The British Labour Party is currently riven by an extraordinary dispute, as reported recently by the Guardian (March 17 and also on March 4). Should transwomen be allowed to be selected to women-only electoral shortlists? The argument is a manifestation of a broader conflict, between so-called trans-exclusionary feminists (TERFs) and trans activists; the argument about shortlisting brings this larger argument into a sharp and very particular focus.
The Labour Party introduced all-women shortlists under Tony Blair’s leadership in order to address the gender imbalance among the party’s representatives in Parliament. Traditionally the Labour Party candidate in a particular constituency would be a long-standing party member who had been active in local politics for some time. To achieve credible all-women shortlists it was necessary to provide candidates who were from outside the constituency, often at the expense of long-serving local party members. At the time the policy was greeted with much skepticism; in a derogatory way, the women thus elected were referred to as “Blair’s Babes”.
The principal argument is as follows. Half of the population are female; it seems reasonable that half of the nation’s elected representatives should also be female, because women have life experiences that are different from those of men – life experiences that should be represented in Parliament. How far should we pursue this line of reasoning? In an electoral democracy, is representation of the people only served if the composition of the parliament exactly reflects that of the people they serve? If x% of people are black, should x% of parliamentarians be black? Do we need all-gay shortlists, or all Jewish shortlists? It becomes rather complex. In the UK, the second chamber, the House of Lords, is fact designed to achieve some of these other kinds of representation. It is complex and I do not presume to offer an answer.
But to return to the matter of all-women shortlists, the goal is plain (whether or not we believe the mechanism to be appropriate): women have life-experiences that are different from those of men; establishing all-women shortlists is a mans to ensure that the particular challenges faced by women are represented in Parliament. These include discrimination in employment, responsibilities as carers and parents, reproductive rights, etc. It is easy to see why feminists would support the principle of all-female shortlists.
But what of transwomen? Do they belong in all-female shortlists?
The battle-cry of TERFs is that transwomen grow up with male privilege and that this makes them members of the oppressing class and not the oppressed class. This seems to me to be quite clearly wrong.
At best, one could argue that a fetishistic cross-dresser who indulges his interests in private has had no male privilege. One might suggest that a part-timer like myself has benefited from male privilege. As my wife once put it, “You think that all you have to do to become a woman is to put on a pretty dress, but you haven’t had to put up with a lifetime of period pains and discrimination”. The argument is not unreasonable. I have to say that in my own case, a lifetime of very poor conformity to masculine norms has without doubt hindered my capacity to benefit from male privilege. Attending a workshop at work recently on gender stereotypes, I was struck by how much better I fitted the feminine stereotype (finds it difficult to ask for a pay rise, good team player, etc) than the masculine one. So even in my own case there is ambiguity – and I’m sure there is for other part-timers. And of course for those of us who have struggled with the strain of relationship breakdown and depression after coming out to partners and family, there is a further burden not shared by our regular male colleagues.
One might also argue that for a few celebrity transwomen, like Caitlyn Jenner, who made a fortune and then transitioned (making a further fortune in the process in Jenner’s case) its hard to see the suffering – perhaps the response of TERFS is an unwelcome consequence of Jenner’s celebrity.
But for the vast majority of full-time transwomen male privilege was either never experienced or was surrendered very quickly (for example see my earlier post on surrendering male privilege). Rates of mental illness are very high among folk with gender dysphoria and suicide rates are very much greater than those for the general population. It seems to be wholly unreasonable to make the claim that transwomen are not an oppressed class. In this I believe that the TERFs are quite wrong.
But does that necessarily entail that transwomen belong on all-female electoral shortlists? The experiences of transwomen are not those of women. As my wife pointed out, none of us – full-time or part-time – has suffered period pains or carried into our sexual relationships the knowledge that, other things being equal, pregnancy is a possibility. There are experiences that are central to women’s lives that transwomen will never share. Reproductive rights, realities and obligations shape women’s lives in profound ways. One of the complicating factors in the recent debate about gender inequality in pay is that many women take part-time work because of their responsibilities as mothers. Of course we can argue that men or transwomen can also adopt roles that necessitate significant parental care (I have done so myself) but to do so is to trivialise the sense that after she gives birth a woman’s life changes in profound ways – and if she eschews motherhood that too has a profound impact on her sense of womanhood also. These are deep matters that cannot be dismissed.
So if we make the case hypothetically (without wishing to enter into a debate about the maning of “oppression” in this context) that women and transwomen share the experience of being oppressed as a consequence of their gender identities, it seems clear to me that they experience very different kinds of oppression. This must be recognised before we can consider what an all-women shortlist is for and who should be on it.