How nice do women have to be?
Well, very, it seems, if we want to hold on to our rights. I’m talking about the rights which are already enshrined in law, by way of the Equality Act 2010, updating and incorporating the sex equality legislation from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Rights for women are based on sex, and they always have been, because there is no other legal or material or commonly recognised way of differentiating between men and women. Despite recent assertions from many lobbyists, we have never had to resort to looking inside someone’s pants to distinguish one sex from the other. The common understanding of what male and female categories mean, and the difference between them, has always sufficed to ensure that laws intended to level the playing field for women are actually used to benefit women. They may not always have been adequate to the task, but it’s always been clear who they’re for.
Women are expected to be nice in all walks of life, it’s true, and female socialisation works to prop up this expectation by a system of rewards and punishments as girls grow up. However, recently there has been a ratcheting-up of the demands that women be nice specifically in the arena of defending women’s rights. Being nice has become the number one demand made of feminists, above being fair or knowledgable or determined for example, and I wonder why it’s so important now?
One of the current attacks on women’s rights has taken the form of denying that women exist at all, at least as a distinct category. In normal circumstances this would be laughed out of court but it has gained traction because it has been linked (nefariously) to the supposed oppression of another group (trans people) and the campaign for trans rights has been so successful. To facilitate the demands of trans activists, women have been painted first and foremost as an obstacle to, and gatekeepers of, all the good stuff (including biology itself). The reason that women need sex-specific rights in the first place has been deliberately obscured, minimised and forgotten.
When Alice Roberts, scientist, posts on Twitter an article which posits that somehow, because of clownfish, it is impossible to accurately categorise binary human sex characteristics, feminist Twitter responds en masse. Feminist Twitter includes a lot of scientists and biologists. Many many women gently put Alice Roberts right. Some do it with impatience, some are critical, a tiny minority call her stupid or some such insult, but largely what we get is an astonishingly informative thread about human biology. With lots of evidence. This doesn’t stop people referring to it as ‘a pile-on’ and if Alice Roberts doesn’t post for a few days she will be said to have been ‘hounded off Twitter by trolls.’ Roberts herself says this:
When Jo Maughan, barrister, pontificates on Twitter about the right of trans-identified males to be housed in the female prison estate, feminist Twitter also responds. Feminist Twitter is full of lawyers, barristers and law students who really understand the law. They produce an informative thread, disagreeing with Maughan, based on the provisions in the law as it stands. One or two of them get irritated with his refusal to listen or to take on board any points they present as evidence. There might be the odd insult. Largely though the thread is an education on current UK equality law. Maughan thinks these women, rather than presenting their (very knowledgeable) side of the argument, are simply being bigoted:
When Billy Bragg, socialist, argues on Twitter for the right of men who identify as women to be included in women-only spaces and sports, feminist Twitter responds again. Feminist Twitter is full of socialist and trade unionist women, grounded in class-based analysis and feminist history. They calmly put Billy Bragg right, based on a socialist analysis of women as a sex class. Occasionally there is a swear word, sometimes a tweeter sounds a bit exasperated, many women express their disappointment with him, but largely Bragg is repeatedly told facts. He responds by telling all these highly intelligent and caring women that they are lacking in compassion:
In the years since the 2015 Trans Inquiry, during which trans demands have been promoted and women’s rights have had to be defended, many grassroots women’s groups have grown up to do the work of protecting women in light of the fact that no one else was doing it for them. Over time there have been many meetings, blogs, tweets, speeches, essays, articles and submissions to government enquiries, all from women and women’s groups keen to protect their existing rights. An overriding sentiment, voiced repeatedly, is that trans people should of course have all the rights that everyone else has. Women have bent over backwards to ensure that the defence of women’s rights is in no way seen as a desire to reduce trans rights. All women’s groups want trans people to be free from abuse and to enjoy equal treatment in healthcare, employment and housing, and they frequently say so.
Woman’s Place UK state this:
Fair Play for Women are clear on this:
Women and Girls in Scotland say this:
These sentiments are commonly and routinely expressed on social media by individual women too. It could not be clearer that the fight for women’s rights (which means existing rights, already fought for, well-researched and evidenced, and finally won) is not at the expense of trans rights and is not an attack on trans people. In comparison, no trans advocacy group (Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence, GIRES, Mermaids, TELI, Trans Media Watch, Allsorts and countless others) has once expressed the corresponding wish that the changes they are fighting for should not come at the expense of women and girls. There has never, in all their public campaigning, ever been a concern that other people’s rights might be affected by their demands, despite the fact that these demands do involve a rolling-back of women’s rights. To use a technical term, none of them actually gives a shit about women and girls.
This is, after all, what Stonewall, Gendered Intelligence and the Scottish Trans Alliance are fighting for:
But nobody is telling them to be ‘nice.’
At the same time as this complete disregard for women’s rights is being promoted as progressive, the insults, abuse and threats, as well as physical assaults, intended to silence women, go unremarked by the same prominent figures who implore women to be nicer, be kinder, be quieter.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown up in stark relief the need for women to have single-sex spaces to provide refuge from male violence. Domestic abuse has increased markedly during the lockdown all around the world. Other traditional inequalities such as low-paid work and family roles conribute to the worse effect of the lockdown on women. If it wasn’t clear before, it’s clear now: the effects on women of being the subordinate sex according to their ‘gender’ include greater risk, greater violence and greater poverty. These gendered assumptions of the value (or lack of value) placed on ‘women’s work’ are part of the structure of gender that feminists have been fighting forever. We don’t like gender, we reject it and we are not hateful for doing so. It’s sensible; you can see that now. It is gender that disempowers women and girls.
Equally clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the sex differences between men and women. Men are much more likely to die from the virus, and this is because of their sex, not because of their ‘gender identity.’ To science and biology deniers, for whom ‘transwomen are women’, the virus tells a different story. Initial studies show that women are more likely to catch the virus, because of their greater exposure, which is a result of the inequality of gendered roles and occupations, but men are more likely to die from it once they do catch it, because of their sex.
Is it still ‘unkind’ to insist that there is a sex difference between men and women and that it is straightforward (and vital) to categorise it? Is it still ‘lacking in compassion’ to analyse and assess a woman’s greater risk of harm according to gendered norms visited on her sex class? Is it still ‘bigoted’ to ask that women continue to be protected in law when these sex and gender differences in outcomes for men and women are now being highlighted so clearly?
Well, apparently yes.
We have everything to lose, and I’m beginning to think that this is the point. The demand that women be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ goes further than just being a matter of tone policing, it has an impact on what women are allowed to say, and how much we can expect to be listened to when we say it. Women are not just expected to be nice whilst fighting for our rights, we’re expected to be nice instead of fighting for our rights.
Here’s an idea: just for a change the world could try being nicer and kinder to women.