Image: Lily Maynard
American writer Jessica Valenti complained in The New York Times a few days ago about conservatives calling themselves feminists when they don’t play by the rules of liberal feminism.
Exhibit A was Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee for CIA director, and confirmed as such by the US Senate last week. Ms Haspel can’t be a real feminist, says Valenti, because she oversaw a site where detainees were tortured and won’t say whether she believes torture is immoral.
Perhaps Ms Haspel can’t be an altogether decent human being at that rate; you don’t have to be a liberal feminist to believe that torture is wrong. On that basis (human decency) Ms Valenti’s gripes about other conservative women she mentions may or may not be legitimate.
But her concern to protect the feminist brand from “appropriation” by the wrong types of women (anti-abortionists, mainly) is an interesting principle to apply to a situation that has arisen in Britain.
There, 300 members of the Labour Party are said to have quit the party this month over the inclusion of transgender “women” in all-women candidate shortlists for some parliamentary seats and local councils.
This has been happening informally for some time, but early this year the party’s national executive moved to clarify the policy, proposing that candidates be allowed to self-identify without the need for medical or other certification that they have changed their gender. The proposal reflects moves within the government to update the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, which allows individuals to call themselves the opposite sex if they obtain letters from two doctors confirming their gender dysphoria and after two years of “lived experience” as their chosen gender.
This appears to have brought to a head simmering resentment among some Labour women against trans women appropriating the female candidate lists. In a letter published in The Times on May 1, just before local elections in England, a group of ten women protested against the self-identification policy, saying that without a gender recognition certificate “any man can simply claim to be a woman” and get onto a an all-women shortlist.
“Sex is not a self-identified characteristic, and it is disingenuous for Labour to pretend that it is,” they wrote. “Self-identity, ‘I am what I say I am,’ reeks of male authority and male supremacy. In contrast… women are rarely listened to, as this very issue demonstrates.”
One of the group, Louise Paine, who resigned her seat on a local town council over the issue, said she supported “absolutely” transgender rights, but said there should be a separate list for such candidates. “Why should we be the ones to give up our space?” she told the BBC. “I will return to the party when I feel it will stand up for and represent women.”
But the appropriation issue goes deeper than just the matter of self-identification vs certification. It has been evident — at least since Caitlyn Jenner appeared as a Vanity Fair cover girl three years ago — that many feminists are unhappy with the trend of men assuming the female sex. In fact, some are furious.
In March, an event billed as “Transgenderism and the War on Women” was hosted at Britain’s House of Commons by Conservative MP (and Brexiteer) David Davies. (The original venue was to have been at a football club, but the club backed out after a blitz by trans activists.) Packing a hall at Westminster were hundreds of women whom blogger Lily Maynard described as “a Who’s Who of 21st century Twitter feminism.”
The meeting was addressed by Sheila Jeffreys and other lesbian feminists. Jeffreys, a prominent figure in the movement since the early 1970s is a friend neither of marriage nor transsexualism. She regards the latter as a form of parasitism, as she told the meeting:
“When members of the oppressor class claim to be the oppressed, and parasitically occupy the bodies of the oppressed, they speak for the oppressed; they demand to be recognised as the oppressed and to enter all sites and discussions set aside for the oppressed, there is no space for women’s liberation….Men’s sexual rights become the focus of what was once the movement for women’s liberation…”
And she repudiates the notion of “gender”, maintaining that the trans movement is basically about sex; to be precise, sexual fetishism – getting sexual gratification out of cross-dressing and other kinds of simulation of femaleness. What she and others hate most about this trend is its reinforcement of female stereotypes (see, again, Caitlyn Jenner).
The Gender Recognition Act was passed while “a lot of us were asleep” said Jeffreys at the March meeting; if so, the latest developments have woken them up. The bottom line of these second wave feminists is that men attempting to be women cannot represent women in political life because they cannot speak from experience of women’s biological reality, let alone lift the “oppression” that women suffer on account of that reality. They are adamant that a man cannot become a woman – nor a woman a man, presumably.
The Westminister meeting was not the only such gathering in recent months. Clearly transgenderism is an explosive issue for the left, if not for the feminist movement as a whole.
Not for Jessica Valenti, however. She is a champion of LGBT rights and apparently has no problem with men using the title “woman”. Which just goes to show that “appropriation” is not a sin if it suits your ideology. We shall have to look beyond progressive values for a solution to this issue – or wait for all the second wave feminist radicals to die off.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.