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  • Catherine Mayer

We need to have difficult debates. We need to find better ways to have them

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

There’s nothing the media loves more than a fight—except for a fight between women. That they love more. Female columnists get paid to stamp on other females. Broadcasters pit gender equality advocates against gender inequality denialists, experts against boorish provocateurs. When I tweeted about the BBC’s persistent false equivalence, a senior journalist accused me of trying to stifle discussion. “We can’t just have women agreeing,” he said, as if feminism were all pussy hats and sweet concord.

In reality, the women’s movement has always veered between triumphant solidarity across borders, classes and experiences and deep, self-mutilating splits. In the UK, we’ve been celebrating the centenary of the first women gaining the vote, thanks to the efforts of suffragists and suffragettes and in spite of disputes between and within those factions. In America, suffragists tried to win favour with segregationists in the South by claiming that white women, if given the vote, would use it to uphold white supremacy. At the last US election, a majority of white women did just that, to the detriment of all people of colour and pretty much everyone else, including those white women voters.

Divide and rule remains a potent way to keep all women down. That’s why in 2015 I co-founded the Women’s Equality Party (WE), to bring together activists and people who had never before taken a stand, from disparate political traditions and none, to push together for the transformative change that is so long overdue. WE invited other parties to work with it, and opened membership to members of those other parties.

The party also welcomed all genders. Everyone is born with a sex, usually, though not always, male or female. Gender is the product of social and cultural factors that can be changed. The very first policy document made clear that WE supported “the right of all to define their sex or gender or to reject gendered divisions as they choose”.

This statement of unity and inclusivity in fact marks one of the deepest fractures in feminism. Last autumn, the party became embroiled in controversy after a number of WE members questioned whether an elected party spokeswoman had violated the party’s constitution and codes of conduct in various ways, including social media activity. This much is a matter of public record. The process itself is confidential, with a view to protecting all parties involved, including the focus of the complaints.

That process, which concluded earlier this week, found that she had breached an article of the party’s constitution as well as procedures set out in its volunteer agreement. Those policies and procedures are not intended to stifle debate. They were designed to ensure that party officers represent members’ interests, that the party’s values of inclusivity and diversity are upheld, and that its communications are strategic, joined up and as effective as possible. The Executive Committee recommended that she no longer continue in her role as spokeswoman and she subsequently resigned her membership without appeal against the decision or process.

I am sad about this outcome and sorry for the stress the procedure undoubtedly caused. The Executive Committee’s response seems to me proportionate, but not perfect, because a perfect outcome was never possible. A party designed to give a voice to women may now be accused of silencing a woman, though as a WE member she would have retained democratic channels to communicate, debate and propose and evolve party policy. A party aiming for unity—and to ensure the comfort of all members—is struggling to deliver on those aims. Yet the mission of the party seems to me more compelling than ever.

When women thrive, the entire population thrives, but few women in the UK are thriving. From day one, WE highlighted vast tracts of common ground in the battle for equality while developing policies that recognise the diversity of female experience. There is a terrible urgency to this work. Progress for women has not only stalled; it is reversing, with the worst consequences for the most vulnerable as refuges shut, specialist services are curtailed and queues at food banks lengthen.

Given these harsh realities, is there time for a discussion that distracts or divides? As a canvasser, I’ve knocked on hundreds of doors and only once been quizzed about how feminism should respond to and integrate the battle for trans rights. Yet feminism must have these debates, because the issues that underpin them are existential and the gulfs that they expose are already there, fault lines running through the whole movement. We cannot truly unite until we resolve our differences by finding ways to respect and incorporate difference.

Everyone who cares about equality must start by reframing the terms of these debates and resisting media pressure to ratchet up the temperatures. “You have to pick sides,” people tell me. Well no. Let’s examine the “sides” first to see if they are as monolithic and intractable as presented. Too often the conversations start from positions so extreme that they might have been framed by a TV producer to provoke an on-screen dust-up—and sometimes they have been. Never forget the context in which these conversations unfold, in a world disfigured by misogyny and prejudice.

Women are held back by many things including reductive views of what we are and what we should be. Trans women in expressing a sense of essential female-ness sometimes unintentionally challenge the ambition of feminism to unshackle all women from culturally-inflicted limitations. Surely we can talk about this productively, just as it’s important to unpick the idea that trans women retain swathes of male privilege in their new lives. This may be true of Caitlyn Jenner but not of the great majority, who are subject to prejudice and an extraordinary toll of violence. Even so discussions typically hinge on the much rarer instances of violence by trans women, obscuring rather than illuminating the overarching issue of endemic male violence against women. For example, some campaigners oppose gender-neutral bathrooms because male sex predators have unfettered access to these spaces, and if these predators claim to identify as women, this might confuse the police response. The real problem here is not one of gender identity but of sexual predation and of law enforcement. And by the way, men intent on attacking women have always found ways to invade female-only spaces. I was attacked in a women’s toilet by a man who understood this was a likely place to find women.

On the other side of this equation, far too little attention is paid to the risk that ill-formulated policies to benefit the trans community—and policies to support the trans community are urgently needed—may unpick hard-won rights for all women or erase “cis” or “natal” women. (People comfortable within the gender assigned to them at birth are known as “cisgender” or “natal”.) You need only to recall the tweet by a Green Party representative asking for “non-males” to follow the Young Greens Women account, or National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution” cover featuring a cis man, a trans man, two trans women, intersex non-binary, androgynous and bi-gender people and not a single cis woman to see how easily the category disappears. It’s a well-known phenomenon in the LGBTQ+ community in which many institutions are dominated by white men. As my friend and party co-founder Sandi Toksvig says, “the L in LGBTQ+ is too often silent and silenced”.

The Office for National Statistics has been looking at how to design the 2020 census to start gathering data on how many Britons identify as trans or non-binary without asking questions in ways that risk appearing to challenge the validity of those identities. At the same time, there have been moves to reform the 2004 Gender Recognition Act governing how people in the UK legally transition; Parliament’s Women and Equalities select committee warned that the current system, requiring the endorsement of two doctors, “pathologises trans identities and runs contrary to the dignity and personal autonomy of applicants”. Both of these initiatives raise many difficult questions about how to maintain sex as a protected characteristic and document the oppression of all women while finding ways to better support trans women and other trans people. As a WE member, I will push for the party to challenge any move by the Office for National Statistics to change the census if those plans eliminated questions that are vital to documenting—and fixing—structural imbalances. You cannot change what you cannot see. I will also urge WE to scrutinise any amendments to the Gender Recognition Act to ensure these will not undo decades of work to secure rights for all women. With any proposed changes a wider discussion and assessment is required of the need for specialist services and sex segregated spaces and how they currently operate.

The party’s overarching goal is to find solutions that create equality so the discussion has to begin and end with a passionate and inviolable belief in equality. A good starting point for any debate within feminism is that the experience of women differs. A damaging one begins by insisting that some experiences are less valid and some women less valuable than others.

When women fight each other, everyone loses. Yet it is equally obvious that we cannot and should not always agree. Debate—constructive debate—is vital and the Women’s Equality Party was founded to create room for those discussions to happen. In this centenary year, here's something that would be really revolutionary: reject hate, accept complexity and find better ways to tackle difficult questions.

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