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

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.