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Artillery Row

Academics attack!

Attempts are being made to silence gender critical women

As a woman with nearly 30 years’ experience challenging male violence against women and girls, I’m used to people — overwhelmingly men — attacking my work. I’ve received hate mail and menacing phone calls; I’ve been trolled on social media and faced attempts to defund my charity. Every effort to shut us down just reinforces the necessity of our work and makes us even more determined to continue working to end male violence against women, in all its forms.

Those who seek to silence us are endlessly inventive. Recently, Nicola Sturgeon was forced into a humiliating backtrack over the placement of rapist Adam “Isla Bryson” Graham in a women’s prison. Smearing defenders of women’s single-sex spaces as “bigots” and insisting that there is “no debate” about the implications of gender self-identification is increasingly crumbling in the face of growing public scrutiny. The wider public is now beginning to see what feminist women have been ringing the alarm bell about for years. There is no place for men, however they identify, in women’s single-sex spaces.

Yet the men’s rights activists still keep coming for us. Now, on top of Dave*, the angry ex who is furious that his partner has dared to leave him and sends threatening messages to my organisation, I have Dr B. E. Kind-You-Bitch and Professor Foucault-Fanboy**, writing to my university to protest at the award of my doctoral thesis in 2021. My thesis has the title “#TERF/Bigot/Transphobe — we found the witch, burn her!” It’s a study of how practitioners within the male violence against women and girls sector are navigating on the ground, everyday, the push to prioritise gender identity over sex. It is also about the demonisation of those women who object to this.

I was accused of insufficient genuflection at the altar of queer theory

The usual way to object to an argument that you disagree with in academia is to write a counter piece and publish it. You show that the argument is flawed, that there are errors in the evidence base or that it has been misinterpreted. When you have no actual arguments or evidence base, you do what Dr B. E. Kind-You-Bitch and Professor Foucault-Fanboy do. You organise a collective letter of protest, pretend that you are not at all motivated by the subject matter and send it to the awarding institution. Thus, in the summer of 2022, I was made aware that senior staff across the University of Portsmouth, my supervisors, the ethics committee and my viva examiners had received a letter in which 19 signatories expressed “serious concern about … an institutional failure on the part of the University of Portsmouth to instil and uphold the highest standards of academic research … in a piece of doctoral research …

Of course, the complaint was not simultaneously sent to me — it is best that the witch has no idea of the accusation of her “crime”, let alone be invited to attend her trial. It is better to just get her on that cucking stool and watch her words and work drown before she has a chance to defend herself. 

Given that the signatories did not have the courage to put their complaints out in the public, I won’t bother to do so here. Suffice to say that I was accused of insufficient genuflection at the altar of queer theory, alongside some spurious accusations about the (watertight) ethics of my online ethnography. Like many institutions terrified of the witch hunters, the reaction of the University of Portsmouth was to launch a months-long investigation into my doctoral research, which I was largely locked out of despite my persistent requests to be kept updated. Unsurprisingly, it found no wrongdoing on my part.

The aim of these letters is to burn a witch. A visual bonfire is great, but a more common tactic is the slow burn, one where the witch finders light the match under a woman’s career, where they make people think twice about supporting the work of the witch, of standing near the witch, of making sure that if you touch the witches work you are at best caught up in endless bureaucracy of complaints and made to answer for your association. Worst of all, if you dare to agree with her, you must spend the rest of your career denying that you caught the witch’s warts.

If you are a woman who has taken a gender critical stance in the sex and gender debate, either by raising a question within your workplace or more publicly campaigning on the issue, you know this goes on behind your back. You know you are getting locked out of conversations, that underhand tactics are afoot, that your social media is being policed and your work is being smeared. I don’t want to make this about me as an individual, as that would make the incident isolated, and it is not. This kind of bullying is systematic, and it is everywhere, in every institution and industry. I’ve spoken to women from academia to engineering who have had similar experiences. I am not special in being targeted, and those academics certainly aren’t original. 

You might get a cheap thrill, but your tactics don’t work in the long term

In direct contrast to the tactics of the vexatious complainers I describe above, I attended a conference in London at the weekend, organised by UCL and Woman’s Place UK. The theme of the day was Education for Women’s Liberation, and there’s nothing quite as excellent as 900 women coming together to discuss and debate. The speech by equality and discrimination legal expert and Barrister, Akua Reindorf, was a particular highlight for me. Akua talked about how academic freedom and freedom of speech should be gold plated in universities. She made reference to the tactics of those who wish to silence women doing gender critical research, and she talked about the chilling effect these activists create. 

The youngest woman I spoke to at the conference was 15, and she’s doing a research project on feminism for her GCSEs. The oldest woman I got chatting to talked about the conferences she attended in the early 1980s. I told her my first feminist conference was when I’d just turned 18, and we both reminisced about our early days. 

This is the message I send to my pen pals and their friends. You might get a short fix from writing your little letters, a cheap thrill, but your tactics don’t work in the long term. It’s OK if you choose not to engage with us, because in 30 years’ time I know that glorious 15 year old will be a woman having conversations at conferences with young feminists who are attending for their first time — and that young feminist will meet the next sister, and she will meet the next, and so it goes on. 

I don’t know what bullshit backlash they will be fighting off from your lot by then, but one thing is for certain: fight they will. 

* Dave is not a real person, but an amalgam of various nasty violent men I have encountered in the course of my work.

** Dr B. E. Kind and Professor Foucault-Fanboy are also not real persons.

*** There is no reason why Dave, Dr B. E. Kind-You-Bitch and Professor Foucault-Fanboy cannot be one and the same person.

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