Supporters at the Women's Equality Party policy launch on October 20, 2015 in London, England. The party was founded in March 2015 by Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Mayer. (Photo by Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is the Women’s Equality Party really for women?

The WEP has been neutered by the same sexist stereotypes it claims to fight against

It’s easy to mock fringe groups like the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), but they exist for a very good reason; as a “class”, women have yet to achieve equality at work, home or within the public sphere.

Some contrarians, myself amongst them, take the Dworkin line, arguing that equality with men is merely “a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.” This makes us popular at parties. Nevertheless, WEP do good by fighting for, amongst other things, equal representation in parliament, the pharmaceutical industry to not treat men’s bodies as the default, and for an end to the pay gap between the sexes. Aside from their do-gooding blandness, unless one is a raging misogynist it would be hard to find much with which to object in their aims. They are open to men, arguing that “equality is good for everyone” and that “we need men in our movement if we’re going to make the UK a fairer place.”

A year after the party was founded in 2016, co-founder Sandi Toksvig addressed a large TedX audience with characteristic comedic candour, she explained that she was motivated to set-up WEP because: “I’ve been promised equality all my life, and all I got were empty promises and disappointment.” At that time there was huge optimism, with seventy regional groups forming within months, and ingenuous schemes such as free childcare to enable women to stand in elections. The purpose was less a serious bid to gain power, but more an attempt to put women’s rights on the political agenda.

Men have a freedom to offend that is rarely afforded women

Today many of those who once supported the party have been left disappointed. At their conference this weekend WEP opted to duck out of the feminist debate of our time; they declined to clarify who the party represents. It seems the “Women’s Equality Party” is unsure as to whether “women” refers to the sex class of adult human females or the nebulous notion of “gender identity” as favoured by transgender activists. In order to settle the somewhat archaic sounding “woman question”, WEP have been running a consultation, as their spokeswoman told me:

We are proud to be delivering an inclusive consultation with our members that gives us the best chance of finding common ground on a divisive issue. Our consultation includes a randomly selected assembly, just like the one that was used in Ireland on abortion rights, where members can listen, learn and build towards consensus. It’s one of the many ways in which the Women’s Equality Party is doing politics differently.

When one thinks beyond the buzz words, it suddenly seems quite ludicrous that a party established to advance the rights of women is unable to confidently define who is a woman. Indeed, when asked whether it is WEP policy that “trans women are women”, the WEP spokeswoman chose to ignore the question. Of course, this battle is one that rages throughout public life from policy makers to police forces, but notably it is those within the so-called “women’s sector” itself who are most coy about having the “sex talk”.

WEP’s consultation is in part a belated response to a row that erupted over the dismissal in 2018 of Dr Heather Brunskell Evans. After a three-hour meeting, followed by a three-month investigation, the esteemed feminist academic was booted from her elected position as WEP spokeswoman for policy on Violence Against Women and Girls. Her crime? She had appeared on the BBC’s Moral Maze where she expressed the view:

A genuinely progressive society would allow boys and girls to be whatever they want to be, so I am absolutely perfectly happy if boys want to wear dresses … but the problem comes when we decide that the child is genuinely internally … not a boy but a girl, and that is where we get into trouble. So, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with a boy’s body if he wants to wear a dress.

Women are castigated for fighting for our right to be exclusionary

Transgender activists complained, publicly calling Dr Brunskell Evans a “transphobe” amongst other slurs on social media; an inquiry was immediately launched. Dr Brunskell Evans was asked to sign a confidentiality clause which she believes was to protect the WEP, she declined to do so and has since gone on to talk openly about her treatment. Some months later, during a public feminist meeting to discuss the Gender Recognition Act, Dr Brunskell Evans confronted then Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker telling her: “the whole process of being divested of my role has demonstrated to me, Sophie, that the policy of WEP, deeply embedded within it is that there’s no more category of women.”

Belatedly reading the feminist runes, in 2018 Sophie Walker presented a motion calling for open discussion of the GRA. The following year Sophie Walker left to head the Young Women’s Trust. Mandu Reid, who took over WEP in 2019, has been equivocal on the need for women’s sex-based rights. After her election as leader in 2019 Mandu told PinkNews that “trans women are women… (b)ut they’re women among a rich tapestry of what it means to be a woman, of which we all are a part.” This is of course a half-arsed cliché; “woman” isn’t some metaphorical soft furnishing; it is simply a biological category of sex.

As discussed previously in The Critic, the idea that one’s internal sense of identity is more important than reality has permeated civil society, but one might expect that those who claim to represent women would understand why it is essential to see sex in order to combat sexism; without this most basic division we are fighting whilst blindfolded. But this is not the case, from the fusty and formidable Fawcett Society to earth mother ethos of Red Tent, women’s organisations have not only failed to condemn the harassment of those who stand-up for sex-based rights, they have at times actively promoted policies designed to change the definition of “women” to include men. Not one major women’s organisation spoke in support of survivor JK Rowling when she disclosed the abuse she had suffered in an attempt to explain why women’s sex-based rights mattered to her. It seems women’s sector organisations are not only excessively kind to men who claim to be women, they also police behaviour by leaving witches out for the mob as an example.

Politics isn’t about ‘being kind’, it’s about the application of power

Definitions are exclusionary; words exist to articulate difference. It is not cruel to say women are “adult human females” with specific needs, it is simply a fact. The role of gender, that is to say the social expectations imposed on women and men according to sex, is powerful. If evidence of this was ever needed it can be found in the response to women who opt to put their own interests as a group first. Women are castigated for fighting for our right to be exclusionary; online feminists are routinely smeared as fascists by transgender activists and even in parliament politicians like Liz Truss are smeared as “lacking empathy”. It seems men have a freedom to offend that is rarely afforded women; they are not bound by the expectation to “be kind” and they are less likely to be hung-out to dry by their own.

But politics isn’t about being mindful of the feelings of one’s opponents, it is about the application of power. One has to ask, what is the point of a political party that is too “kind” to adversaries to be effective: would the Socialist Worker Party feel pressure to be inclusive of sweatshop owners to spare their feelings? By pretending there is any debate to be had about the material reality of sex, WEP have made themselves irrelevant. They have been neutered by the very sexist stereotypes they claim to fight.

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