The Fawcett Society: shutting women up in the name of feminism

Organisations adopt the idea that men can be women out of kindness or pragmatism. But the illogic breaks them. They end up contorting themselves around the contradictions and the double-speak, until their core principle snaps, and with it their integrity. Scientists pretend they don’t understand evolution, left wing organisations say don’t listen to the masses, conservatives say don’t worry about liberty and and the rule of law. Venerable feminist organisations tell women to pipe down and stop being so difficult.

I joined Fawcett Society for their AGM yesterday. Make Woman Visible said the title.

Make woman faceless, eyeless and mouthless said the graphics.

I’d spoken to Fawcett chair Fiona MacTaggart previously about whether there was any chance of the UK’s major feminist organisation noticing the grassroots feminist uprising going on around them, getting off the fence and saying loudly and proudly that sex matters. The conversations have been frustrating.

I’m not hopeful, but I don’t give up easily.

So I joined and got a ticket: at least I could ask the trustees a question. I was also interested to hear what Jenni Murray, newly released from BBC imposed reticence would say in her final speech as departing president. I hoped it would be a barnstormer.

What question should I ask I wondered? I ran a little poll on twitter: purple, white or green?

544 people answered with good arguments for each of them. I decided to wait and see.

The AGM was held on zoom. Like most of us I’ve got used to the strange new world of zoom socialisation so I logged on and headed over to “chat” to say hello to the other participants milling around the virtual conference hall. Chat was disabled. They weren’t joking about women being faceless and mouthless. How many of us were there? Who were we? Who knows?

Well, the team at Fawcett did because we’d had to register and supply details of which type of mouthless, faceless, intersectional archetypes of people we were.

Fiona MacTaggart introduced the trustees. Well not the actual trustees, but some nice photos of them. Were they there on the call? I don’t know. We only saw Fiona and Iain as part of the AGM (Iain presented the finances). We were informed that Karen moved to accept the minutes of the last meeting and Tanya seconded her. It seemed to be a rubber stamping committee.

Sam Smethers, outgoing CEO gave a presentation about the charity’s activities and outreach. They have 300 news stories per month. “It is pretty strong compared to other charities of our size”. 90,000 followers on social media. “The one day that gives us a boost is Equal Pay Day” she said.

Here is Fawcett’s pinned tweet from their biggest campaigning day of the year.

Here is a tweet from an anonymous feminist writer on twitter with 5,000 followers

Sam talked about the work they are doing. Their sex and power report ”shows how power still very much lies in the hands of white men”. They have been working on getting more women into politics, together with the 50:50 parliament initiative.

On twitter Fawcett Trustees Baroness Jenkin and Resham Kotecha have been particularly keen on asking Sue Pascoe to stand as an MP.

In 2019 Pascoe called Woman’s Place UK and We Need to Talk “hate groups”

Sam said that Fawcett is also soon to release its report on gender stereotypes in childhood.

The picture reminded me of one by the LGB Alliance’s lines:

“Some people believe that girls who like football need puberty blockers. We believe they need football boots.”

How can Fawcett reconcile their campaign against gender stereotypes while also accepted the idea that a man or boy who wants to wear dresses and make-up and play a traditionally feminine role in society is demonstrating their inner essence of womanhood, shared by all women?

LGB Alliance was also recently called a hate group by another of Fawcett’s close allies, Jolyon Maugham of the “Good Law” project. (Sam Smethers was until recently a board member of the Good Law Project, and Maugham likes to use the ‘but my position is the same as Fawcett’s’ argument when criticising women who disagree with him).

Anyway, back to the meeting, next the floor was opened for questions. At last we had a little interaction and a clue as to who else was there. Also there was a neat accountability mechanism to show which questions had been answered live and which were answered with a typed message.

So I asked my ‘white’ question. The most softball and un-antagonistic of the three:

Fiona batted it to Sam, Sam who had presumably prepped for all three questions gave a rehearsed sounding answer:

“It is a very important issue and I can understand where the anxiety comes from. I see many cases of women… Suzanne Moore was a case in point.

Women who have found themselves on the wrong side of this issue and as a result lose their jobs or feel that they are being silenced.

My response is that it is inequitable from their point of view but freedom of speech is not an unqualified right.

It is a balancing task between those two interests and we do not want to silence women, we do not want to shut women out of this discussion.It is also important that we exercise free speech responsibly.”

Exercise free speech responsibly seems to mean keep quiet about women’s rights.

Neither the organisation’s twitter account nor Sam Smethers (nor as far as I can see any of the trustees or staff) have tweeted about Jenni Murray, Suzanne Moore, Selina Todd, Allison Bailey, Helen Lewis or any of the other women bullied, harassed and victimised for standing up for sex-based rights. None of them have shared Suzanne Moore’s article.

Sam has to her credit did once defend Woman’s Place against accusation of being a hate group, when the question was put to her by a journalist, but you get the feeling it is very difficult for her or anyone involved in Fawcett to stand up against the obvious terrorisation of women in public life. Presumably there are also women inside of Fawcett, and on the board of trustees afraid to speak up.

Fiona gave thanks to Sam for her leadership of Fawcett and introduced the interim CEO Felicia Willow who specialises in charities in crisis.

Nevermind the iceberg lets move the deckchairs

Trying to keep its head down in the debate about sex based rights, Fawcett has instead decided to invest its attention internally on a merger with the Young Women’s Trust. This was the next item on the agenda.

The “Young Women’s Trust” is a rebrand of the YWCA. It is is an unusual organisation in the women’s sector in that it has a substantial endowment compared to its annual budget. It has £17 million in funds and an operating budget of around £2 million. Fawcett with a higher profile has a budget of about £1 million, with half a million in the bank. Fawcett is a mass membership organisation. The YWCA is not.

The Young Women’s Trust’s endowment (which is significant for a small organisation but still tiny in charity terms) came from selling off its historic YWCA assets of hostels for girls and women. It now does policy advocacy and offers a light touch coaching and CV feedback service to young women, reaching about 3,000 young women last year for such advice. It doesn’t have much brand awareness in its new brand, and direct service provision at this scale by a national organisation makes no sense, so the trust seems to be at a bit of a loose end (but with £17 million in the bank).

Sophie Walker was its CEO for a short time after leaving the Women’s Equality Party. Her rapid departure suggests the Witchfinder Generals had been calling.

There were some good questions about the merger and I ventured a second one:

This one didn’t get a response. Or rather two minutes after I posted it Fiona said this:

We have not had the chance to answer all of the questions but let me just say if you have had a answer …. because we are going to have to move on. This is all rather fast. If you haven’t had a answer, we will send you an answer after the meeting

And then something strange happened to the Q&A facility. I stopped seeing any more questions, but Fiona kept talking… she mentioned ‘Jayne’ and ‘Helen’ and other questions and comments about the merger, but I couldn’t see their questions.

Then it was time for a break

After the break we came back for a panel discussion about the impact of the Covid crisis on women; with Joeli Brearley, Founder of the charity and campaigning group, Pregnant Then Screwed, Wendy Irwin, Head of Equality and Diversity at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Kym Oliver & Jumoke Abdullahi, of the “Triple Cripples” campaign and Polly Neate CBE of Shelter.

They made some important points which mainly related to the reality that women are female, and many are mothers (although the “Triple Cripples” team got in some plugs for ‘cis privilege’).

And then it was time for questions again. This time I couldn’t see any questions at all, but they were apparently coming in. And my question was still hanging there, with neither a “this question was answered live” answer or a typed response.

I wondered if it was me. Maybe I had been frozen out of the system. I asked a couple of other people who I could see were following along on Twitter, they said they couldn’t see any questions either.

So I tested it. I could type questions but no one else could see them.

Then I got an answer from Manuela Campbell, partnerships and membership manager. She said zoom doesn’t automatically display questions (except it had before), and then at 7.22 the ability to see questions and answers got turned on again (I guess they are going to blame some kind of pressed-the-wrong-button error for the panopticon effect that was turned on from 5.35 to 7.22)

So my question is still hanging, and I’ll let you know when I get an answer.

Fawcett has around 4,000 members. I bet if they polled their members carefully and honestly they would find that most of their them (like most of the general public) think sex matters, and do not want the organisation to give away the definition of woman.

The AGM had promised to discuss “Member consultation — challenges and opportunities ahead for Fawcett and the women’s sector” but there was no mention of that. We did get to type in a few words which generated a word cloud.

It looks like there were 66 people there.

Finally it was time for comedy. About which I have no words.

Jenni Murray, who couldn’t make it to the event, got not one word of acknowledgement or celebration for her four years as President of the organisation. Perhaps she is seen as not using her freedom of speech responsibly.

Why does any of this matter?

Charities and the foundations that fund them play a key role as “civil society” building platforms so that people can advocate for their interests and rights, discuss and test ideas, feed them into policy makers, mobilise support for them, and hold governments to account. They are not exactly democratic, but they are a part of democracy.

They act as gatekeepers and filters to what is respectable thought. Fawcett is relatively small but it occupies an important space in the women’s sector, with its Westminster focus, its historic name and policy rather than service-delivery role. If Fawcett stands up for women to talk about sex based rights, and how to resolve the conflict of rights with those who put gender identity first, it makes space for women in political parties to do it, for women working in the women’s sector, for women in the voluntary sector.

If they don’t they are signalling that there is no space for debate, and women who speak up deserve to be punished.

We are getting that signal loud and clear.

We will need to build new organisations.

This is mainly where I write about sex and gender