It’s always fun trying to imagine how our long-deceased grandparents or even parents might react to the modern age. Simply walking down a busy street would fill them with wonder. Why do so many people have those little deaf aids in their ears and why are they talking to themselves, sometimes in a very agitated way? But it’s not just the relentless march forward of digital technology that has rendered our society incomprehensible to those who lived in an earlier age. I try to imagine trying to explain to my parents if they were to be reincarnated why one of the issues in the contest to be our next prime minister is whether someone born with a penis can be a woman. The question “What is a woman?” may not be at the top of the debate but it is causing real difficulties for one of the leading contenders in the race to be our next prime minister. Is it something that preoccupies you? Should it?
The contender in question is, of course, Penny Mordaunt, the so-called bookies’ favourite. In the past she has described herself as “someone who has been quite vocal on trans rights” and has compared what she called the “culture war” against trans people to the prejudice suffered by gay men in the 1980s. Now she has been accused by her rivals in the leadership race, some of whom portray her as a 'woke warrior', of concealing her true beliefs on trans rights.
When she formally launched her campaign this week she raised eyebrows by making a reference to Margaret Thatcher's famous (or infamous) quote about her right hand man Willie Whitelaw. When she was asked for her views on gender, she said: 'I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said "Every prime minister needs a Willie". A woman like me doesn't have one.” Asked to define the word “woman'”, she pointed to biological differences between males and females.
And yet only a year ago, in a debate on maternity rights in the House of Commons, she had told MPs: “Trans men are men and trans women are women.” She also argued the case for inserting the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women” into legislation on maternity rights. She has since claimed that she was the minister responsible for removing the “pregnant people” phrase but her opponents point out that those amendments were actually made when it was passing through the House of Lords.
They also draw attention to her performance on the parenting platform Mumsnet back in 2019 when she was Minister for Women and Equalities and had to answer questions from some pretty irate mothers about her approach to the trans issue. Specifically the question: What is a woman? They say she refused to give a direct answer. Not that she’s alone in that. The leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, had an uncomfortable few minutes when he faced Andrew Marr on the BBC and Marr asked him whether he agreed with the statement “only women have a cervix”? In the end the best Starmer could come up with was: “It is something that shouldn't be said... It's not right.”
At the heart of the trans debate is self-identification. Should a man be regarded as a woman purely on the basis of stating that he is, rather than having to provide evidence that satisfies a doctor? That might, on one level, be relatively uncontroversial. Throughout history men and women have been born into what they regard as the wrong sex. They may have suffered from gender dysphoria – being unhappy with the gender assigned at their birth – or body dysmorphia, which means they may hate their physical appearance. Why the current debate has becomes so heated is that it raises profoundly important questions as to whether someone born male but who identifies as a woman should be allowed into “safe spaces” for biological women. They include not just changing rooms but hospital wards, prisons and public toilets. There’s also, of course, the question of whether trans women should be allowed to compete against biological women in sporting events.
One of Britain's leading fertility experts, Lord Winston, challenged the notion that anyone can change their sex. He told Piers Morgan on TalkTV that sex is "genetically determined”. It is, he said, possible to change gender – but only at a price: "We can change our gender by mutilating ourselves. We can remove bits of our body and change our shape and so on but you can't change your sex because that is embedded in your genes in every cell of your body."
He added: "But then the question is, should they be allowed to compete in sport because they still have some male characteristics that will give them an edge over other women?. That is where the problem really lies. And social behaviour in different situations - using toilets, using bathrooms - which understandably worry women."
Winston described a woman as a "female... defined by the genes she has". He added: "I'm defined genetically - every single cell has got those male genes. We cannot escape the fact that we are genetically determined in that way."
His views were attacked by India Willoughby, who is Britain's first transgender television news presenter. She wrote on Twitter: "'What a horrendous thing to say. [Trans] people have existed since time immemorial. Children as young as three know they're the opposite sex. Every culture. Natural occurring. Your [view] seems to be that anatomy rather than brain dictates who we are... Sure you're not bothered, but I've lost all respect for you after that. Unnecessarily cruel and (despite your eminence in fertility) not your field."
The issue of transgender people competing in sport is being addressed by some sporting bodies. Last week British Triathlon said it would use two categories for future competitions: one for athletes who were female at birth and one open category for men, transgender women and non-binary athletes.
One of Mordaunt’s rivals in the leadership race, Kemi Badenoch, has been defining herself as the 'anti-woke' candidate of choice, and has stated clearly that she has no patience for what she regards as extremist transgender views. The risk for Mordaunt is that she has been identified with those views.
What do you make of all this? Do you regard Penny Mordaunt as the “woke” standard-bearer in the leadership race and, if you do, would that make you more or less likely to support her? More generally, what do you make of the trans debate? Does it concern you that trans people should be able to self identify or do you believe there should be some form of medical verification? If you are a woman do you feel that your “safe spaces” are being jeopardised?
And can you answer the question: “ What is a woman?”
Do let us know.