The backlash against women’s rights is relentless and comes in many forms. Only 20 years after all-women shortlists were first adopted by the UK Labour Party, in order to address the low numbers of women elected to the House of Commons, they are at risk.
On Tuesday, the Labour Party was expected to officially adopt a new policy allowing males who identify as “transwomen” access to all-women shortlists (AWS).
The shortlists were adopted as an affirmative action practice due to pressure from the Labour Women’s Network, which was founded in 1988 after only 21 Labour women were elected in the 1987 General Election. In the 90s, women represented less than 10 per cent of parliamentary MPs — the shortlists made it compulsory for Labour to select female candidates in some constituencies. In 1997, with a goal of electing 100 female MPs, Labour used all-women shortlists to select female candidates in half of all winnable seats for the General Election. This was a success, and 101 Labour women were elected, as compared to 1992, when only 37 Labour women were elected as MPs.
The shortlists were not without controversy — many men claimed they were undemocratic, prevented equality of opportunity, and constituted, essentially, “reverse sexism.” Indeed, in 1996, an employment tribunal ruled that all-women shortlists were illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.
Instead of appealing this decision, Labour introduced a new Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act in 2002, allowing parties to use “positive discrimination” in the selection of candidates, and the shortlists were reinstated. As a result, in the 2005 General election, the number of female parliamentary MPs was increased to 128, with the Labour Party’s 98 women making up 77 per cent of the total of women elected.
The impact of all-women shortlists has been notable and continues to ensure women and women’s interests are represented in parliament.
Nonetheless, in January, Labour announced that males need only self-identify as women in order to apply for the shortlists. This decision came alongside stated support for recently proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which would, if adopted, change the protected characteristic of “gender reassignment” to “gender identity.” What this would mean is that Gender Recognition Certificates (GRC), which allow people to legally change their sex, could be issued without any conditions, but by a process of self-declaration alone. “If the Conservatives fail to do so, Labour will make it law once we’re in government,” a Labour Party spokesperson told PinkNews, with regard to the proposed changes.
Troubled by the potential disappearance of all-women shortlists, Jennifer James, a Labour Party member and committed socialist, started a crowdfunder to support a legal challenge against the party. Eleven days after she started the crowdfunder, she was suspended by the party, apparently, in part, “for saying women don’t have dicks.”
James explains to me that “men and women are treated differently because they are categorized by reproductive biology.” She argues, further, that gender is not innate, but is only a “toxic set of stereotypes” imposed on women in order to enforce their subordination.
“There is nothing progressive about ‘gender identity.’ It is a reactionary concept and a pure insult to women to suggest that we ‘identify’ with our own oppression.”
The policy clarifying that trans-identified males may access all-women shortlists was expected to be revealed this week, but has been delayed, as more than 200 female Labour members threatened to resign from the Party.
To date, there has been no consultation process with regard to this policy, and on BBC Sunday Politics, former spokesperson for Jeremy Corbyn, Matt Zarb-Cousin, dismissed Labour’s dissenting female members as being only “ or 3000 people in a party of 650,000 — a small minority of women who don’t believe in trans rights.”
Of course, 3000 women is quite a few women, and it isn’t true that those challenging Labour’s position on trans-identified males are opposed to “trans rights.” James points out that, truly there is no way to know how women in the party feel about these ideas and policies, “because debate has been so stifled with cries of ‘transphobia.'”
Either way, these kinds of misrepresentations and dismissals speak volumes about the extent to which men on the left like Zarb-Cousin consider women’s opinions valuable today, only decades after many of them fought against the shortlists. (Indeed, Zarb-Cousin himself employs the term “TERF” to smear women who challenge or question the concept of “gender identity,” revealing his willingness both to misrepresent as well as to launch hate speech at women with whom he disagrees.) Jen Izaakson, a member of Momentum (a pro-Corbyn group within Labour) and of Mayday4Women, a radical feminist group campaigning against the GRA, says:
“The Labour Party seem to think women don’t count, despite the fact that we can vote and are actually a majority of the membership. The leadership is totally out of touch with what the average women thinks about the issue of transgenderism.”
Women’s interest in this debate would perhaps be more clear if the left allowed them to speak (and listened to what they had to say). Instead, efforts to discuss the proposed legislation and idea of “gender identity” itself are shut down in incredibly hostile ways.
James says a number of Labour women have been put on a “blacklist” by a group of mostly male Labour staff and representatives, and adds:
“I have been called ‘bitch,’ ‘cunt,’ ‘hateful TERF,’ ‘bigot,’ ‘transphobe,’ and ‘crank’ for wanting a debate… For wanting to uphold the sex-based exemptions to which women are entitled in the Equalities Act 2010.”
Further examples of these kinds of attacks seem never ending. A woman named Anne Ruzylo — then a woman’s officer with the Labour Party — was subjected to months of bullying by Lily Madigan, a fellow party member who smeared her as “transphobic.” Pushed to resign in November, every member of the executive committee quit in solidarity. Madigan was elected as women’s officer for his local party shortly thereafter.
On March 8th (International Women’s Day), trade union official Paula Lamont was hounded off her own union’s picket line by a group of transactivists. The Morning Star reported that Lamont believes the attack happened because she attended a meeting organized by A Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) about the planned changes to the GRA on February 27. She told the Morning Star:
“As a female trade unionist, I believe it is my responsibility to understand as much as I can the impact of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act and how the new legislation may affect women in the workplace and their rights. I felt the WPUK meeting, which was also attended by many other leading trade union women, would be the best place to hear women’s concerns.”
Venice Allan, a former Labour Party member, has struggled to find venues to host “We Need to Talk,” a series of meetings she is organizing around the UK to discuss gender identity ideology and legislation. She was surprised when Momentum, which she was an active member of, declined to host her proposed meeting back in September, so she booked a room at New Cross Learning, a community library in London. Once Sisters Uncut, a direct action group advocating for domestic violence services, caught wind of the event, the library was subjected to intense harassment, and the venue cancelled the event. Allan’s meeting went forward at a new venue, but not without controversy: one woman in attendance, Maria MacLachlan, was punched by a protestor.
When Allan tried to hold her fifth meeting, six months later, the venue she booked was similarly harassed, and forced to cancel. Allan said the woman she booked with told her she had never seen anything like it — “she was overwhelmed with phone calls, emails, and social media posts accusing her of transphobia.” Undeterred, Allan took the meeting to the House of Commons, where members of the public are able to book rooms, so long as the meeting is sponsored by an MP.
The event, held on March 14th, was attended by 130 people. Coverage in the media amounted to articles claiming one of the speakers, radical feminist and author, Sheila Jeffreys, called “trans people parasites.” In truth, of course, Jeffreys was not arguing that trans-identified people are bugs (Pink News contributed to this misrepresentation by placing a photo of Jeffreys next to a tick, in their coverage), but rather, as she explained to me over the phone, that “men’s crossdressing, when it takes the form of men taking the place of women and speaking for us, can be understood as a form of parasitism.” In her talk at the meeting, she further explained:
“When men parasitize women, they sever our ability to name ourselves and to speak about ourselves and speak in our place. They take the place of women on advisory panels, speaking at women’s conferences, on consultations on violence against women and so on… Men — even teenage boys — are now being appointed as Labour Party Women’s Officers in local branches, and men who crossdress are now forcing themselves onto all-women shortlists… which were fought for over decades by feminists to enable women to overcome the great prejudice against them and stand a chance of being selected as candidates. Thus, women can be represented by men who have occupied women’s bodies and speak for us.”
Allan resigned as a Labour Party member on March 8th, after being suspended, then subjected to an investigation on account of allegations that she engaged in “bullying and harassment” on social media and in person. “I didn’t sign up to Labour in order to be interrogated for thought crimes,” she told me.
In the preliminary interview, which took place on February 19, 2018, Dan Hogan, who works for the Labour Party Disputes and Legal department, asked Allan a series of questions about her position on trans-identified people and some of her related social media posts. At one point, Hogan questioned her about Heather Peto, a Trans-Inclusion Officer for the Labour Party who has been pushing for trans-identified males to be given access to the shortlists. Allan responded:
“Heather Peto is using all-women shortlists to further his career in politics and to stand as an MP. As far as I know he’s stood and failed as an MP before, as a man, and I believe that he’s taking advantage of all-women shortlists to… well, he didn’t get elected… I don’t think it’s fair for men to use up these places which are designed to address the imbalance of men and women in Parliament. I have absolutely no problem with transgender people standing for MPs or Councillors.”
Allan says she never took issue with transgenderism or trans-identified people until changes to legislation were afoot.
These are only a few among many angry women on the left who feel abandoned by their party and afraid of losing hard-fought-for rights.
Lucy Mcdonagh grew up working class, raised by a single mother. Her life as a young woman was marked by addiction, abuse, poverty, and mental health issues. She managed to escape a relationship with an extremely violent man at 32-years-old, after being partnered with him for 10 years. “My experience of being a working class woman and the level of trauma carried by many working class people has been my driving force since I was young,” Mcdonagh told me.
“All I have ever wanted to do is to try and empower working class people into supporting ourselves and, in doing so, empower our community. Being working class isn’t just about poverty. It’s about resilience and an unspoken understanding of violence. We don’t talk about our struggles because that places us at greater harm.”
That reality is suddenly of great interest to those who wish to coopt (or “parasitize,” if you will…) the struggles of oppressed groups as a means to gain social, cultural, or political leverage.
Mcdonagh had been forced to close the holistic wellness centre she was running in Deptford after leaving her then-partner, due to the trauma and subsequent breakdown she experienced during the police process. Once back on her feet, Mcdonagh co-founded The Deptford People Project, which not only feeds people, but, in her words, “created a family for those who were ostracized from the community.”
“We eat together, we played music, laughed and talked… We were not offering a service, we were offering an opportunity to become part of a community again. There was no ‘helping the poor’ — we are all poor and ran the project together. It was amazing.”
Not long after this project took off, Deptford was gentrified, and working class people like Mcdonagh were no longer welcome. “Working class people can be quite scary to white middle class people not from the area,” she explained.
“We shout and swear and take the mick out of [tease] each other. We speak a different language. One that is often mistaken for aggression. We’re not [politically correct] because most of us have never really believed that politics is anything more then a rich man’s game to get richer. But we’re not unintelligent — we’re just not academic.”
Gentrification brought a sudden increase in “very posh, white, ‘social justice’ groups and movements.” Now, the local groups who claimed to support the most marginalized seemed, to Mcdonagh, to be little more than “a social gathering for privileged students, using the community as a trendy trademark.”
“They used weird pronouns and called themselves ‘they,'” Mcdonagh said. She didn’t think this “rich kid’s trend” would affect her work so didn’t concern herself too much. “We were too busy trying to keep people fed, off the street, and out of prison.”
After participating in a debate about housing with these students, Mcdonagh’s group was featured in a radical anarchist publication called STRIKE! Magazine. Looking through the publication, Mcdonagh was shocked to find an article promoting pornography and various sex industry-related “sex tips,” instructing women on how to “deep throat,” for example.
“How could I share this with the women in our community project?!” she asked. Mcdonagh explained that many of the women and girls she worked with were being pimped out daily. “One young girl — only 17 — had recently had her face smashed in by a punter and had 16 metal pins put in to hold her face together.” Mcdonagh got angry.
“We are far from a prudish group of women. Many of us have experienced firsthand the very real impact of the porn/the sex industry on working class women and girls. How did they not know how utterly pathetic it was to be promoting this idea to young women? Let alone place it next to a transcript of local people discussing homelessness!”
Though purporting to support the oppressed, Mcdonagh felt these students had no concept of or empathy toward the real experiences of actual marginalized women. “In reality [they] were supporting themselves via a complex new ideology and language that only they speak,” she said.
Mcdonagh was similarly nonplussed after meeting with a new domestic violence organization, also run mainly by young middle class students. The language this group used struck Mcdonagh as nonsensical and unhelpful to women actually suffering due to male violence. “The list of trigger warnings and safe space policies included a whole load of new gender terms that I had never heard of.” She adds, “I don’t know what a safe space is but I’d like to know where there is one for working class people in our area.”
In particular, all the focus on “gender identity” confused her. “Why were all the most publicized [social justice organizations]… suddenly centering their [work] on a group of people I’ve never come into contact with?”
At this point, Mcdonagh discovered the proposed changes to the GRA. She had some close friends who were “transsexual,” so understood how the GRC worked. She told me:
“I had never been concerned about a trans person who had medically transitioned entering a women-only space. To my knowledge it wasn’t a big thing. Only about 5000 people have a GRC in the UK. So you can imagine that doesn’t really cause any major issues.”
But during a discussion with Goldsmiths students about a community housing project, things blew up. Mcdonagh was verbally attacked by students after rejecting the new language being imposed on her community, called a “white cis woman,” then a “bitch and a “cunt.” A young male student tagged her in a post online arguing that the Women’s March should not allow women to focus on “the vagina” as it was “transphobic.” When Mcdonagh asked how he was defining “woman,” the man responded, “Anyone who says they are.”
This is when, she says, it all fell into place. “That’s what ‘self-identify’ means: anyone can say they are anyone… So, rich, privileged people can claim to be marginalized.” Beyond that, she asks, “How can we keep working class women safe if anyone can be a women legally?”
Mcdonagh became more troubled when “a middle class teenage boy identifying as women [was] given a woman’s officer position in the Labour Party” and when she observed a woman she knew suspended from the party for “refusing to say that a male person with a penis is a woman.”
As a lifelong Labour voter, Mcdonagh says she will never vote Labour again on account of the party’s decision to adopt gender identity policies without consultation.
She tells me there is “a very real lack of understanding about female victims of abuse, their need for sex-segregated spaces, and their need to be protected from predatory men.” But it has become impossible to debate or even discuss these issues. “Suddenly (mainly) white middle class students were shouting down and abusing working class women for expressing concern,” she says. “These people were bullying real victims into [submitting to] their ideology — women who have spent their lives being forced to accept situations they don’t want.”
Mcdonagh says she doesn’t believe that “a rich white boy” can “understand the needs of a working class ex-care system woman, raped and abused for decades by many different men — a woman living in a world that won’t ever feel safe again and who is bringing up children in a community that is suffering [due to] poverty, abuse, and trauma.”
“I couldn’t sit back a watch this final episode of ‘Gentrification Deptford’ invade the only thing that working class women have left: their experience.”
Mcdonagh and her group were concerned about how the proposed changes might affect services for women like her and those she worked with. Yet the questions they have are not being answered. They worry about how they will be able protect the women they work with from males who need only self-identify as female in order to access women’s spaces and about whether or not a “small, unfunded, grassroots organization [will be able to] challenge the law for the greater good if needed.” They also want to know whether challenging such a law could jeopardize their access to funding in future.
“Working class women know the lengths that abusers will go to get access to their victims,” she said. “We know this because we have lived it.”
“I fear that just the possibility that a male-bodied person [whether a client or staff member] could access a women-only service would be enough for, for example, our Muslim women’s community to avoid those spaces,” Mcdonagh says. “We are still trying to access hard to reach women and this would definitely make it more difficult.”
While she doesn’t believe “trans people” are inherently a threat, Mcdonagh believes very strongly that victims of male violence need women-only services and that women should be prioritized in terms of staffing these kinds of services as well. “We have already seen that trans-identifying males tend to apply for women-only positions and job vacancies as a way of reinforcing their gender identity,” she says.
“The first thing Lily Madigan did upon receiving their GRC was to apply to volunteer for women’s refuge. This is a white, middle class, 20-year-old male (who has not medically transitioned), who took their school to court to be able to wear a skirt. Lily wasn’t applying to volunteer because they felt they had something to offer victims of domestic violence. Lily was using women’s refuge to validate their identity and enforce transgender rights regardless of the effect on female victims.”
Mcdonagh attended the meeting organized by Allan at the House of Commons. Beyond all the questions her group has, Mcdonagh felt that after seeing women lose their jobs, reputations, and political memberships “just to give people like me important information about a change that would effect our lives and the lives of the people we work with,” her group should speak up and show their support.
Mcdonagh says the meeting was “extraordinary” and “empowering.” Her group had never been in the House of Commons before. “The room was grand and filled with so many women — women from all over the country.” Before the meeting, she and her fellow community workers put out a statement, explaining:
“When we are being verbally abused and called fascists because we are concerned about the effects of policy change on marginalized people, it is a direct attack on working class women and grass roots organizations.”
It’s bad enough that women are being fired, ostracized, bullied, and threatened for trying to speak about an issue that affects their lives, rights, spaces, and movements in so many ways. That it is largely young, white, middle and upper class individuals, bullying marginalized women, who have worked in these movements for decades, makes the situation all the more shocking and hypocritical.
“I want to tell those people who have gentrified our whole existence that our safe spaces are not for sale. That our experience is not for them to redefine. I want to let those people know that they are complicit in the victimization of already victimized people. Mostly, I want to start a conversation about social privilege and how the trans political and social movement is driven through [academia] and is suppressing the rights of working class women.”