Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Think about the consequences

Gender-critical women are being courageous, but they should not have to be

Artillery Row

Over the past weekend, over 1,400 women gathered in Glasgow for FiLia, Europe’s largest grassroots feminist conference. As spokeswoman Raquel Rosario Sanchez reports in the Times, the event was an enormous success, despite last-minute attempts by anti-feminists to force the venue to cancel.

These are the conditions feminists must put up with in order to meet

“They tried to shut us up,” she writes. “Women persisted and our voices blasted over Scotland louder than ever.”

I did not attend the conference but have watched some clips online. Scenes from inside the venue look wonderful and inspiring; those from outside, less so. There, male-led mobs gathered to harass and intimidate women. Whilst I am conscious that those gathered were using a social justice-based excuse for their behaviour, I cannot be bothered to pretend to take it seriously. Men whose idea of a good time is shouting “fuck off”, through a loudspeaker at women who remind them of their mums, are the last people on earth to take any interest in challenging gender norms.

I am glad that FiLia took place, and part of me wishes I’d been there. Seeing the mobs outside, though, part of me is glad that I wasn’t. I don’t think I’m a coward. I have attended and spoken at numerous events that have attracted anti-feminist bullies. I am familiar with running the gauntlet, and I understand that these are the conditions that feminists must put up with in order to meet. They shouldn’t be, though. It shouldn’t be a choice that any of us have to make.

Because women are determined — because of, in Sanchez’s words, “the perseverance of women undaunted in the protection of their rights” — women still meet and speak and write. We are then told that women are not being silenced at all. Look at us, complaining that bullies are shutting us up when everyone can still hear our shrill woman-voices! If women were really silenced — truly, properly silenced — none of this would be happening. The fact that we haven’t vanished completely is meant to show, as Umut Özkirimli puts it in Cancelled, that “cancel culture is a myth, the proverbial monster under the bed”.

Look at me, for instance. It’s not as if attending any feminist conferences killed me. It’s not as if anyone even assaulted me. What have I, or any others, to complain about? Can’t we just put up with a few “fuck off”s?

It is more than that, though. The more I see trivialisation of what women are being put through, the more I feel as though some of the most fundamental feminist insights about women’s lives are being dismissed. It’s just more of women’s work being made invisible, more sacrifices taken for granted, more choices that are not choices at all. If a woman still turns up to an event, despite all the threats she’s endured, she’s considered to enjoy the same freedoms as those who have faced no threats whatsoever. If her article or her book still gets written, despite multiple attempts to stop it, there’s no recognition of all the additional effort she’s had to make. If one word offends, there’s no acknowledgement of all the truths she’s edited out.

The cost is not just in time and work. It is also, and perhaps more seriously, an emotional one. When I look at the misogynists — I will not call them protestors — outside Filia, and consider how traumatising some women must find their behaviour, I think a huge emotional price is being paid by those attending. It doesn’t lessen that cost at all that women are courageous enough to pay it. Women are not consenting to being treated this way; they are placed in a double-bind.

If women do not organise and do not speak, it is claimed they are not being silenced. It is simply assumed that these women have nothing to say, and that they agree to whatever is happening around them. The fact that other women do organise — even in the face of abuse — is seen to demonstrate that all women could do the same, if they really wanted to. This is how “choice” operates under patriarchy: be quiet, or suck it up. It’s not “cancel culture”; it’s “consequence culture”. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences, bitch.

It reminds me of street harassment and domestic abuse

If you are the kind of woman who opts to face the “consequences”, you can organise a feminist event and then be grateful if the venue doesn’t cancel. Should they try to cancel, you can be grateful if a legal intervention saves you. Should you be threatened, you can be grateful to security staff for staying on hand to protect you. You might have noticed that there is a lot of “being grateful” involved. Add to that “feeling guilty” for “causing so much trouble” (you could always, you know, just not do anything that provokes anyone). At no point will anyone — especially not the cancel culture denialists — feel guilty about what they are doing to you.

Nor will they acknowledge the harm inflicted on women attending and speaking at these events. I am loath to admit it, because I know that bullies delight in this sort of thing, but I find it shaming to walk past men who are screaming at me. I can’t think of the right expression to put on my face, the right way to walk, how to convey confidence, how to look as though I don’t hear it or I don’t care. It reminds me of street harassment, and it reminds me of domestic abuse. It reminds me of trying to walk straight when someone is dragging you, or trying to speak calmly when your voice is rising with fear. It reminds me of telling myself I’m not the one in the wrong, but feeling disgust at myself anyway. If you have been abused, you can often feel that if you told anyone, they’d find you lowly and a bit pathetic. Knowing that there are politicians and career feminists who’d support the men who are yelling at you in public — who’d treat it as evidence that yes, you must be a bad person — can trigger all sorts of disturbing memories.

Of course, it’s no better to brazen it out anyhow. We all know the cost of smiling. As Billy Bragg told Helen Joyce in response to her facing down bullies screaming her name, “This is you, right? Smiling like you’re enjoying yourself? I don’t call that harassment.” If vulnerability is deemed pathetic, strength is misrepresented as consent.

These are not conditions to which women have ever agreed, and they are not acceptable conditions. The only reason we endure them is because the alternative is not speaking at all. When I make decisions on whether to go to events, I can feel I am choosing between being silent and being humiliated by those outside. It doesn’t matter that I know I shouldn’t be the one to feel humiliated. This is how this sort of harassment functions.

However brave women are, we are still being censored. Feminist conferences might still take place, and feminist books still get published, but that doesn’t mean there is not much more being held back. There are plenty of women who have far more to say than they are actually saying. This unacknowledged silence replicates, in public space, all the private, decades-long silences of women living in “peaceful” relationships, holding their tongues, knowing by a glance when not to overstep the mark. None of the silence is appreciated. No one thanks a woman for all the things she keeps in check.

“The talkativeness of women,” wrote Dale Spender in Man Made Language, “has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence”:

Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women. When silence is the desired state for women then any talk in which a woman engages can be too much.

I don’t wish to suggest that the Filia conference has not been a real triumph. It has been, thanks to the courage of the women there, but it’s a courage they shouldn’t need to call on. For now, the least we can do is acknowledge it in full.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover