Transgender debate in Scotland: A new sisterhood is forming in response to Scottish Government's self-identification plans – Susan Dalgety

Speaking at a 2016 campaign rally in support of her old friend, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright shouted a phrase she had used many times before. “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” she told the New Hampshire crowd.

The late Madeleine Albright argued that progress will only be achieved if women help one another (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
The late Madeleine Albright argued that progress will only be achieved if women help one another (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

To her surprise, the words, which she had first used 25 years earlier when she was America’s United Nations’ Ambassador, attracted an avalanche of criticism, forcing her to apologise.

Writing in the New York Times, she said she had not meant to argue that women should support a particular candidate on the basis of their sex, adding, “…I understand that I came across as condemning those who disagree with my political preferences. If heaven were open only to those who agreed on politics, I imagine it would be largely unoccupied.”

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Madeleine Albright died peacefully on Wednesday, aged 84, surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren. When she was appointed by President Bill Clinton as UN Ambassador in 1993, she was the only woman among the 15 representatives on the Security Council. Four years later, when Clinton chose her as his Secretary of State, she became the first woman to hold the office.

At the time, it seemed that feminism had prevailed in America and here. Women were making inroads in careers that had been historically the preserve of men, from neuroscientists to lawyers.

Laws such as the Equal Pay Act meant that, on paper at least, women should earn the same as their male peers, and as the 1990s progressed, young women threw off their inhibitions and embraced lad(ette) culture.

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Equality meant getting drunk with the boys while watching Manchester United and using your own credit card to buy a pair of Jimmy Choo six-inch heels. Professional women became as competitive as their male peers. The prospect of burning in hell was nothing compared to the buying power of a big, fat bonus. Watching Sex and the City with a bottle of chardonnay was the new protest movement.

Lying in bed on Thursday night, watching a crowd of young people screaming abuse outside a hall in Manchester where, inside, a women’s group was discussing violence against women, I thought of Madeleine Albright and other women of her generation.

Women like Barbara Castle, still the best prime minister Labour never had, and Margo MacDonald, who in 1973 shocked the British establishment when she was elected, at only 30 years old, the SNP MP for Glasgow Govan. Women who fought like hell for their individual political causes but were feminists first and foremost.

What would they have thought of the young women who joined the mob outside the Women’s Place UK meeting to protest against a discussion about “single-sex provision in policy and law”?

How would they have reacted to Labour’s shadow women’s minister, Anneliese Dodds, who on International Women’s Day, while on BBC’s Woman’s Hour, struggled to define a woman? And what would they have said to Nicola Sturgeon when she sniped that women’s views on her plans to introduce self-identification of gender were “not valid”? I think we can guess.

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Feminism today is divided. On one side are post-feminists, many under 40 and often quite privileged, who believe, with some passion, that gender identity trumps sex. They argue that biology is irrelevant and that gender identity – how you choose to present yourself – is what defines a man or a woman.

On the other side is a “monstrous regiment of women”, from philosophers to cleaners, who believe that biological sex is all too real, and that women continue to be oppressed because of their sex.

Gender recognition reform, where the Scottish Government wants to introduce self-ID so that anyone can change their legal sex on their birth certificate simply by affirmation, has proved the catalyst for this rupture.

It can get very ugly, as we witnessed on Thursday night in Manchester. It can be confusing. Why are women demonstrating against other women discussing laws designed to protect all women and girls? And it is very frustrating when the most senior woman in the country, who stands on the shoulders of her sisters, dismisses other women’s viewpoints as irrelevant.

But the current schism should also be a cause for optimism. Grassroots feminist groups have sprung up across the country, women academics are giving renewed intellectual rigour to feminist arguments and women across the classic political divide are joining forces in female solidarity.

I was very proud of nationalist MSP Michelle Thompson earlier this week when she sent a letter to the Parliament’s petition committee in support of a call, led by policy collective MBM, to accurately record the sex of people charged or convicted of rape.

Thompson, who was raped at 14, argued that “rape is a crime of power perpetuated and carried out by biological men” and called for research into the impact of polices, such as those practised by the Crown Office, which considers that “the sex or gender of the accused person are not relevant to proof nor prosecution of the offence”.

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And women across the country are buoyed up by the leadership shown by author JK Rowling, who risks opprobrium every time she stands up for her sisters, yet she keeps on speaking out. That takes courage.

I am convinced that this new sisterhood, formed in adversity, will last beyond the current heated debate. And there is plenty of work for us to do, from finally securing equal pay to ending violence against women.

Suffragettes and second-wave feminists proved that solidarity among women can be more powerful than any political party. But, as Madeleine Albright argued in 2016, we will only achieve progress if women help one another.

“And for those who do that,” she wrote, “there will always be a special place of honour.” Rest in peace, sister.

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