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Jo Swinson’s feminist credentials are a joke Fetishising self-identified gender over biological sex is putting women in danger

Jo Swinson speaks at a Q&A at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Jo Swinson speaks at a Q&A at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in September. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

December 3, 2019   3 mins

The Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson wants you to judge her by her feminist credentials. It’s right there in her Twitter bio (“Remainer. Runner. Feminist”). Before she took charge of her party, in the doldrum years between 2015 and 2017 when she was out of Parliament, she wrote a book called Equal Power: Gender Equality and How to Achieve it, which presents itself as a manifesto for solving the male dominance of politics.

Which means that at any other time, the fact that she has built an election platform on the twin planks of making it impossible to measure sex inequality and eliminating women-only spaces, would get her rightfully trashed as a hypocrite.

But we don’t live in any other time. We live in 2019, when the actual “sex” part of sexism makes the most fastidious of progressive speakers squeamish, and talking about women’s rights is seen as dreadfully passé. We’re not supposed to think that oppression occurs on the basis of bodies any more. Instead, it’s framed as question of feelings: everyone has a gender identity, we’re told, and injustice occurs when people aren’t treated in accordance with the identity they claim to have.

It’s a supremely liberal logic, because it’s wholly individualistic. The problem is no longer to free women from male violence and exploitation, it’s a matter of personal liberty. As Swinson said during her interview with Andrew Marr, she supports gender self-identity so that “everybody can be themselves and be free to live their lives”. Under this reasoning, it would be a deep cruelty to turn a transwoman away from a women’s refuge because it would be a denial of the transwoman’s deeply held sense of self.

But what about the women who need the refuge? There are services for male victims that a transwoman could access. Female victims, who need female-only refuges as a sanctuary from male violence, don’t have that option. They aren’t trying to access women’s services to validate their identities: they’re trying to access women’s services because they’ve been terrified and traumatised by men.

This obvious truth — that women and transwomen both need refuges from male violence, and that there must be separate institutions for everyone to have the security they deserve — is an unspeakable act of transphobia in the eyes of anyone who has accepted the rule of gender identity. Women who have already suffered violence from males who identified as trans to access supposedly female spaces (such as the victims of the rapist Karen White, who sexually assaulted fellow inmates after being moved to a women’s prison) are merely regrettable collateral.

Single-sex refuges, changing rooms, sports, prisons and toilets were established for women’s protection. When women are forced to share them with males — however those males identify — women are not “free to live their lives”, because they can’t be free from male violence. And there is no test we can apply to reliably identify men who will abuse a system of gender self-identity. Despite the Lib Dem MP Layla Moran’s claim that “I see someone in their soul and as a person. I do not really care whether they have a male body”, soul reading is not yet an objective test.

One of the Lib Dems’ other commitments is to “improve diversity in public appointments by setting ambitious targets”. Ambitious targets sound great, but they’re meaningless without any mechanism for achieving them, all the more so if there’s no way to measure them. Replacing sex with self-identified gender (rather than recording both sex and trans status) immediately renders any sex-disaggregated data farcical. It only takes a handful of male executives ticking the “woman” box in wage-gap reporting for the underpayment of hundreds of junior women to be obliterated.

Actually, Swinson has personal experience of the strange distortions of gender identity applied to sex inequality. Writing in Equal Power about her time working at Viking FM in the 2000s and how male-dominated radio is, she says: “In fact the gender balance was slightly better than we knew at the time, as our anchor breakfast presenter was Stephanie Hirst, at the time known as Simon.” She does not appear to be joking.

Hirst was, by all external warrants, a man; was hired as a man; was treated by colleagues as a man. Subsequently coming out as a transwoman is personally brave, but it doesn’t retroactively alter the maleness of Viking FM in the previous decade, any more than Swinson would stop being the Lib Dem’s first female leader if she were to declare herself non-binary.

The party’s festishisation of “freedom to” means that it’s offering freedom in name only, which is no kind of freedom for women who need protections for their sex rather than permission for their self-expression. Judged by her feminist credentials, Jo Swinson is a disaster.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.


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