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Do Women Have the Right To Defend Their Sex – Michael Biggs

 

Three female academics spoke about women’s rights at Oxford on 25 October to an audience of about two hundred, composed mainly of feminists. Such a meeting would have been unremarkable in 2009, 1999, 1989, or 1979; even in 1969 it would have caused bemusement rather than outrage. Today, however, the meeting was so controversial that the University of Oxford deserves credit for allowing it to go ahead. Indeed, similar events were re-cently cancelled, or re-arranged, by Massey University in New Zealand and Simon Fraser University in Canada. At stake are two fundamental principles.The first is whether women have the right to defend their sex – to preserve, for example, female-only rape shelters and sports competi-tions. The second is whether we have a right to question fashionable doctrines of gender.

The event at Oxford – entitled ‘A woman’s place is at the lectern’ – was arranged by Woman’s Place UK (WPUK). This organization was formed in 2017 by left-wing feminists after an attendee, Maria MacLachlan, was physically assaulted on the way to a meeting discussing the government’s proposal to amend the Gender Recognition Act. To quote from WPUK’s manifesto:

‘We are against all forms of discrimination. We believe in the right of everyone to live their lives free from discrimination and harassment. Women face entrenched and endemic structural in-equality. … This is why sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act (2010) which we believe must be defended.’ 

I helped WPUK to book a room in Examination Schools for the meeting, for which it paid the normal rates. The Proctors’ Officers warned of a substantial risk of physical disruption. WPUK’s first meeting in Oxford, at the Quaker Meeting House in April 2017, was besieged by about fifty shouting protesters.2 Demonstrators outside the WPUK’s previous meeting, in Brighton, blocked the entrance and tried to kick in the windows.3 Therefore the University insisted that the organization pay for six pri-vate security guards as well as four University staff and obtain liability insurance for £10 million.

The meeting featured three speakers: Professor Selina Todd, Professor of Modern History at Oxford; Dr Susan Matthews, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton; and Raquel Rosario Sanchez, doctoral student at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol. The chair was Allison Bailey, a criminal defence barrister at Garden Court Chambers who, incidentally, grew up in Cowley.

When the meeting was announced, transactivists (activists campaigning for the transgender cause, most of whom do not identify as transgender but style them-selves ‘cisgender allies’) reacted with predictable outrage. Trans Action Oxford emerged as a new account (@trans-actionox) on Twitter. It asserted ‘a direct correlation be-tween the proliferation of groups like “A Woman’s Place” and the rise in transphobic abuse in the UK’.4 To quote from their statement of 17 October:

‘A proper commitment to academic freedom uplifts voices from all marginalised groups, including those of trans people. It recognises that freedom of expression does not extend to bigotry, and that bigotry serves to silence the vulnerable.’

According to Trans Action Oxford, then, anyone who disagrees with their doctrines has no right to speak – and, as we will see, must be expelled from the University.  There is a real asymmetry here, because WPUK has never denied freedom of expression to those who disagree with its principles.

Trans Action Oxford’s statement was signed by several bodies including various groups within Oxford Univer-sity Student Union and the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society. Other signatories were Beyond the Binary, a project at the Pitt Rivers Museum (paid £91,000 by the Her-itage Lottery Fund5), and the Queer Studies Network, funded by the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH). Should academic units of the University attempt to prevent one of their own colleagues – Todd – from speaking? Fortunately the transactivists decided to hold a rally in Broad Street rather than to intimidate people entering the meeting. The meeting proceeded without disruption. Todd emphasized the persistence of sex discrimination in the university sector. Matthews argued that we need to question the beliefs underlying gender ideology in the same way that earlier feminists exposed myths of their own time. Rosario Sanchez traced the transmogrification of Women’s Studies into Gender Studies and urged a re-turn to its roots. The speeches were followed by a lively question-and-answer session. What was said during the meeting would not surprise anyone who has encountered second-wave feminism.

Nevertheless, three of the four women on the platform have been targeted for harassment.  As a founding sup-porter of LGB Alliance, a new group for homosexuals and bisexuals, Bailey received a torrent of abuse and even death threats online.8 Complaints were made to her Chambers, instigated by Gendered Intelligence – an organization which Oxford pays to train staff – and she is now under investigation.  Rosario Sanchez has been bullied by students at her university ever since it was announced that she would chair a WPUK meeting in Bristol in 2018.  She has been forced to run the gamut of masked protesters at meetings inside her university campus and has faced almost two years of threats by students to assault her at multiple events, both inside and outside her university.

Rosario Sanchez and Bailey’s experiences, incidentally, perfectly illustrates the perversity of today’s identity politics. We are exhorted to defer to oppressed groups, but when orthodoxy is challenged by a woman from the Dominican Republic and a black lesbian, then their dissident voices must be silenced. Todd has likewise faced a persistent campaign of harassment. Because the perpetrators are staff and students at Oxford, it should be of particular concern to readers. Trans Action Oxford’s subsequent statement (28 October) literally demands her sacking:

‘Todd refuses to grant trans women the same status as cisgender women. A person who is so openly transphobic should not be in the University’s employment, let alone in a teaching position where she is directly interacting with students … . We demand that it [the University] review its employment of Selina Todd.’

The authors –‘A collective of undergraduate and postgraduate students, and staff, of the University of Oxford’ – lack the courage to sign their names. The statement was retweeted by the Oxford Feminist Society. The Society also tweeted using the hashtag #FuckTerfs. The acronym stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, and and the associated Twitter traffic is often accompanied by threats of violence.

Ponder the paradox of anonymous ‘intersectional feminists’ hurling obscenities at a feminist scholar because she believes that women face discrimination on account of their sex. As Selina Todd has told me, abuse is not confined to social media. After the WPUK meeting, activists planned to disrupt her lecture to undergraduates, causing the History Faculty to ask the Proctors for security. The front row of the lecture theatre was occupied by several transactivists displaying slogans. Such overt intimidation goes far beyond the bounds of any normal academic disagreement or political debate. Moreover, there is reason to conclude that transactivists are targeting Todd as a woman. She and I share similar views on the subject of sex and gender; if anything, I have been more outspoken.

Although I have not altogether escaped criticism, I have not faced anything like the continual campaign of harassment which she has endured, which, she tells me, has included an official complaint to St Hilda’s – dismissed as without foundation – as well as relentless defamation on social media, for over a year. The University of Oxford deserves real praise for al-lowing the WPUK to hire its premises. (The only other British university to do so is Northumbria.) The Vice-Chancellor’s reply to Trans Action Oxford struck just the right balance: Oxford ‘prioritises protecting academic freedom and robust expression of opinion and debate, while not tolerating any form of unlawful discrimination or harassment.’ But, in my view, the University has not done enough to protect Todd from harassment.

It has neither defended her reputation as one of the leading scholars of women’s history with a long record of mentoring female students, nor refuted the defamatory claim that her presence is ‘directly detrimental’ to the ‘well-being and safety’ of trans students.  Although the University has adopted robust principles on free speech (written by Professor Timothy Garton Ash and Lord Ken Macdonald), it evidently allows – as in the case of Trans Action Oxford – student groups and even academic units to violate those principles.  The debate around sex and gender is inevitably heated because fundamental rights are really at stake.

Needless to say, members of the University have an absolute right to disagree vehemently with Todd and to repudiate her views. It should not be acceptable, however, to call for a colleague and teacher to be sacked for believing that sex matters.

 

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