This is the transcript of a speech given by Judith Green, one of the founders of Woman’s Place UK, at the FiLiA Conference in Manchester 2018.
Woman’s Place UK is a recently formed campaign to ensure women’s voices are heard and our right to single-sex spaces upheld, in relation to proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act.
We were formed in September 2017, so we’ve just had our first birthday. As campaigners, our backgrounds are in the trade union, labour and social movements. We started just with a twitter and Facebook page (not even a website) and our launch statement; some guidance on writing to MPs; a model resolution and our five demands.
We are an entirely grassroots organisation – we run because the women involved in Woman’s Place UK come home from jobs and answer emails, respond to messages in the Facebook inbox and spend a lot of time thinking about and working on the campaign. We are funded by donations and from ticket sales to our meetings, our average donation is £20.
I stress these simple things because at one level, this is no difference from the nuts and bolts of so many feminist and other political campaigns.
Where this campaign differs is the environment in which it is taking place: our meeting venues can’t be advertised openly, those of us involved with Woman’s Place UK, and even supporters who have done nothing more than retweet us, are accused of transphobia; jobs have been threatened; and we face a constant stream of lies and smears designed to delegitimise our demands. Campaigning in this environment is unlike any other campaign I’ve been involved with. It affects the ability to campaign openly and it is very frustrating.
So, what are our five demands:
1. Respectful and evidence-based discussion about the impact of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act to be allowed to take place and for women’s voices to be heard.
2. The principle of women-only spaces to be upheld – and where necessary extended.
3. A review of how the exemptions in the Equality Act (which allow for single sex services, or requirements that only a woman can apply for a job such as in a domestic violence refuge) are being applied in practice.
4. Government to consult with women’s organisations on how self-declaration would impact on women-only services and spaces.
5. Government to consult on how self-declaration will impact upon data gathering – such as crime, employment, pay and health statistics – and monitoring of sex-based discrimination such as the gender pay gap.
I’m speaking in the panel TRAVERSING NO-ONE’S LAND tomorrow, about the issues raised by Gender Recognition Act reform, so I don’t intend to go into these five demands here, but instead to talk a bit about what campaign demands are for.
We are sometimes criticised for having these demands, from a variety of perspectives.
Some have said that it makes us sound too strident, that we would be more persuasive if we framed these demands as requests more in keeping with our female socialisation. We obviously don’t go along with that.
A more serious concern raised is that this form of politics, driven by a core of demands, is masculinist in form – borrowed from male-dominated workers movements “bread, peace and land’ and reformist in content – that we are making a range of rather weak and moderate demands upon the state which fall far short of a fuller vision for women’s liberation.
Our demands are designed to be simultaneously broad and powerful.
We deliberately do not espouse a particular theory of gender or transgender and do not engage in a discussion about whether or how trans identities should be validated by the state. We are woman-centred and that means that all our demands relate to the impact of gender identity legislation upon women as a sex: the curtailment of our freedom of speech, the undermining of women-only space, and the impact of self-identification on both spaces and how we count in society.
Single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act are the pivot point of our work, because this is the place where women-as-a-sex are defined distinctly in law. This is both politically and practically vital for women: in our understanding of our oppression and in provision of our services and spaces, such as prisons, refuges, changing rooms, hospital wards.
We have had a lot of abuse and accusations thrown at us, and it has served us well to remind others and ourselves on a regular basis of our demands:
“This is who we are. This is what we stand for. This is what we want.”
Our Twitter account is the voice of calm reason, and that drives our detractors mad. It exposes, in fact, the lack of rational argument posed against us (at least in the context of social media) and the wish of trans rights activists to shut down reasonable debate.
We are proud to have been described on Mumsnet as “Savvy, assertive, unfailingly courteous but taking no shit’.
That’s important because this is an area of debate where it is easy to get dragged down into the mud, and that works directly against the goal of reaching wider audiences of women, who are understandably put off by what feels toxic, and it also works against influencing organisations, policy makers and legislators.
You need stamina for this work, and that means sisterhood and comradeship. Because of the almost impossible environment we are in, we have to operate through networks of trust. Conventional membership organisations are entirely unsuited for an area of work where so many women are afraid to be identified and where disruption and sabotage are legitimised by our political opponents. You need creativity to sustain you in this work.
Our Woman of the Day icons, which celebrate our heroines and those suggested by our supporters, are a joyful part of this. As is the fantasy merchandise – most recently suggested WPUK branded umbrellas, some of which does actually get made – you can buy badges from me afterwards.
We are one campaign amongst many that have grown up spontaneously out of a wider grassroots movement of women and I particularly want to note two roots: the importance of Mumsnet in creating the space for women to explore ideas about sex-based rights and gender ideology; and the resurgence of radical feminist organising, and particularly the light shone on women’s right to assembly by the attempt to shut down radical feminist conferences from 2012.
There are direct action campaigns like ManFriday and #stickerwoman; there are groups that, like us, organise meetings. There is the brilliant Fair Play for Women, combining research, street leafleting and social media campaigns. and a whole host of others. We – the broad movement, of which Woman’s Place UK is a part – are diverse in our approaches and the areas in which we work, and this is a major strength of the grassroots to which we relate.
Some say we need to be united in some kind of single organisation, or that we should not state differences that we have, I’ve even heard suggested that a Woman’s Political Party that actually knows what a Woman is should be formed.
In my view, this would constrain the energy of this resurgent Women’s Liberation Movement – we need coalition not consensus. When we lobby MPs and government, Woman’s Place UK advocate for our published demands, for which we have found wide support. At our 17 meetings so far, reaching over 2,500 people, mostly women; through our social media accounts with over 12.5k followers on Twitter and almost 5k on Facebook; through the constant correspondence we have with extraordinary women from all walks of life, who share with us their heartfelt and urgent demands placed on those in power.
It is this relationship with our supporters, who have taken up our campaign and made it what it is, which sustains us. We are keeping our eyes on the prize, to ensure our demands are met.
We are convinced that the women’s liberation movement that comes out of this period will be in better shape because the current challenges that we are all now facing have woken us up to the work there is to do.