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by Mandy Rhodes
23 May 2022
Editor's Column: A Return to the Dark Ages

Editor's Column: A Return to the Dark Ages

Q: “Dad, what side of history were you on?”

A: “The side that pulled on balaclavas and attacked feminists of my mother’s age in front of a statue of the leader of the suffragettes to teach them a lesson in what feminism is all about. Women need to be put in their place, son.”

A quick social media post, fired off as a gut-reaction response to the horrific scenes of women gathered in central Manchester to hear from speakers about sex-based rights, being screamed at, and man-handled, by young, masked thugs dressed as ninjas, on a counter protest organised by trans activists, and suddenly, my personal thoughts go viral.

And if 1,500 retweets, 6,000 likes, and a couple of hundred additional social media followers, and counting, are any measure of the way opinion is falling, then while politics and our established institutions maybe, still, are in the grip of an evangelical belief in gender ideology, then the real world is starting to catch up – and it has questions.

“The Black Pampers,” tweeted back one wit. It was a small moment of levity in an otherwise dark day. If only this could be dismissed as the immature actions of babes that simply need to grow up, we might all rest more easy.

But this is not going away. The Scottish Parliament has only just started to explore the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act that have become the lightning rod for so much of the ire. And for those of us embroiled in this so-called culture war pitting sex against gender in a race to claim rights, it is only women and trans people that will prove to be the casualties if the committee does not answer the questions that have been raised.

Women with concerns about a creeping erasure of who they are and the rights they hold, have been variously accused of being bigots, radicalised, obsessed, ignorant and hysterical. It’s a throwback to the Middle Ages when women were hung by the neck as witches for simply speaking up.

But this isn’t Salem. This is the 21st century, a time when we thought some battles had already been won.

And while any concerns about the idea that men could self-identify as women with the removal of any medical gatekeeping are angrily dismissed as being reminiscent of the hellish toxicity which swirled around the campaign for gay rights, that is wrong.

No gay person ever marched for equal rights demanding to be recognised as straight; to encroach on the rights of others; or for anyone else to have to redefine their own identity framed by a belief that had no basis in science; or with which they might not even agree.

But the rhetoric from the so-called transactivists is reminiscent of that which has been thrown at women for centuries. That when we assert our rights; raise our voice; object to being told our bodies are not ours to control; are told to keep quiet; and when we remind society of the daily oppression that is part and parcel of our lived existence rooted in our biology, then the age-old response is to call us deluded. It is plain bullying, designed to shut us down.

And no matter that the perpetrators consider themselves the progressives, that’s presumably what the men of Salem thought when they condemned women to death on the say-so of unwitting children caught up in a mass hysteria.

It is now more than three years since I first wrote about hundreds of protesters gathered outside a Toronto library, chanting, and screaming at women arriving to attend a talk by a prominent feminist writer. 

Shouts of “Walk of shame,” “Fuck you bitch” and “I know your mother,” greeted women who were there to hear from the journalist Meghan Murphy.

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that Murphy was advocating an old-school feminism – that sex was binary and immutable – and while that would normally be celebrated by the enlightened left, the baying mob, some masked and shouting death threats, wasn’t made up of right-wing misogynists, they were of the left. Liberals berating women.

But this isn’t Salem. This is the 21st century, a time when we thought some battles had already been won.

Murphy, that year, spoke at the Scottish Parliament and was greeted with equal howls of protest. That same year, women (and some men) at the SNP annual conference attended a secret, invite-only, password-protected, fringe event to launch a women’s organisation specifically to explore women’s rights in the context of proposed legislation on self-identification for transgender people.

I heard nothing there that should upset any women, trans or otherwise. But for fear of reprisals, we were told to switch off the location function on Twitter. And that security measure, which seemed hysterical at the time, was prophetic of the threats that were to come.

It was also the year that the feminist writer and campaigner Julie Bindel was assaulted by a trans activist outside a meeting at Edinburgh University; and the then Green MSP, Andy Wightman, was chastised by his party leader – now a government minister – for attending the same meeting simply to seek intelligence on women’s rights.

Since then, we have been through increasingly febrile times – which we don’t need to rehash here. But some women have stepped into their fear. And instead of getting support from political leaders, they have been slammed as bigots, told that their concerns are not valid, or worse, been simply ignored.

I have felt that cold shoulder. Ever since I started writing columns exploring why the arguments around changes to the Gender Recognition Act; to the census; to other sex-specific legislation; and, how we define ‘woman,’ have become so polarised, I have been insulted, harassed, my job threatened, and my character picked over. I have been called a transphobe by a current government minister, others have stopped the friendly chats, some have dropped me on social media.

And while I am, luckily, at a point in my career and life where I seek neither patronage nor favour, I understand why others, despite what they say to me in private, stay silent. 

But the fundamental fact that women are the focus of such hate, when they remain one of the most discriminated against groups of people on this earth, should stop short those politicians who regularly spout the rhetoric of ending misogyny and violence against women and girls in the abstract, but then retreat into cowardice when faced with the sinister reality – like that which happened so openly in Manchester last week. 

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