In just under two weeks time there will be a general election. With the right of women to vote only one hundred years old, our engagement is crucial. Women are still underrepresented in political life, but with a new crop of talented female leaders, what might each of the parties have to offer just over half the country's eligible voters?
The Conservative party's sterling record when it comes to blighting the lives of women is well documented. Austerity, after all, is a feminist issue. Cuts to benefits, to public services, all disproportionately affect women. The new rape clause limiting provision of tax credits to two children unless mothers can confirm any further children were conceived non consensually is not only an assault on women's dignity and privacy, but smacks of a wider, more sinister attempt at controlling the breeding masses. Women forced financially into unwanted terminations will certainly suffer.
The Labour party in their turn are often characterised as a bunch of sexist old lefty relics with a terrible record for appointing women to top positions. Yet despite having never had a female leader, Labours introduction of tax credits and minimum wage laws improved life for women, and its recent announcement that one of its three Budget tests would be to ensure the burden of cuts didn't fall on women is welcome.
Yet what both the Labour party and Conservative MP and chair of the Women and Equalities Commission, Maria Miller, have in common is the desire to see a rewriting of the Equality Act 2010 that will replace gender reassignment with gender identity as a protected characteristic.
What this means is that individuals will be able to declare themselves male, female, or neither without having to obtain any medical diagnosis for gender dysphoria, ingest any hormones, or undergo any surgery. In other words, people will be whatever they say they are, and be legally protected as such, on the basis of that say so. Those in favour say this will remove both the medicalisation and pathologisation of trans identity.
It is a well intentioned and progressive sounding proposal. There is no question that transgender people should enjoy equality under the law and be able to live their lives with dignity and respect. However in the mad rush to signal their virtue, it seems no political player has paused to consider how this might conflict with the rights of other groups, namely women born female.
Women born female experience oppression due to their biological sex that is, and always has been, specific to them. Issues such as the pay gap, attacks on reproductive freedoms, female genital mutilation, and the continuing expectation that we will carry out the bulk of unpaid labour in the home are specific to those of us carrying XX chromosomes. Likewise, transwomen also experience oppression exclusive to them: access to appropriate healthcare and transphobia being two examples. Male violence of course, rape, and harassment, all lie malignant in the overlap.
But despite our commonalities we are not the same, and if the equality act of 2010 is rewritten along proposed lines then anyone claiming to feel female, no matter how they present, will be able to use facilities such as changing rooms and toilets that are currently segregated according to sex in order to protect girls and women. In crude terms this means that any biologically male person can, in theory, enter a women's space and have every right to be there, for there is no way to disprove a stated internal belief. Under the new laws, any questioning of that persons right could then be recorded as a hate crime.
Interesting to note here is that gender based violence in itself is not considered a hate crime. Two women a week are killed by their former or current partners in the UK and domestic and sexual violence against women and girls is commonplace. What bizarre logic characterises the rape of someone born male but identifying as female as a hate crime, when exactly the same crime committed against a biological woman is not?
What we need is a political leader with the intellectual honesty and backbone to admit that yes, trans rights are human rights, but biological definitions still matter and sex based protections are absolutely vital to the gender equality everyone claims to want. As it is we are sailing backwards. In a bid to be inclusive, a representative of The Green party recently decided it was safer not to refer to women at all, preferring instead to demote everyone who does not identify as male to the position of "non-males." What we are seeing is the slow erasure of women as a definable class of people being advocated across the political board.
I was born female. I am no more non-male than I am sub-human. Women before me fought and died for my right to vote in this coming election. The least I can do is try to vote in my own interests.