I originally wrote this piece in response to the banning of a woman on twitter a few weeks ago. I was struck by the ease with which women are silenced on that platform, and how much that silencing reflects the experiences of so many women who have experienced abuse. Shortly after finishing writing it, I was myself, permanently banned from Twitter.
I was silenced for much of my childhood and young adulthood. I was abused in a number of ways. I live with the impact of that on me every day. Chronic anxiety. A constant checking and rechecking of what I think. A careful examination of others views to see if my own match up. In the area of personal relationships a constant checking and rechecking of what I feel. Silencing is a potent force and living under the injunction of silence is a hard habit to break.
I’m not unusual. Many of my female friends have experienced abuse. If not in their childhood, then as adults in coercive and violent relationships. And many of us did not talk about it. We grew into ourselves with a knowledge of our own uncertainty. Even feminism didn’t help. The movement that had focussed on the liberation of women fell by the wayside in the 1980s. Instead we were promised a new feminism, that liberated us just enough to enjoy lipstick and anal sex, and campaign for the rights of men to buy women’s bodies. Just never quite enough to talk openly about the things men did to us.
I learned quickly, that talking about men’s violence and its direct impact on me as a woman, was not ok. Not ok within our families; often not ok within our peer groups. I learned that the abuse I experienced at the hands of men, could not be located structurally anywhere within contemporary mainstream politics. The silence imposed on me as a child was replicated by the silence imposed on me as a young women. And for a while I barely spoke.
Like many of my peers who have experienced trauma, I wound up in a job that required me to care for others, and through that work I gained a lot. First some self esteem — I could do something. Secondly I learned that as long as I stayed silent I couldn’t fully recover from my history, so I learned to speak out, and sidestep those who wanted to silence me. Finally my work helped me engage politically. For most of my adult life I identified as and felt myself to be part of an effort to support human rights and progressive politics. I was a comrade and a sister.
Then in 2015, a man was made ‘Woman of the Year’ by Glamour magazine. I found it funny. It must be just another piece of Hollywood excess, I thought. They’re ‘aving a larf. Then I found out this was not at all funny. In the interests of progressive solidarity, woman were being instructed to acknowledge that some men are born with a “female brain”. All their lives, we are told, they struggle with this lack of alignment between their biological sex and their “internal gender”. As progressive women it was our duty to fight for their right to be recognised as women in every way. Across communities and campaign groups this was rapidly accepted. In particular within the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green parties, these new ideas became not so much policy, but a tenet of faith and a new orthodoxy.
Although I’d been aware of the issue for a while, it was in the summer of 2017 that I began to try and discuss it within labour circles. I knew of course that this was controversial. But progressive politics is pretty tough, and while I expected to have some direct and impassioned debates about this, I hoped and believed we’d be able to find a way forward.
The ideas were really important to me. If anyone could say they were a woman, then what was a woman? If a man could declare himself a woman, would that mean he could circumvent the legislation — primarily the 2010 Equality Act — that protected same sex spaces in refuges, healthcare facilities and prisons? If I requested a female healthcare professional to do my smear, could I object if instead a man who believed himself to be a woman turned up at the other end of the speculum? If — as happened in Labour party branches across the country — a man could declare himself a woman, and become the local women’s officer, then who would represent women in the party?
So I asked. And I said how I thought this might be a problem. And I asked for other views — and for a chance to debate and talk about it.
I was really shocked by what came next. There would be “no debate”. I didn’t have “the right” to discuss this matter. I needed to stop being “a bigot”. There was no engagement with different political interpretations of gender and certainly not the longstanding feminist belief that gender was a repressive social force that supported women’s subjugation.
Shortly afterwards, the position of the left and the progressive parties was made clear. The Labour Party announced it would open all spaces reserved in the party to discuss and make policy around women’s issues, to anyone who declared they were a woman. Groups of Labour MPs worked with gender activists to create blacklists of gender critical women to be expelled from the party. In the Greens, women were to be known from now on as “non men”. In the Lib Dems women who were gender critical were bullied and harried on line and in real life.
Slowly women and women’s groups started to challenge this — and immediately they were criticised for doing so. In the 2017 attack on a woman walking with friends at Hyde Park Corner to a debate they had organised, we saw the anger of the men we denied — and the lengths they would go to to compel compliance.
The debate grew most fiercely in social media — partly because social media is where a lot of political debate takes place, but also because women were silenced in so many other spaces. The sections of the media allegedly dedicated to women — the glossy monthlies and less glossy weeklies — exhorted us not just to accept, but to celebrate trans women as women — and to pillory those women who didn’t, as old fashioned or bigoted. On our TV stations and in our newspapers, again we were told that this was simply happening, and that those who sought to discuss it were “on the wrong side of history”.
The feminist role models we were presented with were either trans women — like Shon Faye who hosted Amnesty’s “Women Making History” festival in May 2018 despite repeatedly advocating that women should be silenced and shunned, or Monroe Bergdorf who claimed “women are doing feminism wrong”. With the exception of a few publications, women’s perspective on this major change in their own identity was been excluded or condemned.
In the UK the work of ordinary women, and of two organisations in particular — A Woman’s Place and Fairplay for Women — gave us information and support to talk about and discuss gender. They also helped us find a public voice. Despite repeated attacks on both organisations, and almost daily reports of women’s meetings being disrupted by violent young mainly male balaclava’d activists, these organisations amplified women’s concerns and gave us a voice loud enough to be heard. With record numbers of responses to the governments consultation on Gender Self ID, many from women critical of proposals, the headlong lurch towards legislative change has slowed. We still await the government’s full response, but perhaps here at least now, women — by refusing to be silenced — have turned a corner.
But in so many ways the damage has already been done. Labour, Greens and the Lib Dems have shown themselves to be structurally misogynistic. This has been demonstrated not just through their willing acceptance that there is no objective definition of what a woman is, but also they way they have treated women who have different views. Many of the male activists who women worked alongside for years have revealed a different side to themselves — one that does not condemn rape threats or sexist abuse, one that is happy to exclude women from political life because they have a different perspective.
Many women no longer have much confidence in mainstream politics to represent their views fairly — and nor should they have. We have been badly let down.
For me, the silencing I experienced as a child and as a young woman has echoed throughout the this period. A woman who is unable to speak about her experiences, beliefs, her worries and her concerns about the oppression of women is silenced no more subtly than the child who’s told not to talk about it at school, or the woman who is disbelieved when she says she has been harassed or assaulted. Replicating this censure at a structural level has perhaps always been the business of mainstream politics. But to see it so clearly now, is both a gift and and a curse.
A curse because as long as women are abused by men and by patriarchy on that grinding day to day basis, that saps us of our strength and confidence, this will be an effective weapon against us. A gift because — well I can speak only for myself right now — because its finally visible. Its out there. We see you. And having seen you, we cannot unsee you.
I cannot unsee the young male labour activist who told me I needed to be “raped to my senses” or the Lib Dem councillor who called me a “bigot and bitch”. The women on social media for whom rape threats, graphic insults and pictures of guns are an everyday occurrence, cannot unsee these either. Witnessing this daily evidence of structural misogyny reminds us we have to fight, we cannot stay silent.
Despite or perhaps because of the attacks on women, feminism — as a grass roots, woman driven political phenomena — has possibly not been stronger in the United Kingdom since we had to fight for our suffrage. We will not be silenced, however much we are abused.