March 6, 2023 - 10:45am

Female academics have a lot to talk about these days. Professors have been targeted, subjected to campaigns of harassment, and some have left academia altogether. On Wednesday, I’m chairing a meeting called ‘Silencing Women: Academic Freedom and Unthinkable Thoughts’, where three distinguished professors will talk about their fight for sex-based research — and activists are trying to stop it going ahead. 

Yes, you did read that right. The response of activists to female academics talking about how accusations of ‘transphobia’ are being used to silence them, is to try and silence them again. ‘We believe this event should not go ahead’, says a petition on, claiming ‘it will encourage transphobia…and this will be to the detriment of the safety of trans people’.

A protest has been organised outside the event, which is at the Taliesin Arts Centre at (but not organised by) Swansea University. The organisers claim that the university was warned that the event would ‘cause discomfort and alarm among the university trans community’ and place trans staff and students ‘in the firing line’. 

This is complete nonsense. The right to assemble and speak about issues that affect half the population is essential in a democracy. But it’s also clear that the protest is based on a misrepresentation of the work of the three academics — Professors Jo Phoenix, Alice Sullivan and Judith Suissa — who will be speaking on Wednesday evening. None of them has ever sought to ‘erase trans people’s identities’, a claim that’s often made to undermine perfectly reasonable arguments.

Phoenix, a criminologist who is suing the Open University for constructive dismissal, seems to be a particular target because of her research on the impact of housing trans-identified males in women’s prisons. It’s vital that public policy is based on evidence, such as the impact of replacing ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ when collecting data, and that’s what is currently under threat from an extreme ideology bent on destroying sex categories. 

But it’s worse than that. The implication is that even discussing women’s rights poses a threat to transgender people, a smear that reverses the stark reality of what’s going on. For several years now, feminists have been unable to hold meetings without having to get past protesters who shout abuse and even threaten sexual violence. Organisers of events like the one on Wednesday have to provide security for speakers and attendees, to make sure we can get in and out of venues safely. 

Three years ago this week, I was at a meeting in West London when trans activists set off smoke bombs and jumped out of the darkness to photograph us as we left the building. I’ve seen photographs of events where masked men scream abuse into women’s faces. I’ve seen a placard calling for ’terfs’ to be beheaded. A documentary I took part in, Adult Human Female, has had screenings cancelled and is struggling to find venues after protests from activists. Organisers of the protest against the ‘Silencing Women’ event in Swansea say we’re ‘more than welcome to hold it elsewhere’, as though the same thing wouldn’t happen again.

At one level, we’ve reached peak absurdity. Even on International Women’s Day, it seems, women are no longer free to speak about…free speech. But it should mark a turning point, a moment when universities, politicians and institutions take a stand. It’s feminists whose rights are under threat and whose safety is in question, not the extremists who are once again trying to silence us.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.