Courage is catching: Joan McAlpine

Joan McAlpine MSP is member of The Scottish Parliament & chair of its Culture, Tourism, Europe & External Affairs Committee. The committee took evidence on sex & gender identity in the 2021 census & published an influential report in 2019 recommending the sex question remain binary. This recommendation was adopted by government, though concerns remain about the self identification of sex in data gathering, including the census. Joan was the first UK parliamentarian to publicly express concern about the conflation of sex & gender identity from a feminist perspective. Before entering politics, she was a journalist, & worked as an editor & writer for publications including The Herald, The Scotsman & The Sunday Times.

This is the speech Joan gave during the closing plenary of the Women’s Liberation 2020 conference held at UCL on Saturday 1st February 2020.

I am going to take my life in my hands here and start with the words of a man. Even worse, a dead white man… but please bear with me.

“When we silence an opinion, we rob the human race. We rob posterity as well as our own generation.  We rob those who dissent from that silenced opinion, even more than those who hold it.”

That was John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859, paraphrased slightly. He could have been describing NO DEBATE, which is exactly about silencing an opinion. When you do that you lose, because you don’t test your own arguments.

Silencing women has always been the most effective way of controlling women.

For centuries women in these islands were silenced almost entirely – in the family, in the courts, in politics, and the workplace. In many parts of the world they still are.

Historically, women who spoke up for themselves were silenced by the threat of violence. In medieval Scotland we had  the “scold’s bridle”, an iron torture device placed over the tongue of a particularly mouthy female to keep her quiet. But I think women are silenced mostly by social control – the fear that expressing the wrong opinion will result in social ostracization and ridicule.

Women’s Liberation 50 years ago, was empowering because women demanded the right to be heard, to define their needs and put themselves first.

That’s why the anthem of the Liberation Movement was Helen Reddy’s

I am woman hear me ROAR

It was that ROAR, the collective voice of millions of women in second wave feminism that gave us reproductive rights, that challenged and exposed male violence through self-organisation, that demanded equal pay, that tried to reclaim the night, that dissected sexism and deconstructed codes of dress and behaviour designed to feminise and infantalise women.

I heard that ROAR as a working class teenager coming of age in the late 1970s. It’s an honour to be here today paying tribute to that grassroots movement. And how fitting that Woman’s Place UK, another grassroots movement, is making the commemoration possible.

I am also humbled to be in the presence of women who have devoted their lives to working for other women, in areas such a tackling MALE violence. It’s a particular honour to share a platform with Julie Bindel for that reason.

I am here today to talk to you about how in Scotland we overcame attempts to silence women with opinions, through threats of isolation and ridicule, even violence. First, however, I want to say a few things about where I come from politically.

I am a member of the Scottish National Party, which is a social democratic movement to achieve full autonomy for Scotland and, thorough that process, make our country fairer. I believe that Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, is the most effective politician in the whole of the UK and I know there are many people in England who agree with me.

Nicola has sought to advance women’s equality through a 50/50 cabinet. Her Government has brought forward world leading domestic violence legislation, is expanding early years education and childcare and trying to mitigate social security cuts imposed on women by successive Conservative governments.

So I am proud to stand here as a member of the Scottish National Party.  But as with all progressive parties – there are differences of opinion. This is healthy in a democracy.  It’s even healthier if you debate these differences in a civilised way.

My journey to the platform today began when I became embroiled in difference of opinion about how we collect data.  Analysts tell you data always beats emotions, but sometimes data itself can be a very emotive topic, especially for women.  Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women, is subtitled “Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men”. As we all know, it explores how everything from speech-recognition software to office temperature controls are designed for men by default. Our sexed bodies matter.  It therefore follows, in my view, that recording sex accurately is essential if we are to challenge that bias and design a world for women too.

In the Scottish Parliament, I am convenor, or chair, of the Culture, Tourism Europe and External Affairs Committee. Our parliament gives committees a leading role in scrutinising legislation and in 2018 my committee was asked to look at the Census Amendment Bill, which introduced voluntary questions on transgender status and sexual orientation to the 2021 Census. The Bill was a short one-pager and considered uncontroversial. All MSPs agreed that these questions would help us understand and provide services for two groups who are protected by the Equality Act.

But most MSPs were concerned that the bill proposed to change a line in the 1920 Census Act, which basically says we will ask a question about sex. The proposed amendment changed that to say “sex, including gender identity”.

Most MSPs were also concerned to hear that the Census in 2021 proposed to change the sex question to include a third option. We discovered online guidance in 2011 advised it could be answered on the basis of self-identification, even if the respondent did not have a gender recognition certificate. We also discovered that the census agency only consulted with a small number of LGBT groups and had not thought for a second that there may be other groups affected. Like women, for example.

So this one page bill was not straightforward at all. The committee had a call for evidence and some wonderful women made sure that the twittersphere was well aware that this unassuming piece of legislation in Scotland was actually rather significant – special thanks in this regard go to  Professor Kathleen Stock and Murray Blackburn Mackenzie, a female led policy analysis team formed by academics in Edinburgh.

The written evidence received from women concerned about the change, meant the committee agreed there was a debate that should be reflected in our oral evidence sessions.  So when we invited witnesses yes, we invited Scottish Transgender Alliance and the Equality Network. But we also invited Professor Rosa Freedman and For Women Scotland to share their concerns with us.  We also invited data users from the academic world such as the criminologist and statistics expert Professor Susan McVie OBE. She was quite clear it was vital we continued to collect information on sex as a protected characteristic.

Of course, there were attempts to demonise Professor Freedman and Susan Smith from For Women Scotland. There were suggestions that they should not even be invited to parliament!

That attempt to silence opinion backfired badly. People who were new to this debate, including some MSPs, could see Rosa and Susan were reasonable, caring people. They went out of their way to say they supported asking a transgender question. How could they be accused of trans erasure? How could a statement like “sex and gender identity must not be conflated” be considered “Hate speech?”

The work of the committee normalised discussion of sex and gender. It helped that parliament has good security and a commitment to free speech so we had a safe space for our deliberations.

Our committee produced a report which criticised the Census consultation process, recommending the National Records office start speaking to grassroots women’s groups, which they did.

A majority of the committee recommended the sex question remain binary. The government agreed to that. The government also amended the bill so that any perceived conflation of “sex and gender identity” was dropped.

The only matter that remains unresolved is the online guidance accompanying the sex. But the conversation we started has spread. We began with a few concerned academics, like Professor McVie. Since then, Professor Alice Sullivan has compiled a letter of concern from 80 very senior social science data users asking the census authorities to think again.

As a key demographic variable, robust data on the number of male and female citizens is of vital importance to the planning and delivery of public services” they wrote.

“Data on sex is also used by statisticians and researchers to explain different health and socio-economic outcomes between men and women.”

For the life of me, I still cannot understand why the collective expertise of these data users is ignored. The Census is the Gold Standard of data collection and it is a state document. There are legitimate fears that it could influence how we approach others laws, such as gender recognition.

If society conflates sex with identity, what happens to sex specific stats on violence and equal pay, and how they reflect male and female experience? What will happen to the concept of same sex attraction? How will we maintain single sex spaces in prisons, changing rooms, hospitals? If sex is a matter of identity, how can we continue to reserve jobs for females in order to protect privacy and dignity, such as intimate personal care? How can we protect female sports? How can we measure how the experience of being socialised as a natal female effects our life outcomes? Biology is not destiny but biology is real and has real life consequences.

After my committee completed its report on the Census Bill, I decided to speak out in a Twitter thread which was shared thousands of times. I had already been subject to quite a bit of online abuse simply for asking questions in committee, so I reckoned it could not get any worst. It did of course.  But my thread won Tweet of the Year at the Scottish Politics Awards that summer.  That wasn’t because the judging panel was made up of gender critical feminists – it consisted of journalists and politicians of every party, who, like John Stuart Mill they abhor the silencing of opinion. They saw what was happening.

When one person speaks out, that empowers others. I became interested in this subject after reading Kathleen Stock, Women’s Place UK and Fair Play for Women and For Women Scotland. After I spoke, other colleagues followed. We have formed the SNP Woman’s Pledge within our own party, and gathered thousands of supporters. All the other parties then set up their own pledges.

Once you find your courage you wonder what you were frightened of in the first place.  That’s because you find you are not alone.

In the Scottish Parliament last year, following on from the Census Discussions, we had a meeting with Meghan Murphy. As a result, the prime time STV news programme ran a considered interview with her. We were having a public discussion. More people came forward, including Rhona Hotchkiss a former prison governor who had direct experience of harm being caused to women.  My Labour colleague Jenny Marra MSP invited lawyers into parliament to discuss the Equality Act. We have now had Maya Forstater speak in parliament, Maureen O’Hara, Karen Ingala Smith, Rebecca Bull and Anya Palmer.  The sky did not fall in.

When Julie was attacked in Edinburgh, my Labour colleague Jenny Marra put down a parliamentary motion asserting that we should be able to have discussions about difficult issues, such as sex and gender without fear. Nearly every MSP in our parliament signed that motion.

Being brave also gets results. The process of reforming the Gender Recognition Act was slowed down. We had a statement in parliament which acknowledged the concerns of women. A government working group headed by the chief statistician is now looking at how statistics are gathered.  Advice to schools is being revised in a way which will, we hope, better protect and respect girls

There’s still a long way to go in Scotland as there is everywhere else. Now the new consultation into the proposed Gender Recognition Reform Bill is open to everyone and believe me supporters of self identification around the world are already sending in their responses in a well co-ordinated, well-funded campaign. So if you wish to respond, do it now – Scotland is a very outward looking country. We welcome your views! You will find all the information you need on

The consultation closes on March the 17th so please spread the word.

I believe in human rights for everyone. But woman’s rights are human rights and CONSENT is at the heart of women’s rights. That means ‘Nothing about us without us’.

I have tried to demonstrate today that courage is catching. I just hope more parliamentarians at Westminster catch some of the courage we have demonstrated in Scotland.



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