Rosie Duffield: ‘It feels like Gilead where women aren’t allowed to ask questions’ The Times 12.10.20
The original article is here.
Rosie Duffield got a standing ovation in the House of Commons last year when she revealed her experiences of domestic abuse in a speech that left many of her colleagues in tears. The Labour MP for Canterbury has been attacked by left-wingers for speaking out against antisemitism and vilified by right-wingers for campaigning against Brexit.
Now she is on the front line in the culture war accused of being “transphobic” after she liked a tweet suggesting that “individuals with a cervix” should be described as “women”.
The vitriol poured on her has left her “completely terrified”, she says. She has in the past suffered intimidation at home and threats from Twitter trolls, but, she tells us, “This feels worse — maybe because it strikes at the heart of who you are as a woman, and because it’s base, pure misogyny.”
There is, she claims, a witch hunt underway. “It very much feels as though the stake is built as soon as there is even the mere hint of any charges. A word like ‘transphobe’ gets spread around without any actual evidence and the fire is lit.’’
She knows she will be attacked for speaking out, but she has decided to do so because she fears that protections and rights won by previous generations of feminists are in danger of being undermined.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, “doesn’t want to shine too much light on it”, she says, “but I feel as a woman that we need to shine a bit of light, otherwise things happen without anyone noticing. You look around and rights have been taken away. Surely this should be about adding rights, not taking away other people’s rights.”
This is a row that started in July, when the broadcaster Piers Morgan responded to a CNN report suggesting that “individuals with a cervix” should have regular cervical cancer screening from the age of 25 with the tweet: “Do you mean women?” Duffield liked the tweet, then she further angered her critics by tweeting: “I’m a ‘transphobe’ for knowing that only women have a cervix . . . ?!’ ” Since then the row has escalated, with some Labour activists calling for Duffield to be deselected as an MP.
Last week Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, became the party’s first senior figure to get involved, saying that Duffield — who resigned from the frontbench after admitting breaching lockdown rules — should “reflect” on her comments and realise they could be “hurtful”.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has also intervened, describing his local MP as “brave, honest, kind and passionate for justice” and insisting, “She does not seek to demean others. To troll her is simply cruel and wrong.”
So far, Duffield has avoided commenting, but she tells us that she wants to explain her views because she feels it is wrong that women are being silenced in the gender debate. “All people need to do to attack me at the moment is be male and misogynist and angry,” she says. “Once you’re labelled a thing, that’s it. People attribute certain things to you . . . and actually I’m not sure they are bothered what I think. It’s just a vehicle to attack women in public. I feel like my female mouth is being well and truly closed without ever actually having been opened.”
There is, she claims, something deeply disturbing about the “cancel culture” that leads to feminist speakers including Germaine Greer being no-platformed in universities, and the Harry Potter author JK Rowling denounced for her views. “It feels as though women’s voices aren’t particularly wanted here, that’s what’s so frightening,” Duffield says.
“The other day I was walking through parliament wearing my mask and I thought, ‘This is a bit symbolic. I feel like I’m being shut up,’ and it was really horrible. It does feel like Gilead [in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale], where women aren’t allowed to ask questions or proffer alternative ideas. The shutting down of ideas is particularly dystopian. I am in a university city where ideas are everything; you’re supposed to be able to discuss, debate, question without being labelled.”
Duffield has received death threats on social media and admits that she has started to feel scared walking down the street. “There was a picture of a mocked-up hanging . . . and someone had put, ‘I wish I could photoshop Rosie Duffield into this.’
“You could take that as a joke and think it’s just some silly boy behind his keyboard, but it’s pretty sinister,” she says. “I regularly talk to people who don’t agree with me on things like abortion or Brexit. We have civilised conversations. I’m not being cancelled or threatened with a noose, so why is this particular issue so toxic?”
The MP, who is 49, insists that she has always campaigned against prejudice in all its forms. “I’m not anti-trans; everyone has the right to express themselves and be whatever and whoever they need to be.” But she is angry about what she describes as the “erasure of women”.
TEDx London recently published its autumn schedule of lectures using the word “womxn”. The MP decided she could not ignore the trend. “Men seem to have a space or a door with the word ‘man’ on, then women have ‘women and anyone else’. Why are we encroaching on women’s spaces but not men’s?”
Does she not think that trans women are women? “Yes, obviously that’s an important thing to say — if you’ve transitioned and you’re recognised as that, that’s up to you, then fine,” she replies. “From a woman’s point of view what we are really terrified of is the erasure of women’s safe spaces, access to a female GP if you want for intimate physical examinations . . . changing rooms . . . We seem to have galloped to the point where women’s spaces are being taken away and that’s deeply terrifying.”
This is personal for Duffield. Having suffered — like Rowling — from domestic abuse, she feels particularly strongly about the importance of safe single-sex spaces. She describes a terrifying moment when she realised that she was being stalked by the former partner who had abused her.
“It was during the Labour Party conference. He arrived in the space where I was with two friends, late at night, and it was very obvious it wasn’t a coincidence and he was physically threatening. The first thing that one of my colleagues did was rush me to the nearest women’s bathroom. We could go in and lock the door and I could calm down. If he had been able to access that room things could have been very different.”
Refuges for those fleeing domestic violence are another example, she suggests. “Obviously trans people need to be safe in those areas, and there are lots of domestic violence situations for everyone that are really unpleasant and they will need rescuing from, but . . . [there should be] some places that are very definitely women only and safe, and I don’t think we need to erase those things if we’re going to give other people rights.”
Duffield realises that others will disagree, but she insists that Rowling was right to raise similar concerns. “It gets to the stage where you have to decide whether you’re going to put your head above the parapet, and at that level if you’re going to do it despite all the hatred then it is brave,” she says.
She is scathing about the Harry Potter stars, including Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, who have criticised the author of the books that made their name. “I think they’re incredibly rude to dismiss a woman who basically gave them a career through her creativity — to dismiss her rather than just explain their point of view, or say, ‘It’s OK we disagree.’ All these RIP JK Rowling hashtags, how disgusting. There’s never an excuse for that, it’s not OK.”
With two sons aged 21 and 17, Duffield knows there is a generational clash over gender and that a “middle-aged woman” such as her does not have all the answers. “Young people might have much more knowledge and lived experience, but they should at least respect that older people need to ask questions,” she says.
“Why can’t we have a discussion? Why can’t we be nice and polite to each other? I’ve never lived as a trans person, I don’t know how horrific that must be on so many levels, but the same goes for people who don’t know what it’s like to need safe spaces.”
Last week Keira Bell, a woman who was given hormones by the NHS to change her gender, launched a legal challenge to stop children receiving the same treatment unless it is ordered by a court. Duffield believes there needs to be more public debate about the use of puberty-blocking drugs. “We don’t want loads of people in that situation where they feel they were pressurised into something instead of just being allowed to just express themselves.”
The actor Rupert Everett, who is gay, said recently that he would “probably be transitioning” if he were a teenager. “Are we erasing being gay now as well?” asks the MP. “We’ve got to ask ourselves why someone is being forced to choose; can’t you just express yourself? I know people with toddlers whose children decide to wear clothes from the boys section if they’re a girl — so what? Who cares what toys you play with or whether you want to experiment with Mum’s make-up?”
Duffield knows her comments will make her unpopular with some in her party. “I did not set out to offend anyone,” she says. “The vast majority of my colleagues are afraid to even raise it as a subject that we should be talking about. There is an argument that the Tories are making it look as though they’re more tolerant than the Labour Party, and I think if we can’t discuss it then we’re in danger of that happening.”
The suffragettes chained themselves to the railings outside Parliament to get women the vote, and it horrifies Duffield that female politicians are in her view yet again being silenced. “If I had thought when I wanted to be an MP that after all of the things that women before me went through to get into politics I would be facing the kind of misogyny that I am on a daily basis I would have thought twice,” she says.
“Anything that ramps up the hate is terrifying. I’ll probably be killed at some point.” This is — almost — a throwaway comment, which only makes it more chilling.