• MakeMoreNoise

Feminism and the Far Left. Let Women Speak

Updated: Sep 28

I recorded this essay for those who prefer to listen rather than read them

I would like to begin by expressing my admiration for Jeni Harvey, a woman whose activism inspired me to start writing about the gender wars in 2018. I will quote the article I wrote at length here for some context.

"On Saturday 2nd June 2018, self-declared radical feminist and blogger Jeni Harvey attended a radical book fair at Goldsmiths College. She wanted to distribute pamphlets she had produced about the difference between sex and gender, and how this should inform debates around government plans to allow transgender people to change their birth sex. After some positive discussions with attendees, she was approached by the book fair organisers, who said people had complained that her material was anti trans.

Harvey agreed with the organisers to pack up her stall, but was allowed to distribute her leaflets outside the university gates with three colleagues. Unfortunately, a hostile crowd of young people followed them. One of the book fair organisers was called a 'fucking ugly cunt' by a male protester. A woman grabbed a pamphlet from Harvey’s hands, ripped it into pieces and attempted to set it on fire.”

I received similar abuse at an Anarchist book fair in Manchester in 2019. They didn’t burn our leaflets but they politely asked us if we had a permit. When we said we didn't, they asked us to leave, an irony not lost on Twitter.

If there is an individual who understands the violent censorship that the left can engage in it’s Jeni Harvey. I think this gives us a good starting point to begin a discussion about an article she wrote recently called Feminism and the Far Right. Let Women Speak.

On Sunday the 18th of September, women's rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (a.k.a. Posie Parker) came to Brighton to hold a Speakers Corner event. They have been running for a few years, moving from their home at Speakers Corner London to cities across the country. The format is simple. It’s an open mic event in which any woman who wishes is invited to talk about the ways in which male sexual violence and misogyny impacts their lives. If there is time at the end men may be permitted to speak. In a pattern which is becoming all too familiar, in the weeks preceding it, local trans rights and anti-fascist groups put out a call asking their supporters to attend, to ‘fight Posie Parker by any means necessary.’

Three men were arrested at the event. One man was found with a bag of knives. Fortunately nobody was injured, thanks in large part to the hard work of the all-female steward team. Two men from right wing group Hearts of Oak filmed the event on their mobile phones. A young journalist called Sophie Corcoran, a sometime commentator on GB news, spoke.

In the days that followed, in certain feminist circles, little attention was paid to the violence of the men or the behaviour of those who sought to shut down women’s speech. Instead the focus of their anger was the presence of the men who filmed the event in a public park. Demands were made for the public denouncement of Sophie Corcoran, a woman who is said to hold views incompatible with radical feminism.

This clamour has shown little sign of abating. The article written by Jeni Harvey is a perfect example of these critiques, ones which will be familiar to many. She is concerned about the links between the far right and the gender critical movement. The spectre of the feminazi looms large in the imagination, as shreds of evidence are patched together to build a narrative of a burgeoning alliance between ethno-nationalist patriarchs and gender critical feminists. I could spend my time refuting the links as many have done before me. But much has been written about this and it doesn’t seem to move the conversation forward.

This is because the conversation is a defensive one, based on the framing of the authors who are making the accusations of far right collusion. As such it doesn’t give a fair voice to our position.

I would like to reframe the debate in a way which I hope allows for a more constructive discussion, at least one which allows me to frame the discussion on my terms as I see them..

It is often said that the split is between ‘snooty’ academic types in Ivory Towers and bread and butter grassroots activists. The laptop class writes discursive articles about feminist theory but refuse to get their hands dirty or put themselves on the front line. But this framing does no justice to women like Jeni Harvey. She is a working class single mother who has faced trans right activists face to face and knows only too well the misogyny of the left. Such critiques trigger women like Jeni Harvey just as much as criticisms that I work in alliance with the far right. Conversations about class just go round and round, with everybody trying to prove they’re more common than the next woman. The fact is that both sides contain their share of single mums, of academics and policy wonks.

The split that I see in the ‘gender critical movement’ is very complex but at its root is an old split. It goes back to the 1970’s. It’s between the the socialist feminists who attempted to remain on the left and use radical feminist theory to reform the labour movement; and the lesbian separatists who gave up, left the left to create woman only spaces, both in activism and in physical spaces like rape crisis centres and feminist book shops.

The lesbian separatists have been raising concerns about transgenderism since the 1970’s when Janice Raymond wrote ‘The Transsexual Empire.’ More recently it was lesbian feminists who organised the first conferences in the UK, which were violently protested by trans right activists.

It may surprise you to learn that super straight Mrs Posie Parker has become the figurehead for the position of lesbian feminists. This is a broad stroke analysis and many fall outside of this binary, sitting between both camps, so forgive me if you feel this analysis quashes complexity but I am trying to parse out the ideological lines.

One thing that may confuse onlookers is the amount of lesbians who flock to her banner. This is because she holds a strong line. Trans doesn’t exist. No men are women. Language needs to be clear. Pronouns and language like ‘female born’ and ‘male bodied’ muddy the water. They were useful a few years ago and opened the door for these conversations with politicians and those in authority. For this I am thankful, but the Overton window has shifted and the language needs to shift with it.

The reason that Posie has become a figurehead for lesbian separatists is because Julia Long and Sheila Jeffreys framed her thinking and the position from which she argues. Transgenderism is a male sexual rights movement. It isn’t a mental disorder it is a sexual fetish. The reason why it is so powerful is because porn is worth a fortune. To quote Jennifer Bilek “it’s capitalism stupid.”

This position I believe makes many men on the left feel like frauds. It says they don’t care about a vulnerable minority, they just wanna get their dicks wet, and for that they are willing to sacrifice the rights and safety of women and children.

This framing also puts Posie Parker toe to toe with capitalism. That’s why women who say trans is a fetish are ejected from the public square. Because there is a mint to be made from porn, the filming and distribution of the rape of women and children. Criticism of trans right activism inevitably leads to a criticism of porn and the rights of men to whatever they like with their dicks, no matter the impact on wider society.

The gender critical community is a broad church with women and men from across the political spectrum uniting to push back against the encroachment of transgender demands on their sex based rights. Most groups who lobby the government use language which appeases trans rights activists. Transwomen are transwomen, pronouns are a basic courtesy and the battle is said to involve a delicate balancing of the rights of two vulnerable minorities - transgender people and women.

The author is referring to trans identified man and the comments were made in 2018. The author has since changed her position but that position is unclear.

This puts them into conflict with the grassroots who hold the position of lesbian separatists like Sheila Jeffreys. Their line is that transwomen are men. In most cases it’s a fetish and many men have histories of domestic abuse and controlling behaviour. A common criticism is that they ignore the testimonies of ex wives, (trans widows) and instead platform men who identify as women. Left wing group ‘Women’s Place UK (WPUK) have platformed men like Debbie Hayton on a number of occasions, despite his later confession that his behaviour is driven by a sexual fetish called auto-gynephilia.

This leads us back to the 1970’s. The radical feminist were always somewhat of an embarrassment to their socialist sisters. I remember reading a book, compiled by socialist feminist leader Sheila Rowbotham, the other Sheila, about the first feminist conference held in Oxford in 1970. In it she recalls her embarrassment at a protest in which some radical feminists stormed the stage of a strip show their male comrades were holding as a social event next door.

Once again this is a broad stroke analysis and many socialist feminists are as vocal in their opposition to porn as radical feminists, the line is blurred and crosses over. Writers like Julie Bindel have been some of the fiercest critics of both porn and Posie Parker. But broadly speaking in the 1970s/80’s socialist feminists backed the wrong horse, they didn’t listen to their radical sisters who warned them of the coming storm. They worked within the unions to improve women’s pay and conditions, and moved into academia and media, shifting the focus from labour relations to sex relations.

I know this because I was invited to speak at an event, held by the Mary Quaile Club in Manchester on International Women’s Day in 2019. I gave a speech with Make More Noise co-founder Naomi Bridges in which we talked about the reality of porn and transgenderism on young women.

Afterwards we spoke with many socialist women. They told us about that split and how they ignored the warnings of women on the other side. Many were straight; rejecting political lesbianism, seeing separatists as prudes and extremists. They raised families with their comrades, hoping to reform the left from within. But now they could see what a monster porn had become; how damaging to their daughters. They wished they’d listened. I know this is just an anecdote but I think it speaks a truth about the history of feminism in the UK.

Many may not realise that it was leftist men who helped to set up the porn industry. Peace and love hippies moved west after the sexual revolution to set up porn studios. This wasn’t just about money for these men, they thought that fascism was caused by sexual repression. To them transgression was liberation. This idea is the bedrock of queer theory, the basis for the political justification of transgender rights.

How does this lead back to the Speakers Corner events?

It is because of this history that women are unable to articulate their concerns online. It is why the left work so hard to shut down radical feminists. There is money to be made and reputations to be maintained. Porn is a multi-billion dollar industry, I am not suggesting that left wing men are the sole consumers or producers of porn. Right wing men may preach family values but their internet search histories would likely tell a different story. But it is left wing organisations who want to legalise prostitution, who argue sex work is work. It is liberals who seek to shut down the Twitter accounts of groups like ‘Gays Against Groomers,’ who behave as if safeguarding is just an anti-trans dog whistle

This is why these events are so vital. Women cannot speak in the virtual public square when they criticise men's sexual rights because, as writers like Tom Farr have argued, Twitter has a vested interest in legalising sex with children. Because the law as it stands prohibits them from profiting on such exploitation.

The social media giants don’t just shut down criticism of profitable markets like porn, they shut down critiques of the pharmaceutical industry which makes a fortune medicalising gender nonconformity. Free speech has been framed as hate speech. Anything which stands in the way of the bottom dollar must be squashed. Capital which owns the means of communication is using its influence to silence those who threaten its profits. It’s what capitalism does. How has the left forgotten such basic analysis?

The same week as the Speakers Corner event in Brighton, PayPal started to flex its muscles, banning the accounts of organisations like the Free Speech Union. It’s not just shutting down speech, it’s shutting down heretics' ability to eat - to feed their families and fund their work. That’s why these events are so important.

Jeni Harvey is from an anarchist tradition like me. Hers may be from a political position, mine is more vague, cultural. I am inspired more by the Sex Pistols than I am by Noam Chomsky. I always loved how the fanzine punks rejected the mainstream rock scene. They were amateurs who used basic chords to give working class kids a chance to talk. To shout their frustrations, to reject the self appointed Gods of Rock. It wasn’t the music I liked so much as the fact they were independent. They did it themselves, recording and writing, putting on gigs. They didn’t want to make money, they wanted to make a scene. It’s an ethos so powerful it outlasted the flash in a pan that was punk, which lets face it, was always a bit shit.

Ironically enough I see Posie Parker as an anarchist agitator in this same tradition. Her events are a maelstrom. There isn’t a hierarchy, anybody can speak. Anybody can come and film. As such those with deplorable opinions are free to attend. I have yet to be spat on but if I am I hope I can see it as part of this proud punk tradition.

What punk did was give working class kids a chance to express themselves. They weren’t given a platform so they made their own. That ethos spread from the UK to the world, sparking diverse movements from Sao Paulo to Sydney. That’s what the Speakers Corner events are doing right now. Punk Island has become Terf Island and just like the 1970’s our cultural capital is punching way above its weight. Speakers Corner events have crossed the pond, taking place in cities across the USA. This is an exciting and dynamic time for the women’s movement and instead of celebrating with us, a certain section of the feminist community want to shut down these events, just as much, it seems, as their pro-trans left wing comrades.

Why they are so powerful is because they give a platform to ordinary women. Women who are censored in their homes by their children and in their workplace by HR departments. These women are castigated as hateful by social media giants, backed by some of the most powerful capital institutions in the world, by organizations like Blackrock and Vanguard. If you haven’t been banned yet because you ‘speak through a flower’ and use appropriate terms you may be soon. It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say. We are slowly but surely losing the language we need to make sense of our world.

In this context the real threat isn’t from a fringe of right wing extremists but those whose boots stand on the necks of our throats, cutting off our abilities not only to speak but to eat: to earn a living and feed our families.

What’s more, Standing for Women continues a tradition that goes back to the Suffragettes of women only groups and organizing. Men are welcome to support the group as allies but all the actions are organised in women only groups, many of whom have never been involved in activism before. This is a real threat to traditional patriarchal power structures, a way of organising unique to women. It’s one of the reasons why allusions to far right collusion stick in the throats of so many women. Of course the silly women couldn’t organise an event by themselves, men must somehow secretly be in charge

These events bring us right back to the start. Anarchists are behaving like fascists and capitalists like anarchists. They’re not just burning books, they're throwing rocks. Those who have the wrong opinions are having their access to finances removed. What’s the next step?

You can talk about the threat of the far right all you like but they’re not burning lesbian symbols in Leeds and posting the pictures online. Why is it always those outside the left who have to distance themselves from their imaginary fascist friends? Why don’t women so proud of their lefty credentials distance themselves from their left wing allies? I am bisexual ally who attended the Leeds Lesbian Strength March, whose sign was burnt by Anti-Fa, but I wouldn't expect women who identify as anti-fascist to be held accountable for these men's actions. That’s the first rule of misogyny, that women are responsible for what men do. Why must women distance themselves from two blokes who came to a park? Are their politics really as bad as the men who I met at Leeds Lesbian Strength?

The women who attend these events, and who steward, are putting themselves in real danger to raise this issue. You may have forgotten this fact, what with all the hand wringing about two men who came to film, but a man attended the event with a bag of knives. Three arrests were made. Women were pelted with missiles and smoke missiles throughout. One of these days a woman will get seriously hurt. But if women in Iran are willing to risk death to be free from Hijab, women in the UK have a right to stand in a park and listen to women speak.

These events will continue. The public square is one of the few spaces in which we are free to speak our truths.

What needs to be understood is that at heart these events are anarchic. No gods, no masters. Everything is done to ensure the safety of the women who attend but there is a limit to the management of risks when protestors use violence to shut down debate. Because it’s in a public space individuals with hateful opinions are free to attend, even the ones who call us ugly fucking cunts. Women will continue to speak, including all the women you don't like, including all the women you don't want to be around, including all the women who used to be your best friends whom you don't want anything to do with anymore.

The real split as I see it stems from the position of the lesbian feminists who reject the male aligned left and that of the socialist feminists who are aligned with male power, hoping to reform from within. It is also a split between anarchy and order; between an open society and a closed one. Those who want to control the message and protect their work within male power structures; and those excluded from the network, consciousness raising by any means necessary. There should be space in the movement for both approaches. We need the suffragists just as much as we need the suffragettes. I understand we are chaotic, impossible to control and I am sure this at times frustrates carefully laid plans and the gently gently approach of our suffragist sisters. I understand why you may need to create a distance at times, it makes strategic sense. What doesn’t make sense is poisoning your own well with false claims of alliances with far right men. Sling enough mud and some of it may stick, just don’t complain to us that your boots are dirty and don’t ask us to get down on our knees to give them a wipe.

I didn’t intend this essay to be so long and meandering, repetitive even. It’s a complex subject and one I have not been able to do the justice it deserves. It could be the topic of a PHD thesis, and I am sure one day it will. I have quashed complexity, there are lots of blurred lines and women who don’t fit neatly into either camp. Please forgive me if you think I have misrepresented your position, I am speaking the truth as I see it.

To finish, I don’t know how to reach out to women like you Jeni, and all the others on the other side of the fence. I see myself as part of the same legacy as you. I am a working class woman whose activism was forged in the fire of the TERF war.

I’ve met so many women who are doing this; amateurs turned activists. Women like me who made Make More Noise. Musicians like Jen Critical who not only write, perform and record the songs but also direct their own videos: our videos, ones which will be known to history. We don’t care about some random men in a park, they aren’t the men who burn our flags and shut down our bank accounts; who seek to erase us from law. We care about protecting women and children from the harshest effects of trans right extremism as I am sure you do too.

You’ve seen first hand the violence of those who identify as anarchists and leftists, their urge to censor and shame. I thought freedom of speech was a bedrock of left wing ideology. I thought we were on the same page about that but you still seem to want to stop those whose opinions you don’t like from speaking, to isolate them from the movement they wish to be a part of because they’re not from your particular political tribe.

The divide in this movement, and between us is between those whose first loyalty is to the party; the labour movement and the trade unions; and those who centre women, all women, loyal to no man but her sisters. It’s about language - what can be said by whom and who gets to make the rules. It is a question as to whether this fight will be won on the left - in unions and left wing political parties; or whether it will be won by joining forces with allies from across the political spectrum; speaking with a plurality of voices; our message strengthened in its diversity.

Article by D.J. Lippy

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