Picture credit: Jorm Sangsorn/Getty
Artillery Row

The cost of dissent

Brave women have sacrificed a lot to stand up for their gender critical beliefs

Professor Jo Phoenix won her case against the Open University (OU), and the employment tribunal published a damning judgement which found the OU had discriminated against her for her gender critical beliefs. Aside from the monumental joy at watching Jo succeed in her deserved victory, what struck me was her testimony, in which she described the emotional impact of the targeted harassment she had been subjected to by her trans rights activist colleagues. 

The nature of an employment tribunal isn’t for the faint hearted — what claimant wouldn’t feel a level of trauma at the end of the process? But Jo’s eloquent and incredibly open testimony about the effects of the bullying, ostracization, and silencing of her ordeal is something many women have experienced, and I don’t think we talk about it enough.  

Many have drawn parallels to the tactics of trans rights activists and those used by abusive men. Journalist Julie Bindel, who has been raising her voice on this topic for the last two decades, recounts the loneliness she experienced and the physical threats she had to endure. Jo talked about her experience as a rape victim, and the familiar treatment of her ordeal at the OU and at the subsequent tribunal hearing.    

I wondered how some of the other women I know felt about their experiences. Shamefully I don’t think I have ever asked them before, and understandably their feelings range from anger, to anxiety, to a complete loss of trust in others: 

Dr Karen Ingala Smith, former CEO at nia and founder of Counting Dead Women:

Women got sent to prison and force fed for fighting for our right to vote, and now we have women paid considerable salaries to lead organisations that are supposed to represent the interests of women who are subjected to men’s violence saying that it’s ‘not safe’ for them to put their supposed beneficiaries first. Emotional impact? I’m mainly knackered, angry, and resentful. Yes, it’s fair to say I’m directing my anger at the wrong people, but I feel very let down by those who are supposed to put women first and are not doing so. Leadership of a women’s organisation isn’t just about management, it’s about making a difference, keeping the interests of women subjected to men’s violence on the political agenda, certainly not letting existing protections slip through our fingers.

Cathy Devine, independent researcher:

One of the hardest times for me was when the American pressure group Athlete Ally tried to get my Canadian research, commissioned by Sport Canada, defunded, and cancelled. I have never experienced such a public (or private) attack by other academics in the whole of my career. As an academic it was extremely stressful and deeply upsetting to be publicly accused of being unethical. This affected my sleep for several weeks/ As I lay awake with anxiety trying to work out what to do, I felt scared for my safety and worried someone would throw a brick through my windows, or worse. Inevitably this extremely stressful situation impacted on my family life. In my view this was the very purpose, to discredit me and publicly shame me.

Kiri Tunks, teacher, trade unionist, and co-founder of A Woman’s place UK:  

People with whom I had previously worked closely, just stopped talking to me and froze me out of conversations and campaigns. It has shaken my faith in people generally and made me question the principles and honesty of people I have worked with for decades.

Lucy Masoud, barrister and former firefighter: 

The lowest point for me was when I was still a firefighter and heavily involved in the aftermath of the Grenfell fire. It was then that Stonewall felt it appropriate to contact my employers and try to get me sacked. The utter entitlement of Stonewall to think the London Fire Brigade should prioritise their feelings over the deaths of 72 men, women, and children who burned to death in their beds. Even now it is exhausting having to explain to people why, as a black lesbian woman from a Muslim background, I am not a hateful bigot simply for supporting female only spaces.

Magi Gibson, poet: 

For years I kept it hidden just how much damage was being done to me. I felt that to reveal it would be both to play the victim game, which is part of the modus operandi of TRAs to silence challenges, and it would also risk allowing those who’d tried to break me to think that they’d somehow “won”. When wild, unevidenced claims are made against you — and it goes on for years — it rocks your belief in humanity, your ability to trust. It’s meant to bully you into silence – into withdrawal from public life. You get put through an emotional and psychological wringer, and experience a state of anxiety so intense it affects your health. At its worst it feels like a disintegration, intensified by the silence of people you thought would speak up.

Rosie Duffield MP: 

It can be exhausting due to the relentless and constant sexist abuse. I have every right as a female politician to champion women’s rights, and the majority of people in the UK are women, so it is my job to be active and vocal about our rights. One of the hardest aspects has been the total silence from prominent colleagues who agree with me. That has sometimes left me feeling completely isolated. However, the brutal truth is they are aware that in the current climate they have to decide on safeguarding their careers, to be recognised for promotion, over publicly voicing their honest views, concerns, or principles.

Many women are victims/survivors of men’s violence, which is perhaps in part why so many don’t speak up; they would rather not come under fire from the tactics of some trans rights activists, so they accept the demands of staying silent to “stay safe”. 

The reality is that we all know women who are way worse off — women who live with the most torturous men and endure violence and abuse every day. But it strikes me that by not sharing the emotional impact, feminists who raise their voices in this fight mirror victim/survivors’ responses. They minimise their experiences, push down their feelings, and look to their friends, declaring, “oh don’t worry I am fine, she’s had it way worse than me”

There is undoubtedly a personal cost to sticking your neck on the line in this debate, women don’t suddenly gain a flame-retardant cloak which leaves them unaffected by the smears and attacks. But it’s crucial not to read their testimonies as weakness. Far from it, despite the sleepless nights, anxiety, and anger, they carry on — and that takes a special kind of defiant bravery.

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