April 19, 2023 - 3:20pm

Only a brave or foolish man would try and instruct women on how they should organise themselves. William Hague’s foray into the transgender debate appears to put him into the latter category. The former Tory leader has suggested that some members of the Women’s Institute should “get over” their opposition to transgender people joining the organisation. Hague explained, “there are transgender people; they have changed their gender. This is part of our society now and I think large national organisations have to get over that and get used to that”.

Yes, there are transgender people — I am one of them — but I am really not sure what Hague means when he claims that we have changed our gender. Was he referring to our hairstyles or perhaps our sartorial approach to life? Maybe he thinks that it is enough to change a name and demand other people use different pronouns when referring to us? He didn’t elaborate. But one thing is clear: we cannot change our sex. Like other mammals, human beings are sexually dimorphic. Our biological development diverged before we were born, and the sex that was observed at birth cannot be changed. Hague seemed to understand that when he discussed sport:

I think on this issue there are some areas where there’s been a danger of going too fast. Competitive sport is one of them. And World Athletics has made it clear that women’s sport has got to be. It can’t be transgender otherwise it would be the end of women’s sport. And I think that is quite right.
- William Hague

Going too fast, indeed. Sex matters in sport. But sex also matters in how we organise within society. Most groups are mixed sex — men and women contribute alongside each other, and however anyone classifies transgender people we are human and we should fit in somewhere. 

However, organisations can and do choose to organise on a single sex basis. The WI is one of them. The National Federation of Women’s Institutes explains that membership is “for any woman who wants to join her local WI group and regularly attend meetings” [my emphasis]. If women are defined by their biological sex in sport, why not the WI? The Institute makes clear that it is “a trusted space for women of all generations to come together to share experiences and learn from each other.”

If those trusted spaces mean anything, then the boundaries must be clear. Unfortunately the present admissions policy is reported to say that anyone “who is living as a woman is welcome”, something that is hardly easy to define. A campaign has been launched to pause the admission of transgender women into local branches and with the intention of a vote being held. Quite right. This is yet another policy shift that has been made without proper understanding of the issues involved. 

Hague, and the male sex generally, need to leave this matter to the women of the WI. If they wish to become a mixed-sex organisation it is for women to decide; not me and not Hague. If the WI decides to remain true to its original vision as an organisation for women — female people, that is — then transgender women should respect that decision. We can be supporters, friends and allies, but we cannot change sex.

Debbie Hayton is a teacher and a transgender campaigner.