I’m used to working in the charitable sector, where a cup of weak tea in a florescent tube-lit village hall is the height of my expectations. As such the polished conference and drinks reception arranged by the Fawcett Society in a softly-carpeted Westminster building was a welcome change. The event was called ‘Courage Calls to Courage: Ask her to Stand’ and the aim was to encourage women to take-up a career in politics. As I wondered onto the balcony, mentally preparing myself for the hell of networking, I spotted a similarly awkward woman.
Mention of Maria Miller’s name sent the flicker of a sneer across my face; that must have been what tipped her off. After about five minutes of tentative conversational fishing we established that we were both gender apostates, the new non-believers who are not to be tolerated in respectable company. As women with different political allegiances living at either end of the UK, we expressed mutual anger, frustration and disappointment at the abandonment of feminist analysis in favour of the sophist soundbite ‘transwomen are women.’ We shared our annoyance about feeling politically homeless and joked that we needed a secret sign.
When we shuffled in for the opening plenary we went our separate ways. The large circular hall in Westminster Church House is impressive, seating several hundred people. When questions were put to the floor one brave woman asked the inevitable ‘if all-women short-lists are open to transwomen, how would you feel if half of those on all women-shortlists were men?’ The organisers winced, and I could see some young women in the row opposite shift uncomfortably in their seats, seemingly squeamish about the embarrassing ignorance of not understanding that anyone who identifies as a woman is.
Listening first to Sal Brinton (Liberal Democrat), Dawn Butler (Labour), Maria Miller (Conservative), then Amelia Womack (Green Party) parrot the nonsensical mantra ‘transwomen are women’ I thought of the woman I met when I first arrived. I noted Sophie Walker of WEP and Sam Smethers, the CEO of Fawcett, stayed tight-lipped; I understand their reticence to engage but at an event held under the banner ‘courage calls to courage’ their silence was shameful. This on the day that it was reported four women had been sexually assaulted by a man who identifies as a woman and was housed in a women’s prison.
I feel unsisterly criticising feminist groups when they put on events, even when I disagree with them profoundly, because I understand events organising is hard and largely thankless. But as a woman who runs an active group without funding, status or any political clout beyond that which we take, I feel bitterly let down by Fawcett’s lack of leadership on this issue. Groups like Fawcett should unapologetically champion women, and by ‘women’ I mean that class of people who suffer sexism because of our biological sex.
When the politicians gave their pointless and predictably politically correct responses to the question of transwomen the applause wasn’t rapturous. Outside of those for whom make-believe is a politically expedient position, it seems to me that people are starting to see the Emperor’s crown-jewels. ‘Ask Her to Stand’ was a mainstream event, and I wasn’t expecting an academic seminar on the patriarchal psychosocial relations that have led to the historic disenfranchisement of women since the early bronze age, but you know, some analysis beyond ‘more women — good, not enough-bad’ would have been welcome.
In the final session a cross section of councillors in twin-sets and enthusiastic campaigners directed the discussion about encouraging women’s participation in public life. I felt genuinely encouraged to see women from across the political spectrum recognise the commonality of the female experience; the lack of time due to caring responsibilities, the fear of online harassment, the almost universal feeling of being an imposter and not knowing enough. These are of course all symptoms of being brought up as girls, and of growing into women who dare to play the masculine game of politics and power in the public realm.
The chirpy facilitator asked for advice from the room about how we as women could overcome our reticence to make our voices heard. I felt too shy and not knowledgeable enough to offer any advice, and the other women around me all politely waited for someone to speak. With a stunning lack of self-reflection the first person to speak up and offer advice had a man’s voice, an obviously male body, but a female name tag. He spoke at great length, informing the attentive female audience about how he found his voice. It is such a great comfort to know that transwomen are welcomed into the sisterhood by those who are paid to represent and champion women, I look forward to the valuable insights that they are able to bring to feminism.
However noble the aims of ‘Ask Her to Stand’ may have been, until one of the main parties is brave enough to stand-up for women there is no point in any of us standing.