We can’t have a women’s movement if we don’t call ourselves women

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When National Geographic magazine put together the newsstand cover (above right) for its January 2017 “Gender Revolution” special edition, it left something out. The cover is a group shot designed to show the range of genders now available in the heralded revolution, a cluster of seven people each annotated with an identity: “intersex non-binary”, “transgender female”, “transgender female” (a second one), “bi-gender”, “transgender male”, “androgynous”, and “male”. What’s missing? As feminists noted once the cover was circulated – but as National Geographic either didn’t notice, or didn’t consider notable – there’s no “female” here.

There are females, of course (at a guess, I would say three of the models are natal females and three natal males), but “female” is not counted as a gender identity. Female is written out. Inside the magazine, you’ll find features which reveal that, actually, femaleness is a highly pertinent characteristic: you can read about the poverty and violence inflicted on girls in developing nations, the pressures of bullying and body-shaming on girls in America, and how the two-tiered market in children’s toys might be harming girls through pinkification. Being female is a matter of life and death, but, per the cover, “female” is not a label under which people may gather.

Here I suppose I should concede National Geographic’s good intentions. National Geographic did not, I assume, deliberately set out to produce an issue showing that female people are exploited and abused for being female, while also announcing that “female” does not exist. Nor is National Geographic doing anything particularly new or shocking by deleting women as a class: reproductive rights organisations now talk about “pregnant people” rather than women in order to be “inclusive”, and even references to vaginas can be damned as transphobic. But if it the express motivation of this cover had been to tauntingly depoliticise everything the inside pages have to tell about the place of women and girls in the world, the patriarchy would give it a 10/10 for threat neutralisation.

It’s often claimed that “the binary” is in and of itself a patriarchal tool, and the role of feminists should be to “disrupt the binary”, as if even to recognise the existence of sexual biology in humans is to give warrant to sex-based oppression. What this cover shows is that male dominance has nothing to fear at all from the splintering of “gender” into multifarious “gender identities”. On the cover, the “male” is simply and unrevealingly dressed. He stands with his whole body facing the camera. Other models dip their heads beguilingly, or pose in three-quarter profile with a becomingly flexed leg; there are flashes of midriff and clearly defined breasts; the “transgender male” (a natal female adolescent) wears a dandyish bow-tie. But “male” has unadorned authority. “Male” exists in simple relief against the contrasting background of all these other types. He is the one, and the rest are all “other”.

One of the most marked qualities of the “gender revolution” has been that, where transsexuality was predominantly about males transitioning to live as women (with transmen making up a very small proportion of transitioners), the more recent framing of transgender has involved a huge surge in female adolescents presenting for treatment. As Rosamund Urwin of the Evening Standard wrote in a report from May on the Tavistock gender identity clinic: “Last year, almost twice as many natal females (929) were referred to the centre as natal males (490) and yet, until six years ago, natal males used to be the majority.”

How can we explain this reversal? In a way, maybe the surprise is that there haven’t always been more females than males making the flit from their culturally sanctioned gender. “Woman” is a role marked by inferiority and destined for service. As the editorial in the January issue of National Geographic points out, being female means being subject to abuses on a global scale. It means child marriage, bleeding in a hut at the edge of your village during your period, being taunted with smartphone porn by boys in school, being paid less than men, doing more housework, being told you talk too much, talk wrong, that you’re either unfuckable or only there to be fucked.

In the circumstances, wanting out of the class “woman” is eminently rational. And being a woman is only going to get rougher in Trump’s America. Michelle Goldberg is correct in her bleak, eloquent Slate column when she writes that Trump’s presidency means the backlash is on. Abortion rights, protections against sexual discrimination, action against sexual violence – these things will be the first to go. Even if you don’t “feel female”, you will be exposed by being female. A label is no defense against male violence. You can disown your body, but your body is too valuable a commodity to be left alone. It can make babies. It can make dinners, mop floors. It can make a man orgasm. You are a resource to be colonised, and simply stating that you are not one by refusing the title “woman” will never function as a “keep out” sign.

To survive, to resist, we need to organise. To organise, we need to acknowledge what we hold in common. Throughout feminism’s waves and wanings, that’s been the basis of every success: identifying the oppressions imposed on us as women, and working together as women against them. Our female bodies are the battleground, and we can’t escape that even if we deny it by claiming some variant identity such as “non-binary” or “bi-gender”. We need a women’s movement. Even those of us who think we don’t need it, will need it. And for that, we need to call ourselves – our female selves – women, without compromise or qualification.

 

New Statesman | Why technology is no longer the left’s great hope

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Do you remember when it wasn’t going to be like this? Technology was the left’s great hope. It was going to enable rapid, low-cost organising and people power. There would be revolutions because of it. Through it, huge volumes of information could finally be gathered into analysable silos for better decision-making. Governments could no longer rely on secrecy to maintain their power: a new era of transparency was upon us, and Wikileaks would lead us there. News would be open. Paywalls were the enemy. Everything was going to get better.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in 2008 was a cheery welcome for the wisdom of crowds. Yes, expertise was going to suffer – now anyone could be a journalist, journalists could no longer claim any special status or privileges – but this was just something to be accepted. And in any case, the same year saw Flat Earth News by Nick Davies, which suggested that journalists hadn’t been doing so much to deserve their esteemed social position anyway.

Read the full column at the New Statesman

The Observer | Themes of 2016: the battle to decide one’s own identity

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This is one of five pieces by different writers commissioned by the Observer to cover the big issues of 2016: you can also read Carole Cadwalladr on tech disruptionRyan Avent on how technology puts millions of jobs in jeopardyIan Buruma on the rise of autocrats, and (in print only at the moment) Michael Sandel on what progressive parties need to reckon with to retain relevance.

In 2016, body politics went definitively mainstream. Transgender people, having previously been objects of niche curiosity and prurience at best from most of the media, became the subject of mid-morning current affairs debates, in-depth documentaries and sympathetic profiles. What does it mean to be trans? How should society change to give trans people necessary rights and protections?

These questions received urgent discussion, while other issues were more implied than addressed: how much is anyone able to control their own body, both in terms of what they choose to do with it and how it is perceived by other people? That problem of rights and responsibilities, and the tension between the individual and society, simmered away not only in the context of gender but also when it came to many other matters of sex and sexuality.

Read the full column at the Observer

New Statesman | There’s no point celebrating women’s power, until reality reflects it

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Just over a year ago, Germaine Greer gave a lecture on women and power, or rather, as she put it: “women and their total lack of power… isn’t that bloody absurd and ridiculous?” Now she’s at number four on the Woman’s Hour 2016 Power List, announced yesterday, a ragtag collection of female influencers which in a way proves her point. For the first time, the list (which has been running since 2013) includes dead women along with the living, so Thatcher came in at number one, followed by Helen Brook of the Brook Advisory sexual health and family planning centres (d. 1997) and Barbara Castle, the Labour MP who introduced the 1970 Equal Pay Act (d. 2002).

In fact, of the top seven (to mark seven decades of Woman’s Hour), only three are not-dead: Greer, Beyoncé and Bridget Jones, who being a fictional character never has to confront the inconvenience of mortality. All of these women can lay claim to huge achievements (apart from Bridget, obviously, whose accomplishments can only be counted in calories drunk, men bagged and young women readers of the 90s and 00s gigglingly seduced into thinking that calories and men were the stuff of life). But what this list doesn’t do is explain the world we actually live in. What it shows is that women’s power has remained constrained and conditional. Heck, there’s even an outright anti-feminist on the Women Equalities committee thanks to awful Philip Davies.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Independent | The problem isn’t that police officers sexually exploit people – it’s that men in the police sexually exploit women

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“People”. That was the word that blew my mind while I was drinking my cup of tea and listening to the news bulletin this morning. A national review of police forces, released today, reports that 334 police personnel have (in the words of the Radio 4 announcer) “been accused over a two-year period of using their position to sexually exploit people”. Who are these mysterious “people”, and could they have anything in common apart from being sexually exploited by police personnel?

To be fair, the report itself is not much more informative. Read it from beginning to end and you will learn that a third of these allegations involve victims of domestic violence, but not much more. But we can guess. Victims of domestic violence are mostly female. Victims of sexual exploitation are also mostly female. “People” in this case must mean, specifically, “women”. And the people doing the exploiting? Well, the police force is over 70 per cent male, and 80 per cent in senior roles. It’s a fair bet that it’s not the minority of female staff who are perpetrating this.

Read the full post at the Independent

New Statesman | The Femicide Census honours the victims of gender violence

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The phrase “isolated incident” often turns up in media reports when a man kills a woman. The police use it at press conferences. It’s a code: it means the story ends here, no one else is in danger, the rest of the world can sleep safe because this particular killer does not have his sights on anyone else.

Thanks to the Femicide Census – a collaboration between Women’s Aid and nia, two specialist services dealing with violence against women – we now know how many of those “isolated incidents” there are, in England and Wales at least. Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2015, it was nearly a thousand: 936 women (aged 14 and over) were killed by men in seven years.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Progress | Scapegoating feminists is never the answer

Emily Brothers, former Labour parliamentary candidate for Sutton and Cheam, writes that Labour needs ‘trans respect not transphobia’. It is a shame that she makes this call using language that is, at best, dismissive of the feminist movement and at worst taps into profound misogyny. The move towards greater public acceptance and institutional recognition for trans people has been one of the fastest-moving developments in equalities, but it is not a development without conflicts.

Read the full post at Progress

New Statesman | What’s missing from the transgender debate? Any discussion of male violence

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One of those things that supposedly never happens, happened. Luke Mallaband was convicted of six voyeurism offences after a female student at the University of East Anglia found his phone hidden in the university library’s gender-neutral toilets. The probation report described him as “high risk of posing serious harm to females”.

That creepy men would abuse mixed-sex intimate spaces in order to breach women’s privacy seems, perhaps, a predictable outcome; but it’s not something that the UEA students’ union took into account when it recommended installing more gender-neutral toilets.

“It’s about extending safe spaces to everyone regardless of gender. Once you’re in a cubicle, what does it matter who’s in the cubicle next door?” said LGBT+ officer Richard Laverick at the time. “All issues surrounding toilets and safety would occur regardless of the existence of gender neutral toilets,” said a blithe 2015 report into facilities on the UEA campus. But who you share a space with makes a considerable difference to how safe it is – especially for groups of people liable to become victims of male violence, which means women and transwomen in particular.

Read the full post at the New Statesman

Stylist | “Dear Madam President”: An open letter to what should have been the first female leader of the USA

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Sometimes, when there’s a big event due on a specified date, journalists will write pieces as though the thing has happened before it actually has. Hillary Clinton looked, up till election day, in a strong position to win the presidency; and if I’m honest, the thought of the alternative was more awful than many writers and commissioning editors were perhaps willing to countenance. Why live in a bad potential future when you could pretend the better one is guaranteed instead? So Stylist gave me a commission: write an open letter to Hillary Clinton as the first female US president, and if the worst happens, we’ll commission you to do an alternative column on the day. 

The alternative was this, which was one of the three pieces I turned out between 5am and 9am on Wednesday. But this is the one I wrote first. This is the one I wanted to be true. Funnily enough, on Tuesday evening I watched an episode of the sitcom Community called Remedial Chaos, in which a character rolls a dice to make a decision, thereby splitting off the universe into six timelines. On Wednesday, I woke up in the darkest timeline. But when I was writing this, and the other Hillary-victory pre-commission I did, I got to hurl myself forward to the good place, briefly. There’s an entire literature of this, by the way: celebratory pieces by feminist journalists never published because the cause for celebration died in the bitter grip of the polls. One day, someone should compile them into a book. It will be the saddest book.

Dear Madam President,

I could just sit here and type that beautiful phrase all day: “Dear Madam President”.

Even as someone in a country with its second female head of government (only another 72 consecutive female prime ministers to go before the UK hits equality!), the first woman in the White House feels like a big deal. Because this is America, and America is the biggest deal of all.

The only superpower standing. A country that promises ‘liberty and justice for all’, but that for more than three centuries only put white men in the top job. When that country appoints its first woman president, and when she succeeds its first black president, you know that history has happened.

It’s taken decades, but the struggles for civil rights and women’s liberation that kicked off in the 20th century have finally taken the big prize.

I’m going to enjoy every moment of this victory.

Read the full, tragically redundant, post at Stylist

New Statesman | Donald Trump has grabbed America by the pussy, and it’s women who will suffer

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A while ago, a friend set me a problem. “Why,” he asked, “is feminism structurally weak?” Feminism should, after all, be a dazzling powerful political movement. Women marginally outnumber men. The evidence that we are the subjugated class is everywhere, from the wage gap to sex ratio in senior jobs to our woeful absence from political positions to the grim inequality of the housework split to the daily drip-drip-drip of advertising telling us exactly how wrong our bodies are.

Those things should fit together into a simple plan: get the biggest gang together and force the other side to turn over what’s ours by right. But this has never happened, and today it has failed to happen on a tragic, global scale. Donald Trump has beaten Hillary Clinton because he was a man running against a woman. There are many ways to dress up his victory, but only one that explains it. This was a referendum on sex roles, and America voted racist penis.

Read the full post at the New Statesman