On the platform, Angela Eagle issued a rallying cry for women to support one another as a ‘tribe.’ She talked of the men in power who always have one another’s back, and the fight we have as women to be heard in the Labour Party. A brave politician and proud lesbian who stands against sexism I have always looked up to Angela, weirdly I felt like I knew her. As she walked from the stage my friend handed her a card from the gender critical feminist group Woman’s Place UK. Angela looked at us as if she’d just been handed a shit-stained parking ticket. My heart sank and the words she had powerfully spoken on stage instantly became meaningless. How can she claim to advocate for women, when to her ‘womanhood’ is nothing more than an identity?
Throughout the day at the Labour Women’s Network conference we heard from powerful and inspiring women in the Labour Party. We heard their frustration about how our concerns are minimised, their pain that the party they love makes it impossible to safely report assault by men, about their dismay that ninety years on from universal suffrage the Labour Party still looks and feels male.
It should have been a cathartic experience, listening and sharing the rage of rightfully angry women, but it wasn’t. Each of the speeches of the panellists were peppered with references to ‘transphobia,’ always in same breath as racism and misogyny. Interestingly, there were few references to the struggles of the LGB part of the rainbow.
Sitting in a row of women mechanically clapping the statement ‘because all women are women’ had a disturbingly Stalinist feel. While we were in the hall listening to women’s experience of sexism, in Rochester and Strood CLP a motion was proposed calling for the expulsion of anyone who fails to agree with the statements ‘trans men are men’ and ‘transwomen are women’. This is effectively a witch-hunt of outspoken women. To combat ‘transphobia’ young men in the party have set-up a spreadsheet with the names of women who signed the petition started by long-standing Labour Activist Jennifer James in a bid to have them removed from the party.
Despite the inclusion of transwoman Emily Brown in a workshop on intersectionality, there was no discussion of the definition of ‘woman’ or ‘man’ or why this might matter, no analysis of how lesbians are increasingly pushed to accept transwomen as sexual partners, no acknowledgement that at a women’s event to discuss sexism it is quite important to recognise ‘sex’ as the axis of oppression. A gender critical feminist group who tried to give out leaflets had them confiscated by the head of Labour Women’s Network, Liv Bailey. At about the same time on Twitter, transactivist Munroe Bergdorf was instructing attendees of the women’s march not to wear ‘pussy hats’ as they’re transphobic (a powerful take-down of this raw male entitlement can be read here.)
In a moment of spectacular irony, the Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Deputy Mayor of London complained of how middle class white men in the corridors of power have no understanding of the struggles of transgender people. I suspect she is blissfully unaware that a fair proportion of the middle aged white men currently passing laws probably spend a good portion of their weekends dressed ‘as women.’ For such men, identifying as female can be the height of sexual pleasure. The tiny proportion of transsexuals who suffer from gender dysphoria have had their suffering co-opted by a vocal and vicious group of men’s rights activists who fetishize the accoutrements of femininity. This has left those of us who believe woman is a biological category, not a vague sexy feeling to identify into, politically homeless. It cut me to see a room full of well-meaning Labour women virtue-signalling away their own legal existence because they thought they were being supportive.
I can’t blame them, in this time of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘preferred pronouns’ any dissent is quashed; most of the women there probably had no idea that a debate is raging at all. Just before proceedings closed a woman I feel proud to know made an excellent comment – standing tall she reminded a largely hostile room that one hundred years ago every single transwoman would be allowed to vote, because they are of course biologically male. There was some support, but not enough.
I should thank Labour Women’s Network because I left the conference more determined than ever to make change – and not least because to fight for the rights of women, we need to define ‘woman.’