Turbulent Times: Ruth Serwotka

It is something of a cliché to say we are living in turbulent times. But we are. Within every social movement currently on the march resides an extraordinary level of responsibility and many difficult choices and judgements.

The environmental movement must judge the degree of militancy needed. Those in Britain trying to end Boris Johnson’s government must manage the shades of opinion over how to deal with the Brexit referendum fallout. Trade unions must consider their response to the retreat from collectivism.

More so than ever, and with the rise of social media, there is often a collapse of nuance and differentiation. That arguably makes these judgements more difficult as we are under pressure to be herded into good and bad camps; keen to appear virtuous and not evil.

The resurgent women’s movement is also a product of these historical circumstances. We must navigate our course carefully. Some tactical errors are understandable, even unavoidable. But misjudgements of principle can be deeply damaging. In Britain, having made some progress on the question of women’s rights, we carry additional responsibility. Organisations in other countries look to us for help and solidarity.

This is the global landscape from which we cannot be removed. We are all touched by the turbulence that plays out around us.

There are also right-wing reactionary currents at work. Movements towards fascism and the far right are real and present dangers.

Any alignment with those forces is not a mere tactical judgement but raises questions of principle. The global backlash against women comes in the form of controlling our reproductive rights; policing or erasing lesbian sexuality; imposing rigid gender expectations on women and girls, which increasingly involves the performance of a pornified sexuality; dehumanising women of colour…

This can scarcely be better exemplified than the racist misogynist currently occupying the White House abusing four democratically elected and progressive women of colour. It is an undeniable fact that the global threat against women and girls has been emboldened by the Trump “grab them by the pussy” White House.

Feminism, women’s liberation and women’s rights activism, however we wish to brand it, has always been a movement for radical progress, against reaction and against the hard right. The increasing impoverishment of women and children in the UK cannot be, and is not, ignored by feminists.

The loss of women’s services and the never-ending attack on occupations in the public sector, a majority held by women, cannot be ignored. An example of the viciousness with which women have been targeted is the Tories’ (with Liberal Democrat support) introduction of the rape clause into the hated Universal Credit system. It prevents women accessing even minimum welfare for their third child unless they detail rape and forced impregnation. It is an utter abomination.

The WPUK Manifesto is a rallying call for a women’s movement that is rooted in improving the lives of all women, particularly those who are poor, suffering male violence and who do not have access to services that would make their lives easier and more fulfilling.

Romanticism of the past conveniently hides from us some uncomfortable truths but provides excellent food for thought. The political disagreements among ‘women’s rights activists’ within the suffrage movement is well researched and documented.

Often reflecting differences of class, some middle class suffragettes, including Emmeline Pankhurst herself, had rather a soft spot for nationalism and war. Small but not insignificant elements within the militant WSPU bought into an ugly reactionary nationalism. A few allowed that internal logic to play out and became supporters of the British fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.

The notion that women, simply by banding together, can be divorced from wider political and social forces, is reactionary nonsense. Incredible as it may seem to the sexist, male-dominated zeitgeist, women’s politics are also integral to how we change the world and always have been.

The choices we make now will have wide-reaching repercussions impacting far beyond ‘women’s issues’.

In the US these social forces are colliding and creating questions of principle that must be properly considered. The battle lines have been drawn around a legal case winding its way through the Supreme Court known as Harris Funeral Home v Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (ex parte Stephens). Aimee Stephens, who identifies as transgender, is seeking redress following dismissal apparently for failure to adopt male dress codes in the workplace, which is a funeral parlour.

Harris Funeral Home, which has a sex-specific dress code, is seeking to overturn the ruling of the Sixth Circuit. That lower court has ruled that Harris unlawfully terminated employment after Stephens announced an intention to transition and follow the female dress code. Harris claimed infringement of its religious freedom.

A further complication is that the Stephens case has been conjoined with others where there is clear homophobic discrimination (deliberately so, some might surmise). WOLF, the Women’s Liberation Front, are supporting the dismissal of Stephens on the grounds that the claim against termination of contract would, rather than challenging dress codes, remove the legal concept of woman as a universal understanding defined by biological sex and in law. This is contested by some feminist legal argument.

I am not arguing on points of law here, but I believe it is important to bear in mind some points of principle. The first principle to establish is that an expectation of women’s compliance with rigid gender normative dress codes in the workplace is unacceptable. Therefore any legal case, on whatever grounds, determining that there is an acceptable gender-based dress code is hugely problematic.

The second principle is that we do support the protection of gender non-conforming people, including those who identify as transsexual or transgender, from employment discrimination. Insofar as this opposes the imposition of sex role stereotypes in the workplace this is closely aligned to protections against sex discrimination.

We are, in fact, arguing for the strengthening of sex discrimination law, not weakening it through nebulous concepts of gender.

Furthermore there is a principle, whether or not it is relevant to this particular case, that it is also reasonable to acknowledge that for some faiths, or for other reasons of belief, it would be unacceptable for a person of the opposite sex to touch a deceased person in preparation for funeral arrangements. That is regardless of how they might view themselves: hence religious exemptions might apply in a funeral parlour, certainly in Britain. There are legitimate occupational grounds for sex-based exemptions, and where engaged they must be upheld.

It is important to remember that while transgender legal protection exists under the category of gender reassignment in the UK it does not exist in all US states and we should certainly be part of the argument to demand protections for transgender people in the US against the Trumpian right.

However WOLF, having previously worked in alliance with the Christian fundamentalist right, are doing so again. On one previous brief they were jointly listed as “Women’s Liberation Front, an organisation of radical feminists dedicated to the liberation of women by ending male violence, regaining reproductive sovereignty, and preserving women only spaces”.

But that was with Family Policy, “a Christian organisation dedicated to helping pro-family Americans unleash their citizenship for a nation where God is honoured, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive and life is cherished”.

A more perverse or problematic alliance could not be imagined.

Feelings have been running very high. Footage has been circulated of US and British women being shouted down while protesting in support of WOLF’s position. Breitbart, the alt-right, fake news outlet that promotes Trump, has circulated incendiary footage of the protests, condemning counter protesters and appearing to side with WOLF.

Breitbart’s footage is unsurprising given WOLFs alliance with religious right organisations. The demonstration itself was co-sponsored by Concerned Women of America, which is a homophobic and anti-feminist organisation. The demonstration was also attended by and WOLF’s actions supported by sections of British feminists.

Some US radical feminists were involved in counter protests making trenchant criticism of WOLF’s position.

Defence of the “tactics” of working in an alliance with the far right range from “the left are failing us” (true) to the women involved cannot be criticised because of their personal circumstances or their undeniable history of veteran campaigning.

However, there is always a choice involved and these actions are not about tactics but principles. ‘Any safe harbour’ is not an excuse to work alongside our enemies. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’ is not a strategy. It is disingenuous to say that this coalition emerges from unhappy coincidence. It is a political choice by some women in the gender critical movement to make common cause with the US Trumpian right. As such, it must be opposed.

The drift towards the narrative of acceptance of this alliance with hard right forces, often with the use of emotive manipulation and highly personal attacks on individuals, is the start of a path towards the co-option of the growing women’s movement by the forces that exist to defeat us. It is the opposite of trying to win elected representatives to supporting a principled feminist policy.

It is true that the current left climate is hostile to feminist argument. Women involved in feminist activism of any kind (except the liberal sort) are subjected to intimidation and harassment, including by men on the left, and vicious online activism.

Some women are subjected to harassment in their workplace, have had their employers contacted and their livelihoods threatened by supposed activists on the left who also claim to be trade unionists but who clearly would like an effective blacklist to bar feminists from working, particularly in academia.

Sections of the British left recently displayed their misogyny through their entitled intimidation of the WPUK meeting in Brighton in September. That episode even made its way into the proceedings of the Labour Party conference, the official opposition, as a trophy issue for idiot leftists condemning the ‘hateful bigots’. Most of those at the WPUK meeting have in fact been socialist feminists for a lifetime.

We should not minimise this appalling loss of clarity, nuance and bravery in the face of a global backlash against women. These are turbulent times, not of our choosing.

Yes, it is an outrage that we are bullied and intimidated by sections of the left. But still we cannot make an alliance with people who would remove our bodily sovereignty, curtail our freedom to resist, enforce a sex-segregated family model, police compliance with subservient gender roles, remove rights from women of colour and prevent human rights for lesbians and gay men, and for transgender people.

Those are not our allies. We have no choice but to build a movement that can step up to the challenges – just as women in history have also had to deal with weakness, betrayal and ignorance around them.

We must not get the matter of our principled orientation wrong. Instead we must force the left – and the wider liberal opinion it is too often just a noisy part of – to understand its historic role (when it’s been at its best, that is).

We should increase our pressure on them, and not retreat into the jaws of the enemy.

Ruth Serwotka is a socialist feminist and trade unionist. She is a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK.


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