It should not take courage to speak about women – our sex and our bodies – nor to insist on our right to organise as women and defend our legal protections.
Yet this is 2020. And this is the Labour Party.
But, at last, we can celebrate the bravery of Rosie Duffield, the first Labour Party MP at Westminster to challenge the erasure of the female sex in public life – the cost of adhering to “gender identity” – and her commitment to speaking on behalf of all women, in and beyond the labour movement.
“I feel like I’m being shut up”, Rosie told The Times, after months of public hounding, “and it was really horrible. It does feel like Gilead, where women aren’t allowed to ask questions or proffer alternative ideas. The shutting down of ideas is particularly dystopian.”
Thousands of Labour women feel the same.
We know what it is like to face expulsion from our party – or even to be refused entry – despite a lifetime fighting for the marginal and oppressed. We know the relentless bullying, the demands that we be sacked on spurious charges, and the campaigns to destroy our reputations, businesses and friendships. We know how it feels to constantly be targeted by vitriolic abuse and threats of violence and rape. We know that sex matters because, as Rosie says, this harassment “strikes at the heart of who you are as a woman, and because it’s base, pure misogyny.”
We know, too, that misogynistic attacks are all the more traumatic for countless women, like Rosie, who have experienced domestic or sexual abuse.
Yet where is the compassion now from her fellow MPs, who praised Rosie when she spoke in the Commons about her harrowing history of abuse and urged them to support the protection and welfare of victims and survivors? Where are these MPs when sadistic men compare her with Mussolini and fantasise about seeing her strung upside down from a lamppost?
This is not about denying trans people human rights. We stand with Rosie in saying that “everyone has the right to express themselves and be whatever and whoever they need to be.” We strongly support medical and social services that will enable trans people to fully participate in society and enjoy the human rights we all share.
But we are concerned to protect women’s rights, fought for by the women who built the Labour Party. We hold sex equality legislation as one of the great achievements of our party and we were proud to campaign for our 2019 Manifesto, committed to ensuring that “the single-sex-based exemptions contained in the Equality Act 2010 are understood and fully enforced in service provision.”
Yet there are Labour members, including some shadow ministers, who continue to equivocate over support for these exemptions. Like numerous women, we fear losing our hard – won rights and protections. “From a woman’s point of view”, as Rosie puts it, “what we are really terrified of is the erasure of women’s safe spaces. We seem to have galloped to the point where women’s spaces are being taken away and that’s deeply terrifying.”
Our rights, within our own party, to organise and speak – as and for our sex – have already been taken away, with barely any discussion. There could be “No debate” we were told, when we asked for a conversation on how we can move forward by reconciling sex-based rights with those of gender identity. Our attempts to open dialogue were met by accusations of bigotry and calls for our expulsion.
“More light, less heat” is all Keir Starmer will say, whenever the issue is raised. But we have seen no effort to turn on the light or to open space for respectful discussion. The Leadership, it seems, wants to avoid getting entangled in a “culture war” over sex and gender. But this is a culture war we cannot duck.
“There is an argument”, warns Rosie, “that the Tories are making it look as though they’re more tolerant than the Labour Party”, and on the current impasse over sex and gender, we fear she is right: “I think if we can’t discuss it then we’re in danger of that happening.” We believe the Labour Party will doom itself to losing the confidence of voters, if it casts aside the rights and needs of women in favour of an unworkable model of “self-declaration”.
This should concern us all, women and men. It is time for everyone to take responsibility for grappling with this urgent matter. This means listening and thinking, not mantras and invective. It means compassion, reflection, and honesty.
It should not take courage to speak up for women.
But with courage comes strength and freedom. It is liberating and exhilarating to speak your truth. Feminism owes its existence to those who dared to speak their mind and challenge orthodoxy, while also listening, arguing, and even changing their mind. So too does socialism.
“Courage calls to courage”, proclaimed the women suffragists: “Dare to be free.”
Join us. Join Rosie Duffield. Speak up.
The Labour Women’s Declaration Working Group
Read and sign the Labour Women’s Declaration here.