“I’m happy for them to hit her.” The woman is young, defiant, her shoulders squared. She looks defensive, actually. It is 2017 and the violence she is referring to is being meted out in the name of feminism. Feminism, which used to mean a revolutionary political movement dedicated to the liberation of women from male dominance. I don’t know what it means anymore.
What I do know is that on September 13th, about eighty women gathered at Speakers Corner — a significant and historic place of free speech and open debate — in order to attend a talk being given about a proposed act of parliament which will see gender identity replace gender reassignment as a protected characteristic under the law. So instead of requiring a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a medical certificate, and to have lived as your chosen gender for a minimum of two years, an individual will be able to simply declare themselves the opposite sex and sign a statement of intention to live as such, making the process far easier, quicker, and much less intrusive. The act represents a gargantuan table flip in how we understand ourselves as humans: our sexual dimorphism, reproductive biology, and how we organise ourselves in the public and private spheres. When an individuals sex is defined, not by distinct and measurable physical characteristics, but by their subjective internal feelings about gender, what implications does this have for the category of humans who have been oppressed for centuries on the very basis of their biology? That is what the women gathering at Speakers Corner wished to discuss.
The woman whose words are quoted at the beginning of this article formed part of a group wishing to shut down the discussion. To debate the nature of gender hierarchy is to debate the right of transpeople to exist, they say. To even speak of the ways in which natal women and girls might be affected by the new law is tantamount to murder, to genocide. And so in this way, the women at Speakers Corner were redrawn as monsters, as Nazis, as a mortal threat to be crushed.
Except none of it is true. All humans exist with basic rights enshrined in law. I know of no woman who does not support any individuals right to live and present how they wish, and to be treated with respect and allowed to thrive in peace. Everybody must have equal access to opportunity, housing, employment and justice, no matter how they identify; I believe this passionately. The conflict occurs at the point at which gender identification is said to determine someones actual sex. We must be able to discuss the potential issues arising from this conflict in an open and respectful way for the sake of everyone, trans included.
But back to Speakers Corner and the young women there who sought to shut down the gender discussion. Many watched and gave their support as male members of their group attacked a sixty year old woman, punching her repeatedly and leaving bruises on her face and strangulation marks on her neck. More women still rejoiced on Twitter, minimising or defending what had happened, mimicking the well known tactics of abusers and their supporters everywhere when confronted with the reality of their actions. Some women even denied that any such assault had taken place at all, seemingly willing in the face of concrete evidence to risk their credibility, such was their desire to ally themselves with men who had violently attacked a grandmother.
Disbelief and rage can fill me up like a hot balloon, but with deflation comes the bigger picture. There is nothing much new in the world and certainly the response of women to this crisis — and it absolutely is a crisis when women are being beaten in the name of women’s liberation — is ages old. My feminism is clear: male supremacy is, and always has been, the problem. Not women. We don’t make the rules. I have never blamed women for doing what they have to do to survive in a world run by men for men, although when we turn on each other it is painful. It has always been so. Girls in my life had begun to reinforce male supremacy before I had even begun to bleed. We called each other sluts and undermined each others academic achievements. We criticised each others bodies and clothing. During the time of the suffragettes, many women campaigned against their own right to vote. Today we tell other women, many of whom are survivors of male sexual violence, that if they voice any fear around having to share a changing room with a person who has a penis, they are deserving of yet more violence.
The root of this betrayal, then and now, is the same. Women throughout the ages have always feared the loss of male approval, and with good reason, because in order to survive in a patriarchal world, to be deemed worthy of food, shelter, love, social standing, or to get on at work, women depend on it. People with less power look to the support of those with more — we need the ones in charge to like us. And so to be a feminist who loudly and actively challenges male power and entitlement is to immediately put oneself at a disadvantage.
Yet while it may be understandable, there is nothing revolutionary about kowtowing to men. It’s what most of us have been doing for centuries and while it may enable women on an individual level to survive, it improves the situation of women as a class not a jot. Any real progress seen in terms of womens rights has always been forced by women prepared to be unpopular, derided, and rejected. Now even our ability as women to describe ourselves as a distinct class of people, with a distinct set of characteristics, underpinning our distinct oppression is under threat.
For women who support the right of biological males to be accepted as females on the basis of their say so, and who support the use of violence against women who question it, the stakes are high. You are only ever one sceptical eyebrow away from a punch in the head. A woman demonstrating against the discussion at Speakers Corner was violently shoved by a male protestor on her own side for daring to challenge his use of violence. Her acceptance, her time, her activism wasn’t enough, and therein lies the rub. Your capitulation will never be enough as the boundaries constantly change and the goal posts shift. The only question is: where do your limits lie?
Twenty years ago, men who liked to live as women called themselves transsexual and knew perfectly well they were not “real” women. The change in definition to transwoman and the demand to be recognised as real women is in fact very recent. Socially conditioned to want to be supportive and inclusive, women for the most part took up the rallying cry of transwomen are women! But it wasn’t enough. We then had to accept that transwomen had always been women, even if transition had occurred in middle age and the individual had lived as a man, with all the privileges that brings, right up until that point. Now it is against the rules to ever mention any individuals name used prior to transition; their history must effectively be erased. And apparently that is still not enough. Transwomen now say they are biologically female; that biological sex as we understand it is a social construct and that their gender identity is the primary indicator of their biology, not their chromosomes or reproductive systems, thus turning on its head centuries of scientific givens. Going yet further, the idea that transwomen can have periods has become noticeably prevalent lately, with blogs detailing symptoms of PMT and women dutifully supplying sympathy and offers of back rubs.
Do you truly believe that people with penises can have periods? Remember that if you do not, you are akin to a Nazi and deserve to be punched.
The point is, it won’t end. The demands for validation will become ever more preposterous, the mental gymnastics required ever more impossible, because the affirmation needed to give truth to a lie is bottomless. We need to go back to the beginning. Women stand united against male violence. You can stand with me — my hand is outstretched, my arms are open.