Meeting gender critical women: number three, Jen

‘Meeting gender critical women’ is a series of articles in which I’ll be introducing you to as many gender critical women as I can, to show that we (for I’m one too) are real people. We are reasonable women, with rational and considered views. Not the demonic, hateful, bigoted ‘TERFs’ that some claim we are. The pieces I post here will be long reads of sorts, but still fairly short because of the medium. As such, they’re a flavour of the woman and her experience, rather than the full story.

Jen and I know each other through the Labour Party – another myth about gender critical women is busted! (The false claim that we’re all right wingers.) Before the interview we chat about whether we’ll mention the two businesses she runs with her husband. Like previous interviewees, she decides not to, in case a connection is made between them and her gender critical views.

To be clear, there’s nothing untoward about being gender critical. It basically means believing in biological sex and that humans can’t materially change their sex. Yet the more women I speak to, the more fears I hear about the risk to their work – thanks to a small, but belligerent, minority which has been allowed to damage a number of women’s reputations, work and businesses purely because of her gender critical views. But I digress.

Jen and her husband also have two sons, aged 12 and 8 years old. Before they started their own business, she worked in bid and proposal writing and also as a fuel poverty advisor. She was made redundant from one role while on maternity leave with her first child and pushed into redundancy from another shortly after returning to work having had her second.

“For many years I might have said ‘I am a feminist’, [but] it was having children that forced me to act on it,” she says – even though she also studied feminism and gender prior to becoming a mother.

She adds, “I read Caitlin Moran’s How to be a woman and as a very basic assessment of what is sexism, she says you have to ask yourself – would this happen to a man? I had to answer NO. I gave birth to babies, not my brain.”

Jen Smith

With her background and as someone who worked in ‘political environments where questions are always asked and problems need solving’, being gender critical was natural for Jen. When she raised it in a Labour Party Women’s Forum, a group of some 18 women, she recalls no shock or animosity. It was felt to be an entirely appropriate topic. The group talked freely about the possible impact of self-identification on women and their rights, including hearing from many women with knowledge of helping those fleeing domestic abuse – an area of concern when it comes to this issue.

“There’s a woman who’s worked with women for years and years… she’s dealt with all sorts of women in different situations. Trafficked women, that kind of thing as well. I would say she’s a very old leftie feminist and what she said was, from her experience, there’s only been a couple of cases where … either men, or men who identify as women, have come forward for help and what they’ve done is gone to the other women and staff in the shelter and said ‘is it an issue that this person is included?’, to which they [said] ‘yes’ and so they found alternative arrangements for them.”

Which isn’t of course what those who sling the term TERF around claim happens. But this conversation was before the world went mad and women started being cast as bigots for even asking questions. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when things changed. People used to talk and debate things they vehemently disagreed on without it descending into a slanging match. Yet when the change came it wasn’t long before holding certain views (be it that humans can’t change sex or that the Palestinians are treated unfairly by the Israeli state) would be used against you. Even by people with no interest in those things.

Jen found herself caught up in such a situation when she and her Labour Party comrades went public about what they experienced as a culture of bullying at a local level, but which the Party said it could find no evidence of. As well as a general backlash, it became obvious that some who disagreed with them had decided to search through their social media accounts for gender critical posts. Accusations of transphobia and being a TERF followed, towards her and others – although she says it was a minor part of the fallout. I ask her if she’s shocked this could happen in a Party founded on cooperation and being comradely.

“Because we were raising concerns about … high ups in the party I always knew that wouldn’t be popular and would receive some sort of backlash. I knew some of the things they’d said or how they’d behaved, so I knew that behaviour would continue,” she says, adding she thinks the issue is a wider one of sexism and misogyny and not confined to the poor treatment of gender critical women.

“I think it’s like any abusive situation. I think they’re used to getting away with the behaviour and being championed by the people around them who don’t see it as abusive, or will constantly make an excuse for it.

“So women speaking up and getting somewhere with that, changing the narrative and saying, ‘well actually he’s done this thing’ people are very uncomfortable with that because they’ve backed that person and suddenly they’re being confronted themselves. [Because] if you back that position you’re [also] being confronted if it’s then questioned.”

As she tells me this, I see a parallel. People siding with bullies because they feel under attack having hitherto supported them is very much like people who have blindly criticised and abused gender critical women, not admitting they were wrong when presented with facts which prove it. It’s not a huge stretch to suggest that lazily taking things at face value, instead of examining and discussing them has led to the current situation in the Labour Party nationally. Whereby elected representatives, including the leader of the Party, won’t say that a woman is an adult human female. Nor admit that a man who seeks or undergoes ‘gender reassignment’ must first have something to reassign.

“Everyone rolls it into this progressive politics don’t they?” Says Jen, adding “It all gets jumbled into one … but actually it does not suit women that an equalities agenda is all moulded together, because there’s some very different experiences from different sets of people.”

“Hence why the Equality Act distinguishes what these protected characteristics are and is very specific. If you experience racism, it’s quite different to sexism. It’s not the same thing. You’ve got to think … how does that affect people differently and why are women raising a voice?”

Alas few people seem inclined to talk about such things any more and, despite claims to the contrary, preventing people from discussing problematic issues doesn’t solve anything. Whether it’s not having open and honest discussion about how to deal with a bully, or wider questions like how gender identity ideology impacts women’s rights, shutting the conversation down simply creates bad feeling and, also, results in good work going undone.

When Jen was chairing the local Women’s Forum, with more than a dozen regular attendees, they were also involved in various community projects such as a summer holiday lunch club aimed at feeding children who relied on free school meals during term time.

“We saw that there was a need locally for some children. It took a couple of weeks to get a really good take up but I’d say probably by the end there was about 20 different families that came, which is quite a lot, ” she tells me.

Another project involved supporting a Muslim woman to set up a BAME women’s network (not a term Jen likes, but it was what the network was called) to support local women with anything from issues at home through to starting women-only exercise groups – particularly important because of health issues, especially diabetes, in the Muslim community.

I want to make it clear that I wheedled this detail out of Jen. Partly, she’s obviously not one to show off, but also helping people who need it seems something she does automatically. Which makes it all the more galling that since the bullying issue was brought to a head and relations between some party members soured, many women left the forum and/or the Party. As a result things like the lunch club no longer happen. Here’s the parallel again, between women’s reports of bullying being dismissed and the concerns of gender critical women being portrayed as bigotry and transphobia. The result is often the same. Some women are directly pushed out; others remove themselves from hostile circumstances, in order to protect their health. Some will say they chose to leave, but it’s not much of a choice.

We turn to discussing the battle from which the concept of gender critical sprang and Jen’s role in it.”I have spoken about women on various platforms and committees but have found the definition of woman has moved and initially people are responsive, but the need to include all groups in any conversations about women take over.

“From I think about 2018 people started to insert phrases like ALL women, LGBTQI+ and I definitely questioned this turn of phrase,” she tells me adding that she’s found people will use the mantra ‘trans women are women’ in the belief they are being kind and inclusive, without understanding how it translates into poor outcomes – especially for the most vulnerable women, like those in prison or shelters. Bearing in mind that shelter could relate to being homeless as well as fleeing domestic abuse.

“It can turn into an argument about toilets and changing rooms but these can be the spaces we rely on to take part in the wider world.”

What does she think the impact on women and girls would be if all toilets became unisex – which is the reality of the so-called ‘gender neutral’ toilet. (Noting this means all loos could and would be used by men, rather than being a comment about transgender people’s toilet use.)

“I just think we’d gradually remove ourselves from participating basically, so there would be some areas where some people might kick up a stink but if you personally thought, ‘Let’s go to the pub, but those toilets are disgusting, men pee all over the seats all the time. Yeah. I’m not going to bother.’

“Or your place of work. You’re expected to be in an office, [maybe] you can work a couple of days from home, but you need to be in … and you’re like ‘there’s all these blokes in the toilet and I don’t feel very comfortable’ [so] you remove yourself from it and then you’re not there to get involved in some of the meetings or be part of the conversation.”

She continues, “[As] for young people in schools, I cannot get my head round the advice of gender neutral changing rooms and spaces. I mean it’s such a safeguarding issue… but particularly I remember going through puberty and being a girl. It was bloody horrible getting periods at first. You’re just getting used to it and you don’t quite know what you’re doing. Imagine being somewhere you think ‘boys might walk in’. I think we’d just gradually remove ourselves wouldn’t we? We’d be less visible in society.”

Despite this dismal view, Jen remains optimistic and determined to continue standing up for women’s sex-based rights.

“If you think about Victorian times, there weren’t public ladies toilets anywhere… I don’t think it will get to that point. I honestly think there’s so much going on with this debate at the minute, particularly [the Forstater case], but I think sport is really where it’s going to crack it open for the general public.

“I honestly think people will see [people who are] obviously men on women’s podiums and be upset about it. I just think that’ll set people off.”