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Defending women’s spaces, again

An essential book that should not have had to be written

Artillery Row Books

It’s ten years since someone first suggested to me that trans activism might be putting women and girls at risk. It’s not that I didn’t have some vague doubts before then. I just didn’t expect anyone to take the concept of gender identity to its logical conclusion. 

I didn’t think trans women would make such demands

So what if it was sexist and frankly incoherent? So are lots of things. When it comes to feminism, I told myself, you have to pick your battles. Then I spoke to a woman involved in the male violence against women (MVAW) sector.

“The place where I’d draw the line,” she said, “is with male people demanding access to women’s refuges. That’s the thing that worries me.”

I stared at her, unsure what to say. What I thought was, but no one would do that. It just wouldn’t happen. And if it happened, people would stop it

I didn’t think trans women would make such demands. After all, weren’t they divesting themselves of male entitlement, rather than extending its reach? Nor did I think anyone who worked in or funded refuges would allow it. The entire argument struck me as setting a boundary for the sake of it, perhaps even an attempt to make trans women look bad. 

Defending Women’s Spaces, Karen Ingala Smith (Polity, £15.99 paperback, £50 hardback)

One decade later, it is hard to express the view that a women’s refuge — or a rape crisis centre — should not accept male clients who claim to be women. The shift from “anyone who suggests this might happen is fearmongering” to “anyone who suggests there’s a problem with this happening is fearmongering” has been remarkably swift. Despite the exceptions permitted by the 2010 Equality Act, it is now incredibly difficult for those who work in the MVAW sector to insist on female-only spaces, lest their reputations, safety and funding be put at risk. Karen Ingala Smith (CEO of nia) and Shonagh Dillon (CEO of Aurora New Dawn) are unusual because they have held the line, speaking out on behalf of vulnerable clients in the face of accusations of bigotry and transphobia. 

Ingala Smith’s book Defending Women’s Spaces should not have needed to be written. Published on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, it asks for nothing more than the maintenance of protections that women of my generation took for granted. 

“It’s interesting,” Ingala Smith tells me, “how things we deemed obvious we now have to prove and justify and explain.” When women-only refuges were first established in the 1970s, people “understood immediately why they needed to be women-only”. Since then, no one has been able to challenge the proposition that men are more violent than women; they self-evidently are. The way around this, half a century later, has been to claim that some men are not men at all. 

How one reads Defending Women’s Spaces depends on how much one allows oneself to engage with ideas that have suddenly become dangerous. Ingala Smith describes long talks with her publisher about “acceptability and use of language”. It is not that no one understands what the word “woman” means any more, but rather that open understanding leads to extreme social censure. By contrast, ostentatious not-understanding has become a winning strategy for anyone wishing to appear more progressive than the common herd. At one point Ingala Smith quotes columnist Ellie Mae O’Hagan, who asserts that “no one” knows “why some people are women … and anyone who claims to know the answer to this question is a liar”. 

There is a highly selective dumbness at play when asked to prioritise women

The consequences of this insincerity masquerading as generosity can be profoundly harmful to traumatised women seeking a place in which to heal. Why is their pain seen as counting for so little? In Down Girl, the philosopher Kate Manne uses the term “himpathy” to describe excessive sympathy extended towards male people at the expense of female victims of violence and sexual trauma. I’m convinced Manne is onto something (not least because she herself has refused to condemn the abuse of gender-critical female philosophers, which is presumably justified on the basis that siding with the males no longer counts as “himpathy” if the latter change pronouns). The problem was always there, but the linguistic trickery of trans ideology has eased the transfer of emotional identification from low-value females to higher-value males. 

There will be those who do not read Ingala Smith’s book but alight on the title to announce, smugly, that they too defend women’s spaces — “but for all women!” Some will, like O’Hagan, insist that terrified women are play-acting when they claim to know a man when they see one — “how do they do this? Chromosome tests at the door?” Still others will call for feminists to reinvent the wheel — “why don’t these bigots set up refuges of their own?” 

All of them are being dishonest. You cannot think sex is arbitrarily assigned whilst agitating for blockers to fend off “the wrong puberty”. You cannot insist all sex offenders demanding access to women’s prisons are genuinely trans whilst claiming it is obvious the Colorado Springs shooter is not. There is a highly selective dumbness at play when people are asked to prioritise the inner lives and needs of women and girls. 

At one point Ingala Smith describes victims of domestic abuse being gaslighted by the very people they have turned to for help:

When you’ve been told you’re stupid or mad for long enough, being told something that is clearly false by someone who tells you they are on your side can be extremely confusing … Part of the role of those supporting women who are rebuilding their lives after men’s violence and all the knock-on impacts of abuse is to help women learn to trust themselves again — not to replace the lies with which the abuser has filled their head with a new version. Not to replace the doubt in their heads about their perception with a false reality, and not to make them feel bad about themselves by accusing them of bigotry.

This is an extremely powerful point. It does not matter whether a male person comes into a female-only space with the intention of inflicting physical harm. When you tell a traumatised woman that she must reframe her perceptions in order to accept him, and that her own view of reality must once again be subordinate to his, you are already inflicting harm. 

It is the same harm inflicted, even if at a lower level, every time a woman or girl is told that her perception of reality — if not her fear — makes her a bigot who needs to “do better”. It is particularly unforgiveable when it becomes an extension of sustained abuse, delivered in the guise of support. 

Ingala Smith did not decide to write a book — she was already engaged with her work with nia, plus the Counting Dead Women project and a PhD she is about to complete — but was approached by a publisher. Then, she said, “I didn’t want anybody else to write that book”. The final length is twice what was originally anticipated. It has taken time, and whilst it has not lessened the impact of her activism, there is a great injustice to the fact that someone with her experience should have to make this case at all. 

“It just shows how clever patriarchy is in making women redo the work,” she says. “No sooner are we making progress, than we have to explain something we knew a century ago.” But Defending Women’s Spaces explains it clearly and powerfully. It shouldn’t have had to be written, but it needs to be read. 

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