Personally, I figured it out at FiLiA 2022, in discussion of all the terrible things happening across the globe, and in glorious celebration with women from 70 countries. If you haven’t named it yet, please see if you can find it in this article. We need to sort out some distinctions…
Women are coming together and organizing at a rate and with a passion not seen for decades. At first glance, it all appears to centre on the issue of sex self-ID, and Stonewall’s attempt to get the sex exemption removed from the Equality Act 2010 – Well, that accelerated it, in fact, it turbo-charged it, but what that threat to women’s legal rights provoked was a long-overdue challenge by women to the rise of misogyny and sexism everywhere and, in particular, the sneaking anti-women mood inherent in the so-fashionable “queer theory” view of gender, that attempts to lead people into biology-denial, into the idea that “woman” is at best a character trait, at worst, a mere costume.
Not just sex-based rights
The challenge thrown down by the tyranny of what post-modernist queer theory has become, the strident and ruthless demand of gender-ideology, has mobilized vast numbers of women. If you doubt it, consider this: the new CEO of Stonewall claims he want to reach out to women’s groups who are campaigning about sex-based rights (rather than writing all of them off as “transphobic” as that organization’s previous CEO did). In response, the Sex Matters team offered him a list of options:
All these groups formed for the same reason, but they are very different. You will probably have your favourites, depending on your political orientation and your particular spheres of interest. The first group I worked with was Woman’s Place UK, a group formed (by socialist, trade unionist women) out of a feminist discussion group.
The original Woman’s Place UK Manifesto, which many women (including me) contributed to, is at heart a list of the policies that are rooted in our legal, sex-based rights. It is there to promote an understanding of the pressures society places on the female sex, but also to mark the women of WPUK out as socialists and feminists, to show the world what we need legal rights for. The Manifesto has been called irrelevant, and even a “Marxist utopia” – and yes, we do appreciate that we are a long, long way from defeating sexism and misogyny in our government and establishment organizations, and we know that not everyone is really in the business of tackling all the inequalities it addresses, but if you don’t lay out your vision boldly, how can you aim straight?
We are pro-reality
WPUK’s meetings, and other women’s groups’ actions, events and films have, since then, addressed all the issues in that manifesto when talking about sex-based rights. See that as camouflage if you must but what’s the point of that accusation? We see women being mistreated and neglected because of their sex, and that’s why we are working to defend the Equality Act 2010, and the sex-based rights laid down within it, and we are doing that because we are feminists and socialists. Of course, when I say “we” I mean women like me. Of course, conformists are right when they angrily say we don’t speak for all women.
Cows aren’t tables
As to the accusations that “gender critical” women are “far right” – well, others may run sex-based rights campaigns for other reasons but there are plenty of us doing it because we are socialists. Similarly, because women from all walks of life see the importance of sex-based rights, some people, particularly those who are satisfied with what dumbed down media tell them, will assume sex-based rights campaigners are all the same. It’s like saying a cow has four legs and so has a table, therefore cows are tables. Yes, there are some far right groups apparently defending sex-based rights for their own reasons, and there are some quite famous women who think themselves apolitical, and as a result can’t see the differences within the movement.
We of the left can see momentous differences but, sisters, yelling ‘we are not far right!’ and ‘they are fascists!’ is probably the least effective way of making the distinction. Root your socialism firmly in addressing the problems the WPUK manifesto flags up, address the global issues of poverty, war and injustice that FiLiA does, all the problems created by the establishment’s utilizing of sex, race and class against people everywhere.
Do that, and you automatically distance yourself from neoliberal and capitalist endeavours; the far-right (in name or in deed) will not usually be able to work with you, because you’ll be fighting against the world-view they create. Do that, and hold your ground. We must hope that eventually the anti-austerity groups, the anti-racist groups, and the groups addressing the climate crisis will recognise your work, get down off their “woke” pedestals and see just how far corporate queer theory has led them from the path of socialism – they will see that, or they will fail, because you know, women won’t wheesht.
It is, however, possible to not be socialist, and not be a feminist, and still not be a fascist (it must be, otherwise most people would be fascists!)
Kellie-Jay Keen, a woman who’s said she’s not a feminist, turned to the word “femalist” to describe women whose only feminist-like work was the battle against sex self-ID – and my goodness, Keen’s talent for publicity has been an important part of bringing that battle into the mainstream. We should thank her for that, despite all the ding-dongs about who said “adult human female” first (like most good ideas, it’s been around for years — that’s why no one’s sure).
We need to be clear, we need to analyse who and what we are, but maybe rather than having rows up and down the country trying to get everyone to be the same, we should get the habit of distinguishing between FEMINISTS (who campaign for a world in which all women can thrive) and FEMALISTS (who campaign specifically and/or exclusively to retain our existing sex-based rights, and/or to re-establish the belief that sex is real, and matters to women and girls).
Here are some assessments from a lefty point of view which is where I personally think feminism needs to be:
It was Helen Joyce who called the WPUK manifesto a “Marxist utopia”. It was a daft thing to say – organisations always aim high when they draw up a founding manifesto or mission statement. WPUK declared an intention to defend sex-based rights, and to use those rights for the good of all women. That does put them firmly against most establishment practice, which is profoundly sexist, and so it requires an analysis of many policy and practice areas. An ambitious manifesto does not mean WPUK are not doing good work on a daily basis. They are taking us in a good direction, even if they have raised the bar by claiming so many of the goals of socialism.
Media amplification and moral panics
(If you didn’t do sociology at school, please go look up those two things. Understanding them is the key to avoiding the flak that’s flying around our heads)
I used the word “daft” in relation to a woman up there, but please notice I only used it in relation to one utterance. I wondered, as I wrote it, whether it would lead to a social media run of people saying “Kay Green said Helen Joyce is daft” – that’s how social media (with a lot of help from malicious mainstream commentators) creates spats and rifts.
I certainly am not disparaging what Helen Joyce has done. She deserves vast amounts of credit. She’s a journalist, a researcher and a writer, and is now working with Sex Matters. Her book TRANS did more to clarify and expose the misleading nature of the “trans rights” movement, and to explain where it sprang from, than any other book I have seen. If it does not go down in the canon of important history books of the 20th and 21st century, then there’s no justice. And she was brilliant yet again at FiLiA (Cardiff, 2022), chairing a session about the extraordinary failings of the publishing industry in the face of “queer theory” bullies. Sincerely, hooray for the brilliance of Helen Joyce – she is not a socialist, nor is she a feminist in the sense that anyone from the women’s liberation movement would understand the term. She is, nevertheless, a very good journalist and campaigner.
Similarly, Maya Forstater has said, ‘I am not a feminist, I’m an opportunist”. She’s a business woman. Like many clever women who wouldn’t be bullied, she was targeted and knocked for six by the “trans rights” (queer theory in disguise) brigade, and she used her brilliant, business-honed, PR-aware talents to fight back, and she won. The Forstater case was a HUGE win for all of us, and I for one am eternally grateful to her, as are thousands of other women, feminist or not, socialist or not.
There is nothing wrong with working together but there are limits…
Carpenters are not plumbers. If you ask a carpenter to fix a leaky pipe, you may be lucky – she may know enough about plumbing to succeed, but she may not. If she fails, it’s your fault for asking a carpenter instead of a plumber. Similarly, if you have seen the scale of sexism in our society, if you have realized how seriously misogyny is distorting and disabling our politics, if as a result you want to work on women’s liberation, you need to have your mind on all those things laid out in the WPUK manifesto, you need to talk to the women among us who learned the lessons of the former generation’s liberation movement, and you need to be aware of FiLiA’s “red lines” – ie, they won’t endorse anything that isn’t true to the principles of standing against racism, sexism and classism. If our groups are aware of those things, and if we work on causes that stand against those wrongs, we shouldn’t have too much trouble keeping calm and saying “no we aren’t” if someone accuses us of being far right.
It would be nice to say that if you understand how sex, race and class are used as weapons against us all, and if you act on that knowledge, there’s no danger at all that the far right will try and work with you, or piggy back on your actions, because they won’t be remotely interested in most of what you’re doing –- but unfortunately, they can lead you disastrously off-course, as Pragna Patel explains here…
… I am now talking to feminist friends, trying to work out what the differences are between us — meaning women like me, who have learned to work for, or have always been working for, women’s liberation – what are the differences between us and the “autonomous women’s liberation movement” Pragna has voiced the need for?
We need to be, as WPUK and FiLiA are, working for the liberation of all women, regardless of whether all women are feminist or not, and we need to be clear about our goals, and we need to be honest. Conversations on social media in the days since FiLiA suggest that what we need to get very clever at very quickly is avoiding “follow my leader” type drifts, avoiding the seduction of celebrity (whilst being as childish and exuberant as we like about praising women when they deserve praise), and avoiding the kind of funding and patronage that might lead us astray (personally, I’ve never had any trouble with that. I’m naturally contrary, and very rarely want to do what people offering funding want me to do).
Sure, there are overlaps, and many women are on all those missions. Sure, many of our groups can and should work together but some groups cannot and should not. We need to get used to deciding those things without six months of rows along the way. We do that by being clear about our policies and our aims, and being absolutely clear that our decisions are policy, not personality-based. Above all, deciding who is and who is not your political ally does not alter the fact that all women should defend any women from sexist, misogynist oppression.
I think one of the most important differences between a women’s liberation group and a purely sex-based rights group is whether they concern themselves with reflection and empathy. I think the best way to develop those traits is through consciousness raising. If you’re a member of a women’s group who don’t do CR, give it a go – I promise, it’s worth it.
Should we stop saying “gender critical”?
I think it was Julia Long who pointed out that you are critical of things you want to change, not things you want to destroy entirely – we’re not “critical of” sex trafficking, or rape, or honour killings. We are against them. Absolutely. Similarly, “gender” in its use around issues of sex, is an entirely negative term – a smoke-and-mirrors word to get people’s minds off the realities of sex, and sex-based oppression. Here’s a gay man, talking about why gay men should not use the term…
I suspect misunderstandings caused by the term “gender critical” have added to the stupid notion that feminism exists to criticize or oppress trans people. We should sort that out, and dumping the term “gender critical” might be a big step in doing so.
Let’s send “gender” back where it came from. It applied, once upon a time, to a class of words. It was a grammar term. Let it do its old job, and we’ll stick to “sex” when we’re talking about biology and women’s rights. That way, people won’t get confused and led up the woo-tree. That should be one of the aims of a women’s liberation group. The concept of “gender” as a personality trait is no more and no less than internalized sexism. Get rid of it.
There are loads of other things we could be considering but, top of the list is this: when I say “we”, I mean socialists, feminists, and women activists whose thinking is leading them towards those things. Let’s call ourselves the women’s liberation movement because, when I asked some of the women from last time around what is missing from this movement, one of the things they said was that we aren’t aware of ourselves as a women’s liberation movement. That one’s easy to fix –
WE ARE THE WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT
There, I’ve made a start.
(With thanks to the women who remember for all those conversations before, during and after FiLiA 2022, most recently Lynn Alderson and Alice Bondi, and thanks to Pauline Makoveitchoux for use of her photo of the women’s rally in Cardiff, and of Lucy, Rosie, Maya and Julie)
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