Scotland may need a new Suffragette movement as feminists who argue biology is real risk prison – Susan Dalgety

A big yellow book sits on my desk, next to my diary and fountain pen (yes, I am that old).

A suffragette is arrested by police officers in 1914. The Representation of the People Act, passed in 1918, gave certain women over the age of 30 a vote and the right to stand for Parliament. (Picture: PA)
A suffragette is arrested by police officers in 1914. The Representation of the People Act, passed in 1918, gave certain women over the age of 30 a vote and the right to stand for Parliament. (Picture: PA)

It’s ‘The Philosophy Book’, a romp through human thought from Pythagoras, who argued that numbers are key to understanding the world, to Edward Said, a trenchant critic of imperialism.

It’s not an academic tome – I make no claim to being a philosopher, amateur or otherwise. It’s a reference book. “Big ideas simply explained” says the tagline, and I find it useful when I want to convince my husband that my arguments are based on reason and logic and not simply the product of my own prejudices.

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The book is also a timely reminder of how men (mostly white) have dominated global intellectual development since ancient times.

There are five women philosophers listed among the 117 men, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft who argued in her seminal work of 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that women should be treated as equal citizens for the straightforward reason that a woman’s intellectual capacity is the same as any man’s.

A revolutionary thought in the late 18th century, when women were still considered to be inferior to men.

Wollstonecraft is considered the founding mother of modern feminism, which at its core is about the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. Nothing more complex than that, and something I thought that, in the first decades of the 21st century, we were on our way to achieving.

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So why, on this bright June morning, on the outskirts of a city where the philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment flourished, does it feel that reason and science are now subversive?

Why have I spent the last 24 hours sharing despairing texts with some of Scotland’s most successful women, each as bewildered as I am? Women who have won awards for their work, women who have spent their entire adult lives overcoming prejudice, women who are the social, economic, and political equal of any man. Warrior queens every one of them. And now scared to speak out.

I could point to a Coatbridge police station, where on Thursday, Marion Millar, a 50-year-old feminist, was charged with malicious communications after posting allegedly “homophobic and transphobic” tweets, but the story doesn’t start there.

I could direct you to Johann Lamont’s powerful parliamentary speech where she argued successfully for the survivors of rape and sexual assault to have the right to choose the sex, not the gender, of the person who examines them after an attack. But the story didn’t start there either.

Nor did it begin with Joan McAlpine’s Twitter masterclass on 28 February 2019 when she set out the logical rationale for using natal sex, instead of people’s chosen gender stereotype, for data gathering – an intervention that may well have hastened the end of her political career, as she was later downgraded in the SNP’s regional list for the South of Scotland.

The roots of this modern witch hunt – for that is what it is – where women are pilloried for arguing that sex is not a feeling but a material reality, lie in philosophy.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, asserted that our idea of what it is to be human is a recent invention, tracing it back to only the beginning of the 19th century. Judith Butler, an American thinker, went further, arguing in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, that being biologically male or female is a social construct.

Crudely she posited that a woman is female not because she has a cervix and ovaries, but because people cried “it’s a girl” when she was born.

Butler’s writings became the founding texts for queer theory, which even some of its most ardent proponents say is too complex to easily explain. Put as simply as I can, one of its core principles is that biological sex is irrelevant and that a person’s feelings – their gender identity – are all that matters. So, if a man with a penis who likes wearing pink says he is a lesbian, then she is a gay woman and must be legally and socially recognised as such.

But what started as a controversial position in a few liberal American universities is now mainstream thinking in the Scottish government. And no dissent, it seems, is allowed.

Women who argue that biology is real and that our sex is the basis of inequality are dismissed as bigots. Women who marched alongside their gay brothers and sisters in the campaign for equality are accused, by some of the people they marched with, of causing a moral panic by asserting their sex-based rights.

Women have lost income, been shunned by their professional peers and pilloried for standing up for their sex-based rights. And one woman now awaits trial in Glasgow Sheriff Court on July 20.

Alongside my big yellow book lies my iPad (I am not that old), and on it is another philosophy tract. Dr Kathleen Stock OBE, professor of philosophy at Sussex University, has written a counterpoint to Butler et al.

Her book, Material Girls, is a clear-headed analysis of how the mainstream adoption of queer theory has negatively affected women. Her writing reassures me that I am not going mad, even when it seems society has decided I, and all the women I know, are hateful crones.

But perhaps the time for thinking is over. Perhaps, as leading journalist Helen Joyce argued on Thursday, it is time for a “new suffrage movement’’.

“We can’t be full citizens in a liberal democracy if we risk imprisonment for simply stating the truth of our bodily existence and demanding our legal rights,” she tweeted.

Perhaps it’s time we wrapped ourselves in the green, white and purple ribbons of our Suffragette sisters and took to the streets. Perhaps it’s time to fight back.

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