What the hell is happening to feminism? It belongs on the Left, right? It is a movement for the liberation of all women and one which prioritises those at the bottom of the pile. And, yet a growing number of female activists have been rallying with the Right — sometimes even the hard Right.
Historically, feminists have done best within the Labour movement. The Equal Pay Act occurred in the 1970s when trades unions were strong. And it was a Labour government that passed the Abortion Act. But, according to Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at Oxford and proud socialist: “That isn’t to say the organised Left has given women everything we need and want: women have had to self-organise within the left to win our rights. But feminists and socialists have found important points of shared interest since the 18th century.”
Arguing that this is no time for ‘purity politics’, though, there is an increasing number of women activists who are prepared to hold their noses and join sides with whoever it takes in the fight to defeat the demands of extreme transgender ideologues. Well, I’m sorry — and I’m no fan of self-identification for men who wish to identify as women — but it’s a major own goal to decide to work with people who would deny women their bodily autonomy, who are anti-gay, who consider trans people to be freaks, and who are more likely to show bigotry towards marginalised groups.
While I will happily debate men such as pro-porn campaigner Jerry Barnett and Right wing media troll Milo Yiannopoulos in order to expose and challenge their views, joining forces with groups that are virulently opposed to women’s human rights is another thing altogether.
The trouble is, the Left has let women down. Badly. Look at the attitudes of many Lefty blokes when it comes to prostitution and pornography. As I have previously argued here, such men like to condemn those of us who seek to end the sex trade as ‘whorephobic’. And are encouraging young women to believe that porn can be liberating, and even ‘feminist’. Some even argue that violent and abusive sex is an expression of female rights. When such attitudes become commonplace, it’s hard to achieve our goals as feminists.
Critics of the Left also like to point to the fact that the Tories elected a female leader back in 1975, while Labour has yet to do so. But here’s the rub: Margaret Thatcher disliked women and was no fan of feminism. With her in charge, the sexism inherent to the Conservative party remained in safe hands. She promoted only one woman to a cabinet position in 11 years. She was a female politician promulgating male politics. That’s hardly equality.
As Andrea Dworkin wrote in Right Wing Women (1983): “The political Right in the United States today makes certain metaphysical and material promises to women that both exploit and quiet some of women’s deepest fears.” This is still true today.
Woman’s Place UK, a British feminist organisation, recognises that women fighting for their rights come from across the political spectrum, but its vision of women’s liberation is rooted in a longstanding left-wing progressive tradition which fights for women’s political, economic and sexual autonomy. “We refuse to be pushed out by sexism on the left,” says its co-founder Kiri Tunks, “or to align ourselves with religious or far-right campaigns seeking to stoke racism and homophobia, or who wish to turn back the clock on issues such as abortion rights.”
But in the US, certain celebrity feminists are openly celebrating having moved to the Right. Arielle Scarcella is a lesbian and YouTube sensation who made a very loud journey towards the Right and declared on Twitter that, “The right builds things. The left tears them down, because they aren’t capable of building things themselves.” Until recently, Memoree Joelle was editor of the online magazine After Ellen, which promises to “provide a fun, feminist perspective on the way lesbian and bisexual women are portrayed in pop culture”. But Joelle, who previously defined as a women’s rights activist, has now come out firmly in favour of Trump.
This is particularly hard to stomach given the way the President inflames and normalises misogyny in all its guises. Yet as we approach the US elections, many so-called feminists are rallying for Trump. Trump’s racist, anti-immigration policies affect the most disenfranchised women, it is a betrayal of every one of these women to support him. Yet some have lent him their support for his disgraceful stance on trans issues alone, despite his administration’s hostility to women’s rights in general.
To be clear, I stand firmly against any form of prejudice and discrimination towards marginalised people, which includes trans people. As a lesbian, I know exactly what that prejudice feels like. But I will always fight against the ‘trans-women are women’ mantra and the demands from some extreme trans-activists that any man can self identify as a woman and invade our hard-won women-only spaces and, as a consequence, erase women’s sex-based rights. Trump’s views are repugnant regarding transgender people because those views are indivisible from how he feels about anyone lesbian, gay or gender nonconforming.
It takes a certain sort of distorted logic for feminists to support him on the trans issue because Trump has no desire to protect women’s sex-based rights — he’s bigoted against all minorities. But there are several such organisations who do.
Hands Across the Aisle Coalition (HATAC), for example, is a collection of US radical feminists and the Christian right. It was set up, “to challenge the notion that gender is the same as sex”. Yet its co-founders are Kaeley Triller Harver, who advocates for the criminalisation of abortion, and Emily Zinos, who campaigns to repeal gay rights. They aren’t everyday conservative women and mothers: they are highly skilled female operatives of the theocratic Right.
The Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), meanwhile, is a US radical feminist organisation “dedicated to the total liberation of women and girls”. But it has extensive ties to the religious Right in the states. WoLF filed a joint Amicus brief (legal documents filed in appellate court cases by non-litigants with a strong interest in the subject matter) with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in an attempt to curb trans rights, which would also lead to the dismantling of lesbian and gay anti-discrimination laws. (ADF is largest right-wing evangelical Christian non-profit law firm in the US.)
These organisations are now gaining a purchase on feminist movements in the UK. In 2019, a joint UK/US week of ‘gender critical’ action entitled, Women Stand Up! was organised by women’s rights activists in the UK, and by WoLF and HATAC in the US. It included an event at the Heritage Foundation (HF), an influential public policy research institute that promotes Christian Right policies and is opposed to women’s, lesbian and gay rights. The HF event included feminist speakers from WoLF.
In 2017, HATAC member Meg Kilgannon spoke at the Values Voter Summit (VVS), an annual gathering of the Christian Right which, earlier this year, compared the Black Lives Matter movement to Nazis. Only one US president has ever addressed it: Trump. At the Summit, Kilgannon outlined a strategy in relation to working with feminists that included avoiding religious terminology in favour of science: “If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success.” In other words, this strategy would disguise the general attack on the rights of all LGBT people.
Even those women who have been most harmed by transgender ideology are alarmed by this new feminist/right-wing alliance. A number of de-transitioned women published a blog in which the authors appealed to others to reject any offer of support from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) because of its support for gay conversion therapy based on Christian fundamentalism. “We ask you to think critically about this,” they wrote, “and reject any ‘support’ that would allow the ADF to treat our painful histories and financial vulnerability as an opportunity to promote their anti-LGBT and anti-woman agenda.”
The women counter by saying they are not complicit in bolstering regressive values; they are, they say, forming “strategic alliances” in order to prevent legislation or policy to be adopted that could harm women, such as transgender self-identification.
I approached WoLF to ask about their work and was told: “We’ve brought feminist arguments to federal court, for the audience of the people who determine the implementation of our civil rights laws. This is an important venue from which we cannot be de-platformed by vigilante social media mobs, and in which the women we represent have a right to have their views represented.”
I understand only too well the effects of being silenced and de-platformed, but joining forces with those who wish to repeal the majority of women’s hard-won rights is a betrayal of the highest order. That’s why I think these alliances are strategically disastrous. Yes, it is a disgrace that Liberal and Left organisations have failed to support sex-based rights, but I do believe women lose out in the long term if we do not fight from a progressive base.
Beatrix Campbell, left-wing journalist, political activist and author of The Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory? (1987), knew that in order to be an effective feminist campaigner it is necessary to have a critique of the wider social structures that sustain male power and women’s oppression or we are vulnerable to “odd alliances”. She tells me, “Issues of sexual oppression can arise in the right or the left, and if you don’t locate your women’s activism then you might find allies that are no friends to women at all and want to use us for their own agenda.”
While feminists may find limited common ground with right-wing groups over single issues, they are likely to have very different ideas about how their shared objectives should be achieved and their ultimate goals will be irreconcilable. “The global Right is not and never has been committed to equality,” says Selina Todd, “let alone liberation.”
I believe feminists must look to the movement’s success in the UK and understand that we can win this battle using strong feminist arguments rooted in experience, struggle and female solidarity. As the African American feminist writer Audrey Lorde said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”