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Jenni Murray and the trans controversy

Jenni Murray’s recent article ‘Be trans, be proud, but don’t call yourself a “real woman”’ divided readers.  Many applauded her stance, but others were unconvinced by her opening assurance that she is ‘not transphobic’.

The category of ‘real woman’ strikes me as problematic.  What value of ‘real’ are we talking about here?  The phrases ‘real woman’ and ‘real man’ can be weaponised to exclude and marginalise people for a whole range of reasons, as often as not unwelcome ones.

Murray distances herself from the language used by Burchill and Greer – so far I’m with her.

She goes on:

Equally, I’m appalled at the repulsive misogyny evident in the response of trans activists who have accused Nimko Ali, a Somali and a courageous campaigner against female genital mutilation, of “practising white feminism”[.]

I couldn’t find the criticism of Nimko Ali she alludes to – it doesn’t sound like an especially trans-focused critique, though it is certainly a very perverse one.  I wondered whether Murray might instead have been thinking about an absolutely vile accusation levelled at Ali cited here by Sarah Ditum

Yet simultaneously in the UK, anti-FGM campaigner Nimko Ali receives vicious abuse accusing her of propagating a “cunt-obsessed culture” because of her work protecting girls from genital mutilation.

(Though having followed Ditum’s link I’m unsure whether  this abuse was motivated by trans issues.)

Murray continues:

But my concern, which I know is shared by numerous women who are now to be known as “cis” (short for “cisgender” — natural-born women, in the language that’s more familiar to most of us), is for the impact this question of what constitutes “a real woman” will have on sexual politics. And for who has the right to be included in gatherings or organisations that are defined as single sex.

Two points bother me here.  The first is the implication that only cisgender women will have a problem with this alleged horrifying abuse of an anti-FGM campaigner.  The second is the sneeriness around the term ‘cisgender’ coupled with the use of the phrase ‘natural-born woman’.

A lengthy portion of the article is taken up with Murray’s  reflections on apparently unsatisfactory encounters with two transwomen, Carol Stone,a vicar, and India Willoughby, a news presenter.  Both, it is claimed, were unalert or indifferent to feminist issues.   Stone died in 2014, but Willoughby has questioned Murray’s account of her views on unequal expectations of female staff at the Dorchester .

“She and Woman’s Hour have subsequently tried to portray me as someone who believes all women must have perfectly shaved legs at all times, which quite frankly is ridiculous.

Even if Willoughby was as anti-feminist as Murray suggested, she is still only one individual – many women would fail a feminist purity test.  Although many transwomen are feminist, it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect them to be any different from other women – who hold a range of views on feminism.

Murray concludes the article by quoting a transsexual woman who does not think female spaces should be open to males.  Her last sentence is ‘Now that’s a “woman” after my own heart.’ Those scare quotes don’t seem designed to soften increasingly entrenched positions on this issue or encourage an honest and nuanced debate about such difficult topics as the appropriate treatment of children by gender-identity clinics.