Those who would block trans candidates from Labour’s all-women shortlists should keep in mind the gender discrimination we’ve all endured
Crumpled knickers and empty vodka bottles, stained sheets and overflowing ashtrays. Twenty years on, Tracey Emin’s unmade bedlingers in the public imagination because it so gleefully attacked all the female taboos. Here was an image of womanhood not for the squeamish: raw and bloody and defiantly biological.
I thought of it again this week when in a Newsnight debate marking the centenary of the suffragettes’ victory, Emin described being a woman as “excruciatingly painful”. For her it remains defined by rape and abortion and being the child of a single mother, by things written on the body.
And if it means something completely different to you, then so what? Personally speaking I’ve never been raped, or had an abortion, or found being female especially painful, but that doesn’t make me unwomanly and it doesn’t stop Emin’s voice resonating for others. It just means that no one piece of art can represent every single aspect of being a woman – black or white, rich or poor, young or old, born or made – and nor should it. Representation isn’t a mirror, in which everyone sees themselves perfectly reflected at all times. It’s more like a series of snapshots taken from odd angles, which only form a recognisable panorama when pieced together.
And that’s the most obviously exasperating thing about the transgender model Munroe Bergdorf’s complaint that sporting pink pussy hats on women’s marches is exclusionary because “not all women have a vagina”. OK, but you think of a universal female symbol that no woman anywhere could possibly feel alienated by. There isn’t one. There’s a woman alive now to contradict pretty much any given statement about what a woman is, and frankly, that’s a victory in itself after centuries in which the only “right” way to be female was to make one’s bed and lie uncomplainingly in it.
But to hear Linda Bellos, the veteran feminist campaigner, arguing on the radio this week against allowing trans candidates to join Labour’s all-women shortlists because she didn’t feel a trans woman could “represent me” was as depressing as reading Bergdorf’s tweet. There are men in parliament now, never mind trans politicians, who represent my feelings about stamping out sexual harassment at Westminster better than older women insisting that a hand on the knee doesn’t matter. The price of opening up narrow definitions of what a woman or a man should be, however, is that the very idea of female representation – that hard-won, hard-fought feminist milestone – is starting to buckle under pressure, given the sheer scope of everything that now has to be represented.
It seems odd to exclude a minority not currently represented in parliament from measures to make it more representative
The battle within the Labour party between (some) trans activists and (some) feminists over access to all-women shortlists grows more vicious by the day. It has become horribly personal, with attempts to isolate and expel longstanding feminists such as Bellos and aggressive skirmishes on social media. As the shadow women and equalities spokeswoman, Dawn Butler, found last week, this is now ground on which angels fear to tread.
But Butler was right, I think, that shortlists shouldn’t on principle be closed to trans women. Parliament isn’t a domestic violence refuge or a women’s prison, somewhere male-bodied people’s right to enter must be carefully weighed against the rights of vulnerable women on a case by case basis.
If the only people banned from shortlists are men, then banning trans candidates looks horribly like suggesting they remain more male than female; that no matter what hoops they jump through, it’s never enough. It seems odd, too, to exclude a minority not currently represented in parliament from measures to make it more representative. Women are so used to thinking of ourselves as outsiders and underdogs that it’s disconcerting to find ourselves on the other side of the argument. But having been there, we should know better than to be overzealous gatekeepers when someone tries to join our networks.
Yet for those feminists who fought for all-women shortlists in the first place, it was never just about making parliament look more like the people it serves. The point was that it should think differently, too; that women could draw on different life experiences, insights that men lacked. Would childcare have become a priority without Harriet Harman’s willingness decades ago to be laughed at for even mentioning it? Would we be debating period poverty if not for Paula Sherriff and Angela Rayner?
And the biological experience of womanhood, from first period to menopausal hot flush, still matters intensely to feminists because for so long it was the instrument of their oppression. Down the ages women’s bodies have been used to shame them, their fertility to constrain them, their generally (if not universally) lesser physical strength to intimidate. The potential for pregnancy still shapes both working and personal life even in an age of free contraception and abortion; it’s a rare grown woman who has never once worried about either getting pregnant when she didn’t want to, or not being able to get pregnant when she did.
No woman, no matter what gender she was assigned at birth, should expect to get away with being dismissive of experiences that constrain other women’s lives. Biology is still the hand reaching out of the grave, the half-defeated foe we always fear could come back to haunt us.
And yet the irony is that trans people must surely know this better than anyone. Biological differences between the sexes were used for so long against women because they’re the hardest thing to conceal or deny; we couldn’t, after all, easily slip out of our very skins. There is an uncanny similarity here with the way that biology is now held, sometimes unwittingly, against trans women. How must it feel to be told that no matter how much surgery you have, it still won’t do because you’ve never had a period? Change your body, and the focus switches to socialisation, with dark mutterings about why a minority of trans activists adopt such aggressive, bullying tactics on social media. The unspoken, inflammatory inference is: huh, just like a man.
But men don’t have a monopoly on boorish Twitter behaviour, any more than women have a monopoly on vulnerability. You don’t need to have ovaries to have sometimes felt scared walking in the dark, and those who were assigned a female gender at birth are not the only ones with #MeToo stories to tell. It is undeniably messy, and confusing. But as Emin once demonstrated, there are times when an honest representation of a mess beats any sanitised story. Better an unmade bed, perhaps, than sweeping everything under the carpet.