Transgender activists and the real war on women

A dispatch from the new front line in free speech by Judith Green


How hard is it for women to talk freely about sex, gender and the law? Not very, I used to think. I’d heard about a few no-platforming incidents on campuses, where speakers including Germaine Greer were blocked from appearing because of their views. What I hadn’t realised was just how far the problem has spread. In the past few months, I’ve discovered firsthand that political debate is narrowing for everyone — and that fear and intimidation are being used increasingly to curtail free speech.

I am one of a small group of women who get together to discuss proposed changes in the law on sex and gender. We’re called Woman’s Place UK. But because of the content of our discussions, certain activists want us closed down. They’re doing their best to make it happen. The managers of the venues we book are harassed, our attendees are abused, our organisers are threatened. For our most recent meeting, held in London last week, we had to disclose the location only a few hours before it started, just to be safe.

And it’s all because we want to ask questions about changes which could have serious consequences for us as women, for our children, and for society as a whole. We want to talk about gender and the differences between men and women, and whether or not the law should be rewritten to allow people to change their legal sex more easily. The government says it is committed to making ‘self-identification’ easier. That means whether you are legally male or female is purely a matter of choice. It would be nothing to do with your biology or your socialisation. At present, there are rules: to designate yourself female you need to live as a woman for at least two years and have your transition confirmed by a doctor. Some see this as unreasonable, and object to having what they see as a matter of personal identity ‘medicalised’.

The MPs pushing for reform hope to amend the 2004 Gender Recognition Act to mean that any man who declares ‘I am a woman’ will have full access to all the rights, protections and places that women have fought for and won over the past century. Some of the momentum for this reform comes from the Women and Equality Select Committee, which is led by the Conservative MP Maria Miller. As well as backing self-declared gender laws, this committee has also proposed that laws allowing some services and jobs to be reserved exclusively for what we call natal-born women should be removed. It was the combination of these two proposals that rang alarm bells for many women. So we started asking questions.

Should someone born and raised male, who is therefore reasonably perceived as male, be included in spaces reserved for women — changing rooms, domestic violence shelters and prison wings? How would the changes affect women of certain faiths who rely on single-sex exemptions to enable them to access services they might otherwise have to avoid? Should all-women shortlists (used by Labour and the Lib Dems) be put at risk by including people who are legally male, purely because they say they are a woman?

Most transgender people, I am sure, are as decent and kind and open-minded as anyone else. But a small, aggressive group of activists — not all of them trans, by the way — want to establish a new norm of debate: that anyone who disagrees with them, or even asks questions, ought to be silenced, sacked or both. They do this by branding us as ‘transphobic’ bigots, and by going to astonishing and worrying lengths to disrupt our meetings. As soon as Woman’s Place UK announces a meeting, the venue starts getting hassled and harassed — with phone calls and social media messages accusing them of hosting a ‘hate group’ — as if a bunch of women talking about the law are dangerous subversives. But you’d be surprised (or perhaps you wouldn’t) at how toxic the charge of ‘hate speech’ can be. Most of the venues haven’t been swayed, because they believe in free speech. But when there has been the threat of violence and the police have had to get involved, we’ve moved the event.

People attending and speaking are also targeted. A common tactic is to send messages to their employers accusing them of transphobia and inciting hatred. Personal details are posted online. At the meetings, we’ve had activists arrive with their faces covered, shouting and swearing at women as they arrive and leave. Some of our conversations are about domestic violence and abuse: they are now held while people outside bang drums, having sworn at the women on their way in.

A lot of women are understandably scared. The people who support us aren’t battle-hardened activists but working mums, students, grandmothers and others coming to attending a political meeting for the first time in their lives. Some women have told us they would like to attend but they’re terrified of what will happen if their names are known. Others use pseudonyms. No one wants their employers or family being bombarded with emails and messages calling them a bigot.

After all, it is not bigoted to make a distinction between sex and gender identity. It is not bigoted to defend the right of women to have boundaries that protect them. Single–sex spaces are, by definition, exclusionary — the question is where the line is drawn and who gets to decide. Do our meetings ‘exclude’ trans people? Hardly. There are trans people who agree that women-only spaces should be upheld and our rights defended. They have spoken at our meetings.

The women worried about these changes in the law come from all parties and none. We don’t want to silence the transgender campaigners who dis-agree with us: they have every right to be heard. But they have no difficulty with being heard — since wealthy charities, prominent politicians and media figures make their case frequently and loudly, often while calling for us to keep quiet. The people who run the country hear their voices daily. All we ask is that they have the chance to hear ours too.

The approach of the people who want to stop us is to attack, slur, abuse, harass, bully — but we’re not going to take it. We find ourselves fighting for the right to discuss our views — and the fact that this is becoming so hard in Britain in 2018 ought to alarm everyone. We have three more meetings scheduled, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Oxford, and there will be more in the pipeline. It’s far riskier than we ever imagined, but we’re going to keep talking.


This article was originally published in the Spectator.

Why do we need a new women’s movement?

There is currently a vicious backlash against those who say being a woman means something. But women are getting organised to defend their hard-won rights, says Ruth Serwotka


Women are leading the news and not in a good way. This week a report detailed how women and children in England are suffering increasing levels of poverty and deprivation. The impact on women’s health has become significant, with the life expectancy of women in lower social classes going into decline.

Discrimination at work during pregnancy has failed to abate despite the best efforts of trade unions, with one in five pregnant women currently losing their employment due to maternity discrimination.

When women are at work, they fare no better. We do not receive equal pay with men and, despite anti-discrimination legislation having been in existence for nearly 50 years, we do not experience the same promotion opportunities as men.

Men hold political office and the lion’s share of political representation is with them.

One hundred years after the first women got the vote, we still do not have a 50:50 Parliament or a settled method for increasing women’s political participation and representation. Worse still, powerful men are behaving badly all around us. The supposed “good guys” in the charity sector have abused the most vulnerable and desperate women and they have had to acknowledge inappropriate behaviour and step down or step aside.

And even a left candidate in Labour’s internal youth election has called a woman a c**t.

Young women face increasing levels of objectification and sexualisation. The mental health problems of young women have sky-rocketed. Pornography online is now accessed at the rate of thousands of degrading images per second and extreme images of harm are easily accessible at the press of a button.

We have left-wing male commentators defending the right to access porn online, not just in private but also at work.

This objectification and minimalising of women to mere pornographic tropes infiltrates all of society’s cultural iconography impacting daily on women’s lives.

It models a type of behaviour for all men where women do not matter, where our sexual needs are secondary to theirs and where we are dehumanised.

No surprise then that reports of sexual harassment, rape and women being pressured into acts of sexual degradation are everywhere.

While the #metoo and #timesup social media movements reflect a growing confidence among women to demand an end to disrespecting female boundaries, they are, bizarrely, simultaneously restrained by the demand that we allow males who self-identify as women into intimate spaces with women and girls.

Support for the removal of same-sex exemptions from equality law, allowing those males who self-identify as women access to changing rooms, bathing facilities, hospital wards and domestic violence refuges is not a movement that shares an objective alliance with women’s interests.

The demand of transgender activists to have unfettered access to women’s spaces and their linked assertion women must acknowledge “cis” privilege for the mere biological fact of having a womb are in reality a denial of the logic of the #metoo movement.

For, in essence, demanding the right to self-identify into female-only spaces is the demand that women must learn to ignore our own boundaries and to put our needs for privacy and safety second. Nothing speaks more of the nonsense of on the one hand supporting #metoo while also demanding female prisoners share spaces with convicted rapists now claiming womanhood.

The growing feminist response has involved a coalescing of socialist and radical feminists and transgender allies around the now revolutionary notion that sex is a material reality that dominates women’s lives and that sex is at the root of women’s oppression, buttressed by crushing gender expectations of hyper-femininity and conformity.

The backlash is omnipresent and vicious against those women who say being a woman means something, but still there is stubborn persistence amongst women to brave the opprobrium and insist that being female matters.

From such dogged determination we can build a new women’s movement whose first principle is that sex is a material reality and that it shapes women’s lives.

If sex is real, then so is sexism and women deserve legal protection as a result. Policy would have to follow along the lines of this general principle.

Anybody suggesting that holding such a position is akin to bigotry would be mown down by the growing confidence among those women who came to know that their boundaries matter and must be respected.

Such a movement could revisit the early principles of the women’s liberation movement whose 48th anniversary of the first meeting has recently passed.

We would be clear that women must have equal social, economic and political rights with men. That pornography and prostitution involve the extreme abuse and violation of women and girls and we would seek to penalise those profiting and benefiting. We could reassert the notion that women’s bodily autonomy is non-negotiable, including the right to free contraception and abortion. We could demand equality in the workplace.

But we could also look at personal relationships and to say No to unwanted sexual advances and to have access to autonomous female space such as changing rooms.

We could be clear that lesbianism is same-sex attraction and fight the notion that it is otherwise as predatory.

We could look at the radical notion that women are exploited in the domestic sphere where our labour is freely appropriated to the benefit of exploitative class relationships but also to the benefit of individual men and that men’s individual behaviour will be scrutinised and called out when falling short.

With a new women’s liberation movement, we could change the lives of women for the better. It is needed now so very much as clearly women’s lives have become ever more difficult. We need a women’s movement that can centre women once again. We need a women’s movement that can assert that the female sex matters.


Ruth Serwotka is a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK and the convener of Socialist Feminist Network. The next WPUK meeting will be held in Birmingham on Thursday March 15 at 7pm. Venue to be announced. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. For more information visit womansplaceuk.org.


This article was originally published in the Morning Star.

Sexism is widespread in our society – and tackling it begins in our schools

The increasingly macho nature of the education regime is modelling oppressive behaviour, says Kiri Tunks


Sexism has long been a problem. It is still a problem. This is despite all the progress women have made and historic changes in the law.

Women are still fighting sexism at endemic levels at work, in school, in public, on social media.

In 2018, it is shocking to see such high levels of sexual harassment, abuse and assault, including the murder of women by intimate partners of 2.6 every week in the UK.

The longstanding failure of the justice system becomes clearer every day. Even the recent legal victory by two victims of John Worboys, which states that the police have a duty to investigate crimes against women, is a reminder that we can never take our rights for granted.

Women still face a gender pay gap and every year in the UK 54,000 women lose their jobs due to pregnancy and maternity discrimination.

Austerity and the cuts to public services have a disproportionate impact on women and children and this is exacerbated by class and race.

The increase in racist hate and assault have had a gendered dimension, with women bearing the brunt of these crimes.

We are going backwards and we need the labour movement — and the Labour Party — to commit to turning things around.

It was good to hear John McDonnell pledge at Labour conference that every Labour policy will be assessed for its impact on women.

Labour’s election manifesto shows that Labour wants to address the crisis in the public sector.

And Jeremy Corbyn has been clear about the importance of trade union membership and activity.

But women are going to need much more. And we will be demanding it. A good place to start would be a serious commitment to tackling sexism in society.

Anti-discrimination laws exist, but they need strengthening. The recent legal victory by Unison, which ruled employment tribunal fees illegal, is a crucial step in removing the barriers to women accessing justice when they’ve been faced discrimination at work.

But there is a cultural problem that will be harder to shift. The casual sexism in society, the sexual objectification, the minimising of sexist behaviour is a problem everywhere but it shouldn’t be present anywhere on the left.

Women have a right to expect higher standards from people engaged in struggles for equality and justice. Too often our brothers let us down.

The TUC report Still Just a Bit of Banter? details the alarmingly high levels of sexual harassment in the workplace. Some 52 per cent of women polled by the TUC experienced sexual harassment at work. Although a problem for all women, it is more prevalent for younger women and those in insecure work or in male-dominated workplaces.

For black women, it intersects with racism and racist tropes. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator was a man — in most cases, a colleague but often a third party such as a customer or a patient.

Crucially, only one in five women reported the harassment to anyone. The reasons why women didn’t report it ranged from shame to fear of negative consequences for their job.

And who can blame women for fearing victimisation? We only need to look at Harvey Weinstein to see how the power dynamics at play in sexual harassment can mean the end of women’s careers.

We need to build a serious trade union campaign to make demands on our own organisations and politicians to ensure that our equality laws are understood by all and are enforced.

We need the government to collect data on sexual harassment — plenty of other countries do and it would allow us to properly research the causes, monitor the prevalence and put strategies in place to bring it to an end.

We need the reinstatement of third party harassment legislation, which was repealed in 2013, to make it easier for the many women working in sectors such as the NHS, hospitality and retail who face harassment from customers or patients to hold their employers to account.

We need to extend the full range of statutory employment rights to all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract.

This would remove discrimination for atypical workers and address issues regarding zero-hours or temporary contracts.

We need recognition and facility time for trade union reps. They need to be trained and resourced to be able to respond to and address complaints of sexual harassment.

As a movement, we also need to raise the consciousness of our reps so that they are able to spot harassment in the workplace and ensure that women feel empowered to report it and take action.

The government is consulting on this issue. If everyone reading this paper sent in a response and got their colleagues and union comrades to complete it too, we could start to build a drive for change.

Sadly, as the National Education Union found, sexism is also prevalent in schools. In the past, schools have been able to ameliorate the worst excesses and make space in the curriculum to educate and challenge. This is no longer the case.

The NEU survey It’s Just Everywhere found that 54 per cent of girls and 34 per cent boys say they have witnessed someone using sexist language while 30 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys have personally been described using sexist language.

And it’s not just a problem in secondary schools where 64 per cent of teachers say they hear sexist language weekly and 29 per cent daily. For primary schools the figures are 45 per cent and 15 per cent.

The atomisation of education system, now fractured by academies and free schools, has broken a strong network of governance that used to ensure issues like racism and sexism were tackled systemically.

Now these issues are delegated to outside organisations of varying standard on drop-down days so a box can be ticked for Ofsted. This is not good enough.

The catastrophic funding cuts mean there’s no money for what some term “fluffy learning,” with the focus being entirely on the “basics” as if helping children live respectful, equal lives isn’t a basis for a healthy society.

The increasingly macho nature of the education regime is modelling oppressive behaviour.

Changes to initial teacher training mean teachers aren’t being trained in these areas and many complain they just don’t know how to tackle it.

The NEU is committed to tackling this. Next week 200 people are attending our conference on Challenging Sexism, but we can’t do it alone. We need everyone to be part of making sexism a thing of the past. Please help us.


Kiri Tunks is NUT vice-president, NEU This article was originally published in the Morning Star.

Engels Revisited

Roy Wilkes takes another look at Frederick Engels’ classic work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in the light of current debates around gender.

Within the language and mythology of every society there lurk echoes of the past. The strength and power of goddesses, which was widely celebrated during the heroic period of Ancient Greece, attest to a former matriarchy, even though the actual social relations had by then degenerated into a particularly brutal form of patriarchy. The word ‘family’ itself derives from the Latin word for slave, famulus. The Roman patrician would consider his family to consist of all the slaves he owned plus his wife and children, the slaves being the most numerous part.

We don’t have to rely on mythology and linguistics alone, however. Combined and uneven development in world history has allowed us a few tantalising glimpses of the sort of classless societies that would have constituted by far the greater part of human history. Engels bases much of The Origin on research conducted by American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan into the Iroquois tribe of native Americans in New York state. Morgan’s work was regarded by Engels as being ‘as definitive on the primitive state of society as Darwin’s was in the case of biology.’ (Introduction to the Penguin Classics Edition, Page 3)

Based on Morgan’s findings, Engels describes a primitive stage of ‘group marriage’ when ‘unrestricted sexual freedom prevailed within the tribe, every woman belonging equally to every man and every man to every woman.’ (Page 61) Concepts of jealousy, and even of incest, were unheard of. Over time, human societies began to bar parents and children from sexual intercourse with one another (the development of the consanguine family) and subsequently brothers and sisters also. The punaluan family based on this restricted form of group marriage persisted in Hawaii until the late 19th Century. These social mechanisms for the prevention of inbreeding probably developed through a process of natural selection.

In all such forms of group marriage it is uncertain who the father of a child is; but it is certain who the mother is (even though a woman would regard all of her sisters’ children as her own). Descent can only be proved on the mother’s side and therefore only the female line is recognized (mother right). The institution of gens thereby grew out of this punaluan family.

“The latin word gens, like its Greek equivalent, genos, from the common Aryan root gan (in German, where the g is replaced by k, kan), means to beget. Sanscrit janos, Gothic kuni, Old Norse and Anglo Saxon kyn, English kin, Middle High German kunne, all signify lineage, descent.” (Page 117). We derive many modern words from this important root, including: genetics, kin, king, queen (as well as some words now considered rude, I’m sure you can imagine…) And of course gender. Using this word gender to denote behaviours, self-expression, expectations, appearance, dress and indeed … self-identity, is a modern distortion (and of course all things modern have developed within, and often reflect the values of, patriarchy).

The ancient gens regulated sexual relations within the tribe. Sex with another member of the same gens was strictly forbidden. Since this extended to hundreds of degrees of kinship, with all of the complications that implies, the punaluan family evolved into the pairing family, which was based on temporary, non-monogamous pairings.

“The communistic household, in which most or all of the women belong to one and the same gens, while the men come from various gentes, is the material foundation of that supremacy of women which was general in primitive times.” (Page 79) Ashur Wright, a missionary amongst the Iroquois Senecas, confirms that “the women were the great power among the clans (gentes). They did not hesitate, when occasion required, to knock off the horns of a great chief and send him back to the ranks of the warriors.” (Page 79)

The domestication of animals opened up new sources of wealth. It tended to be men who controlled these herds (and who later controlled the new instruments of labour, the slaves). The status of men within the society thereby started to rise. But according to custom it was the gentile relatives (brothers, sisters, sisters’ children, mother’s sisters’ children) who inherited that wealth when the man died, rather than his own children. This dilemma was eventually resolved by the transition to father right.

“The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded, and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.” (Page 87)

The pairing family thereby evolved into the monogamous family (monogamy for the woman that is, less so for the man), which was “based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.” (Page 92)

The impact on social relations was huge. “The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. “ (Page 96) Here Engels uses a formulation – sex class – which is more commonly used today by radical feminists than by Marxists.

Why is all this relevant now?

Engels shows us that:

  1. The subjugation of women is not an eternal characteristic of human nature. Patriarchy arose at a particular stage in history and can therefore, under the right conditions, be overthrown and superseded.
  2. The origin of women’s oppression is both social (resulting from the emergence of private property) and biological (control over the reproductive capacity of women.) It has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘identity’.

Mainstream anthropologists have spent over a hundred years trying to discredit and undermine Morgan and Engels. But time and again evidence comes to light that confirms their findings about what we now refer to as hunter gatherer societies, and about the destruction of egalitarian matriarchy that was wrought by the Neolithic revolution.

Engels is not without his faults, homophobia being one of them. But his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is still worthwhile reading for anyone interested in fighting for the emancipation of humanity. Engels’ materialist approach to these matters confirms the old adage: there can be no socialism without women’s liberation, and there will be no women’s liberation without socialism.

Looking back on the Women’s Liberation Movement

Judith Green looks back at the founding Women’s Liberation Movement conference on the 48th anniversary

In a sexist society, sexism imbues every facet of life. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s involved a huge truth-telling by women about the realities of their lives, to each other and to the world, in an effort to change themselves and the world. Out of that great cataloguing of the injustices against us, women in the UK developed seven demands at a series of conferences taking place from 1970 to 1978.

The first of those gatherings opened exactly forty-eight years ago today, when women in Oxford expanded an original idea for a conference on Women’s History into an event focused on the urgent contemporary concerns of women.

300 women were expected, but 600 arrived, and together addressed issues out of which the first four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement National Conferences were developed.

These were

  1. Equal pay
  2. Equal educational and job opportunities
  3. Free contraception and abortion on demand
  4. Free 24-hour nurseries

While embraced by the whole Women’s Liberation Movement, and agreed at the Skegness conference in 1971, the emphasis of the first four demands reflect the priorities of the Women’s National Coordinating Committee elected at that first conference and dominated by left groups.

Taken together they envisage women liberated from the burdens of motherhood and by the removal of barriers to full economic participation.

Such liberated women could be the equal of men as workers in struggle, men who — as a group — were not addressed by these demands.

Instead, the demands were addressed to legislators, employers, health services and the public sector.

They followed the struggle for the passing of the Abortion Act (1967) and women workers strike for equal pay at the Ford plant in Dagenham (1968) and were part of the effort to achieve Equality legislation in the form of the Equal Pay Act (1970) and Sex Discrimination Act (1975).

The Women’s National Coordinating Committee was disbanded following the Skegness conference.

Two further demands were added at the Edinburgh Conference in 1974.

  1. Legal and financial independence for all women
  2. The right to a self-defined sexuality. An end to discrimination against lesbians

While these demands do not name men directly, they are more ‘present’ than in the first four.

Legal and financial independence from men, and a right to a self rather than an ‘other’ (male) defined sexuality are at least implied.

The seventh and final demand was added at the Birmingham Conference in 1978.

  1. Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.

Whereas the first four demands had been specific, and with the emphasis on economic equality and reproductive rights, the seventh demand encompassed — in the ‘laws, assumption and institutions which perpetuate male dominance’ — the entirety of the social system of male supremacy or patriarchy.

Men’s dominance over women, and the role of violence in maintaining it, were named directly for the first time, but not without some controversy.

Socialist feminists and non-aligned supporters won the day in striking down the proposed preamble stating that ‘Men’s violence against women is an expression of male supremacy and political control of women.’

The Women’s Liberation Movement Conferences have sometimes been described as occasions of painful schism and rancour between two wings of committed feminists: socialists and radicals.

Each side made harsh criticisms of the other.

The shadow of these disagreements has been long, with blame often apportioned and a litany of bad behaviour catalogued.

I have no intention of doing that in this short article.

As a socialist feminist in the twenty-first century looking back, I am as frustrated with the inadequacy of my tradition to theorise and tackle male violence as my radical sisters were in the 1970s.

Not a single one of the Women’s Liberation Movement Demands has been properly fulfilled — be that economic or reproductive rights, sexual liberation for women or ending endemic male violence against women and girls.

Notable absences from the demands are to a address the unpaid labour of women in the home, sexist stereotypes and socialisation, or the field of representation — both political and in media imagery. There is now recognition amongst feminists of the socialist tradition that inequality between women and men is both a cause and consequence of male violence and that naming male violence is vital to ending it.

#NotAllMen is understood as the derailment from talking about women’s experience that it always was.

While there is a feminism that believes being inclusive is more important than protecting women’s rights, the need for a Women’s Liberation Movement fit for purpose has never been more urgent.

The need to rebuild a women-centred movement is recognised by both socialist and radical feminists, who have much in common.

It’s been a long journey since the heady days of the second wave Women’s Liberation Movement Conferences.

What no one involved in them could have anticipated was the need to spell out that sex exists and has social significance on account of sexism.

We might propose a new demand: perhaps numbered zero, our bottom-line “Recognise sex and sexism”.


Image from the Red Women’s Workshop

Women are a vital part of the socialist movement – they must be consulted over changes to the Gender Recognition Act

Women are becoming steadily more angry and despairing at Labour’s refusal to engage with them over changes to the GRA. The time to talk is now, writes Ruth Serwotka


At Labour Party conference in September 2017 there was a great spirit of hope.

The Labour Party had committed itself to the most radical social and economic reform programme in living memory. If elected to power the new government could be as transformative as the post-war government.

The shadow chancellor’s speech in particular struck a radical note, making direct reference to the ’45 Labour government that built the welfare state.

John McDonnell spoke in visionary terms of the current rentier economy being replaced with strategic investment, nationalisation of infrastructure and regional development through regional investment banks.

Rail and transport and infrastructure projects are all to be delivered by a workforce that has full protections through access to legal rights and secure work.

For young people, McDonnell was clear that student debt through loans would be replaced and Labour would build more affordable housing for future generations. These commitments alone have secured an impressive radicalisation among young voters.

However, for me, one line stood out more than any other, and it was this: “And we will ensure every piece of legislation will be measured for its impact on women before it is implemented.”

That was very specific and reassuring. It was an acknowledgement that feminism and women’s rights remain foursquare at the heart of our movement and that they cannot be easily diminished.

Wherever the trade unions and the Labour Party have been on the ascendant, so too have women’s rights.

Just days before his speech the skirmishes that have now become the hallmark of the “transgender debate” were becoming evident and had made national news.

A woman was assaulted last year by a trans rights activist in Hyde Park when having to secretly meet to discuss the Tory proposals for gender self-identity.

The secrecy of the meeting was because of threats being routinely made online towards feminists and directly towards those attending.

McDonnell’s speech nodded to an understanding of the silencing of women. Tory policy itself was adopted without taking a single piece of oral evidence from women’s organisations.

Footage of the assault had been widely shared on social media with some prominent left commentators intimating that the female victim had provoked the beating (it is notable that to this day some left journalists have failed to condemn this assault).

The speech at party conference seemed to be saying that women’s voices will be heard, and we cheered from the rafters.

But in the pursuant onslaught drowning out women’s voices, McDonnell’s reassurance has not come through on the fundamental question of women ourselves, women’s spaces, women’s and girls’ rights to privacy and safety and our right to define who we are.

Instead there is a dangerous standoff between the Labour Party and the feminists who desperately want a Labour government for the benefit of women.

Women’s organisations that are from within our tradition, such as A Woman’s Place UK (WPUK), have been frozen from access to the leadership of the party.

As a result, our own party is as guilty as the Tories in its failure to reach out to women or take us seriously. This is bitterly disappointing and we hope it can be rectified soon.

Both mainstream political parties were badly advised on the difficult territory they were entering and were unaware of the furious backlash they were likely to provoke by amiably adopting gender self-identity without considering the consequent impact on women.

The current state of play is potentially disastrous for the Labour Party. Threads on Mumsnet, which can be considered from the real world as far as politicians are concerned, run into hundreds and hundreds of comments, overwhelmingly ridiculing and expressing frustration with the party, many of them discussing resignations or a change in voting intentions.

A recent poll suggests a six-point drop in support among women. While it might be unrepresentative, it certainly suggests the party should not be cavalier about women’s concerns.

Secret online organisation is the new vogue among women and worthy of its own article, but suffice to say party figures are discussed with disdain and anger in these secret spaces.

Prominent female trade unionists are beginning to understand the fundamental questions at stake and are furious to realise they have been blocked from consultation or meaningful discussions.

Where socialist feminists are involved in trying to reassure women that the party will come good, they are angrily dismissed because, quite rightly, women want to hear reassurance coming from the party leadership itself.

Simultaneously, vitriolic, misogynist language, such as the use of the acronym “Terf” and the insult “bigot” are being liberally sprinkled into the language of some party supporters and used against women with a long history of organisation within the movement, or to silence dissent among new party activists.

Rather than clamping down on the culprits — even with a narrative of “oh, these are just some silly boys, pranks and hijinks gone wrong” — there has been instead an elevation of some of the worst perpetrators to the national stage. Women everywhere see this as appalling and I see it as an act of stupid self-sabotage.

Jeremy Corbyn, in promoting liberal good intentions fails on good politics. He recently said of his support for trans rights: “I see the person in front of me.” We all do. Our intention is not to remove the rights of trans people to have happy and secure lives but it is to ensure that women’s rights also remain secure and that sex-based protections are not diluted in law.

These are complex matters that deserve meaningful dialogue. Instead the Labour Party has added fuel to the fire with its “decision,” announced by Dawn Butler without consultation with women, to promote self-identified women onto all-women shortlists and the Jo Cox Programme for potential new MPs.

As the zeitgeist moment continues to unfold, as some of us knew it would, the party leadership seem frozen, out of touch and ready to surrender its feminist wing, which will be like chopping off its own limbs.

To have a Labour government bowdlerised of feminism sits outside any historical framework. Feminism has always deeply influenced our movement and that is how some of us intend to keep it.
Only a cursory glance at history shows women’s rights have to be fought for as they are not gifted.

McDonnell was right to include women in his speech and see us as an integral part of the radical vision of the next Labour government.

One way or another we intend on taking him and the Labour Party up on their commitments to us because without the inclusion of women there is no radical vision.

Ruth Serwotka is a founder member of WPUK and convener of the Socialist Feminist Network. WPUK is holding its fifth meeting on the Gender Recognition Act in central London on Tuesday February 27. The speakers are FBU regional officer Lucy Masoud, community organiser Pilgrim Tucker and WPUK speaker Steph Pike. It will be chaired by Megan Dobney, formerly regional secretary of Sertuc. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.


This article was originally published by the Morning Star.

Finding a progressive way forward for women and trans people

On 17th January 2018 Kristina Harrison addressed the second Woman’s Place meeting in Manchester, following is a transcript of her speech, which is also available on YouTube.


It’s a cliche but I really am honoured to be invited to speak at this meeting and to speak alongside socialists, feminists of the calibre of Ruth Serwotka and Bea Campbell.

As a transwoman I have identified not ‘as’ a girl or a woman but with girls and women for most of my life…. I’m also a socialist who understands with absolute clarity, that there can be no progressive agenda that uses abuse and harassment to silence women, there can be no socialism of any kind, that tells women, we’re re-defining you, be quiet and submit and there can absolutely, never be any human liberation without women’s liberation. As someone who understands that, I value women’s rights as highly as I value my own trans rights.

That is why I’ve not only marched through these very streets here in Manchester against section 28, not only stood tall as a proud and unapologetic transwoman, demanding rights, but I have also demonstrated and picketed in defence of women’s abortion rights and their right to control their own bodies. It’s also why I am implacably opposed to both the proposals for self-recognition of gender identity and the current ideology of I’m sad to say, the majority of transgender activists.

There’s simply too much to try and cover all the problematic aspects of the self-identity proposals and current trans ideology in this speech and hopefully much more can come out in the discussion so I’m just going to touch on a few issues but before I do I want to put these things into a wider context that I think is crucial to a fuller understanding of what’s going on in what I think are very complex issues of gender as well as I think, critical distinctions between everyday social sensitivities and status or even to a large extent legal protections on the one hand and on the other more fundamental political, biological and philosophical distinctions which must also be reflected in law.

So, context. As one of those troublesome Marxists I’d argue that oppression is rooted not in individual prejudice but in systematic discrimination arising from the needs of various male dominated class societies, most recently, capitalism. One of those systemic aspects of discrimination are gender roles, their deliberate propagation and policing across generations. Such ideas are propagated through newspapers, film, TV and advertising industries and very much policed by right wing politicians, by corporate media, religious groups, by families influenced by the ongoing justification of these norms and still today here in Britain they are occasionally policed with violence by usually male bigots.

The idea that the extraordinary richness and diversity of human personality and interests can be adequately accommodated by two roles based upon a child’s genitals at birth is an absurd one. If it wasn’t such a deeply damaging and fundamentally inhumane notion it would be simply laughable, so why are we still subjected to these deeply restrictive rules that limit and suffocate the scope of girls aspirations, that tell girls they are weak, frivolous, vain and valued principally for their looks and boys that they must not cry, that tenderness, sensitivity and heaven forbid, playing with girls or with girls things is for cissy’s… and who wants to be one of those?

The reason we are still subjected to these arcane and artificial roles is they serve an important purpose for our ruling elite. These ideas have evolved over centuries fundamentally to keep women in their place in a subordinate role that now seeks to control their ability to bear and raise children in ways that maintain, nurture and replenish a healthy and productive workforce at very low cost or no cost to big business or the state and to control and exploit women’s sexualised bodies to sell commodities, to titillate men and to further divide and divert working people from recognising our common interests and common humanity. The system benefits hugely from all that. That’s partly why many establishment politicians, the likes of the Daily Mail, the Sun and other right-wing forces constantly push these norms.

Another is the gender role for males which has also evolved in ways which attempt to control and shape men, in particular working-class men, preparing them for their exploitation at work or for war. Though occupying a more socially valued and higher status category the gender role for men is still fundamentally restrictive and exploitative, setting unrealisable standards of toughness and emotional constipation for instance.

When trans identitists talk about ‘cis’ people as individuals who are somehow congruent with their gender, not in conflict with it all, I have to stifle a little laugh. I think it’s fundamentally misleading. Even a man who sees no conflict with his gender role but ends up committing suicide as all too many young men do, because his ‘role’ and the rules he thinks he has to live by as a man render him incapable of addressing and dealing with his emotional needs or feelings is in fact in a very real and all too human sense, in conflict with his unhealthy, unnatural and mentally corrosive gender role even if he doesn’t know it.

Only a minority of adults fully conform to the gender stereotypes for their sex. Most people find that their real lives and real personalities are more complex than stereotypes and whilst most conform in broadly socially acceptable senses they do not do so fully.

Many people, especially women become aware of the oppressive nature of their gender norms and actively rebel against them. Feminists and socialists such as myself are for the complete removal of these artificially created rules and roles. However, whilst women in particular are oppressed by them, as well as in many other ways, some children discover that major or central aspects or our natural personalities and childhood interests are so completely incompatible with the gender role and norms inflicted on us that we find our core sense of self completely rejected and delegitimised as children.

The very same traits and interests that bring us shame and rejection seem to bring love and pride toward children of the opposite sex….and boy do we notice! In my opinion this is one of the major reasons children can begin to feel trapped by their bodies because it is our bodies that determine whether our personality is treated with love and approval or shame and illegitimacy.

Is it really surprising then if kids begin identifying with and especially in the age of social media and an increasingly connected and ideological trans bubble ‘as’ members of the opposite sex, yet really, we are trapped by our norms, not by our bodies. On reaching puberty there is also evidence that children can also be further driven or perhaps even begin to be driven towards trans identities in some cases by sudden homophobic rejection of emerging gay or lesbian sexualities and also by revulsion towards and/or attraction towards sexualised imagery and involuntary associations or bodily changes.

So, we are oppressed because as defenceless children we are invalidated and abused by the policing of norms which serve powerful elements of society and often by our own families and immediate social circle. This rejection is hugely damaging to children. If and when we find the courage to continue to act in ways which are true to our natural self-expression both as children or later as adults we are often abused as deviant transgressors of gender norms and even though our situation has improved significantly in the last few decades we are still subject to social rejection, ridicule, discrimination and even violence.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that many gender-rejected children can form entrenched opposite-sex identification and see their only chance of having a life of free self-expression without all that rejection and social illegitimacy is to undergo gender reassignment and ‘pass’, that is to be taken for a member of the opposite sex. That in my opinion is why as long as society attempts to keep shoving children into suffocating straitjackets that for some are just too painful to bear, gender reassignment will remain a life-affirming, even life-saving option for some people.

I do though think that we need to give our children every possibility to be fully informed and supported so that they can be as sure as they can be in young adulthood that they are not mistaken in their trans identity and the drastic surgeries and life-long medication that follows are not unnecessary and simply adding to deeper underlying issues. Clinicians should be free to help patients fully explore their underlying feelings, motivations and experiences to uncover the actual issues and whether a person is likely to benefit from reassignment treatment or not. We need more studies of the long-term outcomes for post-op transsexuals so that practice is evidence led, not ideology led. All this of course would be uncontroversial in any other arena of healthcare but is blasphemy to the self-identity campaigners who argue that trans identities are fixed and innate, that such an approach amounts to conversion therapy. This is nonsense. There’s no credible evidence of innate opposite-sex, gender identity and we know it’s not fixed because the majority of children who identify as trans eventually desist from their once firmly held identity.

We also have a growing minority of de-transitioners who realise after largely irreversible treatments that they were mistaken in their identity after all and have come to reject it. Some are people who eventually realised that their issues were in unresolved abuse, many de-transitioners are women who now realise that they were butch lesbians all along, they had been without role models and facing a triple whammy of homophobia, deeply embarrassingly hetero-sexualisation of their bodies and a deeply repulsive ‘pink’ gender role that was hugely restrictive and demeaning to masculine women. Yet, such is the extent of the liberal collapse before this trans ideology that according to Times journalist Janice Turner a recently approved NHS ‘memorandum of understanding’ states that questioning a patient’s declared gender or examining other underlying mental issues is equivalent to gay conversion therapy. Are young lesbians presenting as trans to be regarded as acceptable collateral damage then? That is not an ethical healthcare policy.

Gender Identity specialists themselves we are told, are afraid to speak out and afraid to do their job of actually exploring a patient’s underlying problems. In effect they can do little more than rubber stamp what may be a clear and good decision by one patient or a confused misreading of their thoughts and feelings by another. Self-identity will only ensure more vulnerable young people embark on treatments that will do them more harm than good. Trying to deconstruct, sex, gender and sexuality along with often many other issues is hugely complex. If understanding your own feelings and behaviour were so easy and obvious the fields of psychology and psychiatry would be pointless and redundant.

What this affirmation-only policy means then is that once young people self define as trans they will by default be on a conveyor belt towards irreversible treatment that for some will only compound their problems. This is a form of gross neglect and a burgeoning potential scandal. That this is being done in the name of trans rights to our children and young people when we already know these identities are often mistaken, makes me apoplectic with rage for the injustice and ideological blindness of it and the fact that in the very worst possible way this plays right into the hands of right-wing bigots and the gutter press who would love to return us to the days when calling trans people perverts and a danger to your kids is back in the mainstream.

Listening to so many of the trans activists you would think the oppressors of transwomen are feminists, such is the hate directed at women who refuse to accept that identifying as a woman magically makes you one. How could it? Yet feminists explicitly oppose the gender roles that transpeople are oppressed for transgressing and feminists are explicitly against discrimination or violence towards us.

No, we’re oppressed, fundamentally by a male dominated system and the violence we suffer from is typically from men. Whilst individual women may support or try to enforce gender roles or be prejudiced and hold transphobic or homophobic views, sometimes in powerful roles as adults over children, as journalists or as employers, on the whole women as a sex are neither in control of this society, nor can they be fundamentally responsible for its oppression of transgender people.

I find it both illuminating and deeply disappointing that instead of directing their anger at bigoted Tories, the hard right and the likes of the Daily Mail the targets for the most venom are women who refuse to know their place or bow to demands that infringe on sex-based rights. T-shirts like “kill a terf”, “Die terf scum” glorify violence and hatred against women. They have no place in any progressive movement. Whilst this may be the sentiment of a highly vocal and abusive minority it is incumbent upon trans activists who claim to be progressive, especially those who claim to be women or even to be ‘feminists’ to denounce such misogyny and expel such people from their campaigning groups.

It points to a wider issue of sexism though and one that is intractable within the logic of the current ideology. Insisting that identifying as a woman makes you a woman, is intrinsically sexist in the true sense of the word. Why? because inevitably if you say being a woman is fundamentally about psychology not biology then at best you minimise biological sex, you minimise women’s biological reality, their every-day experiences and also their long history of struggle for reproductive rights, sexual health and sex based rights. If you are blind to sex you will be blind to sexism.

As we see with the neglected rights of young butch lesbians, the usurped rights of women in the labour party to specifically address their own political under-representation as a sex by having seats and posts reserved for them being undermined without debate or consent and as were already seeing in terms of the de-legitimising and harassment of women who show a shred of independence from this movement, the female sex is being sidelined, re-defined and being told to make room without even a pretence of consultation…. And for what? for an Orwellian charade that’s not honest, not progressive, not rooted in reason.

People can’t be reasonably asked to accept something that’s not real, especially when it minimises their lives, but they can be asked to accept the equal validity and worth of transwomen and transmen, that we deserve protection, safety, dignity and equality and that we can find respect, solidarity, love and a sense of belonging by respecting both women and accepting ourselves for who we are, trans people and essentially, gender role refugees.

Our interests lie in a reality based approach which seeks to advance both groups rights and services, whilst respecting women’s autonomy as well as our own, needing as we do our own health statistics, specialist services and political representation.

Whilst the current law is not without its flaws it enjoys a fairly wide degree of credibility including I’d argue from women and it gives transsexuals who undergo gender reassignment, commonly understood to mean surgery and hormone treatment, protection in a legal category akin to a kind of legal manhood for transmen and a kind of legal womanhood for transwomen in most circumstances. In practice this gives us a wide degree of inclusion yet at least in theory if not in practice it maintains a distinction with biological sex and allows for sex based protections. This needs to be strengthened and simplified so that it is easy and practical to use where sex based protections are required by women.

Let me be clear, the final decisions on access to women’s spaces should lie with women but I am for arguing in defence of current laws which enables us to live broadly the way we want to live and with an everyday dignity previously denied to us. However…. I am not for the status quo. I am for a drastically improved and fully resourced system of assessment and treatment which is far quicker and more supportive than the current one. Waiting for up to 5 years from referral to be diagnosed, start treatment and gain legal protection is cruelly long and totally unacceptable.

We need prompt treatment and fully funded services, a range of above all safe unisex and single sex toilet and changing room provision and legal protection for everyone’s right to free gender expression, whether at work, at home or elsewhere. Above all we need to fight gender norms and the systemic forces that benefit from them, but as a tiny minority we cannot win without allying with the women’s movement and the broader Labour movement and that will only happen through mutual respect. One way to destroy that respect is to ignore biology and demand that subjective gender identity should trump objective biological reality. No, we will never tolerate that sexism but we will continue to work for the voluntary unity of all oppressed people against our common oppressors. I urge transgender people to join us in that fight and to speak out against the sexism and misogyny in the self identity movement.

One woman’s Journey

Dear Womans Place UK

I’m Patricia, female specimen of the human species and identificated as woman in the human world. I mean, I’m just a human female but I “live woman” more than I am one. My inner self doesn’t even have a name let alone a sex. I may not have the intellectual baggage a lot of my socialist feminist sisters have but I have enough to understand humans live on different levels depending on different axis of oppression affect their lives and how able or enabled they are to struggle against them. I cannot know this and simply say I’m woman. I live woman is more accurate at this level and on this level it’s not that different than living under a black identification.

I’m also a member of the Labour Party, following its change of stance re austerity.

I only woke up to the, then unimaginable, prospect of the seeing a minority’s rights being pit against women’s rights this December. Since then I’ve been avidly reading everything I can get my hands on and I’m increasingly worried.

To add to the glaring examples of violence against women speaking out (one of which managed to shut down a much beloved annual book fair), I’ve now read too many stories of how our younger lesbian sisters are finding themselves increasingly sidelined and silenced even in their own communities, of younger women (such as a friend’s daughter) trying to escape the misogyny of this world by transitioning. It’s hard not be worried.

I feel too green to to broach all of these subjects with confidence but I have enough confidence to speak out as I can.

I have a son. Before he was two we had to flee his father. The way society works my son and I were the ones to have been uprooted. My son and I were the ones to have had to leave everything behind. And my son and I are the ones living with the consequences of abuse of which a form of persistent depression I suffer from is one. I cannot imagine what it might have been like for us if we hadn’t been able to seek refuge with Women’s Aid then. Bruised and traumatised I also don’t know what it may have been like to have found a man in that house. It’s how traumatised I was.

For the 8 months I was there, it was beneficial for me not to have to deal with any men. This abuse-related phobia of men lasted a bit longer but I’m fairly okay now.

I recently had a row with a friend. She cried in disbelief as I extolled on the great spanner in the gender works that allowing men and women to self-ID as the opposite sex could represent. Oh how naive I have been for so long. I’m afraid to say, it was only then that I got it. Get it I did though.

What I have since then found about the claims made by trans ideologues is that they could set us back decades if not centuries. Female brains. Aaaargh!

It’s not just self-ID. It’s mental health for girls struggling as they discover their personalities in a misogynous world.

It’s healthcare professionals being pressured by policy into indulging young persons’ self-mutilation instead of helping them navigate the troubled waters of sexism.

I can’t speak on gender dysphoria per se but it strikes me as problematic that a one-size-fits-all solution to people who try to sail against sexist currents problem is being pushed even as each person pushes against them in different ways.

I’m delighted to have now started a standing order to help you send our message anywhere and everywhere. It’s not much but it will increase if the Labour Party fails to get its act together and listen to women in seriousness, in good faith and with all women in mind.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you are doing. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can get people in my area to help organise a meeting.

In solidarity,

Patricia

Open Letter to John Lansman on women’s political representation

Dear John Lansman

I have attached a copy of a response you sent to a feminist friend of mine after she requested reassurances from you, as a candidate for L.P. NEC elections, on the burning issue of womens political representation within our movement.

Your response appears rushed and quite confused and I hope this is because of your busy schedule rather than the priority you attach to the issue. I thought now, following the closure of ballot, it would be a good time to tackle your response and the concerns many Labour Party women have with your position and as such the reflection it is of a position of the wider movement.

You say you think it is a problem the L.P. has “not adequately reflected in its structures non binary identities”. What does this even mean? Women in the L.P. requested a reassurance from you of our place at the heart of our movement. You can only be confused by providing that reassurance if you think non-binary people will take the place of women.

You then suggest, and I do hope that this is a drafting error, that because of under representation of women in the party trans women can be treated as women. If you mean trans women can adequately represent the experiences and political and social battles of women for reproductive rights, for instance, or equal pay or for services to protect women from violence and harm or for adequate childcare services or adequate womens health care services I would respectfully suggest to you that you are wrong and you should urgently re-think. Only womens mass participation in the L.P. can ensure the party adequately represents women and only by encouraging women into membership and leadership of the party will we ensure we have a socialist party fit for purpose.

You go onto support the notion of self identity as the basis for categorizing “gender”. I have to hope that you support the idea from a position of ignorance as you have, in a single move, obliterated the sex categorisation protections upon which UK equality law is constructed. Have you consulted on this basis? Do you really think women in the party think this cavalier approach to our rights is acceptable? Women only shortlists exist on the basis of single *sex* exemptions, womens officer roles exist on the basis of sex. The reason for this are sound and remain urgent; it is to ensure the elevation of more women into the political life of the party. I do hope you continue to consider this a worthy political goal?

I am taken aback by your reference to “professional, white, middle class women” as if they are some sort of over represented, domineering group in politics. This is not true. By making such a reference you are in reality suggesting sexism does not exist, implying the battle for womens representation is over, that some women have privilege over men. It’s a very revealing passage in your response and I think motivates your approach to the whole question; you do not seem to think women further require protections or suffer sex discrimination. If that is your position you are wrong.

We agree that more trans people could be involved in the Labour Party. But I think that might involve men standing aside rather than womens political structures and organisation being obliterated. Why did you not even make a nod to the problem of the over representation of men in our political culture?

I do hope that the Party and the movement you represent understands this is an issue over which socialist women feel strongly and over which we will stand our ground. The reality is that one hundred years after the suffragettes the question of womens equal political participation and representation is not settled.

Ruth Serwotka
Convenor Socialist Feminist Network