Pornography at Work

We will be inviting writers to discuss ways to challenge sexism in the movement; here Roy Wilkes talks about challenging the use of pornography in a male dominated workplace.


I joined Greater Manchester Fire Service in 1982. It was just a few years after the national strike, so I anticipated a progressive and militant workforce. The reality was not quite as straightforward, however. The union was certainly strong and well organised, and its local and national leaderships were progressive on many issues.

But the culture on the ground was in many ways quite backward. Back then the Service was still organised along military lines, certainly on the recruits training school, with parade ground drill, saluting of officers etc. And quite a few of the personnel were ex military — one of the instructors on my three month residential basic training course was an ex army physical training instructor, a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

The recruits course — at the now defunct London Road Fire Station — was certainly tough. About a quarter of the recruits dropped out on the second day because it was so gruelling. I very nearly dropped out myself. My wife, who was pregnant with our first child, agreed. But when I phoned my dad (who had done national service in the forties) he shamed me into staying. We were never allowed to walk on the yard, everything had to be at the double; in the classroom we couldn’t ask or answer a question without leaping up and standing to attention; on parade you had to stand to attention while a crazed psychopath yelled in your face because your boots weren’t shiny enough or there was a bit of dust under your bed. It all seemed so alien. The military style discipline did have some advantages though; when the FBU Brigade Secretary came in to talk to us about the union, the instructors made it very clear that everyone would be joining, even though there was officially no closed shop. And we all joined.

During the last week of basic training the instructors eased up on us a bit. One afternoon we had a group discussion session. We had to pick topics out of a hat and discuss them. One of the topics was the then still untried and novel idea of recruiting women to the service. I was the only recruit in favour of the idea, which immediately marked me out as an oddball. Our instructor made it perfectly clear that if any women ever did make it onto the training school it would be made ten times as hard for them to pass the course as it was for men — and believe me, it was hard enough for us. All of the instructors were agreed on this — the fire service was no place for women, whatever the Sex Discrimination Act said.

After completing my basic training, and the subsequent B.A. course at Salford Station, I was posted to Red Watch at Blackley Fire Station in North Manchester. Greater Manchester Fire Service was almost exclusively white and male back then, and my station was no different. There was a lot of overt racism, sexism and homophobia on the watch, not from everyone, but certainly from the most vocal and opinionated of my new colleagues. As a young Marxist i took it upon myself to challenge the bigotry, which led to quite a few heated exchanges. It gradually became apparent though that the loudest and most overt reactionaries were actually in a minority, and it wasn’t long before I was elected union rep on the station.

Sexism however was far more deeply ingrained even than racism. Hardly any of my colleagues were in favour of women joining the service as operational firefighters. Their wives wouldn’t like it, they said, as well as all the usual nonsense about women being too emotional and lacking physical strength. There was general agreement that if a woman ever did get posted to the watch there would be no concessions made; they would be expected to sleep in the same dorm as the men (we still had beds on the night shift in those days): and women recruits would still be expected to endure the same childish and humiliating initiation rituals that we had all had to put up with. These usually involved some permutation of getting tied up and drenched with water. They also insisted that the presence of women wouldn’t stop the men from watching pornography on the night shift; indeed, the women would be expected to join in and watch it like everyone else (as part of the esprit de cours). Porn wasn’t as prevalent back then as it is nowadays of course, there was no internet for a start, but there was a thriving trade in porn videos via a fireman from London Road.

One evening I arrived at my station for the night shift to discover that the men were demanding an urgent union meeting to defend two colleagues from Green Watch who had been suspended for an alleged sexual assault on the station secretary. A motion was passed to begin an immediate emergency calls only ‘demo’. There was no requirement for a secret ballot in those days, and we often took this sort of action at station level. I wasn’t happy about it but there was an overwhelming majority for action. The following day I met the victim. It was obvious to me that she was telling the truth and I told her that I believed her. I think deep down the other lads on Green watch knew she was telling the truth too — they knew the assailants better than I did — and it wasn’t too hard to persuade them to call off the action. The two men were never prosecuted, which they should have been, but they were transferred to another station, which was the compromise that NALGO (the secretary’s union) accepted. I bumped into one of them a few months later; I expected him to be angry at my ‘betrayal’ but he wasn’t, he was actually quite sheepish. I was transferred onto Green Watch to help make up their numbers (I think management saw that as an opportunity to throw me into the lions den, as they saw it, as a convenient way of dealing with a known militant.) As it turned out there was no animosity towards me on Green Watch, although no one ever admitted that the two men were guilty.

I left the fire service in 1987 to go into teaching. I only managed five years all told. It was shortly after that that the first women firefighters were recruited in London. I have the utmost respect and admiration for those pioneering women. I know that those brave trailblazers will have gone to hell and back to assert their right to the career of their choice.

Worthwhile Feminism

Abi Wilkinson, a young feminist left journalist, tweeted this comment yesterday:

“I don’t know if I’ve stated this publicly so I should: the only worthwhile version of feminism is trans inclusive. Different women have different kinds of experiences, all victims of patriarchy, all women. How is this even up for debate?”

So here is my response about what worthwhile feminism really is:

I don’t know if I’ve stated this publicly so I should: the only worthwhile version of feminism is woman centred. The only worthwhile version of socialist feminism is centred on working class women. The only kind of female is identified by her biological sex characteristics. There are many victims of patriarchy, but the only worthwhile version of feminism knows that women are the main victims and that all other victims are also the victims of male dominance in all its manifestations.

There are many aspects to sex discrimination but sex discrimination is real. Our mothers and the trade union movement have built protections for us from discrimination that we should do everything we can to defend.

Women share near universal experiences as women from sexual harassment, belittling, discrimination, lower pay for equivalent work in status or value to performing domestic and sexual labour. Not all women give birth to and raise children but only biological women can give birth. Each human is carried and borne by a woman, each of us has a birth mother.

The experience of womanhood and girlhood can only be measured and made meaningful by observing female sex characteristics. Rendering adult human females ‘cis’ or ‘Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB’) is meaningless at best and erasure of women at worst. Being female is not an identity, it is a biological, material reality. Being working class is not an identity it is an economic, material reality. This material reality shapes all the experiences and influence one has. The only worthwhile version of feminism or socialism knows this to be true. How is any other sort up for consideration?

Of course there are many specific experiences that come from being a transwoman, being born male, is one for example. This is a universal experience of transwomen. The only form of worthwhile feminism can acknowledge this truth. The only kind of worthwhile feminism acknowledges that this creates a conflict of rights between women and those males who seek to self-identify into women’s spaces such as rape crisis shelters, women’s prisons, women’s sports and women’s structures for political representation.

Patriarchy is not a ‘gender system’ but the imposition of rigid gender expectations onto the dimorphic human species based on their biological sex. Patriarchy imposes dominance by one sex over another and cannot be undermined through the extreme reversal of sex stereotypical roles requiring medical and surgical modification. Patriarchy can only be undermined by the acknowledgement that gender is constructed, it is culturally and historically specific built onto the permanent sex characteristics of males and females. Patriarchy can only be undermined by the rejection of gender roles between the sexes. Only a feminism that has the sophistication to understand this is worthwhile.

Women, adult human females, generally express solidarity to all human beings facing hardship, discrimination, hatred. Kindness is our hallmark. Women are not supposed to benefit ourselves. Calling on women to be “inclusive” is not radical but plays to the deeply ingrained sexist socialisation of women. Women are capable of the greatest acts of solidarity and inclusion and we will always reach put to others who need our help. But worthwhile feminism says that we should be given the courtesy to be at the centre of our own movement and to shape our own demands free from misogyny, dismissal, slander, slurs and violence. So I am publicly stating the worthwhile version of feminism is both female and class centred. How is this even up for debate?


Ruth Serwotka originally posted the article above to Facebook on 9th October 2017.

What are your labour movement experiences of being a gender critical feminist?

Ruth Serwotka posted the following request on Facebook on 8th October 2017.


I am interested in womens experiences of being active in the Labour Party or trade union and being a gender critical feminist.

I have been hearing some terrible stories of gender critical feminists facing ridicule and removal from posts and facing malicious accusations of transphobia. Some of these accusations have been taken all the way to L.P. compliance unit.

If you feel able please post experiences here or PM me if you want confidentiality.

Through SocFem.net we will look at challenging the silencing of womens voices in our movement.

Gender law goes under the lens

WOMEN discussed proposed changes to law concerning gender identity yesterday in Brighton at a meeting titled What is gender?

Radical lesbian feminist Julia Long counter-posed views of gender as an innate quality with an analysis that views it as a social and political construct which allocates prescribed roles to men and women in a patriarchal society.

Under the Gender Recognition Act 2004 individuals may change their legal sex but require approval from the medical profession, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria and to live as a member of the opposite sex for two years, she explained.

Recommendations from Parliament’s women and equalities select committee are that this be replaced with a self-declaration and that current exemptions under the Equality Act 2010 allowing certain services and spaces to be reserved for biologically female individuals be removed.

One speaker said the assault on a 60-year-old woman by transgender activists at Speaker’s Corner on September 13 for trying to attend a discussion on the nature of gender was a “watershed moment.”

Socialist Feminist Network co-convener Ruth Serwotka described the online bullying and abuse directed at women who raise these issues, quoting threats and endorsements of violence against women by activists who support the changes.

And Transgender Trend’s Stephanie Davies-Arai expressed fears that advice preventing professionals such as teachers or clinicians from questioning a child’s declared gender could harm children as a large majority of kids with identity queries end up identifying with their birth sex, but there are moves to accelerate the prescription of puberty blockers which can result in sterility and arrested development.


This article was originally published in the Morning Star on 28th September 2017.

A Woman’s Place Campaign Launched

Socialist Feminist Network supports the Woman’s Place UK campaign to protect and assert women’s rights and separate space, following is the launch statement, which was first published on Google Drive as a PDF, the campaign can be followed via the womansplaceuk.org website, on Twitter and on Facebook and can be contacted by email at womansplaceuk@gmail.com.


A Woman’s Place

Who are we?

We are a group of people from a range of backgrounds including trade unions, women’s organisations, academia and the NHS. We are united by our belief that women’s hard won rights must be defended.

What are we for?

We are against all forms of discrimination. We believe in the right of everyone to live their lives free from discrimination and harassment. Women face both endemic structural and personal inequality. This is reflected, for example, in the high levels of sexual harassment, violence against women and girls; the gender pay gap; discrimination at work. This is why sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act (2010) which we believe must be defended.

We are calling for:

  1. Respectful and evidence based discussion about the impact of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act to be allowed to take place and for women’s voices to be heard. Too often women are silenced, threatened, trolled, harassed and even physically assaulted for daring to engage in a discussion about the possible consequences of a legislative change. The accusation of “transphobia” should not be used to shut down women’s voices.
  2. The principle of women only spaces to be upheld — and where necessary extended. In subsequent briefings we will set out the reasons why these spaces are needed.
  3. A review of how the exemptions in the Equality Act which allow for single sex services or requirements that only a woman can apply for a job (such as in a domestic violence refuge) are being applied in practice. We believe that the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry and its recommendations have had a chilling effect on many service providers and employers who are now not sure if it is lawful to apply these exemptions.
  4. Government to consult with women’s organisations on how self-declaration would impact on women only services and spaces.
  5. Government to consult on how self-declaration will impact upon data gathering — such as crime, employment, pay, and health statistics — and monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the gender pay gap.

Why now?

The Government Equalities Office has committed to consult on changes to the existing Gender Recognition Act.

The current process requires that you are over 18; have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria (defined by the NHS as a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because they believe there to be a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity); that you’ve lived in your acquired gender for at least 2 years and that you intend to live in your acquired gender for the rest of your life. You must also have an original or certified copy of your birth certificate and copies of any official documents that show your birth name has changed to your current name; proof you’ve lived in your acquired gender for the required time (2 years for standard route, 6 years for alternative route); any medical reports and proof you’re living in your acquired gender (passport, driving licence, payslips or benefit documents, utility bills or other documents of an official nature)

The proposed change to the law would simplify the process to gain a GRC with the likely introduction of a simple statement of intent as in Ireland:

“I do solemnly and sincerely declare that I:

  1. have a settled and solemn intention to live in the preferred gender for the rest of my life,
  2. understand the consequences of the application,
  3. make this application of my own free will.”

Gender Recognition Act, Ireland, 2015

The Equality Act 2010 allows for those with a gender recognition certificate to be exempt from some services, occupations or spaces where there is a “proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim”. These exceptions are not general but must be justified on a case by case basis:

“A service provider may have a policy about providing its service to transsexual users, but this policy must still be applied on a

case-by-case basis. It is necessary to balance the needs of the transsexual person for the service, and the disadvantage to them if they are refused access to it, against the needs of other users, and any disadvantage to them, if the transsexual person is allowed access. To do this may require discussion with service users (maintaining confidentiality for the transsexual service user). Care should be taken in each case to avoid a decision based on ignorance or prejudice.”
Equality and Human Rights Commission Guidance on the Equality Act

Transgender people should have the same rights as anyone else to be free from discrimination, to access the services that they need and to be treated with dignity and respect.

However, moving to a process of self-declaration risks unintended consequences for the safety and wellbeing of women and girls. If the government were to go ahead with the proposed simplification of the gender recognition process, and move towards a self-declaration system, it would mean that violent male offenders could demand access to women only spaces and services such as refuges, sexual violence centres/services and prisons simply by claiming to identify as a woman, whether or not this was the case. There is already evidence that this is happening in the prison service in the UK. There is evidence from both the UK and internationally of people who were born male entering women only spaces dressed as women and going on to assault women.

Whether or not these offenders are transgender is irrelevant since the recommendations in the report would facilitate this type of offending by making access to women only spaces dependent on an individual’s declaration that they identify as a woman with no need for any process of social or medical transition.

Trans people have the right to access the services that they need and there are real concerns about the safety of tran

swomen, in particular if they are housed in the mainstream prison population in line with their biological sex. However, the Committee’s recommendations in these areas are not the best way to address these issues and threaten the safety and wellbeing of women and girls.

How can you get involved?

  • Join our campaign
  • Read and share our briefings
  • Discuss the proposals with other people
  • Write to your MP

There are lots more resources from Woman’s Place UK on the website, including all their published documents, films of speakers, upcoming meetings and more.

Violence has no place in transgender debate

The following letter was originally published in The Guardian.


Speakers’ Corner in London was where suffragettes met to debate the laws and rights of the day. This was the intention for women who congregated there on 13 September to be directed to a meeting to discuss the impact of proposed legislation on gender identity.

The venue could not be advertised because the original one, a community meeting space, had been intimidated into cancelling the booking. Transgender activists who opposed the debate taking place instigated a campaign to shut it down, which led to the attack on 60-year-old Maria MacLachlan by multiple assailants. Her camera was smashed, her hand cut, and her face and neck bruised.

Attempts to minimise or justify this violence from those who sympathise with the cause these protestors claimed to support are deeply worrying. Some members of the trans community have expressed their revulsion at the actions of this violent vanguard. Others, perhaps intimidated from speaking out for fear of being ostracised, must find their voice if there is to be reasoned discussion of legislation that affects us all.

Women have a right to free association and assembly. Politically motivated violence aimed at silencing women and shutting us out of political discussion will not succeed.

Linda Bellos
Lucy Masoud FBU LGBT London secretary
Prof Deborah Cameron University of Oxford
Helen Steel
Karen Ingala Smith Chief executive officer, NIA
Gemma Aitchison Founder, YES Matters
Bea Campbell
Naomi Fearon Deputy general secretary, Socialist Educational Association
Rahila Gupta
Ellenor Hutson
Rebecca Lush
Rachel Moran Founder, SPACE international
Margaret Prosser Labour, House of Lords
Yasmin Rehman
Judith Jones
Ruth Serwotka Convenor, Socialist Feminist Network
Sam Smethers Chief executive, Fawcett Society
Dr Mary-Ann Stephenson Co-director, Women’s Budget Group
Dr Eva Neitzert Co-director, Women’s Budget Group
Kiri Tunks Convenor, Socialist Feminist Network
Dr Jennifer Wilkes
Harriet Wistrich Founder, Centre for Women’s Justice
Victoria Brittain

In a sexist society, the body’s sex is not a redundant category: a response to Bridget Chapman and Kirstie Paton

The following article, by Judith Green, was originally published in Labour Briefing in response to Gender recognition – support change by Bridget Chapman and Kirstie Paton.


I am a midwife and trade unionist. I never assign sex and find parents are quite capable of identifying their baby’s sex. My job includes documenting sex in the health record and sex is recorded in birth registration. Sex is only ‘assigned’ to babies when this is not obvious at birth – a rare occurrence. Recording of the sex of male and female newborns is important. There are health issues for newborn boys (such as undescended gonads) that do not exist for newborn girls (for whom internal gonads are healthy) and vice versa. Recording sex at birth, and various life junctures, is vital to the social and political health of us all. Every single claim that feminists and socialists have ever made about the representation and treatment of women is dependent upon this data. This includes that 100 million women were missing due to sex-selective abortion, infanticide and unequal treatment of girls first published in 1990. [1] Our efforts for a more just, equal and peaceful world starts with being able to accurately identify inequality, injustice and violence. Without recording sex we would not know that even more women (estimated 117 million) are missing today.[2]

Bridget Chapman and Kirstie Paton write that self-declaration will not render meaningless sex discrimination legislation or the category of woman. Yet, Stephen Whittle, a key activist for the Gender Recognition Act described how in that legislation

“gender identity transforms legal sex…there is no recourse to the sexed body which suggests that the body’s sex as a taxonomical tool has in some way become redundant… Changing sex for the purposes of legal recognition then, is … about changing how sex is legally defined.” [3]

The Equality Act placed limits on this disregard for the sexed body, setting out exceptions in Schedule 3, Paragraph 28. [4] These allow the provision of single-sex services provided they are a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The passing of a self-declaration law together with a removal of these exceptions would see the current delicate balance of rights between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ in the Equality Act overturned.

Socialists who want ‘the body’s sex as a taxonomical tool’ made redundant should reflect on the violent exploitation of female bodies. Women have won services and organisations that meet our needs for safety, dignity, privacy and healing at times when our bodies and psyches are vulnerable.

Those confident that new legislation will not impact women’s rights should not fear full discussion of the proposals. The left must consider the impact of further changing how sex is defined.

Judith Green

References

  1. www.nybooks.com/articles/1990/12/20/more-than-100-million-women-are-missing
  2. www.unfpa.org/gender-biased-sex-selection
  3. www.socresonline.org.uk/12/1/whittle.html
  4. www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/schedule/3#schedule-3-paragraph-28-1

Open letter: we are appalled at the attacks on Kiri Tunks

We have been appalled at the attacks on Kiri Tunks following an article she wrote calling for discussion on the implications of proposals to change gender recognition legislation.

Kiri has been subjected to abuse and attacks on social media and a petition has even been launched calling for her removal as Vice President of her union, the National Union of Teachers.

We believe that this attempt to silence women’s voices does a disservice to us all. All women have a right to debate how any proposed measures may impact on women-only spaces, services such as women’s refuges, and on measures set up to monitor discrimination against women such as the pay gap.

As Kiri pointed out in her article, ‘to deny any group or individual in that group the right to be part of a discussion about their identity is insulting and will result in a failure of the great liberation we are all seeking.’

Sarah Colborne, NUT (personal capacity)
Lucy Masoud, London FBU Treasurer, Fire Brigade Union (PC)
Alex Gordon, former President, RMT (pc)
Philipa Harvey, NUT Ex-President (pc)
Lynne Walsh, NUJ (pc)
Meirian Jump, Archivist & Library Manager, Marx Memorial Library (pc)
Dana Mills, academic & activist
Judith Green, RCM (pc)
Ruth Serwotka, Unite (pc)
Sarah Johnson, ATL Executive (pc)
Vicky Knight, President Elect UCU (pc)
Janice Godrich, President, PCS (pc)
Professor Mary Davis
Charlie Dacke, Unison (pc)
Clare Solomon, Unite (pc)
Ann Field, Unite GPM & IT Sector
Steph Pike, Unite (pc)
Kristina Jayne Harrison, Transwoman & socialist
Emma Wilkes, PCS (pc)
Christina Purcell, UCU (pc)
Professor Marjorie Mayo, Marx Memorial Library
Jonathan White
Philipa Clark, Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial committee
Andrew Murray, Unite (pc)
Carole Regan, Past-President, NUT (pc)
Anita Wright, National Assembly of Women
Dr Louise Raw, Unite member (pc)
Finola Kelly PCS (pc)
John McGhee, retired national officer for equality FBU
Moz Greenshields, TUC Trades Unions Councils JCC (personal capacity)
Bill Greenshields, NUT past president
Liam McQuade, NUT (pc)

Originally published in The Morning Star on Wednesday 16th August 2017.

Sex Matters

Proposed changes to the law on gender self-identity have huge implications for all of us. There should be room in our movement for greater understanding and dialogue, writes KIRI TUNKS.


The government’s announcement that it will consult on a change in the law on gender self-identity means that a fierce debate that has, until now, been taking place off-stage is being thrust into the public arena.

One argument is that a change in the law is not up for debate and that anyone raising concerns or challenging the proposal is transphobic.

Such a position will not help to accommodate the discussions which are vital for any social, political or legal shift.

The relaxing of any legal definition of what it is to be a man or a woman could render sex discrimination law meaningless and any imposition of change without winning people to it is likely to cause a counter-productive backlash.

Neither is it helpful to say that these proposed changes only affect the trans community because it fundamentally isn’t true.

The ability to define one’s own “gender” will undermine the legal characteristic of “sex” and could lead to serious implications for women and their ability to fight sex discrimination and oppression.

It is also likely to impact on society’s ability to plan for and accommodate the needs of its population and the way it attempts to even out inequality.

Concerns about access to single-sex spaces are often dismissed as unjustified moral panic. The truth is that this society has failed to ensure equality of treatment for women and girls: single-sex spaces exist to try to ameliorate the oppression women face.

Removing legal exceptions will mean that services already under attack from austerity politics will be further hampered in their ability to deliver for the people they were created to serve.

If necessary, where services do not exist for a specific group then they must be created and we must all fight for that.

The demand for self-identity has huge implications for all of us and how we are defined. And, because women are an oppressed group (whose fight for equality has never been won or sustained) it is women who are most affected by the proposals.

It is also the women who have raised concerns who have been attacked as bigots for speaking out — often by men whose rights are simply not affected in the same way.

This debate about identity is one that necessarily affects everyone in society. Unless you are someone who thinks there is no such thing…

The growth in identity politics is becoming an atomising force, creating division among groups of people who have much in common and could be a common force for change.

My belief is that our individual identities are made up of many complex parts — self-expression and self-identity are part of that. But individuals are also part of society and the terms we use to describe ourselves necessarily involve some level of common agreement.

Terms that are used to describe people of and from specific groups must be determined by all the people in those groups. But the term “woman” is now being defined in several ways. For the majority of women it is still determined by biology; for many transwomen it is by a strongly held belief or “knowing.” In this context, how can the term mean the same thing to both?

Natally born women now find any number of terms being used to define them (most of which have not involved any discussion inside the women’s movement): “cis,” “non-men,” “non-transwomen,” “vagina owners,” “menstruators,” “non-prostate owners.”

There is also a growth in the substitution of “queer” for “lesbian” or “dyke.” These terms, we are told, are being applied in an attempt to be inclusive. The term “vagina owners” was used in a recent article on anal sex in Teen Vogue, a magazine primarily catering to teenage girls and young women.

The diagrams accompanying the article had removed the clitoris and the vulva — a journalistic excision that symbolises the erasure that women are starting to feel. This doesn’t feel very inclusive.

Words that exclude and erase women’s experience and opinions cannot ever hope to be universally adopted. They are more likely to insult and offend.

For a movement that prides itself on inclusivity, it feels like, once again, women are the exception. When we express our disquiet, we are abused or silenced, like the FGM campaigner who was called a Terf (trans exclusionary radical feminist) for referencing female genitalia.

Terms and definitions must be based in some kind of material reality that is apparent to more than just an individual. If “woman” or “man” mean different things to different people then the terms become meaningless — and useless. Women, who are told that our biology is not female when we feel that is what makes us female, are left with no term to describe ourselves. And yet, the sex oppression we face does not disappear.

Another trend is the casual substitution of “gender” for “sex” when they mean very different things. At the very least, this is a misrepresentation of the law under which “sex” is a protected characteristic because of the discrimination and oppression which women face. Yet the debate around identity often dismisses “sex” and insists on the term “gender.” This is certainly the case in lots of the NGOs that have sprung up to deliver sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools, but is also the case in other organisations, including big corporations and government departments.

Gender roles are socially constructed and are commonly formed in stereotypical ways that reinforce discrimination.

Sex is biological and the fight of feminists going back decades has been to challenge the assumption that one’s sex should determine one’s options or behaviour.

There are people in this debate who claim that sex is also a social construct and cite biological variations to show that a binary does not exist. To accept this is to ignore the biological reality of billions of people. It does not challenge our social expectations; nor does it help women deal with the oppression they face. Instead, the terms they have had to name that oppression are taken from them; the tools with which to fight are rendered useless.

Women who suffer FGM, sexual harassment or rape cannot identify out of these attacks. Women who live in poverty, cannot access education or equal pay at work cannot identify into wealth or equality. Sex data on issues as diverse as pensions and pay or domestic violence become harder to collect and use as part of our battle for equality.

This is a woman’s rights issue because women’s rights are still not won. We are still fighting a battle for universal access to reproductive rights services or abortions — look at Northern Ireland or the ridiculous moralising from Boots over the morning after pill.

And yet women are being told they cannot talk about “a woman’s right to choose” or refer to vaginas or ovaries because to do so is transphobic. I recently had an Abortion Rights flyer removed from a Facebook “feminist” group for these very reasons.

We also know that abortion rights groups are coming under pressure to use the term “pregnant people,” but this term obscures an ongoing, historic battle by women globally to assert control over their bodies.

To say that all of this is scaremongering amounts to the age-old advice to women not to worry their pretty little heads; that someone else will take care of it. Well, as a feminist, I think women must be in charge of our own destiny. Women must be allowed to define the terms that name them and their experience.

Any change to those terms must be agreed as part of a collective understanding or the terms lose all meaning and all impact.

To deny any group or individual in that group the right to be part of a discussion about their identity is insulting and will result in a failure of the great liberation we are all seeking.

To get there we will need comradely dialogue and understanding — something a trade union movement committed to equality, with a majority female membership, is surely well-placed to facilitate.


Kiri Tunks is an activist in the NUT. She is writing in a personal capacity.

This article was originally published in The Morning Star on 9th August 2017.