Susanna Rustin is a leader writer at the Guardian, where she writes mostly on social affairs and the environment. She has also worked as an editor on the opinion and books desks. Her book about the history of British feminism will be published next year.
A Woman’s Place is in the Press: a guest blog by Susanna Rustin
Ahead of Thursday’s event A Woman’s Place is in the Press, we are delighted to host this guest blog from Susanna Rustin. The event is sold out but you can join the conversation on twitter #WPUKPress or watch the event when it is published on our YouTube channel.
To say that views about press coverage of the women’s sex-based rights movement are polarised is putting it mildly.
On one side, trans rights activists and sympathetic journalists think that through its positive coverage of sex-based rights activism (aka gender-critical feminism) and lack of support for gender self-identification, the press has shown itself to be institutionally transphobic, or something close to it. A quick internet search brings up headlines including Anti-trans rhetoric is rife in the British media. Little is being done to extinguish the flames – CNN, What is behind the rise in transphobia in the UK? Hostile discourse in the media – Al Jazeera and a petition on the UK government website headed Launch a Public Inquiry into transphobia in the national media.
On the other side are sex-based rights activists who think their voices and arguments have been wrongly frozen out of coverage of these issues – particularly on the liberal left, including at The Guardian, the BBC and elsewhere.
All the articles alleging transphobia quoted above refer to media rather than press specifically. Media encompasses the giant social platforms as well as smaller websites, TV, radio and books. British gender-critical feminists have established strong presences on Facebook and Twitter as well as Mumsnet – where some of the first feminist criticism of self-ID proposals was posted. Any discussion of media overall would need to consider a vast amount of material.
But waning force though they may be, compared to Alphabet and Meta, newspapers and magazines are still important – not least because the middle-aged and older people who occupy many positions of authority in our society still read them. I’ve never been a media correspondent and am not an expert commentator on the foreign press. But based on conversations and observations over several years of following this topic, my view is that the British print media has, overall, done a better job than the press in many countries at enabling a debate about sex and gender to take place.
This doesn’t mean everything is fine. There have been and continue to be gaps. Helen Joyce has just published the latest in a series of pieces by gender-critical journalists about being blocked from speaking and writing on this subject.
The “no debate” strategy promoted by Stonewall and others has been far more successful than it deserves to be. It should be self-evident that proposals to enable anyone to self-declare themself to be male or female – and obtain legal documents to back this up – should be thoroughly debated in a liberal, democratic society.
So yes I’m aware of the discrimination faced by gender-critical women, several of whom have won employment tribunals. I think the media, along with the rest of civil society (political parties, businesses, trade unions, sporting bodies, charities, universities), bears a share of responsibility for the current polarisation. An open and inclusive debate about what self-ID really means should have taken place much sooner than it did. Recent polling data revealing that many people do not understand widely used terminology is worrying (for example 21% think that a transgender woman is a person who was registered female at birth).
But the British press has done some things right – by which I mean that a range of views, including gender-critical ones, have been expressed. For example, it is a fact that there is no equivalent to Janice Turner in Australia, Canada, Ireland or the US – that is, a socially liberal columnist in a high-profile national title who has written regularly on this subject from a gender-critical feminist viewpoint for six years. I also wonder whether Helen Lewis’s clear-sightedness on this topic could be one reason why a US magazine, the Atlantic, hired her. There are loads of other names I could mention.
The revived women’s movement is the big story here – not the media. But the “no debate” strategy of the self-ID campaign did not in the end succeed.
I know some on the left put this down to a coalition of right-wing interests, including much of the press and a deeply unpopular Conservative government that recognised sex-based rights as a wedge issue – an area where its policy was, until recently, more in line with public opinion than Labour’s.
But I think the pluralism, confidence and competitiveness of our print media are also relevant, along with a strong tradition of feminist journalism. Whether I’m right or not is a question I expect will be discussed at November’s meeting.
Follow the conversation from 19:00 this Thursday 9 November #WPUKPress
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.