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Artillery Row

Announcing feminism is dead won’t kill it

The history of the gender debate is being obscured

In 2012, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave her TedxEuston speech, “We Should All Be Feminists”, defining feminism as “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes”.

It seemed so uncontentious, even mild, that the short book of her speech is now in its fourth edition, and women have gifted this tiny tome to each other throughout the world. Many women arrive at a feminist position after male violence has touched their lives. They seek help after men have hurt them and then look to how they can help other women in return. For those women it is the fight against male violence in all its forms, including structural and political, which brings them together to demand a world free of male oppression. Of course, not all women are forced to be feminists and many choose not to be. Being a feminist is difficult, interminable work with little direct reward in the lifetime of those women fighting the years of oppression by men. 

They begged other women to listen to them

At present we seem to have an emerging trend of “GC” (Gender Critical) women taking it in turns to declare that they are definitely “not a feminist”. They announce it with pride and in some instances with a very scathing attitude toward those women who remain committed to a feminist analysis of patriarchy and its ills. Some are keen to stress that they are very grateful to feminist women down the decades for the advances from which they themselves have benefited, in being able to work, divorce, own property, press charges against rape in marriage etc. Alongside this performative nod to feminist successes, however, is a sneering wave of the hand in the direction of feminist women. They are accused of having failed altogether in opposing the aggressive assault on women’s rights from trans activism. Such women moan that feminists did little to tell them of what was going on. They say that we “dropped the ball” and waved in “gender identity” at the expense of sex. They assert that feminists stayed quiet because we were afraid of, or trying to appease, left-wing men. They complain that they didn’t hear feminist voices on the topic and so declare, somewhat peevishly, that feminist women can’t have been shouting loud enough. We failed the very women who are now doing a much better job of “spreading the word”. 

Many feminist women whose voices were hoarse with shouting a decade ago are exasperated at such accusations. The frustrated challenge “Where were they? was uttered by Julie Bindel during her screened conversation with Helen Joyce for the website Unherd, about the lack of wisdom in allying with the men of the far right. Bindel was referring to the metaphor increasingly used by some GC women of “the house is on fire and our children are inside!”. Bindel said of those women,

I say this … I say that it’s been on fire for a long, long time and our children and our women have been inside, being murdered by men, being sexually abused by men, being raped as children by men … that house has been raging with flames, those children have been caught inside it, where were they?

This challenge by Julie Bindel was partly a defence of feminism from these barbed attacks. Bindel has spent her time fighting against the many forms of male violence against women for decades and knows that a feminist perspective is necessary if we are ever to prevail in that fight. It was also a clear defence of women who have been raising the alarm about the pernicious influence of trans activists for a very long time. Bindel was one of the first to oppose the demands of trans activism, which she saw very early on as a threat to all the other issues of women’s rights. 

Indeed, many of the small body of women screaming themselves hoarse about the risks of allowing men to identify as women, were also volunteering in women’s services and helping to drag women and children out alive from the flame-filled houses of their lives with violent men. It was an exhausting, demoralising task with women constantly exhorting other women to look at what was happening as they tried to organise women-only meeting spaces with men demanding access, as they saw men entering domestic violence refuges and rape crisis centres and prisons. They saw it; they screamed about it; they wrote about it — they begged other women to listen to them. 

Those women, some of them now with large platforms, called these feminist women “bigot” and “TERF” and turned away. If they did not hear about the dangers, it was because they weren’t paying sufficient attention. It cannot be blamed on the feminist women who were emotionally raw and bloodied with the effort of trying to make themselves heard, one by one, from woman to woman, until finally other women began to wake up and pass the word down the line. That word is now on the streets, but it did not drop out of the sky and straight onto a t-shirt. It got there because feminist women kept shouting against a wall of resistance and disbelief. 

The businesswoman and activist Kellie-Jay Keen recently declared, “I didn’t know anything! I couldn’t have raised the alarm if I wanted to!” She claims women didn’t tell her about any of it, and that they therefore failed to prevent the situation we are now in. This isn’t quite true, and that must be addressed for the sake of accuracy. In an exchange with a woman using the twitter account @Firewomon in January 2014, Keen using her account @ThePosieParker was told, “Nor are lesbians bigots for rejecting dick.” She replied, “Bigotry is bigotry from whichever place it comes … You are a bigot and are prejudiced. The oppressed bullying others … Yuck.”

Unbuckling from feminism allows them to ignore other issues affecting women

It is wonderful that women have realised that they were wrong — and many, many women have — but it is utterly unfair to say that no woman tried to tell you, that those women failed other women. Women like Keen who say that feminism failed to tell them should rather be wondering what stopped them from listening. 

Another newly-popular area of attack accuses “academic feminists” of too easily relinquishing “Women’s Studies” departments in favour of “Gender Studies”. It is asserted by what I will call here “Feminist-Critical” women that this was the beginning of the rise to power of transgender activists, that their genuflection to the separation of sex and gender has led to the current position where men are able to declare themselves lesbians or to access female only spaces.

How hard it must be for women like Professor Beverley Skeggs, for example, to hear that she did nothing, that women like her simply handed over the reins to the gender brigade and their demands that there be a recategorization of the word “woman”. As far back as 1995 Skeggs wrote, “Women’s Studies … is taking a kicking and we are the body bags. It is in these conditions that we will continue to fight.” Renate Klein and Diane Bell, defending Women’s Studies in 1996 wrote, “Stubbornly, defiantly, we hold on to that truth. There is such a thing as woman.” 

Many women fought. They did not stay quiet as their departments were declared obsolete or too wedded to the “chastity of the word woman”. Most of the women who stocked these departments had originally arrived there from the street, from protest and radical feminist organising. They saw academia as a way to formalise such protest, a way to legitimise and advance the causes of women’s rights on a footing that would have respectability and socio-political bite. Now women are biting feminist academic women and saying that only what is said in the streets is worth hearing. It is a bizarre state of affairs. 

These women conveniently unbuckle themselves from feminism as it allows them the freedom to ignore other issues affecting women, to ally with men who would derail the liberation of women in a heartbeat and to pursue an individualist path where they cannot be criticised for the way their actions impact other women. Keen has declared that feminism has “lost” and “I think in order to save women we will have to abandon feminism”.

She is saying this against a backdrop of feminist-established, feminist-led services battling a chronic lack of funding, staffed with devoted volunteers who are also pushing back the trans activist wolf from the door, so that they can take in women who would otherwise die tonight at the hands of men. Not enough of them are brave enough yet, but we must make sure they become so. Sisterhood is powerful. It is not lazy. It is tough, and it will roll up its sleeves over and over again to save women from men, their demands and their violence. Don’t ask what feminists were doing when you weren’t listening; think about what they are still doing now that you are. 

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