Let’s discuss the suffrage TERF in the room

As The Daily Mail launches a new era of ‘suffragettes’ campaigning to repress trans rights, what can we in the history community do?

Yesterday the front page of the UK’s Daily Mail announced ‘the most significant female movement since the suffragettes’; The unification of groups, Women Uniting, Sex Matters and Women’s Rights Network, to create political campaign – ‘respect my sex, if you want my x’. The self-described ethos behind the campaign is this: ‘Just over 100 years ago, women got the vote. Our hard-fought rights are now being turned against us. Every rule and policy that says something is for women, is being changed, so that it’s now for people who ‘self-identify’ as women, whatever their sex.’ Campaigners are urged to call on their local MPs to join their fight in disallowing trans women from accessing the same rights and services offered to those gendered biologically female at birth – for those MPs that don’t, campaigners have pledged to boycott them in local elections. All of this is wrapped up in suffrage paraphernalia, from the colours used to the messaging – this is history in action. The legacies of Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. Of course, this use of suffrage is nothing new. Today suffrage has gone beyond the history books and become an easily accessible marketing ploy. Want to peddle female empowerment without any danger or copyright issues – stick a suffragette in it. Who can forgot Meryl Streep sporting the tone deaf ‘I’d rather be a rebel than slave’ tee to promote 2015 film, Suffragette or the plethora of ‘girl boss’ infused suffrage merch that littered stores to mark the centenary of some women getting the vote in 2018. This kind of tactic isn’t even new for anti-trans feminism, who frequently flourish their tweets and instas with three distinctly coloured little hearts 💜💚🤍

This is the unknowing legacy of the WSPU, beyond their militancy it’s their savvy use of self-image that’s stood the test of time to the extent that there’s almost a whole sub section of suffrage academia dedicated to their masterful marketing of a movement. From colour usage to easily accessible self-branding and even a political board game – Don Draper could never. And it’s these same slogans, posters and buttons that keep being picked up across the generations to serve different feminist campaigns or clothing brands looking to make a quick buck. Suffrage sells universally. There’s a reason that in 2018 so many brands jumped aboard the ‘celebrate the centenary’ express. It wasn’t because everyone just really wanted to celebrate the vote. Suffrage offers an incredible market share – female empowerment for any age. Which is probably why, not many historians batted an eye when we saw the ‘Respect my sex’ Daily Mail backed campaign launch. This isn’t new. Admittedly the use of suffrage as a Trojan horse for anti-trans hate is abhorrent if for no other moral reason than for the simple fact that the suffrage campaign had its roots in the 1864 campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act, which fought for bodily autonomy and against forcible genital examination – irony, thy name is TERF. Yet, this latest step by campaigners goes beyond annoyance and historic factual fallacies. Using the front page of a national newspaper to announce an anti-trans campaign as modern-day suffrage is a big deal. Even if that newspaper is ironically the same one that popularised the term suffragette, as its own anti-suffrage campaign.

Politically these ‘modern day suffragettes’ are powerful. The same day as their campaign launched, Boris Johnson announced a U-turn in the banning of conversion therapy; banning it for gay people, but not for trans people. This move comes off the back of systematic pressure put onto MPs by campaigners, a pressure which looks set to only intensify in the coming weeks as we approach May’s local elections. In fact, the lighter side of this pressure was splashed across the Daily Mail to support the campaign launch – ‘look how many MPs look silly when they try to say if it’s possible for a woman to have a penis’; it’s conceivably childish, until you see the clear threat. More important than MPs giving in to fear is the government’s sudden change of heart in banning conversion therapy. In a US paper used by the government in their own public findings on UK conversion therapy, it’s cited that those that undergo conversion therapy are 88% more likely to attempt suicide, with multiple other research papers showing that these figures are frequently higher for trans youths. This goes beyond hiding behind a suffrage facade – lives will be lost. That is not a likelihood, but a fact.

In addition to standing alongside charities like Stonewall, there is something else that we as a history community can do. History stands as a bastion of information, that can help dispel the falsehoods of these campaigners. We can’t stop them using the Pankhurst’s as puppets, but we can share our knowledge. There are hundreds of years – thousands really – of trans history. It’s our job to tell those stories. No matter what area of history you work in, you’ve almost certainly come across a historic person who was likely trans. Their lives are vital in dispelling the myths being spread; that this is new, that it’s men stealing rights or angling to commit assaults. The historic evidence stands against that – this is not scary or dangerous – this is human. Trans lives are part of all of our shared history, its people being people; who they were born to be. It’s up to us to share that knowledge, not as a one off, but as part of our overall history work and research. Inclusion is everything. No matter how big or small you think your voice is, whether its in a book or a lecture hall, a letter to your MP or a tweet and WhatsApp message to your mate; as long as we’re talking. Because silence is no longer an option.

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