In 2015 Mary Beard signed a letter to the Guardian protesting an increase in censorship within universities, particularly in relation to feminists such as Germaine Greer. As if to demonstrate the problem, the backlash to the letter’s publication was severe, particularly for big-name signatories. Accusations of whorephobia, transphobia, any sort of feminism-related phobia, were rife. Beard was quick to express her distress, tweeting her frustration at being considered “either an out and out transphobe or dear old lady who hasn’t understood the issues”.
I feel like never speaking out again. After a day like today my head is not going above the parapet for a while. I’m a wasted target.
She was, pretty much, as good as her word. Irrespective of whether she intended to take on the “dear old lady” role with regard to this topic, that is what she did. Meanwhile, other female academics such as Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix and Laura Favaro became bigger targets for abuse, threats and exclusion. The anti-feminist censorship problem was real. It is not credible to claim that those who avoided its worst excesses could not have seen it coming.
I should mention that I also signed the letter, although mine was not the kind of name to attract any attention. Nonetheless, I’d already been exposed to the sort of accusations Beard was facing, having written a piece for the New Statesman about sex and gender a year previously. Witnessing other signatories back away from the topic to play dumb felt more than a little frustrating. There was never anything complicated or sneaky about it. No platforming, as the letter stated, “is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists”.
The feminists who hold these views have never advocated or engaged in violence against any group of people. Yet it is argued that the mere presence of anyone said to hold those views is a threat to a protected minority group’s safety.
Eight years on, we are witnessing the consequences of ignoring this rising trend, having reached a stage where any mention of sex-based rights is associated with the incitement of genocide. In the intervening years, intelligent, compassionate women have lost their jobs, had their research trashed and been subjected to serious threats to their safety.
It makes absolute sense to me that most female academics would wish to avoid this fate. As Beard noted in Women and Power, whatever opportunities women have, any authority they gain remains fragile. “It is not just that it is more difficult for women to succeed,” she writes. “They get treated much more harshly if ever they mess up.”
The only options are either hate or ladylike bewilderment
It is hardly fair to expect women to fall on their swords over one particular issue, simply because they are women. At the same time, neither is it fair for the price of continued acceptance to be falling silent over something so basic as what a woman is. By remaining silent, many women in academia — as in publishing and journalism — have tacitly accepted an added tax on their presence amongst the men. Those who refuse to pay it face increasingly harsh consequences, with the intimation being — contrary to the very restrained requests of the 2015 letter — that they could always have just shut up.
However unfair this is, it is not a situation with an individual opt-out clause. When intelligent women feign ignorance, this reinforces an expectation imposed on all women. This is why I find Beard’s recent interview with the Scottish Herald so disappointing. Asked about the sex and gender debate, the author of a book on female speech and antipathy to female authority claims not to “fully understand why, more than anything else, it’s proved to be an issue we find very hard to discuss”. Her argument that “people get terribly damaged on all sides” is a long way from 2015’s observation that feminists were being wrongly portrayed as hostile and threatening. Having once noted the injustice of being positioned as either “transphobe or dear old lady”, she retreats to a position in which not all people are transphobes because “many of them are puzzled, worried, about where this leaves cis women”. It is not considered that many women have simply reached a well-informed conclusion that others do not like. The options are either hate or ladylike bewilderment.
The female academics who have had their doors covered in urine, or required security to attend lectures, are neither bigoted nor confused. Their treatment echoes that of women such as Sophia Jex-Blake, whose determination to gain access to Edinburgh University in the 1870s is documented by Helen Lewis in Difficult Women:
Fireworks were attached to her door. Her nameplate was repeatedly defaced. She received obscene anonymous letters. Men accosted her in the backstreets of Edinburgh, shouting “anatomical terms which we could not fail to understand”. A petition against the women being allowed into the infirmary for practical experience gained 500 signatures. Jex-Blake suggests that some professors egged the men on, loudly suggesting that it was a wonder that nothing was thrown at the women.
I do not wish to suggest that women should pay a never-ending debt of gratitude to those who won us the freedoms we have today, thereby adding to the taxes that we owe and men do not. Nonetheless, academia should not be an environment in which women must engage in the ultra-feminine practice of pretending to know far less than we actually do. As soon as it becomes that, it dramatically reduces the value of what we have gained.
I, too, wish that we were not in this situation. Women should not have to sacrifice their status and see their achievements devalued for the sake of feminist solidarity. They should not have to choose.
When some women have already lost so much, it is unfair to suggest that what has happened was impossible to foresee, or that it is deeply confusing. It wasn’t, and it isn’t. We knew this in 2015. It’s impossible to unknow it now.
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