It was easy to miss because even at the best of times the House of Lords doesn’t grab public attention. But this week, something remarkable happened in parliament.
In narrow legislative terms, peers have forced the government to accept amendments to the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill. The Bill will make it possible for a minister who is pregnant — such as Suella Braverman, the Attorney General — to take leave from work without resigning ministerial office.
That should be uncontroversial, but the language of the Bill left something to be desired. The Bill passed the Commons earlier this month using phrases such as ‘the person is pregnant’ and ‘the person has given birth to a child’.
Such language set alarm bells ringing for several people familiar with the debate about sex and gender. They saw the phrasing of the Bill as the latest example of officialdom — perhaps unwittingly — erasing the category of women as biologically female.
Examples of such erasure abound: womxn; pregnant people; people with a uterus; chestfeeders. All these graceless neologisms and more have been used by public and private organisations in recent years, often in the benign hope of being more inclusive to transgender people who too often face discrimination and unkindness.
Yet such linguistic contortions and their impact capture an essential fact of the debate about sex and gender. By seeking to do better for trans people, some organisations ignore and erode the interests, rights and desire of at least some women who are not transgender. For instance, the desire to be referred to as ‘women’ and have the biological reality of being born into and living in the female sex recognised in language.
I think that desire is more than reasonable, and I think it appalling — and telling — that so many organisations are so indifferent to the wishes of women who hold that view. Worse is the opprobrium and abuse visited on women who express that view. The indifference and the abuse strike me as solid evidence of deep, structural and inadequately unacknowledged bias against people of the female sex. This is one of the reasons I’ve written so much about this issue in the last three years.
But it’s not the only reason. Another is the systematic failure of politics to process and mediate this issue and properly discuss matters of clear public interest. In several areas beyond the linguistic arena, there are real or potential tensions between arguments made in favour of trans rights and the interests of women with female biology.
This isn’t the time to recap them all, but a vivid example concerns the exemptions to the Equality Act 2010 which allow service providers (for instance, women’s refuges) to offer female-only services and refuse entry to a person born male, even if they identify as female, if doing so is a proportionate way to serve and protect women. Several prominent trans rights groups have (quietly, but explicitly) lobbied for such exemptions to be abolished.
Every time advocates of trans rights argue that their agenda has no impact on women’s rights, they should be asked why that agenda entails removing the legal right to bar biological males from female-only spaces.
I offer this example to illustrate that potential tension, a conflict of rights and interests between different groups. There is nothing unusual or malign about this: different groups of people routinely want and expect different things, wants that sometimes contradict one another.
This is why we have politics, and politicians, and representative democracy. Those who represent us, and the institutions of our democracy, are there to mediate such differing interests and demands. Politics is about brokering compromises, or should be. It is not a total war where one side wins outright victory over another. Good political outcomes leave everyone a bit disappointed because they didn’t get everything they want.
For this process to work, politicians need to reflect differing perspectives and opinions, to weigh arguments and cases against one another. Questions about how trans rights do — or do not — affect women’s rights should be just another part of politics.
Yet often, that has not happened. I started writing about this issue almost exactly three years ago because I kept encountering examples of that conflict of interests that were not being discussed and processed and mediated by politics. And because I knew many politicians, of all sorts, who were reluctant to do their jobs and debate that conflict for fear of being (falsely, but nonetheless harmfully) labelled bigoted or transphobic.
Against that background, I am greatly cheered by events in the Lords this week, where peers of all parties and none have debated questions around the linguistic erasure of women. I’ll be candid here and say that when I first learned about the language of the Maternity Bill, I wasn’t convinced that it was indeed part of that linguistic erasure I’ve described above. I suspected it was more likely to be a clumsy bit of drafting by officials working within guidelines on gender-neutral language that long predate the recent trans debate.
But whatever the origins and intent of that language, it has had the effect of causing the sort of debate about conflicting rights that has been too often missing from parliament and politics. Starting on Monday and concluding on Thursday, peers actually talked about the ways in which changes made to be inclusive of trans people have effects on women. Arguments were made and countered, assertions tested. Opinions were expressed and reflected.
I won’t even try to summarise several hours of debate among peers, but readers should know that the range of peers who spoke about the linguistic erasure of women and that conflict of rights ran from social conservatives on the Tory benches to proud social progressives from the Labour party. There were also significant contributions from peers who profess no party.
Lord Pannick QC, one of the country’s leading legal minds, explained that referring to ‘mothers’ does not impact the rights of trans people.
Baroness Hayman, a former lord speaker, spoke about that vital process of reconciling interests and agendas, and the need for politics to deal with such tensions as something other than a form of combat with victors and vanquished:
“We must be careful with our language and respectful of minorities. We have made an important stand but it should not be seen as having defeated anyone, least of all transgender people. It should be seen as a victory for women’s rights.
Perhaps the most significant contribution came from Lord Winston, one of the country’s most distinguished medical scientists, who set out the essential facts of difference between human males and human females. He told peers:
“Every single one of us in this chamber, every single person outside in the street and every citizen of the United Kingdom was born from a mother’s uterus… The fact is that only a woman can give rise to a baby.
It’s important to note that not all peers thought that talking about ‘the person who is pregnant’ was a problem or injurious to women’s interests. Among those who spoke passionately for a trans-inclusive agenda was Baroness Barker of the Liberal Democrats, who made some perfectly reasonable points about the need to respect the interests of minority groups, and some silly ones suggesting that the cross-party spectrum of people who disagree with her about this issue are part of some vast ‘alt-right’ conspiracy of bigotry.
In the end, Lady Barker’s arguments did not carry the day. The government agreed to amendments that will have the effect of replacing ‘person’ with ‘mother’.
To some people that is a victory. Some will simply see it as a victory for ‘common sense’. Others will see it as a victory for old-fashioned, regressive views over inclusive thinking. For many, it will be a victory for women and their right to be heard and to describe themselves and define their category in their own terms.
I sympathise with that last group, but I’m not inclined to see victory in the outcome of that debate and the amendments. Like Lady Hayman and many others, I don’t want this debate to be a fight to the death. I want it to be a conversation, a calm and mannered discussion among adults who disagree but keep talking nonetheless, and by doing so ensure that arguments are made and countered, claims and evidence weighed and measured.
If that sounds mundane and even a bit boring, that’s the point. Political debate, no matter how important the issue or how high the passions, shouldn’t be entertainment and certainly not a bloodsport. It should be a careful and deliberative discussion of complex things and their nuances. That is what members of the House of Lords did this week when talking about women, language and gender. And that is a victory — a victory for the political process — that is worth celebrating.