Feminists on both sides of the trans gender debate should unite, revive the Scotland’s Women’s Liberation Movement and hold a national conference – Susan Dalgety

In the end it took only six words to usher in the next stage of Scotland’s long march to sex equality.

Feminists should unite to campaign against sex-based oppression, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
Feminists should unite to campaign against sex-based oppression, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

On Thursday afternoon, members of the Scottish Parliament voted to accept a change to the Forensic Medical Services Bill, which had stated that women who had been raped or sexually assaulted would have the right to request a medical examiner of a specific “gender”. Amendment 28, moved by Labour’s Johann Lamont, read simply, “for the word ‘gender’ substitute ‘sex’”. (See editor’s note below)

These six words may seem innocuous, but they are a cipher for the culture war that has raged across Scotland’s civil society for several years.

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There have been times when the discourse on social media and elsewhere has descended into the gutter, as women are abused for asserting their femaleness, their livelihoods threatened, their sanity questioned.

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Trans women can be feminists too – Letters

A simple divide

No-one is safe. JK Rowling was vilified for daring to call women, well, women. Award-winning poet Jenny Lindsay lost work, and friends, because she objected to the violent tone of a tweet. And Lisa Mackenzie, a founding member of the independent policy collective MBM, was the subject of an investigation by her employer after contributing to an academic paper on women’s sex-based rights.

At the heart of the fevered debate lies a simple divide. Feminists like Johann Lamont argue that the oppression of women and girls across the world – from the pay gap between men and women to genital mutilation – is because of a woman’s sex and the cultural stereotypes that society imposes on female bodies.

Young women enjoy freedoms and opportunities that previous generations could not have dreamt of, but progress is fragile, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)

And since 1970, when the UK’s first Women’s Liberation Conference was held in Oxford, second-wave feminists, as the movement is called, have argued that collective action is required if change is to happen. Solidarity is their by-word.

A third wave of feminists, the post-Thatcher, post-devolution generation, has grown up on social media, and their politics is much more about identity, where personal narratives trump collective stories.

They consider old-school feminism to be out-of-touch, based on ancient grievances and past fights. Many also argue that a person’s sex – male or female – is not fixed but can change over time and at will.

They use gender instead of sex to describe this fluidity, and will argue that a person born male, but who now self-identifies as a woman, is as much a female as his sister. That a trans woman is a woman.

Confused teenagers

It is doubtful whether this battle of ideas matters much to exhausted women struggling to feed and clothe their children on the minimum wage, or to the bloodied and broken victims of rape and sexual assault, but the conflict between sex-based feminism and a philosophy that insists biology is irrelevant has infected public policy in recent years.

Male offenders who identify as women can demand to be housed in a female prison. Schools are encouraged to provide gender-neutral toilets, where menstruating girls are forced to share intimate spaces with their male peers.

Young teenagers, confused about their sexuality and frightened by their changing bodies, are given irreversible, life-changing hormones.

And it seems to many that the very organisations that grew out of the second-wave feminist movement – who wrote a briefing to MSPs stating that the amendment would not improve access to female doctors – no longer represent all women.

But the campaign that erupted around Amendment 28 achieved much more than a change of wording. It gave a platform to the survivors of rape and sexual assault to tell their stories, it gave confidence to feminists, brow-beaten by the new orthodoxy that places feelings above biological fact and, by passing the amendment, the Scottish Parliament confirmed women’s sex-based legal rights.

Feminist solidarity

Those six words may be a watershed for Scottish feminism, but there is still much more to do. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act came into force, there remains a 13 per cent gap between men’s and women’s hourly rates.

One in five women lose their job or miss out on promotion because of pregnancy. And last year (2018-19), more than 2,000 women in Scotland reported being raped. Thousands more sexual assaults went unreported.

And the impact of Covid-19 has been most severe on working-class women. Research by the Women’s Budget Group showed that across the UK almost half of working-class women (43 per cent) did no hours of work in April compared to just 20 per cent of women in professional or managerial roles.

Scottish women held their first national women’s liberation conference in Glasgow in the spring of 1972. According to an article written by feminist academic Esther Breitenbach in 1990, the meeting “aimed to bring women's liberation groups and individual feminists together from all over Scotland, to express solidarity with one another, and to engage in debate and discussion.”

In the five decades since, we have seen significant advances in women’s lives. Young women enjoy freedoms and opportunities that my mother’s generation could not even dream of, but as recent events have shown, that progress is fragile and can be all too easily derailed by a small but powerful clique.

Perhaps it is now time, in the wake of a global pandemic, amid economic chaos of Brexit, and the opportunities – and threats – of digital communications, to revive Scotland’s Women’s Liberation Movement.

We could start with a national conference, 50 years after the first, bringing together second and third-wave feminists to debate what sex-based rights should look like for the next half-century.

To paraphrase Johann Lamont from Thursday’s debate, nobody pretends that a single conference on its own changes the world. However, our responsibility as women is not just to say what we would like to happen, but to make it happen.

A conference that brings together women of all ages and all viewpoints will make a difference, because it will move us from fighting with each other to challenging the real enemy – sex-based oppression. Sisters, it’s time to unite.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited as the original incorrectly stated that Johann Lamont’s amendment to the Forensic Medical Services Bill gave female survivors of rape the legal right to female examiners.

For clarification, the Forensic Medical Services Bill gave survivors of rape the legal right to request an examiner of a particular "gender" and Lamont's amendment changed the Bill to say "sex" rather than "gender".

The column could have been read as suggesting that Rape Crisis Scotland is opposed to women who have been raped being able to access a female examiner. The Scotsman is happy to make clear that Rape Crisis Scotland fully supports this right and has actively campaigned for over a decade to improve access to female examiners for rape survivors.

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