Rising prices, record NHS backlogs, the petty question of restoring dignity and decency to the civil service – the average Conservative leadership candidate has plenty of pressing questions to choose from when preparing his stand to replace Boris Johnson. Running for party leader in the wake of a major pandemic and in the throes of a cost-of-living crisis, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the current state of the country would act as an automatic filter for candidates to management, focusing candidates only on serious, urgent matters.
Well, you would be wrong. It seems that, for some candidates, even the 9.1% inflation rate is not enough to eliminate distractions. Alongside promises to cut taxes and departmental budgets is the deeply divisive debate over biologically determined sex versus socially constructed gender, also known as the trans rights culture war.
The first to take up the torch was Suella Braverman. The attorney general announced his ambitions even before Johnson left the leadership in an interview with ITV’s Robert Peston. Outlining his priorities for the country, the classic campaign fodder of ‘good’ tax cuts, downsizing and creating Brexit ‘opportunities’ was accompanied by a pledge to ‘get get rid of all that woke garbage and come back to a country where describing a man and a woman in terms of biology doesn’t mean you’re going to lose your job.”
Next, Rishi Sunak, a famous observer committed to the subtleties of feminist discourse. High on the former chancellor’s list of priorities are apparently women’s rights, including “recent trends to erase women through awkward and gender-neutral language”, an ally told the Daily mail. “He thinks we need to be able to call a mother a mother and talk about breastfeeding, alongside trans-inclusive language where necessary.” Meanwhile, poor old Penny Mordaunt spent Sunday (July 10) tweeting in defense of her past comments that a the trans woman is a woman. “Some want to damage my reputation for some reason,” she tweeted. “They want to portray me as ‘woke’.”
Leadership contestants might fool themselves by saying that they are signaling to voters that they put women first. What they are really showing is their willingness to employ a fiery culture war to get ahead, distracting from the arguably more immediate issues facing women in this country. These include, in no particular order: the disproportionate impact of the pandemic-induced economic crisis on women; the fact that the number of women in the UK, leaving the workforce to care for family has increased for the first time in decades; and continued violence against women and girls (although, to her credit, Sunak included the latter issue in her pledges on women’s rights). There is also the small issue of the United States rolling back the most important feminist victory of the 20th century: the right to a safe and legal abortion.
Whatever your position on sex and gender, these most divisive issues, we must not let politicians stoke the fires of harmful online discourse. We must not let our leaders diminish the prospect of meaningful conversations about trans rights any more than they already have. In fact, we would all do well to learn from another Conservative leadership candidate’s book. Asked by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, “Are trans men men and trans women women?” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps responded refreshingly: “Let people live their lives.”
[See also: Tory leadership race: candidates are desperately short of new ideas]
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