No longer the good girl

Hadley Freeman on why she stopped being a good girl, i.e. a people-pleaser. The shift began in 2014.

I was reading the New Yorker one evening and came across an article with the headline “What is a Woman?”. It was, according to the standfirst, about “the dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism”, a subject about which I knew nothing. I read it, vaguely interested in the social shift that meant being “transgender” no longer refers to someone who has undergone a sex change operation, but is now “how someone sees themselves”, as the writer Michelle Goldberg put it. This meant, Goldberg continued, that women-only spaces were increasingly changing to women-and-transwomen spaces, even if those transwomen still had male bodies — and to query this risked accusations of bigotry.

I remember that article. I remember reading it, and agreeing with it, and not feeling free to say so. I remember specifically not talking about it, I remember deciding not to talk about it, especially after seeing a lot of “she’s a terf” reactions from friends. I remember wrestling with the fact that even a thoughtful, careful article like that, by a thoughtful intelligent feminist writer like Goldberg, drew a torrent of venomous othering. I remember feeling frustrated that the subject was off-limits. I think I knew or half-knew that this couldn’t go on forever – that I couldn’t keep biting it back forever. I didn’t know how fast and abrupt it would be though.

What really interested me was how quickly institutions were falling into line with this new ideology: venues cancelled talks if a radical feminist was on the bill; all-female bands pulled out of women-only festivals for fear of looking transphobic. How strange, I thought, that those with authority capitulate to the obviously misogynistic demands of a few extreme voices.


Hadley has a lot of friends who are angry about all this.

They talk about JK Rowling, vilified for saying that women — not people — menstruate and calling for single-sex spaces to be preserved. They talk about Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor, who had to leave her job at Sussex University due to ongoing harassment from gender activists. They talk about political parties which explicitly describe women’s sex-based rights as transphobic, including the Green Party and the SNP. They talk about politicians who say things so stupid about gender it’s impossible to believe that they truly believe what they are saying, from Dawn Butler’s claim that “a child is born without a sex”, to Layla Moran’s insistence that she doesn’t care about a person’s sex because she can see “their soul”, to Keir Starmer’s stammering insistence that it’s wrong to say “only women have a cervix”.

Much of the Left would like to ignore these women talking, Hadley continues, but we’re not going away.

People who claimed to care ever so deeply about women’s physical safety during the MeToo movement now sneered at any woman who expressed doubt about sharing private spaces with male-bodied people. The most obvious example here was JK Rowling, who wrote about how her experiences with domestic violence informed her views, an inconvenient truth her critics conveniently ignored. Women are raised to fear male strength, and with very good reason. And now we’re called bigots for doing so.

Called bigots and punished as severely as possible.

So I questioned myself. Of course I did. Would my children be ashamed of me in twenty, ten, five years time? “Am I the baddie here?” I asked myself. But I just couldn’t make it square up: how can feelings (gender identity) always take precedence over material reality (biological sex)? Trying to convince myself that I was wrong and the gender ideologues were right was like trying to convince myself that one plus one equals a unicorn. How can you shut your eyes to your own experience and say something that makes no sense? Apparently some people can, but I could not.

Again: same. I test it regularly – “does it seem any more credible now? Now? Now?” And it never does. It just goes right on seeming like childish magical thinking, unbecoming in adults.

It felt at times like men’s rights activism as a religion. Whenever I or a female colleague dared to voice our doubts about gender ideology, we were pilloried; whenever a male colleague did, he was given a free pass. It was, in the vast, vast main, women who were condemned as bigots, all because they didn’t believe the right things, because they were trying to defend their legal rights. Left-wing men — both in person and online — told me that unless I repeated the mantra “trans women are women”, I was a bigot.

“Terf” is a hate-word for women; there is no equivalent for men.

Many of the people demanding these institutional shifts were and are not transgender themselves. They are bullies who set themselves up as moral arbiters, using self-righteous hysteria and factually questionable claims to demand censorship, instilling fear that anyone caught engaging in wrongspeak or even wrongthink will be publicly shamed and professionally destroyed. Bullies who insist they need to reshape women’s rights entirely, and then accuse any woman who even wants to discuss this of being hateful, stupid and dangerous.

At last it’s permissible to bully women again. They can’t believe their luck.

I’m currently writing a book about anorexia. Multiple doctors have confirmed to me what I already suspected, which is that there are obvious parallels between what gender dysphoric teenage girls say today — about their hatred of their body, their fear of sexualisation, their assumptions about what being a woman means — and what I said while in hospital as a teenager.

This is a fact, and an important one about adolescent mental health, and yet when other people have tried to make similar points in print, they have come up against enormous barriers. Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, which looked at the disproportionate rise in numbers of teenage girls seeking gender transition, was ignored by progressive newspapers and magazines, even though it sold well. A US supermarket stopped stocking it after protests by activists. The deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU, which still claims to be a free speech organisation, said that suppressing Shrier’s book was “100% a hill I would die on”.

Chase Strangio, that is – the worst thing that ever happened to the ACLU.

I don’t feel like I’ve become radicalised, because I don’t think anything I didn’t already think six years ago. I do, however, feel much better about myself for not just thinking it but saying it. I have learned that there is something worse than people telling me I’m a bad person, and that is allowing bullies to reframe the world, to dictate what we can all think and to define my reality. They might have triumphed over some institutions, but they haven’t triumphed over me. It turns out life is much better when you’re no longer the good girl.

Yer darn tootin’.

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