The fight for equality perhaps boils down to one simple thing – respect – that has widespread consequences for politics, business and society in general, writes Susan Dalgety
The flyer that dropped into my inbox earlier this week posed a simple question. “Do women in Scotland want another independence referendum?”
I shrugged, noted that I would be out of the country on the day the Scottish Women’s Convention will debate the issue (15 February), and deleted the email.
I have no idea whether “women in Scotland” want indyref2. I am sure many thousands do. I am equally certain many thousands do not.
Personally, the prospect of a second, divisive ballot over whether my country should be split apart fills me with dread.
I cannot bear the flag waving, the visceral hatred that explodes into life when our political debate is rooted in nothing more than identity.
We got a glimpse of that earlier this week, when Lisa Nandy, one of Labour’s four female leadership candidates, suggested that social justice can overcome narrow nationalism, citing Canada and Catalonia as examples of where this has happened in recent years.
Scotland’s speaker’s corner – Twitter – erupted with accusations that Nandy, one of the more thoughtful politicians around, was, with her reference to Spain, advocating state brutality against supporters of Scottish independence.
One newly elected SNP MP, Kenny MacAskill, even tweeted a black-and-white image of British soldiers arresting an Irish nationalist at gun point, with the question “Would Lisa Nandy as a Labour MP a century ago have supported the Black and Tans”.
At that point I switched off my phone. Instead I got to wondering, what do women in Scotland really want?
My wish-list soon filled up. Equal pay, now and not in 50 years’ time. Childcare that doesn’t cost more than the average wage. Healthcare that recognises that the women’s physiology is different from men. More public toilets. An education system that properly recognises – and nurtures – different abilities.
I could go on. Achieving social justice is so much more complex than re-writing a constitution, but perhaps what women in Scotland – and elsewhere – want, above all else, is simply this. Respect.
When an experienced, expert woman says she is thinking of running for national office, she doesn’t want her long-time political colleague to dismiss her ambition with a snarky “a woman can’t win”, as happened to presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren when she told her old friend, now rival, Bernie Sanders of her desire to become leader of the free world. And she certainly doesn’t want him to publicly deny ever saying such a thing, effectively dubbing her a lying woman.
All Elizabeth Warren wants is a little respect.
Single-sex safe spaces
When a rich, successful African American woman moves to a new country, changes career and tries to build a new life with her Prince Charming, she doesn’t expect to be greeted by a toxic mix of snobbery and racism, as Meghan Markle found when she married into the British establishment.
I am sure the Duchess of Sussex didn’t want any special treatment when she moved to the UK, but I am sure she expected more than a little respect.
And when women, the length and breadth of Scotland, express concern about the Government’s plans to make it easier for men to legally become women, they don’t want to be dubbed transphobic. Or right-wing. Or zealots.
They want their experience as women and girls to be believed. They want their Government to take their views as seriously as those of teenage boys who are flirting with changing their identity. They want to be respected.
When women say that they don’t want their daughters to share a school toilet with hormonal teenage boys, it is not because they are bigots.
It is because they remember the anxiety of dealing with the bloody mess of menstruation in a tiny cubicle, inches away from a crowd of shrieking girls.
How much more terrifying must that experience be, if at 13 you’re forced to change a tampon in a space full of booming blokes.
When women say they want single-sex safe spaces, such as refuges, protected for women only, it is not because they lack sympathy for a trans-woman who has been abused. It is because they recognise that abused women need an environment where they can heal, without sharing it with someone of the opposite sex.
Because at the heart of this public debate is an essential truth that we are sometimes too frightened to say out loud, for fear of offending, or worse, being dubbed a fiend.
Sex is real. Some humans – around the same proportion of people with natural red hair – are born with disorders of sexual development (DSD, or intersex), but they are still either male or female. True hermaphroditism, when a baby has both ovaries and testes, is extremely rare.
Our biological sex has a significant impact on our health – even common diseases such as heart disease affect women and men differently. It matters too when it comes to love. Homosexuality is same-sex attraction, it is not based on gender.
And it is our biological sex that defines our life chances, whether we dare to be the President of the United States or are forced into sexual slavery.
Of course, there are many men who dream of being more feminine, of adopting the gender stereotypes that women have spent much of their life escaping. There are teenage girls who are so scared of their lust for their female friends, that they become convinced they must be boys in disguise.
And there are lots of people who simply enjoying playing with their sexual identity at different stages of their lives. We should respect each and every one of them.
But that doesn’t mean allowing anyone to legally change their sex on a whim, or at 16, as the Scottish Government proposes in its reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
Campaigners against the reforms, such as the LGB Alliance and For Women Scotland, believe they are “profoundly dangerous to women”.
But the First Minister, a self-declared, committed feminist, insists there is no tension or conflict between women’s rights and trans rights.
Sadly, like the debate over a second independence referendum, there appears to be no middle ground when it comes to the sex versus gender divide.
And, it seems to me, not enough respect for the reality of women’s lives as we live them, and not as someone imagines they should be lived.