by Peggy Stewart
We are experiencing a rise in the boldness of misogyny on the left, legitimised by the infiltration of our movements by trans rights activism. Long-time left-wing women activists have experienced ostracism and deplatforming from progressive movements for speaking openly in defence of women’s rights to single-sex spaces, and in opposition to self-identification of sex.
US anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan has recently been deplatformed from an anti-imperialist peace event, and in Britain seasoned campaigner Helen Steel has been harassed and excluded from the movements she helped to build.
Cindy Sheehan became a prominent voice in the US anti-war movement after her son Casey was killed in 2004, fighting in Iraq with the US army. She became well known as “Peace Mom” for her peace camp outside George Bush’s Texas ranch in 2005. Sheehan was active within her church community as a youth minister, but the death of her son had a radicalising effect and she has become active in a wider range of anti-war, left-wing and socialist activism. She also stood for vice-president in the 2012 presidential election campaign on the ticket of the eco-socialist, feminist and pro-peace, Peace and Freedom Party, who also endorsed her candidacy for the 2014 California governor election.
Women’s Liberation Radio News interviewed Sheehan on her recent deplatforming from a peace event due to mildly-expressed criticism of gender activism. (Listen to the interview here). During the run-up to the recent Rage Against the War Machine march on the Pentagon, Sheehan was invited to speak at events in Illinois. She was due to give a talk titled “End the war machine, save the planet” at a peace event in Carbondale, Illinois. However,, she was deplatformed from the event after commenting on a friend’s Facebook page, where her friend was being accused of “being a TERF”. Sheehan’s comments were mild, writing in her friend’s defence that it was ridiculous to dismiss the women dissenting from trans activist dogma as “Russian trolls”.
After the online comments the event organisers asked Sheehan to “clarify” her views on gender and, dissatisfied with her stated position in defence of women’s rights to single-sex spaces, decided to disinvite her from the event. While she holds gender-critical views, until this point Sheehan had intentionally stayed away from the debate publicly as she did not want this topic to distract attention from the rest of her activism work. Since the deplatforming event, however, she has committed to becoming more vocal in defence of women’s rights and in opposition to gender activism within progressive movements.
In the UK, Helen Steel is a legendary environmental and anti-capitalist activist. With David Morris she was a defendant in the McLibel case brought against them by fast food giant McDonalds after they distributed leaflets critical of the company. Steel and other activist women have also campaigned publicly over an undercover policing scandal. Undercover police officers had infiltrated social and environmental justice campaigns in the 2000s, and had deceived activist women into relationships, by lying about their identities, backgrounds, jobs, and marital status. Some of the police officers even fathered children with women activists they were in deceptive relationships with. The scandal became known as “Spycops”, and Steel and other women victims of undercover police deception sought legal redress, arguing that the use of power and deception meant that they had not entered the relationships consensually.
Steel’s impressive history as a prominent activist seems to have counted for little, when in 2017 she was hounded from an Anarchist Bookfair by a baying mob of transactivists. Steel had stepped in to defend other women who were distributing leaflets opposing the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Trans activists have also tried to have Steel deplatformed from speaking at campaign events on the undercover police spy abuses. Earlier this year while participating in a protest walk across moors organised by the Land Justice Movement, an organisation for which she was a founding member, Steel was forced out of the camp and protest walk by organisers because she had spoken publicly in opposition to the proposed reform of the GRA.
Sheehan and interviewer Thistle Pettersen observe that the centring of transactivism appears to
have a negative effect on the progressive movements it enters. Deplatforming mainly women, who have built these movements with hard work, often over decades, appears to divide movements which can only serve the powers that be. By centring itself, the trans rights movement appears to be undermining the movements it infiltrates, causing disruption and discord.
Sheehan and Pettersen ask the questions: “What is transactivism doing in leftist and progressive movements?” and “why do they have so much power over our movements?”
Jo Bartosch writes in The Morning Star that “the silencing of women is as ancient as it is misogynist”, while Steel notes that women comrades accused of “transphobia” receive much harsher ostracism than men who are accused of sexism within left-wing movements.
Enthusiasm for misogyny on the left has been reignited by the sexist politics of transgender ideology, apparently the one issue on which a diversity of opinions cannot be tolerated. The power and influence that the trans advocacy movement wields within progressive movements, and at government level belies the claims to be the most marginalised community in society. Sheehan observes that most of the left appears to have forgotten that the greatest oppression is actually faced by women.
It is notable that for both Sheehan and Steel, their first encounters with deplatforming and
harassment came after they merely defended the rights of other women to speak up on the issue. They have both gone on to raise their voices higher to speak publicly in opposition to gender ideology, and to challenge the destructive power of trans activism in left-wing and progressive movements. Attempts at silencing and deplatforming of women activists appear to have something of a Streisand effect, drawing even greater attention to the issues, and resulting in more awareness within the left of the importance of ensuring that women’s voices continue to be heard.
As Sheehan explains, “If I was going to be deplatformed for barely even using my voice on this issue, then I might as well use my voice on this issue”.
The final words go to Jo Bartosch, writing in The Morning Star: “We must stand together against the takeover of our movements by a misogynist minority, because if we allow the issue to divide us we will fall.”