Steph Pike is a socialist feminist and a co-founder of Woman’s Place UK. This is the speech she gave at the WPUK meeting in London on Tuesday 27th February 2018.
Today, as women, we have much still to fight for – despite decades old equal pay legislation we still do not have pay equality, women are under-represented in politics, violence against women and girls globally is still at epidemic proportions, gender roles and stereotypes are still rigidly enforced and women’s bodies are subject to both hyper-sexualisation and violence. We live in a world where everything is for sale including our bodies.
At the same time hard won services and protections for women are under threat. Tory austerity policies have seen much needed services for women cut. Those same policies of austerity disproportionately affect women in all areas. Services and campaigns for women are being both reduced and de-politicised. Domestic violence services are extended to include male victims.
This diverts already inadequate resources away from women and obscures the political reality that domestic violence and sexual violence is perpetrated predominantly by men against women, and is part of the sex-based oppression we face. For example, the new chair of Liverpool Violence Against Women and Girls Group, a man, has recently called for the group’s remit to be widened to include men, and the name changed to reflect this. The need for an active women’s liberation movement has never been greater – both to defend the hard fought gains we have already made but to continue the struggle until liberation has been achieved.
Part of that struggle is the right to name our oppression, the right to formulate and articulate an analysis of the causes of that oppression based on the material reality of our lives as women, and to organise collectively against those systems that oppress us.
Woman’s Place UK is a campaign formed to ensure women’s voices are heard in the debate around proposals to change the Gender Recognition Act (2004). We believe that women-only spaces, services and short-lists exist thanks to the struggle of women for their rights and liberation. We believe that sex-based violence against women still exists and that women need reserved places, separate spaces and distinct services. We believe that there needs to be consultation and discussion about how any changes to the GRA, particularly around the issue of self-identity, may impact on women’s services, spaces and rights.
Oppression is not about individual decision or personal choice. The oppression of women is systemic affecting every aspect of our life. It is an oppression based on our biological sex and enforced in part by a rigid gender binary. Most of us will understand gender as a construct. But we have to be clear – it is not something that as individuals we can construct or deconstruct. It is not a spectrum along which we can choose to identify. It is created by, and is the tool of, an exploitative system to enforce the oppression of women.
Our aim is not the queering of gender, but the eradication of gender. That cannot be achieved by individual identity choices; it can only be achieved by collective action and struggle.
We believe that trans people are oppressed and that trans people should be able to live free of fear from violence, persecution and discrimination. Trans people should not be attacked, abused, discriminated against, or denied their rights in any way. The issue of amendments to the GRA are complex issues that need debate and discussion so that the rights of trans people can be advanced in a way that doesn’t compromise or affect the rights of women. We should all be committed to a comradely, respectful discussion and debate.
But in this area of debate women’s voices, as has happened so much over history, are being marginalised and silenced. A lesbian has been forced out of her role as woman’s officer, women Labour Party members have been suspended. The Women’s Equality Party have forced their spokesperson on violence against women to resign.
Over and over again women are being labelled as bigots. These women are socialists, trade unionists, feminists; women who have committed their lives to not only fighting women’s oppression but to fighting all forms of injustice and to creating a fair and equal society. To have their concerns, our concerns, dismissed and silenced is simply not acceptable.
The issue of self-identity in this debate is one of the most contentious. The position that a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman, imposes on women an understanding of women’s oppression arising from identity rather than from sex. We have to able to talk about sex-based oppression for that is the material reality of women’s lives. We have to be able to talk about female biology, female bodies; bodies controlled by legislation, by violence, by gender stereotypes, by systemic oppression. Sex is a protected characteristic. Sex matters for if we cannot talk about sex, how can we talk about sexism.
We live in a society in which women are still subject to the risk of male violence and systemic oppression. We need to be able to organise with other women when we choose to. We have a right to sex-specific spaces like changing rooms, domestic violence services and refuges.
Genuine solutions can be found in the provision of more facilities for those who are oppressed, not enforcing competition between oppressed groups. There are real differences between the ways in which women are oppressed and the related, but distinct, oppression of trans people. The basis for a united struggle exists, but it cannot be created in an atmosphere of abuse and intimidation.
It can only be created through respectful debate and discussion, even when we disagree, and by uniting against those that oppress us all: the right-wing press and establishment that fan the flames of both transphobia and misogyny, and the Tory government that has brutally cut services to both women and trans people; a Tory government that seeks to divide and set us against each other in competition for scarce resources.
Meetings and discussion are a good start, but we must become active in campaigns to defend women’s rights and services, in our unions, in anti-austerity campaigns. It is only through collective action that women’s liberation will be achieved.