward for accepting pension-destroying gaps in their careers to fulfill family and other caring responsibilities.
You can read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez for a million more such examples – but please also do this: please help the population at large to get their heads round the idea that Woman’s Place UK is not a hate-filled, anti-trans organisation, nor do its members spend much of their time talking about trans people. WPUK is an organisation with an extremely inflammatory and historically frowned upon goal – that of facilitating women coming together to think, to talk, and to act, on their own terms. The task I have just given you can be done by the very simple method of finding out a bit more, checking the evidence for all those claims about terrible things happening to trans people. Have a think about the notion that feminists in general, and WPUK in particular, are somehow to blame, and *please* get your head around the fact that that video eternally doing the rounds on social media of some women giving a slide show is not as is claimed, a WPUK meeting (that is the only evidence I’ve ever seen anyone come up with to demonstrate WPUK is anything less than inclusive and respectful, and it is a fake.) Then please go talk to people about what you find out.
We are talking to each other
Now a few more people have realised that there is an issue here, and that freedom of thought, speech and association do, after all, apply to women (even those you don’t agree with) many groups are responding by saying “oh, we get it now. Let’s arrange for women to talk to LGBT groups about trans rights”. Sorry, but we’re way beyond that. Sure, we will talk to LGBT groups along the way but we have spoken to, and listened to, trans people all along. Right now, women are busy talking to women, working out what we need to discuss, what we need to be telling the world, and how we’re going to protect and nurture women’s right to meet and learn and act together, on our own terms. This will need to go on, and to grow, until we as a sex-class have grown out of that tendency to let others give our things away and assume we’ll ‘just be nice’ about it.
Come the time, anyone who wants to talk about including anyone who says so in the category of women as a sex-class will need to make sure they get the views of all kinds of women, not just a few political nerds who claim to be the representatives of diverse and far-flung communities – I mean a big, public conversation – and then they will have to tell us how they intend to apply sex self-ID without damaging the interests or personal safety of women and girls.
Oh and, for the record:
I associate with all kinds of people – male, female, gay, straight and trans – of course I do, and every human has rights, and I do my darnedest to treat all humans with respect. Nevertheless, I’ve come in for vast amounts of abuse and slander in the last year or so. It has galvanised me. It has made me a political feminist in a new way. It has made me re-consider my allegiances, and re-evaluate my friendships (did you believe the people who told you I was a terf, a bigot, or ‘on the wrong side of history’, or did you have the decency to come and ask me what was going on?)
Believe you me, I have revised my friends list. I am enormously grateful to those women and men, including trans people of both sexes, who took the trouble to come along to a meeting and find out what was going on at WPUK. I am hugely grateful to friends and comrades who came and spoke to me when they heard all the slanders and accusations. The ability to see through bullshit and cry-bully behaviour is pretty vital in the post-truth media- morass we’re living in, so well done you. It’s an intelligence test as well as a test of loyalty, and you passed.
The Labour Party Position
Rebecca Long-Bailey has stated that she is committed to upholding the commitments to women set out in the Labour Party manifesto, including single sex spaces & retaining the sex exemption in the Equality Act. Long-Bailey wants to support those things alongside sex self ID, and states that we have got to have a respectful debate for all, to see how that might work.
Richard Burgon has acknowledged the manifesto’s commitment to sex-based rights, and everyone from him to Keir Starmer (missing out a few dafties in between) have acknowledged women’s right to gather and to speak about it. In sum, that means WPUK’s original five demands are pretty much Labour Party policy so it’d be a really good idea if party members would stop reporting women for talking about party policy.