Transgender debate: Marks and Spencer's changing room policy denies women the safe spaces they need – Susan Dalgety

Marks and Spencer used to be a safe haven for me, and millions of women like me.

Marks and Spencer should reconsider its changing room policies, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Marks and Spencer should reconsider its changing room policies, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It was where I went when I needed an affordable white shirt to wear with the trouser suit that was once my go-to workwear.

If I was running late in the evening, I often popped into the Food Hall on Princes Street to grab a ready meal for two, confident that it would taste of the ingredients, not of processed slop.

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And every piece of underwear in my drawers, from my comfortably large knickers to my sensible bras (even my single non-sensible one) bears a Marks and Spencer label. Their clothing range may no longer be as good value for money, or as well designed, as it once was, but their underwear is still the best on the high street.

Women have been Marks and Spencer’s main customer base since Michael Marks first opened his market stall in Leeds in 1884. Ten years later, Tom Spencer, an accountant, joined forces with him, and a British legend was born.

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Generations of women have bought their life’s essentials from M&S. The company’s leadership team understood women in all our many shapes, sizes and backgrounds, and gave us, mostly, what we wanted. A comfortable, reliable shopping experience with the occasional flash of brilliance.

But it seems we no longer matter. Three years ago, just before the pandemic swept through the country, turning us all into keyboard shoppers, M&S quietly decided to open up its changing rooms to people of both sexes.

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Their new policy was announced on Twitter. “We allow customers the choice of which fitting room they feel comfortable to use, in respect of how they identify themselves,” read a corporate tweet in response to women’s queries about changes at their local stores.

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A gentle uproar ensued. Many women threatened to boycott the store, some did. Women’s rights campaigners targeted M&S with leaflets. But nothing changed.

Female changing rooms, where women stripped off, sometimes to nothing more than their knickers, safe in the knowledge that they were only with other women, were to now open to men who “identified” as women.

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And in a remarkable tweet earlier this week, in response to yet another female customer’s concerns about safety, the company issued a tone-deaf response. It pointed out that each store has some changing cubicles with locks, “to ensure every customer feels comfortable and has the privacy they need”.

It then continued: “While they are mainly used by customers of that gender, as an inclusive retailer and in line with most other retailers, we allow customers the choice of fitting rooms.”

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So there we have it. Women are now “customers of that gender” and our genuine concerns about privacy while in an intimate setting are of no concern to one of the country’s biggest retailers.

M&S are right to point out that they are not alone in adopting this policy. John Lewis Partnership now has the same “inclusive” approach, as does Primark. Women’s privacy is increasingly being sacrificed on the altar of so-called progress.

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My anger is not directed at those men who, for whatever reason, choose to identify as women. But as an American molecular geneticist said in a video that went viral this week, it is impossible for a human being to change his or her sex. “Being male or being female is a developmental process,” she told philosopher Peter Boghossian. “You can’t go backwards, so you can’t change your sex. You cannot do that.”

I am of the “live and let live” school of thought, and always have been. If a man feels more comfortable, sexier even, wearing women’s underwear and taking HRT to grow breasts, then fine, as long as he doesn’t trample over my hard-won rights.

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Because this debate is not about trans rights. It is about protecting women’s rights under the 2010 Equality Act, which affords us the unalienable right to safe, single-sex spaces, whether in domestic abuse refuges, women’s prisons or, yes, M&S’s changing rooms.

The reality is that many Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women will not be able to use department store changing rooms if there is a risk a male-bodied person will be there too.

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Many mothers will be uncomfortable taking their young daughters into a confined space where they may encounter a male, because no matter what the Scottish Government and others argue, wearing a dress and changing your pronouns does not transform a male body into a female form.

And truth be told, many women feel uncomfortable getting semi-naked in close proximity to another woman. Taking our clothes off while next to a strange man – even one with long hair and budding breasts – is unthinkable.

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M&S probably had one eye on future sales when crafting its new changing room policy, convinced that, in a few years’ time, grumpy old women like me will have died out, and their new customer base will be non-binary, blue-haired thirty-somethings with lots of spare cash to spend on Jaeger dresses and veggie Percy Pigs.

But somehow I doubt it. Evolutionary biology tells us otherwise. Human beings cannot change sex. We can cut off bits of our anatomy, use drugs to exaggerate other parts of our body, dress in whatever takes our fancy, and love who we please – as long as we do no harm – but we cannot change our sex.

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And women will always want – need – private spaces where they can feel safe, especially when they are vulnerable. If a major retailer like M&S doesn’t understand this basic fact of life, then they don’t know anything about the business they are in.

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