Photo Credit: Lloyd Smith

On Thursday evening, I went to the best book launch I’ve ever attended, and I’m including all of the Harry Potter launches, crazily memorable though those were. This one took place in a large, old wood-panelled room in the middle of Edinburgh, and the evening was so warm the windows were open, so we could hear the distant strains of bagpipes from the Royal Mile.

I’d arrived straight off a plane from London, and when I got into the room I thought ‘damn, of course,’ because most of the women there were wearing the suffragette colours: green, purple and white, and I was head to toe in black jumper and trousers, like a mime, which was ironic given what we were there to celebrate.

This was a belated, post-publication party for The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht, the book of essays to which I contributed, and which came out last month. ‘Wheesht’ is a Scots injunction to be quiet: ‘haud your wheesht’ means ‘hush!’ The book has contributions from thirty or so problematic Scottish females who didn’t agree with former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s vision of a country where a man could become a woman simply by declaring himself one. Among the writers were politicians, journalists, activists and policy analysts.  However, many contributors have no public profile. Some had written their essays anonymously.

I can’t use the word ‘ordinary’ for the latter women, because they’re about as far from ‘ordinary’ as you can get. These are the women who risked (and in some cases, lost) their livelihoods by standing up against an ideology embraced by Scottish politicians, state institutions and by the police.

These supposedly ‘ordinary’ women fought because they could see no alternative but to fight: for other vulnerable women and girls, for single-sex spaces, for the right to speak about our own bodies as we please, and to retain the ability to call a man as a man, without which no analysis or activism around sex-based issues and inequalities is possible.

There were speeches, a lot of cake and laughter, hugs for those who’d never met in person, and a feeling of delight and celebration that the book had been such an unexpected success (it caught the publisher off guard, as he admitted at the party; there have been several reprints already).

The women there were so funny, so brave, so determined; I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much solidarity in a room, a solidarity that stretched across party divides. I still felt elated and inspired when I got home.

On entering my sitting room, I found my husband watching the leaders’ debate on TV and I reached the sofa just in time to hear from another woman who didn’t fancy hauding her wheesht.

‘Three years ago,’ the woman in the studio audience said to Keir Starmer, ‘you criticised your MP Rosie Duffield for saying “only women have a cervix.” You recently backtracked on this. What do you believe now, and how do we know that you will stick to your views?’

Ah, Cervixgate. I remember it well. It was September 2021 and I was sitting at my kitchen table reading over the chapter I’d finished the day before. The TV was on in the background, my husband was making toast, and I thought I must have misheard what the Labour leader had just said, so I reached for the remote. I rewound the programme and replayed his answer, then rewound and replayed it again. I really wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, you see. I’ve been a Labour voter, a member (no longer), donor (not recently) and campaigner (ditto) all my adult life. I want to see an end to this long stretch of chaotic and often calamitous Tory rule. I want to want to vote Labour.

But I hadn’t heard Starmer wrongly. When asked whether he agreed with MP Rosie Duffield that ‘only women have a cervix’, he’d responded, ‘well, it is something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right.’

If you’d catapulted me forwards in time from 1997, the year Labour last succeeded in ending a long stretch of Tory rule, and told me their male leader would appear live on television, dictating what women were allowed to say about their own reproductive systems, I’d have had no frame of reference by which to understand what would have seemed an utterance of outright lunacy.

Unfortunately, by 2021, Starmer’s answer had to be seen in the context of a Labour party that not merely saw the rights of women as disposable, but struggled to say what a woman was at all.

Take Annaliese Dodds, the shadow secretary for women and equalities, who, when asked what a woman is, said, ‘it depends on what the context is’. Take Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary: ‘I’m not going to get into rabbit holes on this’; Stella Creasy, Labour candidate for Walthamstow, ‘Do I think some women were born with penises?  Yes. But they are now women and I respect that’; Emily Thornberry,the shadow attorney-general, ‘Women who are trans deserve to be recognised, and yes, therefore some of them will have penises. Frankly, I’m not looking up their skirts, I don’t care.’ Dawn Butler, the former MP for Brent Central, actually announced on TV that ‘a child is born without sex at the beginning’ (I choose to believe she meant the lesser of two insanities here: a sex, not that children really are delivered by stork.)

Some of this is almost funny, but loses its humour when real world consequences of gender ideology arise. When asked whether violent sex offenders who transition should be rehoused in women’s prisons, Lisa Nandy, the shadow secretary for international development, said, ‘I think trans women are women, I think trans men are men, so I think they should be in the prison of their choosing.’

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate for Salford, said female victims of male violence shouldn’t use their trauma ‘as an argument to discriminate against trans people’ and vowed to change laws to stop women’s refuges excluding men who identify as women.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, called women like me ‘dinosaurs hoarding rights.’ Lammy, too, has form on the vexed question of cervixes: ‘a cervix, I understand, is something you can have following various procedures and hormone treatments’.  It’s very hard not to suspect that some of these men don’t know what a cervix is, but consider it too unimportant to Google.

So, there I was, on the edge of my sofa seat on Thursday night, waiting to hear Starmer clarify his views on an issue that places many left-leaning women on the spectrum between anger and disgust at his party’s embrace of gender identity ideology. Did he still maintain that women and cervixes ought not to be mentioned together?

‘On the biology,’ Starmer began, ‘I agree with what Tony Blair said the other day, in relationship to men having penises and women having vaginas.’

‘So you’ve changed your position?’ asked the moderator.

‘On the biology,’ emphasised Starmer., leaving the impression that until Tony Blair sat him down for a chat, he’d never understood how he and his wife had come to produce children. ‘That doesn’t help on the gender… some people don’t identify with the gender they’re born into…’

And off we meandered into the familiar trans activist talking points where so many Labour frontbenchers appear to feel most comfortable.

‘…my view in life is to give respect and dignity to everyone, whatever their position. And I was worried at the time, you referenced that particular debate [when Rosie Duffield stated biological facts], by the way in which the debate was being conducted, because it got very toxic, very divided, very hard line…’

In the interests of full transparency, I should say that Rosie Duffield’s a friend of mine. We’d probably have been friends no matter where or how we’d met, but we found each other as part of a group of women fighting to retain women’s rights. She and I share more than the occasional meal and a fairly sweary WhatsApp thread. Last month, a man received a suspended prison sentence for sending both of us death threats. Rosie was to be taken out with a gun; I was to be beaten to death with a hammer. The level of threats Rosie has received is such that she’s had to hire personal security and was recently advised not to conduct in-person hustings.

Is this what Starmer meant, when he talked about toxic, divided debate? A female MP in his own party being intimidated and harassed? Or was he referencing the activists in black masks who turn up at women’s demonstrations with the declared intention of punching ‘TERFs’, an intention that has more than once translated into action? Was he perhaps thinking of the trans activists who sang ‘F*** You’ over a microphone as women from all over the world queued outside the feminist conference, FILIA, to discuss issues like female genital mutilation?

It didn’t seem so. The impression given by Starmer at Thursday’s debate was that there had been something unkind, something toxic, something hard line, in Rosie’s words, even though almost identical words had sounded perfectly reasonable when spoken by Tony Blair. It seems Rosie has received literally no support from Starmer over the threats and abuse, some of which has originated from within the Labour party itself, and has had a severe, measurable impact on her life. But she fights on, like all the women at the book launch, because she feels she has no choice. Like me, she believes the stakes are too high to walk away.

For left-leaning women like us, this isn’t, and never has been, about trans people enjoying the rights of every other citizen,and being free to present and identify however they wish. This is about the right of women and girls to assert their boundaries. It’s about freedom of speech and observable truth. It’s about waiting, with dwindling hope, for the left to wake up to the fact that its lazy embrace of a quasi-religious ideology is having calamitous consequences.

Two hours before I watched Starmer fail, yet again, to get off the fence he’s so reluctant to stop straddling, I met the woman who wrote what I think all contributors would agree is the most important chapter in The Women Who Wouldn’t Wheesht. It’s called A Hashtag is Born. The writer coined the phrase ‘Women Won’t Wheesht’, which has now been taken up as a feminist battle cry both within Scotland and beyond. She wrote anonymously about being smeared as a bigot and a transphobe for wanting female-only intimate care for her beautiful learning disabled-daughter (I know her daughter’s beautiful, because I met her, too). In part, this mother wrote:

‘The material reality of a man is not changed by how he perceives himself, and telling vulnerable women and girls to ignore their own discomfort to accommodate a man’s perception of himself, is gaslighting.’

I cannot vote for any politician who takes issue with that mother’s words. If you choose to prevaricate and patronise rather than address her concerns, if you continue to insist that the most vulnerable must embrace your luxury beliefs, no matter the cost to themselves, I don’t trust your judgement and I have a poor opinion of your character.

An independent candidate is standing in my constituency who’s campaigning to clarify the Equality Act. Perhaps that’s where my X will have to go on July 4th. As long as Labour remains dismissive and often offensive towards women fighting to retain the rights their foremothers thought were won for all time, I’ll struggle to support them. The women who wouldn’t wheesht didn’t leave Labour. Labour abandoned them.