August 23, 2023 - 4:00pm

Emily Bridges, writes British Vogue, “never wanted to be a campaigner. Before May this year, she only had one goal: competing for Great Britain at the 2024 Paris Olympics.”

That’s before British Cycling decided that male people — of which Bridges is one – should not be entitled to compete in the female category. Bridges’s response was to accuse the organisation of “furthering genocide”. This somewhat intemperate response does not feature in Vogue, where Bridges is listed as one of 25 “powerhouse women defining — and redefining — Britain in 2023”.

At risk of promoting another outburst, I’d suggest that Bridges doesn’t deserve to be on Vogue’s list, either. Much as I’m aware this will lead to charges of being “exclusionary” — indeed, trolling feminists was likely part of the point — I don’t think that we should let these things pass. If it matters that women have power, and that exceptional women are recognised, then it also matters to recognise how and why we need lists like this. 

Female power lists — like women-only shortlists, or female-only literary prizes — exist as a response to exclusion. Their original purpose was not to offer a Barbie-pink, No Boys Allowed, pyjama-party version of male power, on the basis that women — being girly and feminine — find the latter boring. When women object to the presence of male people on lists that were created as a corrective to female marginalisation, we are not being spoilt mean girls, whining about the presence of someone who’s a little bit different. We are rejecting the expectation that women rely on the benevolence of male people to have anything of our own. 

As the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye has pointed out, female exclusion of male people — whatever the latter call themselves — is not the equivalent of male exclusion of female people. “When women separate,” she writes, “we are simultaneously controlling access and defining. We are doubly insubordinate, since neither of these is permitted.” Witness, for instance, Bridges’s unbridled rage at being excluded from women’s competitions. Aren’t female people supposed to stand aside and be nice? Can’t one measly woman give up one measly place? 

There are some who think that if women wish to receive equal treatment to men, we should stop fussing about having “women’s things” at all. Yet, as the Swedish writer Kajsa Ekis Ekman notes, this is to ignore how power operates in relation to sex and gender. “It is not possible,” she argues, “to access male power structures or be accepted as a man by men in their changing rooms by appealing to any rule.” 

It is a measure of male entitlement, not female privilege, that Bridges can muscle into a list reserved for women, and not only that, use it to complain about no longer having access to female prizes. Women cannot tantrum their way out of experiencing sexism, or into receiving accolades. This is why we must continue to set aside spaces and prizes just for us. 

The inclusion of Bridges on a woman’s power list doesn’t just mean the exclusion of someone who deserves to be there. It changes the nature of what the list means, undermining the very justification for its existence.   

I am not sure Vogue particularly cares about this. I do, though. Ironically, the presence of a male person on a women’s power list — in a world where women still have so little power in relation to men – demonstrates the need for women’s power lists. Just not those in Vogue.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.