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Artillery Row

Resisting the gender Goliath

Why the Post Office story resonated with gender-critical feminists

I do not expect an outpouring of public sympathy when I say that there are parallels between today’s fight to defend women’s rights and the recent Post Office scandal. 

But it’s true. 

One of the cruellest facts to come out of the recent ITV drama is that each postmaster or postmistress experiencing difficulties with the new computer system was told that he or she was the only one having such problems. The belief that you are on your own with a problem is isolating and serves to exacerbate guilty suspicions that it might all be your fault. It amounts to an insidious form of gaslighting.

There is a parallel here with the fight for women’s rights

There is a parallel here with the current fight for women’s rights. The trans lobby has been successful in isolating women who challenge the erosion of their rights or assert their right to hold a different opinion. Women who have lost jobs, been sidelined or ostracised, been housed with males in prisons or shelters, lost sporting opportunities, or have simply written about or campaigned on the correct application of the law, have been repeatedly told they are the only one who is complaining. Nobody else has a problem with this, we are told. It must be a fault with you, therefore you must be a hateful bigot. 

I can hear the protest now: how can you compare a group of ordinary honest upstanding members of local communities, lied to by a powerful organisation, with a bunch of bigoted TERFs? Well — women didn’t become campaigners overnight, and they didn’t do it for the fun of it, just as the sub postmasters didn’t. 

Women too started out as ordinary, upstanding members of local communities, and then something happened to alert them to the fact that something was going wrong — whether at their child’s school, or the local Guides group, or in the office, hospital or at their local Parkrun, and they began talking about it. Ten years ago this was a very difficult thing to do, and not many did. It has taken years for individual women to know they are not alone. Now there is a much stronger sense of safety in numbers, and a corresponding increase in women speaking up and campaigning. These honest ordinary women did not change, but the way they were referred to did, through a coordinated smear campaign to discredit each and every one of them. 

This silencing tactic works. The public shaming of women who speak out deters others from joining in. Just as in the case of the Post Office scandal, it has taken many years and a lot of campaigning to swell the ranks of those prepared to take the risk of telling the truth about what has happened to them. The current case of Rachel Meade illustrates how difficult speaking up has been made to be, and the terrible effect it can have on ordinary women’s lives. Rachel has been exonerated by the recent court decision, but she has paid a price over the last two years, and there are still many women who remain uncompensated for lost work and income. 

The accusations against sub postmasters are hard to watch when you know the truth: it goes against a natural sense of justice and fairness. There are many women still being blamed for things they didn’t do: accusations of hate and bigotry are ten a penny but women have also been falsely blamed for violence against trans people and even murder and suicide, simply for asserting reality.

The Post Office drama has increased public awareness of the scandal, but the story has in fact repeatedly been reported in the press over the years and many people were already aware of it. I assumed that because a news story had been on the Today programme it meant it was being dealt with, which was naïve considering what I know now. The story of the trans versus women’s rights debate has been similarly saturated with stories of people behind the scenes not doing their jobs properly. There has rarely been an instance where “assuming something is being dealt with” has been justified. Rights enshrined in law to make life safer and fairer for women have been routinely overlooked in favour of the opinions of minority lobby groups.  Nobody has been looking out for women — not even the established women’s groups. Although today many more politicians have educated themselves on the issues than was the case ten years ago, we are still in a climate where it is possible for Labour MP Kate Osborne to tweet without shame that her new year’s resolution is to “block TERFs.”  

The main effect of dramatising the Post Office story has been to increase public sympathy and understanding, and consequently the demand on politicians to do something. Drama is powerful because it tells the stories of people’s lives that other people can relate to. The trans lobby has been historically very good at getting personal stories out in the media, whether about children “born in the wrong body” but finally “accepted for who they really are” or of “stunning, brave” middle-aged men discovering their “inner woman”. The media has lapped up this emotionally manipulative framing of trans lives and failed to represent the alternative viewpoint: the agony of detransitioners for example, or the humiliation and abuse of transwidows. The drama has all been one way and public sympathy has been manipulated. 

The BBC, despite its guidelines on impartiality, has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to sympathetically dramatising the lives of trans people whilst ignoring or downplaying the effects on real women’s lives. A recent piece on women’s pool for example, neglected to tell the story of the woman who lost her chance at a title, in favour of an emotive piece on the feelings of the trans-identified male player. A previous report on the recent decision by British Cycling to preserve the female category for female riders told the story from the point of view of a gay man rather than the women who were actually affected by the new policy. The BBC follows the lobbyists’ lead on this and, where expedient to do so, ditches the word “trans” in favour of the acronym LGBTQ to suggest that a policy against “trans” (male) inclusion is also a policy against the gay community. It deflects from the actual issue, which is useful in stories where the actual issue is clearly indefensible, like male inclusion in female sport. 

In television drama, a similar picture emerges. ITV’s Emmerdale and Coronation Street, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks and BBC’s Casualty have all portrayed trans narratives sympathetically, even when touching on controversial aspects of trans people’s lives. For example, so-called top surgery is sugar-coated and normalised in a Casualty storyline about a “trans non-binary” character, and the Hollyoaks prison storyline concentrates on a “transphobic attack” on the trans character rather than the real threat to women in prison forced to share  accommodation with males. Whilst the ITV drama about the Post Office scandal sought to right a historical wrong, the examples here of trans inclusion in drama seek to present one side of a contentious issue and to discredit the other. The real stories of young people who regret their transition or surgery do not appear in soap operas, and neither do the stories of women terrified by male prison inmates who say they are women. Watching the Scottish prison debacle play out last year you could be forgiven for thinking that politicians form their opinions based on TV dramas rather than facts and evidence. Drama is not always a force for good. 

The most painful aspect of the Post Office drama, and the one which resonated most strongly, was the palpable sense of disbelief from the people affected so badly. Firstly, the disbelief that the computer was generating random numbers with no apparent link to the facts, and then the disbelief that no explanation was listened to or acknowledged, and finally the disbelief that once the problem did come to light nothing was done to rectify it. I have watched as women from all walks of life have struggled to believe what was happening to them. From the women in prison protesting that they are expected to share a shower with people who ten minutes ago everybody agreed were men, to the swimmers looking at the strapping male in the lane next to them and silently asking “why doesn’t anybody else see what I see?” We cannot understand why nobody else will just acknowledge the truth anymore, we cannot believe that this is happening to us. We wonder if we’re going mad.

But, as I said at the start, I don’t expect much sympathy. We’ll have to wait a long time I suspect for a sympathetic scriptwriter to see the drama in the story of grassroots women’s revolt and write something which will capture the hearts and minds of the whole nation. In the meantime, maybe one of our creative satirical writers like Simon Edge could come up with an idea for a brilliant satirical drama. That should at least give us all a good laugh.  

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