February 22, 2022

I was always a good girl, by which I mean a people pleaser, because that is what being a good girl is. I enjoyed the benefits that such a personality brings (straight As at school, a close relationship with my parents, a decent job) and endured the usual downsides (teenage anorexia, frequent bouts of insomnia, lifelong anxiety). I had what a therapist later described as “total conflict avoidance”, which is a therapy way of saying I would rather eat my hair than argue with someone.

For example, when I was 10, I wore a Santa jumper to school. “You can’t wear Santa, you’re Jewish! Do you believe Jesus was born on Christmas?” a girl in my class said to me. I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but I knew what she wanted me to say, so I said it: “Yes, Jesus was born on Christmas.” She walked away, satisfied, and I felt a little like I’d given something away, but I was mainly relieved I’d avoided an argument.

And that’s how things continued for me, until 2014, when everything changed.

I was reading the New Yorker one evening and came across an article with the headline “What is a Woman?”. It was, according to the standfirst, about “the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism”, a subject about which I knew nothing. I read it, vaguely interested in the social shift that meant being “transgender” no longer refers to someone who has undergone a sex change operation, but is now “how someone sees themselves”, as the writer Michelle Goldberg put it. This meant, Goldberg continued, that women-only spaces were increasingly changing to women-and-transwomen spaces, even if those transwomen still had male bodies — and to query this risked accusations of bigotry.

What really interested me was how quickly institutions were falling into line with this new ideology: venues cancelled talks if a radical feminist was on the bill; all-female bands pulled out of women-only festivals for fear of looking transphobic. How strange, I thought, that those with authority capitulate to the obviously misogynistic demands of a few extreme voices. Oh well, that’s just America — obviously it will never happen in the UK.

Oh, the innocence of eight years ago! Today, gender ideology — the belief that who a person feels they are is more important than the material reality of their body — is firmly in the ascendent. Activists like to claim that the only people who have a problem with this are “Right-wing bigots”, because it keeps things simple to suggest that this is a good (gender ideology) versus bad (Right-wing bigots) issue.

Yet I know a lot of non-Right-wing, non-bigots who are extremely angry at how things have shifted. My friendship group consists mainly of thirty-something to fifty-something progressive women, all, like me, lifelong Labour, or Liberal Democrat, or Green voters, all teachers, or civil servants, or writers, or lawyers. Most are not on Twitter, or TikTok, or any Mumsnet message boards. But when we meet up these days, they talk about Lia Thomas, the Ivy League swimmer who recently transitioned and is allowed to compete against female swimmers and is duly smashing women’s swimming records.

They talk about JK Rowling, vilified for saying that women — not people — menstruate and calling for single-sex spaces to be preserved. They talk about Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor, who had to leave her job at Sussex University due to ongoing harassment from gender activists. They talk about political parties which explicitly describe women’s sex-based rights as transphobic, including the Green Party and the SNP. They talk about politicians who say things so stupid about gender it’s impossible to believe that they truly believe what they are saying, from Dawn Butler’s claim that “a child is born without a sex”, to Layla Moran’s insistence that she doesn’t care about a person’s sex because she can see “their soul”, to Keir Starmer’s stammering insistence that it’s wrong to say “only women have a cervix”.

You can — and many do — dismiss these angry women as irrelevant middle-aged mums, or just a bunch of Karens, but they do not fit into the “Right-wing bigot” pigeonhole, however much gender ideologues try to squash them in. As a result, many on the Left would prefer that this debate about gender, with older feminists on one side and gender ideologues on the other, was not happening at all, because it doesn’t fit into the good versus bad dichotomy with which the Left frames the world. So they tell themselves that this is a “niche” issue and “normal women” (ie, women not on Twitter or Mumsnet) don’t know or care about it.

Suggested watching
UnHerd Live: Where does feminism go next?

By Sally Chatterton

Let me disabuse them of both of those notions: they do and they do. The threats, the abuse, the no-platforming of gender-critical feminists: despite the activists’ best efforts to make all of this vanish, none of it has worked. This is the issue that readers and friends want most to talk to me about, albeit only, they say, with no small amount of frustration, in private.

It did not – and I cannot stress this enough – have to be this way. In 2016, Maria Miller, then the chair of the women and equalities committee, produced a report that suggested switching gender should just be a matter of “self-identification”. This statutory declaration would replace the previous gender recognition process, which involved living in one’s chosen gender for two years, being diagnosed with gender dysphoria and being questioned by a panel.

Yet it is a pretty basic fact that male bodies are bigger and stronger than female ones, which is why sex-based rights exist in the first place. So how, I wondered, would self-ID work in practice? Would a person born male now be able to compete against women in sport, or be incarcerated with female prisoners? I assumed the government had thought about this. I assumed wrongly.

In a 2017 interview with The Times, Miller was unable to answer the most basic questions about how her proposals would affect women, which seemed weird to me, because surely you’d think about women when massively overhauling women’s rights? If Miller had given this even a moment’s thought, and acknowledged that women and transgender people’s rights needed to be balanced, rather than selling out the former to appease gender ideologues, it seems highly likely to me that the debate would never have become as fraught as it is. Anyway, after four years of anguished discussions, Miller’s reforms got kicked into the long grass in 2020, although they are still scheduled to go forward in Scotland, backed by the SNP and Greens.

Many transgender people have said how much they have hated being the subjects of political and online debate over the past five or so years, and who can blame them? Yet this issue is not just about them. Debates about gender rights are also debates about women’s rights, because activists are asking, essentially, for the abolition of women’s sex-based rights. This made and makes no sense to me, not because I think that trans women are terrible people, but because women’s sex-based rights exist for a reason.

I started having tentative discussions about this with other progressive journalists, but I was invariably the only one at the table who believed (or was willing to say out loud) that there is a clear clash between gender-based rights and women’s rights. When I said to one journalist that women need women-only spaces, he replied, “So you’re defending segregation?” Another time, when I said it was ridiculous to make prisons mixed-sex, someone I consider a friend said, “You sound like a homophobe in the Eighties saying you wouldn’t let your kids have a gay teacher.” Someone else told me I sounded like a “bigoted radical feminist” and I thought, “I used to be a deputy fashion editor, so if I’m now radical then the Left really is in trouble.” Another one said that by arguing for women’s sex-based rights I was beating down on “the most oppressed minority in Britain”, i.e., transgender people.

I have no doubt that transgender people suffer horrific bigotry in this country and everywhere. But when I found the statistics showed one trans person is tragically, killed a year in the UK, but two women are killed a week in England and Wales, I was accused of engaging in “the victim Olympics”. People who claimed to care ever so deeply about women’s physical safety during the MeToo movement now sneered at any woman who expressed doubt about sharing private spaces with male-bodied people. The most obvious example here was JK Rowling, who wrote about how her experiences with domestic violence informed her views, an inconvenient truth her critics conveniently ignored. Women are raised to fear male strength, and with very good reason. And now we’re called bigots for doing so.

For the first time in my 20-plus years of being a liberal journalist, I felt completely isolated. I knew I could make my life easier if I just reverted to being the good girl and shut up. “Be kind,” women were told by gender ideologues: be good girls, don’t ask questions, just nod and say what we tell you to say. You don’t want to be mean, do you? But how can you be a writer and not write your doubts about something so important? How can you be a journalist and not ask questions? Occasionally a professional peer would send a text saying that they agreed with me, but they couldn’t say so publicly because their editor wouldn’t like it, or their teenage kids would shout at them, or it was just too stressful.

So I questioned myself. Of course I did. Would my children be ashamed of me in twenty, ten, five years time? “Am I the baddie here?” I asked myself. But I just couldn’t make it square up: how can feelings (gender identity) always take precedence over material reality (biological sex)? Trying to convince myself that I was wrong and the gender ideologues were right was like trying to convince myself that one plus one equals a unicorn. How can you shut your eyes to your own experience and say something that makes no sense? Apparently some people can, but I could not.

I understand why some people see parallels between the modern transgender movement and the gay rights struggle. Like many gay people, trans people experience terrible marginalisation and discrimination, and some are rejected by their families, and that is tragic. Like gay people, they have been cruelly vilified in the Right-wing press (which is partly why the Left-wing media is then so loathe to raise any questions about the transgender movement. They don’t want to look like the evil Tories, right?). But there are other ways to see this situation, too.

It felt at times like men’s rights activism as a religion. Whenever I or a female colleague dared to voice our doubts about gender ideology, we were pilloried; whenever a male colleague did, he was given a free pass. It was, in the vast, vast main, women who were condemned as bigots, all because they didn’t believe the right things, because they were trying to defend their legal rights. Left-wing men — both in person and online — told me that unless I repeated the mantra “trans women are women”, I was a bigot. It reminded me of that time in school when I was questioned about Jesus to prove my worthiness to wear a jumper.

At the same time as all this was going on, Labour’s seemingly never-ending anti-Semitism scandals were unfolding. Everyone was being urged to listen to those with “lived experience”, and yet non-Jewish people on the Left were telling British Jews that they knew better than them what anti-Semitism was. Now many of those same men were telling me that they knew better than me what a woman was. So this time I didn’t give up a part of myself. Instead, I felt real anger, and I wrote an article in which I told them to get lost. This provoked a huge backlash on Twitter, and no, it wasn’t pleasant. But it was definitely preferable to staying silent just because I was scared.

Other people, however, did not react like that. It was astonishing to me how quickly universities, publishing houses, NHS services, political parties, newspapers and TV networks capitulated to the gender ideologues, who were often not even trans themselves. Mainstream newspapers were suddenly using ideological terms like “cis”, a term which endorses the highly dubious belief that we all have an innate gender identity, and “top surgery”, a tidy euphemism for an elective double mastectomy. NHS services would talk about “cervix havers”, “chest feeding” and “pregnant people” (although prostate-havers were, notably, still men). ITV made a much-publicised drama, Butterfly, about a little boy who decides he’s a girl because he likes to wear make-up and jewellery, because clearly a boy playing with make up needs some kind of medical intervention — and what else is a girl but jewellery and lipstick?

Many of the people demanding these institutional shifts were and are not transgender themselves. They are bullies who set themselves up as moral arbiters, using self-righteous hysteria and factually questionable claims to demand censorship, instilling fear that anyone caught engaging in wrongspeak or even wrongthink will be publicly shamed and professionally destroyed. Bullies who insist they need to reshape women’s rights entirely, and then accuse any woman who even wants to discuss this of being hateful, stupid and dangerous. I have seen some people refer to gender-critical feminists as bullies, but I have never seen a gender-critical feminist call for writers to be no-platformed, words to be banned, books to be pulped, or articles to be deleted from the web. Gender activists do all of that as a matter of routine.

Contrary to what these bullies have claimed, gender-critical feminists do not hate trans people. I certainly feel no anger or animosity towards trans people. The only feeling I have towards them is compassion. Not to the point where I’m willing to give up all of women’s sex-based rights, no. But I do know I can only imagine the trauma and pain they have endured in their lives. I also know that so many of the arguments that are happening in their name are not ones that they wish for at all; they are conducted largely by provocateurs who are just burnishing their online brands.

No, my anger is directed at the cowardly institutions that have allowed themselves to be bullied by a tiny misogynistic online minority instead of maintaining even a shadow of a backbone and doing what they know is right. Bristol University, for one, which is currently being sued by a young Dominican woman, Raquel Rosario-Sanchez, on the grounds of sex discrimination and negligence. Rosario-Sanchez came to Bristol to do a PhD on the male exploitation of prostitutes, but because she chaired an event with the feminist group, Woman’s Place UK, trans activists bullied and intimidated her.

She follows in the now extremely established lineage of women like Kathleen Stock, Maya Forstater, Allison Bailey, Rosie Kay — all women who have suffered huge professional setbacks and personal upheaval simply for believing that biological sex is the defining factor in women’s oppression. Do their employers think they’re wrong? Do they really think that something called gender identity, which I’m guessing most of them had never even heard of until six years ago, is the most important quality to a person, and any woman who doubts this must be shunned from society? Or do they just wish to be on The Right Side of History?

That’s a phrase I’ve heard often over the past few years. An editor said it to a friend of mine when she wanted to look at the effect of puberty blockers on gender dysphoric children (“I know, I know, but we want to be on the right side of history…”), and a US magazine editor said it to me when I asked if I could interview Martina Navratilova about her views on trans athletes: “I know what you’re saying, and I’m on your side, really I am. But you have to wonder what the right side of history is,” he said. It’s a concern that’s entirely based on vanity, because it’s about wanting to look good, to be seen as the good guy, polishing one’s future legacy. It’s also a way of abdicating responsibility for one’s choices: I’m not making this decision because it’s what I think – it’s what the future thinks!

And then there’s Twitter. When I wanted to write for a magazine about the vilification of JK Rowling, I was told no, because it would cause “too much of a Twitter storm”. A friend wanted to put together a book of collected gender-critical essays, but an editor told her “the Twitter kickback would be too strong, and it wouldn’t get past the sensitivity readers anyway”. It amazes me how much power some people give to Twitter, because as someone who has been the object of several Twitter storms in my time, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Twitter means nothing, unless you give it the power to mean something. People should really stop giving Twitter so much power, because it’s making them bad at their jobs.

I’m lucky — I haven’t lost my job because I believe something that everyone believed up to five years ago, and most people still believe now. (Gender activists love to produce sweeping surveys which they insist prove most people support trans rights. When people are questioned about the rights of trans people who have not had gender reassignment surgery, or dig into the specifics of sport and prisons, public opinion, unsurprisingly, changes.) I did, however, stop writing my column. I was tired of being seen as the Phyllis Schlafly of The Guardian.

I’m currently writing a book about anorexia. Multiple doctors have confirmed to me what I already suspected, which is that there are obvious parallels between what gender dysphoric teenage girls say today — about their hatred of their body, their fear of sexualisation, their assumptions about what being a woman means — and what I said while in hospital as a teenager.

This is a fact, and an important one about adolescent mental health, and yet when other people have tried to make similar points in print, they have come up against enormous barriers. Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, which looked at the disproportionate rise in numbers of teenage girls seeking gender transition, was ignored by progressive newspapers and magazines, even though it sold well. A US supermarket stopped stocking it after protests by activists. The deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, which still claims to be a free speech organisation, said that suppressing Shrier’s book was “100% a hill I would die on”.

Repeatedly, women who write about this tell me they are subjected to impossible edits: pleas for balance, softened language, a more neutral tone, dissenting voices, more equivocation so as to render their original argument into meaningless slurry — everything editors do to a piece when, really, they would rather spike it and save themselves the bother. It doesn’t matter how many facts you have, what matters are the feelings.

I don’t discount feelings. Feelings are important. But it’s interesting whose feelings matter. Andrea Long Chu, a trans woman, wrote in her 2017 memoir that the “barest essentials” of “femaleness” is “an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eye”. How did that get past the now ubiquitous sensitivity readers? It certainly didn’t hurt the writer’s career, who continues to get very high-profile commissions, whereas I personally know women who have lost their jobs for saying that the barest essentials of their femaleness was their biology. Or how about this line from a recently published memoir by Grace Lavery: when describing how hormone treatment has affected her body, she writes that her penis felt “as though I were laying my own miscarried foetus across my hand”.

I had a miscarriage. Two, actually. And so has almost every woman I know who has been pregnant. I wonder if anyone at that publishing company thought how we might feel, seeing our failed pregnancies compared to a flaccid penis? I’m guessing none, and fair enough, because I actually don’t think fear of offence is a reasonable excuse not to publish something. The double standards are ludicrous: you can now say any old garbage about women, but anything that even questions gender ideology will be anxiously second-guessed and overly edited into oblivion, no matter how many facts and even genuine feelings are behind it.

Someone described this to me recently as “a period of over-correction”, and I get that. For so long, transgender people were underrepresented, mocked and harassed, and now it’s their moment to have their say, and fair enough. But this should not be an either/or situation: both women and trans people should be able to speak out equally and honestly in progressive spheres. Instead, I see Left-wing feminist writers being funnelled towards Right-wing publications, simply because Left-wing ones are too anxious to stay on The Right Side of History to publish them. This makes it easier for the Left-wing bullies to discredit them, but it does not make what they’re saying any less true.

Recently, Mumsnet hosted a live discussion with Stella Creasy and Caroline Nokes about women and mothers in politics. When the majority of the questions were about gender and what Creasy and Nokes think a woman is, the journalist Marie Le Conte called the Mumsnetters “obsessive” and “radicalised”. There were many problems facing women today, she wrote, but instead of working together on low rape convictions and workplace discrimination, feminists were arguing over this one issue.

Le Conte is right, of course: these are things women should be focusing on, because they affect women. But how can women focus on them if politicians won’t even say what a woman is anymore? If sex and gender are being blurred together, how can we discuss who’s being discriminated against and why? In the workplace, a woman might be sacked because, say, she got pregnant, which is sex discrimination. A trans woman might be sacked because of transphobia. These are very different issues, and while inclusion is a laudable aim, it can’t come at the cost of clarity and efficacy.

It is not bigoted to say these things. And yet, there was a period, about three years ago, when I honestly thought about quitting my job. I felt so hated for saying things — things that are scientifically, biologically and factually true — and so unsupported by people who I know secretly agree with me but are too scared to say so out loud that I nearly left journalism. Well, I didn’t. Instead, I decided to stop being so frustrated by it all, and to stop taking what is going on in the progressive media circles and institutions so personally. For so long, I defined myself as a Left-wing journalist, but political categories are watery these days, and I’m OK with feeling out of step from so many people I once thought of as my side. I know they see things differently from me and I fully support their right to express their views; that feeling, I know all too well, is not mutual.

I don’t feel like I’ve become radicalised, because I don’t think anything I didn’t already think six years ago. I do, however, feel much better about myself for not just thinking it but saying it. I have learned that there is something worse than people telling me I’m a bad person, and that is allowing bullies to reframe the world, to dictate what we can all think and to define my reality. They might have triumphed over some institutions, but they haven’t triumphed over me. It turns out life is much better when you’re no longer the good girl.