New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. But now, 120 years on from that landmark moment for female equality, Kiwi women are fighting a rear-guard campaign to defend the meaning of the word 'woman'.
As well as dealing with the fallout from the pandemic, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government has been busy prioritising a bill that would effectively allow anyone to become a woman just because they wanted to. While Ardern is being cheered on by the transgender lobby, it has fallen to Speak Up for Women, a grassroots campaign group, to speak truth to power. Rather predictably, politicians seem unwilling to listen; worse, some are determined to stop anyone else hearing what these women have to say.
The group's co-founder Beth Johnson is concerned that this legislation could be disastrous. 'The gap between the intention of this law and the practicality of implementation is large enough to drive a prison bus through,' she said. 'How, in practice, is any agency, school, sports team or female‐only service provider meant to assess a person’s sex if not via their birth certificate?'
It's a good question. But while liberals around the world fawn over Ardern's 'progressive' government, it is one her administration has no answer to.
Tomorrow evening, Speak Up for Women's nationwide tour of public meetings arrives in the capital, Wellington. To coincide with the event, the organisation raised NZ$5000 (£2,500) for a billboard carrying the dictionary definition, 'woman: adult human female.'
So far, so harmless, you might think. But no. The advertisement, which went up on Monday, has provoked a furore. Yesterday, it was taken down following a targeted campaign against the advertising agency. Go Media's general manager Simon Teagle explained that the billboard was removed when 'offended New Zealanders' complained:
'While we believe in freedom of speech, we do not condone content that upsets our community. We apologise unreservedly for any distress this may have caused anyone and remedied the situation as soon we could.'
But what about the valid concerns of the ordinary women who make up Speak Up for Women? Hundreds of women contributed to the campaign to raise money for the advertisement which, despite containing words lifted straight from a dictionary, is considered beyond the pale. Johnson is indignant: 'Why do these activists have so much power to intimidate businesses and women’s groups? Why is our government condoning this with their silence?'
If New Zealand's government has been silent, local authorities are a different matter. Last week, the mayor of a city in the Wellington region posted on Facebook saying, 'If this group needs a venue...I've got some nice new waste bins they can use?'
But Speak up for Women haven't been deterred. Their meeting in Wellington is scheduled to go ahead tomorrow night. Johnson told me that the group's events have been growing in size as they moved around the country, 'They are mostly attended by women, but we have a few men and transsexuals attending. We expect the room to be at capacity, which is 140 people,' she said.
Inevitably, protests are planned to take place outside. A group calling itself 'Queer Endurance/ Defiance' describes the campaign as an 'anti-trans hate group'. But if my experience of similar events in the UK is anything to go on, the hate is likely to be outside the building, certainly not in the meeting. Groups like 'Queer Endurance/ Defiance' do not speak for trans people like me.
But while those brave women who do attend the meeting are likely to face abuse, members of Wellington City Council are far from sympathetic. Wellington mayor Andy Foster, backed by a number of councillors, has arranged for the centre to be lit in the colours of the transgender flag while the Speak Up for Women event takes place. Without irony, Foster explained that:
'We are taking this action to ensure there is a voice for members of the gender diverse community, who do not normally have ready access to influence public opinion.'
In the middle of this circus, Speak Up for Women are simply trying to hold their meeting. Johnson told me that, 'we would have no issue with this (decision to light up the building) if it was individuals exercising their own freedom of speech, but this is the power of the council trying to intimidate us again.'
How the transgender lobby became so powerful is a matter for debate, but they hold that power because too many people ignore what is happening, or they think that it does not matter. Perhaps they think what is happening in this gender debate is too ridiculous to be true? But it is true: women are being shamed for repeating a dictionary definition of the word 'woman', and meeting to discuss the implications on their rights as a sex. Speak Up for Women are making a stand and we need to stand with them.