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.

On Not Being Allowed into Leftist Spaces

I have been involved in radical politics so why am I now unwelcome in leftist spaces?

I read a letter recently that someone had posted a on social media platform stating people like me should not be allowed in leftist or anarchists spaces. Leaving aside the arrogance and implicit authoritarianism of this claim, its lack of critical engagement with the stance of ‘gender critical’ women is the thing that astounds the most. I have been involved in radical politics all my life so I find it incredible (and that’s putting it politely) that a group of people I do not know, who have no knowledge of me or my personal and political trajectory think they have the right to declare me not welcome in ‘leftist spaces’. The issue here is that significant parts of the left have accepted without question and without debate the fundamental claim of trans activists that transwomen are women. And they have internalized transactivism’s immunization from rational dialogue by denouncing everyone who does not agree with this claim, as ‘bigot’, ‘terf’, full of ‘bile’ and ‘hatred’. The idea that trans rights as currently formulated may clash with women’s rights, seems inconceivable to those who have accepted what seems to me a pre-Enlightenment dogma, that transwomen are women. Is it too much too enquire, without being called a ‘bigot’, that maybe, just maybe, trans rights can be guaranteed on a different basis, without making the claim, trans women are women (or trans men are men)? But first a little more about me – that someone who does not belong in left spaces apparently.

I am a Marxist. I was brought up a Marxist by my Irish Republican dad who left Belfast at the age of 16 to work here in England so he could send money home to his mother. As we, his children, grew up he told us many stories about the houses with rooms to rent where the windows had signs in them saying ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’. He suffered racism all his life, from being called ‘paddy’ by people he did not know, to being the butt of jokes about how stupid the Irish are, to being labeled a terrorist and stopped by the police when ‘the troubles’ were on in the 1970’s, for the crime of having an Irish accent.

Both my parents were manual workers; my dad worked on building sites and my mum was a cleaner and then a school dinner lady. I left school at 16 with no qualifications and brought my daughter up on a council estate while claiming benefits and cleaning the houses of the middle classes to make sure we could eat. I know what it is to be vilified, looked down on and wonder where the next meal is coming from consequentially I interpret the world through the perspective of class.

I went to university at thirty five, now have a PhD and have been teaching in the university sector for the last 20 or so years, so I also know what it is like to inhabit the world of the middle classes. I have never been or ever wanted to be fully accepted into that world. I have written about class, made films about class, my politics are class based, I am acutely aware of the everyday injuries (and rewards) of being working class. As a working class woman I long ago rejected middle class feminism as an off shoot of capitalism where privileged women argued for the right to be treated the same and paid the same as middle class men –but whose feminism did nothing to overthrow the structural inequalities that meant their success would still be dependent on the labour of the working class women who clean their houses and look after their children.

I have sketched in these biographical details because I want to make it clear that I have direct experience of oppression and exploitation on many fronts mostly because of my class but also my Irishness and lately my sex. I do not write the following from a privileged position.

My aim as a working class woman has always been to overthrow capitalism (not on my own, obviously), not adapt myself to fit more easily into it. Therefore the concept of a universal sisterhood where I joined with other women on the basis we were all women appeared to me idealistic in the extreme. I considered it nothing more than an abstraction that ignored the very real differences of income, educational achievement, occupational status and life choices of working class women like me.

In fact I have always found I have more in common with working class men than I could ever have with middle class women. We share experiences of hardship, exploitation and struggle. As far as I was concerned the only thing I had in common with middle class women was my biology – the experiences we share are biological ones – menstruation, child birth, miscarriages, lactation, abortions (for some), the menopause etc.
But it is precisely on these biological grounds I now find my self aligning with all women who are gender critical.

It is important to realise how gender relations have always played a role in the reproduction of capitalist society and capitalist reproduction has always depended on the oppression and exploitation of women. But for working class women that oppression and exploitation has manifested itself differently from the privileged lives of middle and upper class woman. Understanding how patriarchy manifests in class specific ways has always informed my feminism. The essentialism I witnessed in the middle class version of feminism was simply a strategy that worked to denigrate or ignore the experiences and knowledge of working class women and exclude them from the public sphere.

Although not a class in the way that Marx proposed it, women are, as a biological category, different from men for all the reasons I have just stated but also because of the way in which gendered expectations construct a (classed) version of women –call it femininity – that fits well into the needs of a capitalist society for unpaid labour.

But biological sex allows us to make distinctions based on biological needs as well as recognizing biologically determined capacities. Recognising this in a positive rather than discriminatory way allows society to give women’s rights over their bodies and needs – a struggle which as the recent Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment shows, is still, ongoing.

Sex is the scaffolding upon which gender roles are constructed. It depends upon both the conscious and unconscious wielding of power reinforced by cultural norms that are both personal and institutional. The idea that one can individually and on the basis of feelings opt out of these realities is an extraordinary basis for left politics as far as I am concerned.

Biological women have certain gendered expectations imposed on them – in just the same way that men have gendered expectations imposed upon them. And while I would argue it is impossible to change sex it is possible to feel uncomfortable with the imposition of gendered expectations. The imposition of rigid gender roles are never completely and unquestionably successful because of personality or other familial or societal influences – boys and men who do not conform to rigid gender expectations of toughness, rationality etc. are not the opposite sex they are men who do not conform to gendered expectations.

Gender stereotypes of women occur when biological attributes are transformed into ‘female traits’. Mimicking these ‘traits’ does not mean it is possible to change your biological make up–it simply means you have learned and accepted some very specific and selective ways in which women are constrained to behave so that they can both please and be dominated by men –that is how gender is produced. People are not born gendered, gender is something they learn – therefore it is possible for men to learn to act like women, to ‘perform’ femininity -but they can never be women.

But rather than define and defend their own rights, as gays and lesbians did, as people of colour have had to do, the trans movement makes an extraordinary and unprecedented move in the history of human rights: they want to claim not the universal rights that all people should have access to but the rights of another group (women) by claiming and appropriating their identities. This means appropriating those rights that have been put in place specifically to advantage or simply protect biological women such as, for example, all women short lists. This then is a question of power – and for an oppressed minority trans women have demonstrated amazing definitional power, persuading politicians, trade unionists, educationalists and even the medical profession that biological sex is a matter of self-identification by conflating and confusing sex with gender.

The transgender movement is neither progressive nor radical because it has no wish to transcend the limitations of capitalism but rather to isolate the signifiers of a socially constructed femininity in order to reinforce and reproduce them. Therefore the potential for a radical rejection of a patriarchal capitalist society is impossible within trans ideology, which works to maintain the divisions that make it possible. Instead of working towards a more androgynous society in which there are not female qualities and male qualities separate and imposed on each gender, they wish to sustain the divisions that reinforce the oppression of women and places unrealistic demands on men in relation to the concept of masculinity. As someone who was a teenager in the 1970s when there was a real and sustained attempt to break down the socially constructed roles associated with gender I have been genuinely shocked by the reemergence of old established ideas around how men and women should dress and behave and the talk of such concepts as ‘lady brains’.

In a hierarchical capitalist society questions of power are essential, the wielding of power means access to advantages, privileges and most importantly profits that those without power are denied. Historically speaking it has been men who have wielded the most power between the sexes therefore I would argue what we are witnessing with the trans movement is a group of men who wish to be treated as women exhibiting the traditional socialized behavioral characteristics of the male sex. The acceptance of the trans narrative as a given has resulted in the systemic validation of one group of people at the expense of another. It is only by including the experiences of all groups that we can understand fully the broader social and political ramifications of the trans movement.

It is important to acknowledge that sexism is an historical process that manifests itself differently in different historical epochs. This latest manifestation of the social relations between men and women has much in common with previous ones concerned as it is with the subjugation of biological females, their disciplining and the insistence they conform to the needs of men. It is yet another patriarchal strategy designed to keep women subservient to the demands of men by actually erasing the category of women as a meaningful one. Why else would this particular movement demand the removal of sex-based safeguards designed to protect women based on their biology? Why would they wish to remove the strategies that have been put in place to ensure biological women are represented within the public political sphere? Why would children who exhibit gender nonconformity be railroaded into socially constructed gender positions and encouraged to begin medicalization to align their gender (now conceived as fixed) with a sex different to the one they are born with? Why else would they demand a change in the language we use to describe women’s bodily functions such as childbirth and breast-feeding? And why would any discussion of these things be dismissed with accusations of bigotry and hate speech? Gender relations cannot be transformed while the objective realities of sex and sex-based oppression, are ignored.

Far from abolishing gender distinctions the trans movement has actually entrenched them further and allowed women who disagree with them to be shouted down by men and other women. The insistence on men being accepted as women does nothing to change the conditions of the vast majority of women –particularly working class women, how could it? What we have is the ideological legitimation of men illustrating quite starkly that ‘gender’ relations are not simply about the attitudes men and women have towards each other but the part those relations play in society. The multiple subject positions of left identity politics has fractured the left and allowed the existing social relations of capitalism to remain in place. That is why the trans movement must be situated within the wider context of social, institutional and structural relations and considered from the standpoint of the lived social relations of capitalism. Feminism to be truly effective must be part and parcel of the fight against capitalism.

The deregulation of society that began with Thatcherism and accelerated under Blair – has meant that the cultural, social, economic and moral barriers to individual gratification have gradually been eroded. Rewriting the script of sexed power dynamics not only trivializes the objective reality of the lives of women but also instills liberal banalities celebrating individualism as the ultimate in progressive politics. This as we are witnessing allows for a move away from analysis towards an emphasis on feelings and self-validation.

The rise of individualism and the centering of individual wants as human rights at the expense of collective needs represent both the extension of a consumer society and the guarantee of its reproduction. It means nothing is safe if anything can be appropriated, if anything can be claimed to belong to those who simply want it or feel it, without situating that want within the social relations within which it is embedded.

I began this talking by talking about my identity and background – but only to underscore that I know all about discrimination, not to play top trumps with my working class Irish identity. We have to get the question of rights, right, for women and for trans people. Non-pathological engagement with objective realities (such as not pursuing practices that make the planet uninhabitable) requires the extension of democracy, including the extension not the contraction of democratic debate. If the left allows the trans militants to silence women, shut us down, nod approvingly every time they pressure venues to close their doors to our meetings, employers to sack them, organisations such as the Labour Party which they are members of, to expel them, then we are heading for very dark times indeed.

Jennie Formby – A reply to Labour Women for Women’s Rights

Jennie Formby, the General Secretary of the Labour Party, has written the following reply to the Labour Women for Women’s Rights open letter which was addressed to her and Jeremy Corbyn.

Thank you for taking the time to contact me to express your concerns about the NEC statement about All Women Shortlists, women’s officers and minimum quotas for women.

The purpose of the statement was to set out and explain Labour’s current policy on All Women Shortlists, women’s officers and minimum quotas for women, in order to address any confusion or concerns. It did not change our policy in any way.

The Labour Party’s All Women Shortlists are open to all women, including self-identifying trans women, as are the positions of women’s officer and minimum quotas for women. The Labour Party is committed to upholding the principle of affirmative action for women. Anyone attempting to breach Labour Party rules and subvert the intention of All Women Shortlists, women’s officers or minimum quotas for women will be dealt with via our established safeguards, selection procedures and disciplinary measures.

This restatement of our policy is not about the Gender Recognition Act or women-only spaces. As outlined in Labour’s manifesto, we are committed to updating the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act 2010 in line with the principles of self-declaration to ensure it provides proper protection for trans people from discrimination. The Party will be developing more detailed policy on how this will be achieved and how important safeguards and protections for all women, including vulnerable women, will be maintained. There will be a full consultation with relevant stakeholders on the detail of this so I hope that this goes some way to reassure you. The National Policy Forum also offers scope for further discussion about the Gender Recognition Act. See

We recognise that there is a diversity of views on this subject and there has been no attempt to silence different opinions on what is a complex and emotive issue for many members. All members are entitled to their views and must be able to express them and engage in discussion in a respectful manner. All forms of abuse or intimidation are unacceptable and will be addressed according to our rules and procedures.

As only the second woman to hold the position of Labour Party General Secretary, I am fully committed to the women’s equality and I hope that you will continue with your membership of the Labour Party.

London FBU LGBT Section position statement on GRA proposals

The London LGBT Section of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) (after member consultation) have agreed the following position statement on proposals to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

Statement on behalf of the LGBT London Section

The Gender Recognition Act is in urgent need of review. The government are currently consulting on proposals that would streamline the process for individuals transitioning, making it easier for a person to legally change their sex. These proposals include allowing individuals to ‘self-identify’ as the opposite sex without the need for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or having to undergo any hormonal treatment, or surgery.

Although we support many of the government’s proposals such as making the transition process simpler and removing many of the stressful and humiliating obstacles that those transitioning face, we are however concerned about the concept of allowing a person to simply ‘self-identify’ as someone of the opposite sex and the possible impact this could have on women only spaces.

Under the Equality Act 2010, sex is a protected characteristic. It is therefore legally important, as a commitment to women’s equality, that the impact of these proposals on the sex protected characteristics is discussed and assessed.

We believe that women (both as individuals and through representative organisation and service providers) must be consulted on any proposed changes to laws which will affect them. Therefore in line with the position of Woman’s Place UK we have 5 demands that must take place before any changes to the Gender Recognition Act regarding ‘self-identity’ are made:

  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 and trans voices to be heard;
  2. The principle of women only spaces to be upheld – and where necessary extended.
  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/will be being applied in practice;
  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.

Labour Women for Women’s Rights

25th May 2018 Update: Jennie Formby has replied to the open letter below.

8th May 2018

Dear Jeremy Corbyn and Jennie Formby,

The Labour Party has announced a policy on All-Women Shortlists (AWS) that seriously threatens women’s rights and is in breach of the Equality Act (2010). This has happened with no debate having taken place and before Jeremy Corbyn has met with women’s groups as he promised. The Labour Manifesto in 2017 said (p109) “A Labour government will gender audit all policy and legislation for its impact on women before implementation.”

It was Labour’s awareness of the under-representation of women in political life that led to the establishment of AWS and Women’s Officers in the first place. We have therefore found the decision on AWS deeply troubling in asserting gender identity over sex-based exemptions.

We fully understand the frustration felt by many Labour women that their voices are not being listened to. Many women Labour Party members are so concerned about this that they are leaving the Party.

We want a Labour government to improve the lives of women but we are concerned at the disregard with which women have been treated and understand that many of us feel alienated and afraid.

We fully support the rights of those who have undergone gender reassignment not to face discrimination as transgender people as is their right under the Equality Act (2010). However, women are also a protected group under the Equality Act and we are concerned that groups, including the Labour Party, are unwilling to uphold our right to sex-segregated spaces.

Sexism and misogyny are still endemic in society and no organisation is immune from it, including the Labour Party.

Recently too many men have not been reprimanded for using sexist obscenities as insults or defamatory caricatures of feminist debate. We will not tolerate women being slurred with the misogynist insult TERF or being called ‘cis’ against their will. Where sexist obscenities against women are used to silence debate we expect the Party to deal with these matters appropriately through the disciplinary process.

We expect the Party’s membership to understand the need for vigilance and to challenge sexism and misogyny.

However, we also believe there are signs of a growing awareness in the party that these issues of concern to us must be addressed. As grassroots members of the Labour Party, we pledge ourselves to ensuring that Labour is pro-active in the fight against women’s oppression and sex discrimination.

To this end, we have decided to stay as members of the Labour Party for now to make sure that women’s concerns are taken seriously within the party and its many structures.

We call on Jeremy Corbyn to meet with women, as promised, to discuss our concerns. We call on Labour women to redouble their efforts to make the party fit for purpose and to remain in the Party with us, not with illusions, but with spirit and determination to make women’s lives better and to increase our political representation.

Yours sincerely,

Kiri Tunks (Walthamstow), Glynis Millward (Central Cardiff), Helena Coates (Salford & Eccles), Judith Green (Cambridge), Ann McTaggart (Tottenham), Denise Bennett (Women’s Officer, Blaydon), Lucy Masoud (Tooting), Diane Jones (Newcastle Central), Bronwen Davies (Cardiff North), Laura Oakley (Tottenham), Rebecca Lush (Winchester), Lisa Bishop (Maldon), Shonagh Glen (Dundee), Alice Bondi (Penrith & The Border), Annie Thomas (Bristol West), Ruth Serwotka (Carmarthenshire East), Emma Dolan (Leeds NE), Shani Kara (Tottenham), Amanda MacLean (Tottenham), Emma Wilkes (Stalybridge & Hyde), Dianne Vine (Bournemouth East), Louise Hersee (Hastings & Rye), Gill Parke (Bournemouth East), Pilgrim Tucker (Vauxhall), Emma Barraclough (Bristol South), Jan Pemberton (Bristol West), Ruth Conlock (Manchester Withington), Cllr Sue Lent (Cardiff Central), Sona Mahtani (Tottenham), Julie Armstrong (Gateshead),Paula Dauncey (Cardiff Central), Sarah White (Worsley & Eccles), Sarah Johnson (Cambridge ), Ceri Williams (Tottenham), Jennifer James (Garston & Halewood), Catia Freitas (Esher & Walton), Rebecca Heath (Brent), Lisa Bishop (Maldon), Emma Salmon (Bexhill & Battle), Ruth Gordon (Tottenham), Debbie Epstein (Cambridge), Kay Green (Hastings & Rye), Shani Kara (Tottenham), Julia Richards (Hornsey & Wood Green), Cathy Devine (Withington), Pam Isherwood (Tottenham), Holly Brewer (Oxford East), Lisa-Marie Taylor (Brighton), Selina Todd (Manchester Withington), Helen Soutar (Stafford), Paula Boulton (Corby & East Northants), Therese O’Meara (Tottenham), Gill Parke (Bournemouth East), Kay Green (Hastings & Rye), Hilary Adams (Tottenham), Marjorie Caw (Bristol West), Kate Jerrold (Bristol East), Hayley Mullen (Tottenham), Prue Plumridge (Maldon), Marta Garcia de la Vega (Tottenham), Janet Holden (Cambridge), Heather Downs (Rochester & Strood), Ruth Todd (Newcastle Central), Sohayalla Wilson (Manchester Gorton), Eleanor Tristram (Stafford), Sarah Cave (Tottenham) Tania Ziegler (Winchester), Matesa McKeefery (Rossendale & Darwen), Rebecca Pennington (Lewisham Deptford), Laura McGrath (Walthamstow), Sylvia Dobie (Tottenham), Anna Hillier (Camberwell & Peckham), Amanda Lesiatoi (Bristol West), Susan Matthews (Dulwich & West Norwood), Fiona English (Tottenham), Frankie Rickford (Shrewsbury & Atcham), Nicola Kerry (Thornbury & Yate), Pamela Beamish (Bristol North West), Karen Kruzycka (Romford), Cathy Love (Ilford South), Naomi Fearon (Salford & Eccles), Senia Paseta (Oxford West & Abingdon), Lynn Walsh (Twickenham), Lizzie Bartram (Bristol East), Jess Goldie (Bury North), Ann Sinnott (Cambridge), Catherine Bjarnason (Ealing), Charlotte Delaney (Waveney), Gwenan Richards (Chair, Bishops Ward, Vauxhall), Catherine Muller (Vauxhall), Jen Izaakson (Richmond), Cathy Boardman (Manchester Central), Esther Giles (Bristol North West), Lynne Caffrey (Blaydon), Jan Baxter (Leeds Central), Li Doran (Haringey), Bridie Norton (Corby & East Northants), Gwenda Owen (Cardiff Central), Becky Vaughan (Brighton Pavilion), Helen Martlew (Stafford), Fiona Leggo (Norwich South), Shanthie Wild (Bristol East), Cllr Louise Nixon (Stafford), Ornella Saibene (Bristol West), Beth Aze (Stretford & Urmston) Philipa Harvey (Coulsdon South), Samantha Scott (Corby & East Northants), Daisy Lee (Manchester Withington), Katherine Rutter (Corby & East Northants), Emma Aynsley (Cardiff Central), Jackie Hartley (Stafford), Helen Dickson (Wavertree), Lorraine Robinson (York Central), Sheila Spencer (North Tyneside), Pam Smith (Coventry South), Jane Galloway (Sidcup), Nicola Clements (Stafford), Mara Leverkuhn (Salford & Eccles) Nina Houghton (Women’s Officer, Wavertree), Katharine Cotter (Stafford), Ann Morch (Calder Valley), Madison Plumridge (Ealing), Andree Jamileh Beida Ryan (Ealing), Melissa Briscoe (Stretford & Urmston) Maggie Wellington (Stretford & Urmston), Lynn Alderson (Totnes & South Hams), Alison Morris (Rochdale)

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.