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The women who wouldn't wheesht: For Women Scotland on gender reform

Trina Budge, Marion Calder and Susan Smith | Photography by Anna Moffat

The women who wouldn't wheesht: For Women Scotland on gender reform

Marion Calder, Susan Smith and Trina Budge are an unlikely trio of radicals.

We are sitting in Marion’s Morningside flat with its stripped pine floors, saggy sofas and the ubiquitous Edinburgh paper ceiling lanterns. This does not feel like the HQ of a subversive group of radicalised feminist guerrillas.

But that’s exactly how the For Women Scotland campaign group – that they formed together in 2018 to fight against what they saw as the dangerous consequences of gender ideology for women’s rights – has been portrayed by politicians and trans activists, among others.

Unknown to each other until about six years ago, the trio of middle-aged, middle-class (although Denny-born farmer’s wife, Trina, would baulk at that description) women came together, ostensibly in the so-called radicalising chat rooms of Mumsnet, over mutual concerns about the way gender recognition reforms – specifically the ability for any man to self-identify as a woman – could impact on women’s single-sex spaces.

At the time, Susan was your archetypal stay-at-home Morningside mum. She was more consumed by the logistical issues of how to transport her three kids across the city to their many after-school activities than by the politics being played out at Holyrood and Westminster.

However, this ballet-dancing, Oxford University-educated fund manager, who had worked in the City and on Wall Street before taking a break to raise her brood, now admits that while children, soft-play, and coffee mornings filled a gap, her life had reached a bit of a crossroads.

Susan had been brought up believing in the value of public service. Her father, David Chynoweth, was finance director of the old Lothian Region. His name crops up in Hansard a number of times during the passage of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill in the 1990s which would reshape Scotland’s councils. He was a man of principle who also believed that as finance director and ultimately responsible for holding the local government purse strings, people should know who he was.

“I remember his name went on something, a letter about some council issue, which was to go through people’s letter boxes. He was in the newspapers and on the TV at the time and because we had an unusual name, we were advised to go ex-directory to protect the family. He refused because he said people needed to be able to hold someone accountable for council spend and the like.

“So, when I was about 16, I went through a period when we were told not to open the door, not to open mail, not to answer the phone. And I remember my father sometimes being on the phone to people for hours trying to sort out issues with sheriff offices and things like that.

“He once said to me that when something is right, it’s right, and if you don’t stand up for it, nobody else will. My dad always believed that you had to take responsibility for your actions. He really did so much and was so brave.

“Other people with his career used to get honours and gongs and he didn’t. I used to be cross about that on his behalf, but he said that he’d just upset the right people for the right reasons. He always thought I should run the world (or at least a major multinational) and while I don’t think that I do think I was lucky to have someone who believed in me like he did.”

Marion, a divorcee with a teenage son at the time – he’s now 25 – is a senior administrator in the NHS but for obvious reasons in this febrile environment, tries to keep her campaigning work with FWS very separate.

Marion lived in Hawaii for most of her childhood because of her father’s work as an astronomer and civil servant with the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope – he later received an MBE for services to science – and as a result, she can play the ukelele [badly] and do a mean hula [invoking painful memories of being a tomboy forced to do dance lessons in a grass skirt]. Her mum was a Gaelic speaker from Lewis who worked for the Astronomer Royal at Blackford Hill where she met Marion’s dad. The family returned to Scotland when Marion was a teenager and after secondary school in Edinburgh, she went on to study languages at Napier University.

Life for Marion, like for the other two, splits into life before and after FWS. Before, she worked hard and played as hard as she could but with her elderly father living just a few doors down – she can wave to him in his garden from her kitchen window – keeping family close and together was her main priority. She says her life was like that of most hard-working, single mums – “juggling too many balls and hoping not to drop one”.

“It was basically a round of working, picking up and dropping son off at rugby training sessions. He played for two teams, so it was rugby, rugby, rugby, with any free time for me spent on the sidelines watching rugby in the pouring rain. My ex-husband (who I have a good relationship with) would have our son on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, plus holidays, but I was always at the rugby games, regardless.

“Then on a Sunday, my sister and I would take turns cooking a roast dinner with my dad who will be ninety this year and I am so lucky to have him living so nearby. My mum died from cancer in 2009, so we felt it important to continue what had become a weekly norm and we still do it.

“Pre-FWS, any child-free time I had I would spend with friends, meet colleagues after work for drinks, hit the gym at 7am for a spin class before work, go for a run after work. I even completed a Tough Mudder, so was pretty fit until this took over. I’d go on holidays with my sister, son, and friends but now my annual leave is wholly used for FWS stuff. To accept meetings with MSPs, officials, etc, at 11am on a working day, I have to take leave to do that – something government-paid organisations do not have to worry about. I’ve not had a holiday in years.

“The only real activism I undertook before this was while my son was at primary school, and I was the PTA secretary. I campaigned against the closure of a local nursery (successfully located another location for it) and lobbied the local council to build another school in south Edinburgh to alleviate the overcrowding in schools within the area. That was successful, too, though took long enough! I also increased the membership of our PTA by making it a tad more fun by occasionally hosting meetings and socials in the pub.

“Oh, I also took part in anti-war marches and for one, I took my son out of school for as I thought it important he understood the power of people protest.

“So, all fairly normal…”

Trina, who initially studied maths at Heriot-Watt University before completing her degree through the Open University and going on to gain a Masters at Lancaster, is a farmer’s wife with a young son.

She lives in a remote area near a small village in Caithness and describes herself, jokingly, as the “only Terf [trans exclusionary radical feminist] in the village” but says, more seriously, that until she became concerned about what was happening with the proposed gender recognition reforms, she saw herself as just an ordinary mum who might not have even described herself as a feminist.

“I was born in 1970, the year of the Equal Pay Act. I started primary school in 1975, the year of the Sex Discrimination Act. It meant I had a drastically different education to my mum – I know that she deliberately failed her 11+ because she overheard her parents worrying about how to pay for the new school uniform if she passed. These were landmark pieces of legislation that made all the difference in ordinary working women’s lives, like my mum’s. It gave her important legal backing every time she stuck up for herself. She was a fighter and ended up walking out of so many jobs in disgust in the 60s because of discrimination just because she was a woman.

“I grew up with these rights and I took them for granted. I didn’t really question them, they were just there, but I was acutely aware a generation of women before me had worked hard for these gains, from political change to societal change, and acts of everyday rebellion, by thousands of women. I guess that’s why I am so angry now, angry and determined that we cannot lose these rights. This is personal for my mum and everyone’s mum that fought through the prejudice for us all.

“I’d never been involved in any organised groups or anything before this,” she says. “I mean, I’ve always been a strong believer in women’s rights and standing up for myself and protecting those rights, but I guess I just thought that they would always be there. I didn’t see the need to be shouting about them.

“I had been dipping in and out of Mumsnet for a variety of things – parenting, fitness, education, cookery, that sort of thing, there are so many different things covered on there, but there was just one thing after another of just silliness about sex and gender cropping up and you think to yourself, well, that’s just silliness over there, that doesn’t really matter, but then the GRA consultation came in and you think, well, I might have thought this was silliness, but they’re actually looking at changing laws based on this nonsense. This is for real.

“Living where I do, I did feel isolated from the decision-making, that’s inevitable when the parliament is in the central belt. But when they’re actually changing laws for the majority for a very small minority, which is also based on a premise that is factually wrong – that could actually change your sex – then I needed to do or say something. It was just overwhelming for me. I couldn’t have done nothing. That just wasn’t an option.

“This has always been about women to me, the word ‘women’, even, it is about protecting that. When we’ve got a judge who steps in and says that the definition of ‘women’ changes according to context, you think, that’s just nonsense. How can my rights and laws vary according to a nebulous and changing context? It’s just silly. I guess I just thought someone with more power than me, a politician maybe, would eventually step in and call this out but that never seemed to happen and so what choice did I have? What choice did we have?”

And it is that lack of choice that compelled these three ordinary women, having initially made contact through their postings on Mumsnet, to meet in person and ultimately form For Women Scotland.

The first public meeting that they organised in Edinburgh in January 2019 was a homegrown affair with handmade posters calling on women to meet if they were concerned about proposals that could, theoretically, allow any man to self-declare as a woman.

News about the gathering at the Apex Hotel in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket – which the three women had paid for using their own credit cards – spread quickly and on the day 300 women turned up along with protestors angrily accusing them of being transphobic.

There was a bomb threat, a bag search of people attending the event, and the hotel group had to fly up their head of security from London to assess risk. That was only the start of how polarised sides were to become. Labels were wrongly attached. Opinions formed on falsehoods. And For Women Scotland quickly became a lightning rod for so much vitriol and misinformation directed squarely at them.

They admit that initially they were unprepared and became defensive when under attack, and that their Twitter feed could become quite spicy, but they deny ever being transphobic or directing any hate at trans people.

Susan says that when they started to become more public, she felt immediately intimidated by some of the “hateful” things that were being thrown at them from high-profile organisations and individuals. She says there was one journalist who called them “Holocaust deniers”, another said the group were in league with the alt-right and anti-abortionists, and another implied that they would cause trans people to be attacked in public toilets.

That’s before you get into the whole guilt-by-association that saw the likes of Mhairi Black MP using rhyming slang to call gender critics cunts and the former first minister saying that people who opposed the gender recognition reforms were likely transphobes, homophobes and racists.

“These were just absurdly stupid things to say about [us], and completely false, but I felt like these were people who already had an audience and would therefore be believed and when we tried to explain our position, we were always met with such hostility, that there was little point in trying,” says Susan. “I felt like we were so unknown at that point, that there was little point in trying to defend ourselves against accusations that were so blatantly untrue.”

“Looking back, I think we were quite feisty,” she adds. “You almost had to be because we were getting these really horrific, horrible men (and some women) saying terrible things about us, accusing us of things that just weren’t true, and on one hand, you have people telling you to stand up for yourselves, and then the minute we stood up for ourselves, it was, why couldn’t you women just be nice? And, you know, if you were on Twitter, you’ve got all these horrible people coming at you and you’re supposed to absorb all this hate and nastiness and go, well thank you for pointing that out, kind sir, I will go away and reconsider my position. Be ladylike about it all… Ridiculous, really.”

“It’s also about your perspective, isn’t it?” chips in Marion. “When we’re actually saying that you can’t change your sex, which you can’t physically do, to someone else, that is actually like we have committed literal violence. When we have been direct or we have stood up for ourselves and we’ve maybe used humour or sarcasm, which we do a lot in the face of such silliness, some people really hate that or deliberately misinterpret what we are saying. The bottom line for us is that you can’t change sex but that categorically does not make us transphobic.

“As the years have gone on and our social media platform has grown and having done more media and campaigns and stuff, I think you just naturally become somewhat more self-reflective in what you’re actually posting. So, you’re not a small account with, you know, 100 followers or 200 followers [they now have almost 46,000] and you need to adjust the way you speak to the audience and take that responsibility seriously.

“I think we had the freedom to speak plainly at the beginning because we didn’t have the likes of politicians or journalists following us at that point. It was only like we were speaking candidly to other women and some males that were, you know, thinking along the same lines as us, and when you’re chatting amongst yourselves, you’re in that kind of bubble. And then your bubble grows bigger and bigger and bigger, you have to act accordingly but still be true to yourself about what you are saying.

“We do get accused of some horrible things. And it’s actually myth, just rubbish that has been started quite deliberately by people that don’t agree or understand what we are for. When we actually ask people to give us the evidence of things that they accuse us of saying, they can’t.

“For instance, there’s a particular activist that accuses us of saying that Patrick Harvie was involved in paedophilia. We have never said that. What we actually said was that he, like others, accepted an award in the name of Ian Dunn who set up the Paedophile Information Exchange in Edinburgh. We were never saying that these individuals had anything to do with PIE, but there are issues of safeguarding in our politics, and you would have thought once they had actually realised in whose name they had received an award, they would return it or at least distance themselves from it.

“That has basically led to one particular high-profile activist tagging us in numerous social media posts saying we are homophobic and transphobic. It’s nonsense. It’s designed to shut us down, to cast us in a certain light and we’re not having it. They don’t much like women who answer back.”

If anything, Marion has become even more resolute in her views about sex and gender. She has no compunction in describing trans women as anything other than men, holds no truck with the idea that you can possibly change sex, disregards the notion of being kind in her use of pronouns, and says that saying you can change your sex is promulgating a lie that could ultimately harm children who are led onto a lifelong medical pathway of taking drugs to block puberty whose side-effects for this use are as yet unknown, and to surgery that could leave them infertile and with sexual malfunction.

She has become more adamant in her opposition to gender ideology as the years have gone on and as legal and health battles have continued to provide the evidence that she, Trina and Susan are the ones on the so-called right side of history. She says she is not prepared to bend to the bullies that want to shut her or For Women Scotland down by painting them as bigots.

‘‘Every public speech or meeting that we’ve ever had has been digitally recorded and is available on our web pages. There is nothing that’s not there,” says Marion. “There’s nothing hidden. And so we ask those that accuse us of all kinds of bigotry to state where they’ve got this made-up idea about us from. They can’t give a reason and ultimately it’s going back to basic old-fashioned sexism. They can’t understand why three, quite frankly, bog standard women have stood up in the face of such hostility and literally almost had to get a law degree to get through the amount of reading we have had to do around legal and policy documents to be able to write to politicians, to the United Nations and to lawyers.

“We never expected to ever be in the thick of this and to then have JK Rowling come out supporting us and putting us on the board of Beira’s Place [a women-only service for victims of sexual assault] that she had set up, these are things you never imagine would happen to you but we do it for women that are not like us, that don’t have a voice, that haven’t found allies and that were too frightened to speak up. We do this for those women.”

Politically, all three, who would previously have described themselves as left-leaning liberals, find themselves essentially homeless with only the Conservative Party speaking for them when it comes to the risks that they believe are inherent in believing that people can change sex. It is also only the Scottish Conservatives that have allowed them to have a stand at their party conferences, with the SNP not even sending them an application form for one. They applaud Alister Jack, the Secretary of State for Scotland, for imposing a Section 35 on the Scottish Gender Recognition Act which prevents it becoming law and they fear that a change in government at Westminster could see that position reversed.

FWS wants to see the definition of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act clarified to mean biological sex and for that, they believe, they have been vilified. And regardless of where you believe the truth lies, the accusations about FWS have become baked in and like much of the rhetoric around the sex and gender debate, there has been an effective campaigning tactic to smear reputations.

However, these are three Scottish women made of strong stuff and they have not been scared off. Indeed, it has emboldened them, and they have courageously and tirelessly taken on the law and won.

And in this, they get support in high places. The Dean of the Faculty of Advocates regularly intervenes in Twitter spats to remind users that just because someone is rude or disagrees with your life view, that doesn’t qualify them as a hate group. The respected legal academic, Michael Foran, has regularly backed their interpretation of the risks to women and their rights of proposed changes to equalities legislation. And JK Rowling has been a very public supporter, even contributing £70,000 to the latest FWS Crowdfunder which will take the legal challenge over the definition of ‘sex’ in the Equality Act to the Supreme Court.

And during all of this, Susan has also battled with an aggressive form of breast cancer. She was diagnosed in January 2020, had her first operation a month later, spoke at the rally outside parliament weeks after that, and started her chemotherapy the day after the first lockdown. She is now on the road to recovery and is in no doubt that being so heavily involved in FWS has helped with that.

“The cancer was a horrible shock and one that happens to so many women and so many that I know. Of course, cancer gets everyone, and my surgeon has written papers on male breast cancer, so I am not diminishing that in anyway, but, in the main, this is a very female experience.

“Breast cancer has made me reflect a lot on being a woman and it’s also made me very aware of the way women are regarded, the perfection expected, and, frankly, how callous some of the trans activists can be.

“During the GRR debate, I remember in particular the evidence of Dr Peter Dunne, an academic who had contributed to one of the Scottish Government consultation papers, who compared ‘non normative’ trans bodies (i.e., men with penises) as being comparable to women with mastectomies in regards to changing rooms and how we would be viewed.

“I’ve spent years waiting for reconstruction, learning to cope with dressing my lopsided, scarred body and to think the Scottish Government values the opinion of a bloke who thinks that the loss of my breasts makes me as scary, or not, to small children in the gym changing room as a six-footer with a willy is frankly obscene. And the celebration of unnecessary surgery – as in that disgusting Costa coffee advert – really hurt me.

“Just before I went into surgery, I was reading that so-called ‘top surgery’ for young girls was life-saving and euphoric, but I know that the reality of mastectomies can be ongoing pain and numbness. That is OK if it really will save your life. But it is beyond wicked to tell a young woman that it’s benign and consequence-free when they do not need it. I wouldn’t have missed the experience of feeding my babies – although I can imagine many teenagers would never consider that and, as the recently released WPATH files reveal, many are prepared to sacrifice the experiences they do not understand and do not know they will miss. That’s why we need to protect them and to stop the lies about surgery. I am grateful I now have an approximation of what I lost. But I had no option and surgery is never a perfect fix.

“I also know that things like hair, or lack of it, is not what makes a woman! I like having mine back, but I know that even when I was boobless and bald I was still me and I was still female – my cancer was a horrible proof of that.”

Throughout it all, and that includes the abuse, the smears and the death threats, Marion, Trina and Susan have stuck together waiting, says Trina, for politicians to spend “less time thinking a woman can grow a penis and actually focus on themselves growing a political backbone.”

“What upsets me is the people who know this is all wrong but who swerve the issue and think someone else will deal with it,” she says. “This has been what has happened to women’s rights since forever. We’ve always been told there are more important things to think about, that we need to be nice, we need to be accommodating, we need to think about others. Sometimes women just need that space to be able to have our own conversations and our own space. And it doesn’t mean that other groups can’t work out their rights but if they are only and solely dependent on taking away ours, then that’s not a movement anybody should respect.”

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