The left must fight for women’s rights by Kiri Tunks

Kiri is a trade unionist and activist. She is a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK.

This is a longer version of a right of reply published on OpenDemocracy.

Some left groups are organising aggressive protests to shut women’s meetings down

Woman’s Place UK is a campaign formed to ensure women’s voices are heard in the public consultation around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act.

During our campaign we have been accused of allying with extremist religious groups and the far right. These connections are entirely without foundation and we believe are an attempt to slur us rather than engage properly with our concerns.

Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) are women of the left with long-held records of campaigning on a wide range of progressive issues. Our supporters number many from the LGBT+ community, in particular lesbians who feel their identity and rights are under attack.

We are committed to campaigning for women’s sex-based rights under the law.

Women raising concerns about the loss of single sex exemptions under are often told that the Equality Act won’t be affected and that these are safe.  But this fails to acknowledge that the law itself has become very confused about sex and gender, casually conflating one with the other.

Furthermore, groups such as Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence and the Scottish Trans Alliance have all called for the removal of single sex exemptions as part of their submissions to the Maria Miller Inquiry which triggered the proposals to change the law.

It is only because women’s groups like Woman’s Place UK have campaigned to keep these rights that the Government has committed to retain them.

Many people are still unclear how changes to the GRA will work in practice and are demanding explicit clarification of how the GRA will interact with the Equality Act.

Rather than accepting that there is widespread unease about changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), some of our detractors seek to make concrete links between feminist groups and the Christian right. This is despite a recent article acknowledging that “there is no evidence that they are actively working together.”

I have been here before. In the 1980s/90s I was active in the Campaign Against Pornography and campaigns to get shops to place explicit magazines on the top shelf or take them off the shelf completely. I co-edited a book of letters to Clare Short written by thousands of women on their hatred of page 3 and its impact on their lives

As on this issue, much of the left’s position was poor. We were denounced as prudes; told that sexually explicit materials were liberating; that you couldn’t legislate against the dehumanisation, hatred and violence in pornography; that women just needed to get over it.

Those anti-porn campaigns also attracted religious support, including from some right-wing organisations. We made no links with these groups, but we could not stop them campaigning.

What were we meant to do, stop?

Why did the left not engage then with women on this issue?

Why did they leave it to the right?

Perhaps if they had done so we could have effected real change decades ago instead of now having to fight against the tidal wave of sexual objectification, abuse and assault that threatens to overwhelm us.

According to Girl Guiding, 64% of girls suffer sexual harassment at school; according to the TUC, 52% of women do at work. There are further shocking statistics on street harassment, intimate partner violence, rape & sexual assault. The UN Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, visiting the U.K. in 2014 condemned the “in your face sexist boys club culture” here.

It’s a shame so many left-wing brothers seem to be part of it.

At last, the wave of reports from unions, NGOs and the government means that tackling sexual harassment and violence has become mainstream.

People like Maria Miller front the calls for change.

Like many high-profile Tories, Miller also supports self-identification. Yet no-one questions siding with her or others on the right over the GRA despite their stances on welfare rights or immigration.

Woman’s Place UK has expressed its concern that “The proposed reforms may have ‘unintended consequences for the safety and well-being of women and girls’ as ‘predatory men could demand access to women-only spaces and services.”

This perfectly reasonable position is based on fact and evidence. Women’s routine experience of sexual abuse is finally being acknowledged at the same time as we are being told we cannot determine what a woman is or where her boundaries should be.

Slurring us with trumped-up charges of alliances with the far-right will not detract from the truth: that for women this is the latest in a long line of let-downs by the labour movement.

Worse, the vilification and denunciation of left-wing women with long records of campaigning is nothing short of shameful.

Worse still, too many so-called left-wing men are complicit in this vitriolic campaign against women. We are now routinely lectured by these men on feminism and sexism – subjects they have been ominously quiet on for years.

How many of us know men who have waded into the gender debate to proclaim what a woman is when they have never shown the slightest interest in fighting the material reality of women’s oppression before?

It is to the detriment of our movement that coverage of women’s concerns has (with the honourable exceptions of the Morning Star and, more recently, Left Foot Forward) been left to the Times, the Telegraph, the Economist and the Spectator.

It gives the impression that the left is afraid of intelligent debate and is incapable of connecting with women and their fight for equality.

Quite simply, the left’s project cannot work without organising the mass of women.

But it’s a very brave Labour MP or councillor who would make the same arguments we do. They are under huge pressure to defend self-identification even if they are sympathetic to the idea that biology is a reality. Debate among Labour Party members is being restricted and policed.

And yet, our campaigning and that of other groups and individuals, is drawing mass support because we understand the everyday experiences of women and our demands are based in material reality.

Any change to a law must consider the views and concerns of everyone. And while it will clearly impact on the rights of trans people, it must also take into particular account the views of those with other protected characteristics (especially age, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation). We all have a responsibility to get it right.

Our meetings enable women to discuss these changes. They have come under relentless attack by groups like Sisters Uncut and other groupings on the left. Many have been subject to aggressive, threatening protests, sometimes by people with covered faces; two have had bomb threats.

Women are being threatened, abused, harassed and reported to their employers. Some have been assaulted.

We are fully alert to the perils and tactics of the far right.

We just didn’t expect activists on the left to take them up.

We are ploughing our own furrow and we do it according to our long-held political principles.

It’s time the left rediscovered some principles of its own.