Why women have a right to call ourselves ‘women’ – Susan Dalgety

Supporters of the term ‘cisgender’ use so much doublethink that George Orwell would have rejected it as too outlandish for his dystopian fiction, writes Susan Dalgety

Students sing ‘El violador eres tú’ (The rapist, is you) – a song by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis – during a demonstration against gender violence and patriarchy in Guadalajara, Mexico, ahead of International Women’s Day (Picture: Ulises Ruiz/ via Getty Images)
Students sing ‘El violador eres tú’ (The rapist, is you) – a song by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis – during a demonstration against gender violence and patriarchy in Guadalajara, Mexico, ahead of International Women’s Day (Picture: Ulises Ruiz/ via Getty Images)

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day, the annual festival of femaleness when everyone, from the United Nations to international accountants PwC, celebrates the achievements of women and girls.

This year’s official theme is #EachforEqual, which is almost as meaningless as cisgender, the queer theory term for females that some campaigners – and MSP Patrick Harvie – believe we should use when referring to women.

But at least #EachforEqual has a noble ambition, as set out on the International Women’s Day website.

In language apparently written by a well-meaning algorithm and designed not to offend – unlike MSP Patrick Harvie – the campaign exhorts us all to “challenge stereotypes, fight bias, broaden perceptions, improve situations and celebrate women’s achievements”.

It goes on, “collectively, each one of us can help create a gender equal world. Let’s all be #EachforEqual”.

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So far, so many meaningless platitudes. Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of International Women’s Day, but when the campaign dissolves into empty hashtags and corporate-speak, perhaps it is time to inject some good old-fashioned raw anger into the proceedings.

After all, the origins of International Women’s Day can be traced back to a strike by women garment workers who, in February 1908, marched through New York City in protest at their terrible working conditions, which included low wages and sexual harassment.

A year later, the Socialist Party of America celebrated the first National Women’s Day in honour of their striking sisters, and the idea was then adopted by radicals in Europe and Russia. The United Nations made it a global event in 1975.

There is still plenty to be angry about. On Thursday, UNDP, the development arm of the United Nations, published a report which shows that almost 90 per cent of people are biased against women.

The survey looked at data from 75 countries which are home to 80 per cent of the world’s population. Some of the responses are shocking. Almost a third of men AND women think it is OK for a man to hit his partner.

Prejudice against women is increasing

More than 40 per cent believe that men are better at business than women, and in a week when Elizabeth Warren was forced to abandon her presidential bid, almost half say that men are more suited to political leadership.

“We all know we live in a male-dominated world,” UNDP’s Pedro Conceicao told The Guardian. “...if you take the overall average of the information we have, we show that on average, we are sliding back – that biases, instead of shrinking, are growing back”.

And therein lies the nub. For all the hard-won successes of the first and second waves of feminism, from the right to vote to the right to choose, women and girls are still second-class citizens.

From unequal pay to the US Supreme Court seriously considering whether or not to limit abortion rights, the battle for equality grinds on. Indeed, 50 years after the first Women’s Liberation event held in Oxford, it seems to be getting harder to argue against the patriarchy, especially when it is disguised in high heels and a blonde wig.

I could not have been the only woman of certain age who was aghast on Wednesday when a respected feminist, a woman who has spent her whole life fighting for equality, had to stand up in the Scottish Parliament and argue for the right to be called a woman.

Cisgender ‘completely offensive’

MSP Elaine Smith objected to her colleague Patrick Harvie’s use of ‘cisgender’ to effectively mean a woman during, of all things, a debate to mark International Women’s Day.

“He is choosing terminology about women that many women find completely offensive…” argued Smith.

“It is limiting, confusing and divisive. It is imposed on women, many of whom find it inappropriate and inaccurate, because they do not want to adopt socially determined ideas of masculinity and femininity,” she added.

Smith didn’t succeed in her demand for the term to be banned from the chamber, but she did raise a very important point, one that gets to the essence of sex equality.

For thousands of years, and in societies across the globe, men decided how women would dress, who they would have sex with and when. Men controlled a woman’s property and wealth and her body. They ruled the domestic setting as well as the world. In many societies, they still do.

Women cared for each other in pregnancy and old age, tended the physical and emotional wounds of rape and incest, taught their daughters and granddaughters the potency, and structural disadvantage, of being female.

An inalienable right

And throughout the centuries of male oppression, women clung on to their identity, fiercely protecting their biological sex that, generation after generation, gave birth to humanity, while fighting for their right to be heard.

And as women died for the right to vote and marched for the right to have power over their own bodies, they held on to their right to call themselves, proudly, defiantly, women.

But here we are on the eve of International Women’s Day 2020, and a woman’s inalienable right to be a woman is being eroded by a small – but powerful – group of activists who have persuaded naïve policy makers that biological sex does not exist.

The new truth says that being a woman is a choice and the term ‘woman’ belongs to anyone who believes they are female.

Those of us born biological females must therefore be described as cisgender, or even non-trans, so that trans women (biological males who believe they are women) can feel equal.

Even George Orwell would have rejected such doublethink as too outlandish for his dystopian fiction, but this is the reality of Scotland’s political debate today – women are no longer women. We are cisgender. Non-trans. Non-people.

There is a lot of marching still to do, sisters, and it starts this afternoon outside the Scottish Parliament at 2pm, when women from across Scotland will demonstrate for their right to be, well, women.

• Find out more about the official International Women’s Day campaign here: www.internationalwomensday.com.


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