Where’s the courage?

While grassroots feminist organisations, such as Women’s Place UK, Fair Play for Women and Sex Matters, have been roundly defending women’s sex-based rights, established feminist institutions have been assiduously ignoring the whole debate.

After some 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom, an organisation named after one of the most prominent advocates for women’s right to vote – the Fawcett Society – has dug its head deep in the sand.

The Society is named for suffragist Millicent Fawcett. Feminist Caroline Criado-Perez – whose book Invisible Women provides a wealth of evidence for the significance of biological sex – campaigned for the creation of a statue honouring Fawcett. This now stands facing the seat of government in Parliament Square, holding a banner that reads ‘Courage Calls To Courage Everywhere.’ The statue is a symbol of women’s activism for their rights; the historic struggle to achieve the same political rights and responsibilities as men.

Lack of courage

The recent legal victory by Maya Forstater confirmed women’s rights to assert the political importance of biological reality. It has made the clash between women’s hard-won rights and the incursions of gender ideology harder to ignore, even by the Fawcett Society. Board member Ayesha Hazarika broke the organisation’s increasingly awkward silence with an article in the Evening Standard. Coming on the same day as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterful essay ‘It Is Obscene‘, Hazarika’s prose couldn’t help but suffer by comparison.

But it was not merely Adichie’s literary skills that elevated her writing: it was her moral courage in addressing a sensitive issue with clarity and rigour. By contrast, Hazarika’s statement was drenched with self-pity and evasion of the issues.

Squeak squeak. I’m absolutely terrified about this debate. Even as I type, my anxiety levels are through the roof. I’m braced for the inevitable, merciless online abuse. I even booked in an emergency session with my therapist to work out a coping strategy for my mental health.

Courage called to courage… and Ayesha Hazarika booked an appointment with her therapist. Less well-heeled women – who have lost their jobs or faced online harassment and silencing for expressing gender-critical beliefs – have no such luxury. But such women long since ceased to be the Fawcett Society’s priority.

The targeting of gender critical women

Hazarika’s article made no mention of any negative repercussions that gender critical and radical feminist women have faced. Women such as Maria MacLachlan, Julie Bindel, Rosa Freedman, and Helen Mary Jones have faced harassment, and in some cases violence. Hazarika did not mention the obstacles placed in the way of women’s ability to express their views and organise politically. She made no reference to attempts to sabotage women’s meetings and intimidate those attending them. (Many of Merched Cymru’s current membership attended, or attempted to attend, an event in Cardiff which was abruptly cancelled due to the action of trans rights activists, to be rescheduled in a secondary venue at very short notice.)

Fawcett’s first intervention in this conversation is a self-pitying plea for compromise, and a serious misjudgement. It is now over three years since Maria MacLachlan was assaulted. MacLachlan was attacked while attending a meeting to discuss women’s rights. Fawcett could have contributed to the debate at any point. They chose not to. They refused to participate in the most important conversation around women’s rights since Millicent Fawcett was alive.

Not fit for purpose

Excusing their cowardice as due to the ‘toxic’ nature of the debate only exposes years of their own inert leadership. Julie Bindel, one of the UK’s most courageous feminist activists, says

In failing to speak out about the Forstater case and its wider, positive implications for women at work, Fawcett failed to do the one job it is mandated to do. In a climate of unbridled misogyny, it let women down. As such, it ought to disband and let actual feminists take over.

We agree wholeheartedly.

The situation in Wales

The situation is equally dire in Wales. Our government-funded women’s organisations remain (at best) disengaged from the grassroots concerns of women in their communities. At worst they are actively hostile. Chwarae Teg and the Women’s Equality Network have both deliberately silenced women challenging the orthodoxies of gender ideology. Chwarae Teg (clearly not on board with the Fawcett Society’s call for civility) have no compunction in calling life-long feminist activists ‘haters’. They removed one woman from a hustings meeting for discussing gender stereotypes in the chat facility, and told another that her concerns about female sports were ‘discriminatory’ and ‘offensive’.

While purportedly representing women’s interests, both organisations have treated actual women with contempt.

Feminism from the grassroots

If there is hope for women’s activism in the UK right now, it does not come from professional feminists. It does not come from CEOs pulling down hefty salaries, socialising in all the right political circles and mimicking all the right political fashions. It is coming from women (and some men) who dedicate their free time and energy to supporting women and maintaining their rights in law. In Wales, this includes the many women from every part in Wales who have joined Merched Cymru and who support our work. Our thanks to every one of you.

Fawcett’s head-in-the-sand attitude might decrease Hazarika’s cortisol levels, but ultimately, it is dooming the organisation to irrelevance.

Chwarae Teg and WEN should take note.