Kiri Tunks is a socialist feminist and trade union activist. She is a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK. This is a transcript of the speech she gave on International Women’s Day 2019 at a Morning Star Readers’ event: Women, Race, Class & Gender.
Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) was founded in September 2017 to ensure women’s voices were heard in the consultation on changes to the Gender Recognition Act. Our experiences during that time led us to broaden our campaign to a wider set of demands which we launched in January this year.
In just over a year since our inception, WPUK has built quite a following.
We have also built quite a reputation.
Actually, several reputations.
Some of them bear no connection to our pretty reasonable demands.
Because it seems that in debates around sex and gender it is easier to defame and slur than engage with very real concerns.
Sex is a protected characteristic under the law.
Our campaign has been based on the single sex exemptions which exist in the Equality Act.
These allow for the separate provision of single sex services, spaces, places and employment in recognition of the fact that:
- women may need to only be with other women
- women may not use services unless they are delivered by women
- or that acts of positive discrimination help address a persistent inequality.
Yet saying so is now portrayed as hate speech and fascism.
And fascism must be crushed…
The latest example of this was a tweet this week from radical left campaign, Jewdas, which proclaimed:
“Good afternoon. TERFs are fascists and should be treated no differently from Nazis.”
This produced responses which encouraged the use of the Nuremberg Trials and cyanide pills.
Such a conflation is both offensive and dangerous in the extreme.
This rhetoric minimises the history and impact of fascism which has violently suppressed and persecuted millions of people and caused the murders of millions more. It diminishes the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and the horrors of the Holocaust. It belittles the current threat of modern fascism, growing fast across Europe and with real signs of growth here.
To compare the demands of women campaigning for their rights to the cancer of fascism demonises any woman speaking up and silences her. This can only lead to a diminution of women’s liberation and the erasure of women’s rights.
Violent images of what you can do to TERFs are easily found on social media. Women identified as TERFs have been subject to violence, intimidation, threats, demonization, and vilification. Some have been cast out of organising/political groups or ostracised at meetings and events.
It’s like the Wild West out there. Loads of trigger-happy gunslingers and not a sheriff in sight.
Our demands are legitimate.
In fact, they are in line with the law as it currently exists –
And as it should exist in any properly functioning democracy
- We are calling for the rights of women to be upheld
- We are calling for the rights of women to self-organise
- We are calling for the right of women to be consulted and heard
- We are calling for an end to violence against women and girls
- We are calling for the legal system to work for women
- We are calling for the robust collection of data and evidence-based research
Some have found these demands to be troublesome but they are no more than we are due and the very least we are prepared to accept.
The reaction to women calling for these rights has been astonishing.
We have been threatened, abused, vilified, demonised, slurred, libelled and cast out.
WPUK has organised 21 meetings around UK
Every meeting has been threatened.
- masked thugs demonstrating outside
- the beating of pots/pans drowning out voices of sexual assault survivors
- Threats to venues who host us
- Reporting of speakers or attendees to their employers
- Physical intimidation
- A bomb threat
We have to hire security and release the location at the last minute.
This is what is meted out to groups of women trying to meet to discuss issues of material concern to us
And there is an appetite for our meetings – at our 21 meetings we have
- Sold 3,000 tickets
- Had 45 different speakers from academia, labour movement, feminism, women’s sector
Our YouTube channel has over 1700 subscribers with 135,000 views of our films
We have 16,000 followers on Twitter & over 5,000 on Facebook .
We are regularly sent messages of support by women too frightened to say so publicly.
And we have held meetings all over the UK from Newcastle to Bath, from Cardiff to Norwich.
All pretty much sold out.
Civic and political society have largely failed us.
There are some honourable exceptions
- Quakers and other non-conformist groups,
- The Marx Memorial Library,
- Some universities,
- Arts centres, pubs, and community hubs.
The way we have been treated is a terrible indictment of our society
Although it should not have been a revelation…
When, in history, have women won any rights without having to fight to make their voice heard?
Without kicking up a fuss?
Women are meant to know our place.
Stay in the shadows.
Do as we are told.
Well, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich declared:
“Well-behaved women rarely make history”.
So, if you find our campaign troubling, ask yourself what troubles you about women asserting themselves and their rights?
Because I’ll tell you what I find troubling:
- Endemic sexual harassment & abuse suffered by women in this country
- Plan UK found that 86% of 18-24 year old women suffer routine sexual harassment in public;
- Surveys by the National Education Union & Girl Guiding say 54%-64% girls do in schools
- There are 100s of sexual assaults recorded in schools
- 52% of women polled by the TUC have experienced sexual harassment
- Women are three times as likely to suffer as men
- 9/10 perpetrators are men
- 80% did not report to their employer
- Only 1% of women confided in a trade union representative
- The sexual objectification of women and girls
- Violent porn and degrading or overtly sexualised images of women
- The lack of statutory Relationships and Sex Education
- The fact that ¼ of teenage girls suffer depression and self-harm
- A return to the reactionary gender stereotypes we thought we had left behind
- Levels of abuse faced by women in public life and on social media
- Abusive posts and tweets especially to women in politics (Women MPs received over 26,000 offensive tweets with Diane Abbot receiving over 50% of them)
- The under-representation of women in politics, business, academia, culture and science
- The failure of the criminal justice system with high levels of sexual assault and only 6% of reported rapes ending in conviction:
- Unfair treatment sentencing of women;
- female victims blamed for the crimes perpetrated against them
- for being drunk
- being outside their house alone
- being annoying
- being women…
- Shocking levels of domestic violence including very high numbers of women murdered, the perpetrators often pitied or excused
- The pay gap is 17% and growing
- Maternity and pregnancy discrimination – 54,000 women lose their jobs every year
- A welfare system that the UN Rapporteur described as misogynistic
- The burden of unpaid caring falling almost entirely on women
- The racist treatment of migrant women and refugees
- The underfunding of women’s services – so that there are not enough refuges for survivors
- Poverty: it hits women and children hardest
For all these, experience is exacerbated by class and race.
There has been a huge increase in racist hate and assault
- A hug rise anti-Islamic hate crime
- BME and disabled women are worse hit by poverty and austerity
- The growth of ‘misogynoir’ – the racist stereotyping and abuse of women of colour
I find all that deeply troubling and so should you.
I’ll tell you what else I find troubling…
The abject failure of any political party to
- Step up to its responsibilities
- Facilitate this debate
- Listen honestly and broker a resolution
We have actively tried to engage with politicians and parties of all hues.
Only one party leader has attended one of our meetings – Sophie Walker of The Women’s Equality Party.
We have met key political figures across the political spectrum but most don’t want people to know that
Something else I find troubling…
The political cowardice of councils all over the country who are happy to casually change the protected characteristic from sex to gender without a thought for their obligations under the Equality Act, but who won’t host a meeting for women to discuss their rights.
Leeds Council pulled a booking we had organised through the sponsorship of a councillor on the day of the meeting – pretending it was because the ceiling had a crack.
A subsequent meeting with the Leader gave us no faith that women’s rights are safe in that city.
Councillors in various cities have attacked feminists and gender critical women and motions asserting women’s legal rights have come under attack
Another thing that’s troubling…
The moral bankruptcy of organisations (funded by public money)
- In claiming to represent thousands of women in this country
- Without actually finding out what we think.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance on the Equality Act was wrong. A fact they only changed after it was pointed out to them
They have failed to broker discussions between groups with protected characteristics as is their duty under the PSED.
Stonewall, purportedly a group representing LGBT people in this country, lobbied to have single sex exemptions removed from the Equality Act without any thought of the impact this might have on lesbians and other women
Many other women’s organisations have decided that self-identity is ok without consulting the women they claim to represent
More troubling still…
…is the blind arrogance of the labour movement
- which has a majority female membership but whose leadership is largely male
- who have largely delegated discussions and policy decisions on the GRA to small committees – not recognising the potential for a conflict of rights between groups with protected characteristics in their own unions.
- And who have waved ‘process’ in response to complaints
And this is troubling too…
The failure of the liberal press to facilitate the debate and represent differing views
- The liberal and left press have been largely silent or antagonistic.
A principled exception to this has been the Morning Star who stuck their neck out early on to try to cover the debate, and more recently Left Foot Forward.
Magazines like Red Pepper and Socialist Review have been happy to print libellous claims about us and then refuse us a right of reply.
Largely, it has been the Times, the Spectator, The Economist and The Telegraph that has reported on the debate and women have been criticised for engaging with them
Now the Guardian has published one or two pieces, but for the most part has been very one-sided in its approach – odd for a media site that proclaims its commitment to sharing many voices
Coverage of women’s concerns and questions has been left largely to campaign websites, blogs and social media – often anonymous for very real fear of reprisals.
Actually, all of that’s more than troubling. It’s a disgrace.
Women have every right to proper representation and consultation.
But when we complain or point this out, we are branded as TERFs and Nazis.
Well maybe we are the modern-day witches.
Or at least the granddaughters of the ones they couldn’t burn.
In 2019, it seems that:
- women are allowed to have opinions as long as they are the right ones
- women are allowed to have rights as long as they don’t exercise them
- women who step out of line will be put back in place.
We are troubled; deeply troubled.
And we intend to keep fighting for our daughters, our sisters, our mothers and our friends.
And we hope that you will join us.
And if you think women have been troublesome so far, I’m telling you, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.
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