Women have always been called names for saying no. Frigid, bitch, prude. These words are meant to shame us into saying yes.
Women are supposed to be available, welcoming, obedient, and it has been the aim of the women’s movement since its inception to challenge these preconceptions, to say no to men’s definition of us.
It is thanks to feminism that since 1991 wives can say no to their husbands and have that ‘no’ backed up by law. It is thanks to feminism that women no longer have to accept dismissal if they marry or become pregnant. It is thanks to feminism that women in the West are beginning to feel confident in saying no to men in myriad different situations.
Prude, bitch, frigid don’t sting like they used to. Misogynists in the west are losing society’s assumption that women should say yes. Increasingly, it is they who are shamed for insisting. As feminists we applaud this.
However, when it comes to transgender males, men who wish to call themselves women – or more to the point want us to call them women – the story is very different. If we say no to the appropriation of our name, our bodies, our struggle, it is we women who are shamed. We’re being re-named: TERF, cis, transphobe. We’re being re-named by men who wish to try on the costume ‘woman’; they think it doesn’t fit us any more, us no-sayers are not the pliable girls of their dreams, and we must share.
When transwomen are women and women are ciswomen, we are asked to give up our very selves, deny that we are disadvantaged because of our bodies, our potential to bear children. That ultimate female power that men from the beginning of time have sought to control. When women are ciswomen we are compliant in our inequality, we are asking for it. We cannot say no. We must sit down and listen to the men tell us what we are, what we must say yes to.
We must say yes to men. Yes to men in our safe spaces, where we are naked or vulnerable. Lesbians say yes to men in your beds. Say yes to men at your smear test and yes to men in your prisons. Say yes to your new names: uterus-owner, menstruator, person with a vagina. We say no, and we are shamed for it.
We are being lied to. ‘Woman, daughter’ says the headline next to a picture of a man. A man who murdered his father and ‘soiled’ his female boss’s underwear. For now, history will call him ‘woman’ because men say so.
In January, the women and equalities minister Maria Miller released a report into transgender equality. She wants the law changed so that a woman is whoever says the words ‘I am a woman’. Quite apart from this Orwellian tautology of a definition, this would leave women’s safe spaces open to anyone who wishes to enter them. It would leave women unable to protect the boundaries that are drawn in public for our dignity and privacy. If anyone were to object to, say, a man in the women’s changing rooms, it is the objector who would be asked to leave.
Many women and women’s organisations said ‘no’ to this, in written evidence. They were all ignored. These magic words, when spoken by a man (please note it doesn’t work the other way round) have the power to disarm us, to turn our sisters against us. Our ‘no’ becomes unkind, abusive, violent.
Learning to say no is part of shrugging off female socialisation. ‘No’ is feminism in its elemental state. Yet when women say no to these men, liberal feminists call us gross, call us TERF. Compare our legitimate objections and questions to racism and ableism and call us ‘white feminists’.
When women say no on the websites of the left wing press, or of once woman-centered feminist publications, we are deleted. Our non-compliance might be catching, other women must not see it. Women uncomfortable with this attack on our rights must believe they are a lone bigot, they must ‘check their privilege’, they must be kept afraid to say ‘no’.
You are not alone, no-sayers. If you know that woman is not a feeling but a biological, tangible reality that we share with one another and not with men, you are thinking forbidden thoughts. We are legion, no-sayers, and we are right. For this reason our silence is insisted upon. The truth gets in the way.
Be proud, no-sayers. Speak to your friends, your mothers and sisters. Tell them what is being done to us, what we are in danger of losing. Say no in public, say it in writing to your MP, say it to those complicit in our silence. You will change minds.
Say no over and over and never be ashamed to draw your own boundaries: if we say it together we will be deafening.