what makes a real woman?


Another week, another nail in the coffin of dignified discourse, specifically the question, what makes ‘a real woman’? According to the presenter of the BBC’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ – the doughty Jenni Murray (pictured) – it ‘takes more than a sex change and make-up’ to ‘lay claim to womanhood’, a judgment the LGBTQ+ campaign group, ‘Stonewall’ says is ‘reductive and hurtful’: the broadcaster, it fumes, has ‘no right to question anyone else’s identity’. One – transgender – journalist has called Murray a ‘bigot’ with ‘nasty and bitchy’ views; another – male – journalist says that, on the contrary, the real bigots are the people accusing Murray of being a bigot. ‘Twitter’ – variously – thinks Murray’s ‘spouting bile’ or – alternatively – talking copper-bottomed common sense. Ho, hum.

Alas, there’s more. A peeved petition is up and about calling on the BBC to sack the ‘transphobic’ Murray (the last time I looked there were 948 signatures representing 0.00471% of the kingdom) to which the Corporation – drawing itself up to its full imperial height – has responded with something called an ‘impartiality warning’, effectively a public finger-wagging for Dame Jenni asking her to refrain from waving her opinions about on controversial issues. Predictably the BBC doesn’t define what constitutes a ‘controversial issue’ and, even more predictably, the ‘Daily Mail’ has pilloried the BBC for ‘censorship’.

This – one and all – is what passes for enlightened conversation in this day and age; the great and the good flexing their intolerances and beating each other over the head with them while – on the fringes – social media throws steaming buckets of shit either at the protagonists or at each other, whichever are the nearer. Meanwhile the right-wing press slams political correctness, the left-wing press sets its attack dogs on the fascists and the fuddy-duddies and the rest of us – wearily – head outside to prune the roses. Edifying it is not.

Was Murray right to say what she did? More importantly, did she have a right to say what she did? Is ‘Stonewall’ truly championing diversity or attempting to stifle opinion by damning anyone who has the temerity to question transgender issues? What’s more if the BBC is seriously interested in ensuring, to quote its very own Impartiality Guidelines, that ‘a range of views is appropriately reflected’, then why wouldn’t that include one of its own freelance broadcasters, albeit writing on another platform in ‘The Sunday Times’? Alternatively can women’s issues be impartially represented on national radio by someone who – somewhat provocatively – is questioning who has a right to call themselves a woman and who doesn’t?

The more perceptive of you will notice that plenty of questions are being raised here but precisely none of them are being answered. Why? Because I – like, I suspect, many others – don’t actually have an intelligent answer to offer, not because I have no interest but because sober, respectful dialogue on these issues – on which I might just begin to form an understanding – is so hard to come by, drowned out as it is by the shrill, the strident and the aforementioned shit-slingers. It’s a bit like trying to count to five hundred while listening to Wagner’s Ring Cycle on a pair of headphones.

But then even this is something of a mirage, assuming as it does that rationally weighing up all the evidence will – ipso facto – lead to either (a) a clear understanding or (b) a correct answer. Fifty-four years after President JF Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas, no one can say for certain who ordered the execution or who executed the order. Indeed if you started from scratch, fifty-four years would probably be how long it’d take you to sift through all the evidence of just the Warren Commission, let alone sit down to consider a verdict.

Besides if life teaches you anything – given how nebulous a world we live in – it’s to beware anyone who has a firm opinion on anything. The stoniest views – in my limited experience – are too often fig leaves for prejudice and ignorance. Take, for example, taxi-drivers who – logically – should be the best-informed people on the planet given they spend day after working day tuned into the radio and reading newspapers but who instead offer you unsolicited, swivel-eyed prattle on just about any subject you care – not – to mention. As da Vinci put it – ‘the greatest deception men suffer from is their own opinions’ and, I assume, we can include women in that too, ‘real’ or otherwise.

So – to complete the circle – what I’d like is a bit less ‘bitch’ and ‘bile’ and a bit more enlightenment and understanding. Specifically, I’d like the BBC to stop wringing its hands and ask Jenni Murray to invite Rachel Cohen – Executive Director of Campaigns and Strategy at ‘Stonewall’ – to drop by the ‘Woman’s Hour’ studio for tea and chocolate digestives to discuss – on air, at length and very politely – the ingredients of ‘a real woman’. And while they’re doing it, I’d like ‘Twitter’, the ‘Daily Mail’ and everyone else to shut up and listen.

I’d like, for example, Jenni to ask Rachel whether, if she decided to become a Red Setter, live in a kennel, water lamp-posts and bite the postman, she’d consider herself a ‘real dog’ and I’d like Rachel to ask Jenni why you need to have endured pre-menstrual tension and forty years active service on the frontline of feminism before you can consider yourself a ‘real woman’.

In short I’d like some educated debate and some civility from all concerned because humankind either listens and learns or it drowns in a pit of prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. And that goes for an awful lot more than the debate on what does – or what doesn’t – make a real woman.

07 MARCH 2017


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