A tale of two female Tory candidates – only one of whom can tell you what a woman is, writes author LOUISE PERRY
To loud cheers from a Westminster audience on Monday, Tory leadership hopeful Kemi Badenoch announced resolutely: ‘I know what a woman is.’
This followed a rhetorical question on Twitter over the weekend from another leadership hopeful, Penny Mordaunt. ‘DO I KNOW WHAT A WOMAN IS?’ she asked, with the immediate reply: ‘Yes I do. I am a woman.’
Feminist author Louise Perry discusses how politicians have responded to the question: What is a woman?’
Imagine the bemusement of a time traveller arriving in the UK in 2022. In any era but our own, the question ‘what is a woman?’ would be met with slack-jawed confusion. Isn’t it obvious?
Yet here we have the people battling to become our next Prime Minister grappling over this most basic of questions.
Last night, a poll of Tory members showed that Mordaunt and Badenoch are the current favourites, way out ahead of other candidates with 20 per cent and 19 per cent of the vote share, respectively.
Both are glamorous women in their 40s who are offering a fresh start for the Conservative Party, as well as for the country. And both of these women are also at loggerheads on the ‘what is a woman?’ question.
Badenoch has made a name for herself as the ‘anti-woke’ candidate of choice, and has stated clearly that she has no patience for extremist transgender activism.
Whereas Mordaunt finds herself on the back foot, so much so that the apparently trivial issues of gender neutral toilets and preferred personal pronouns may yet derail the leadership hopes of a minister used to talking about more serious issues of defence and international aid.
But Mordaunt has made a grave error in thinking that this issue doesn’t matter. Transgender people may form only a tiny proportion of the population, but political questions concerning them — particularly on single-sex spaces — have become explosive, and for good reason.
Failing to answer a question as fundamental as ‘what is a woman?’ makes a politician look dishonest and deranged. ‘If she can’t even answer that,’ many voters think, ‘how will she cope with the really tough questions?’
The trouble is that a lot of politicians are far too concerned with the opinions of a tiny number of woke activists. Who can forget the image of Labour leader Keir Starmer squirming on the BBC sofa, asked by Andrew Marr if he agreed with the statement ‘only women have a cervix’?
‘It is something that shouldn’t be said,’ stuttered a mortified Starmer, in reply. ‘It’s not right.’
All politicians have now come to expect ‘the woman question’, but Badenoch is one of only a few willing to give a straightforward answer to it.
Speaking at a free-speech event in Westminster this week, she expressed her frustration at the way transgender ideology is sweeping through our institutions — and preventing people from saying what they believe.
‘As a minister, I met clinicians unable to express honest professional opinions about patients; schools and NHS trusts who felt pressured to end the use of the words woman and girl,’ she said. ‘On the abolition of gender-neutral toilets, you wouldn’t believe how tough it was to get that through. I had civil servants writing on the notes I’d put out saying you can’t say that, you need to check whether that’s something you’re allowed to say.’
Sensible: Kemi Badenoch
Mordaunt, in contrast, has prevaricated on this issue again and again. She has described herself as ‘someone who has been quite vocal on trans rights’. And she has walked the walk, too — attempting, for instance, to insert the term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘pregnant women’ into legislation on maternity rights.
‘Trans men are men and trans women are women,’ said Mordaunt from the Despatch Box during the maternity rights debate only a year ago.
Does she now regret those words? Because this week she claimed that she was actually the person responsible for removing the bizarre phrase ‘pregnant people’ from that Bill, even though those amendments were made in the Lords. Her slippery account suggests she’s a candidate who knows she has misstepped.
Sometimes she is (to use her phrase) ‘vocal on trans rights’, but at other times she does her best to dodge the ‘what is a woman’ question. In 2019, Mordaunt buckled under characteristically no-nonsense interrogation on the parenting platform Mumsnet.
Given her role as Minister for Women and Equalities, Mumsnetters asked her several variations of the crucial question and she refused to answer any of them directly.
What explains this inconsistency?
It may be that Mordaunt is influenced by her twin brother James, who has publicly praised her many times, but who has also claimed that LGBT rights have ‘gone backwards’ under the Tories, tweeting that ‘if you are a member of the Conservative Party, a Conservative MP, part of this homophobic transphobic Government, you are complicit.’
Such sharp comments suggest some serious tensions in the family — way beyond a bit of sibling teasing. Mordaunt is in a tricky spot — she may want to please her brother, but she must know by now that the public are not on board with the most strident forms of transgender activism.
British people are generally a tolerant bunch, and more than willing to be respectful towards people struggling with unhappiness about their gender.
But polling finds that most voters think that trans people who identify as women should be allowed to use women’s bathrooms only after they’ve had surgery, and they’re not at all happy about athletes who were born male competing in women’s sports. The answer to the ‘what is a woman?’ question is easy for almost everyone outside the Westminster bubble: a woman is an adult human female.
Nor are most Britons supportive of what Badenoch calls the ‘zero-sum identity politics we see today’. As a black British woman who spent part of her childhood in Nigeria, she has experienced first hand the culture of low expectations that can hold back people from ethnic minorities.
Leadership hopeful Penny Mordaunt has made a grave error in thinking that this issue doesn’t matter. Transgender people may form only a tiny proportion of the population, but political questions concerning them — particularly on single-sex spaces — have become explosive, and for good reason
As women and equalities minister, Badenoch was crystal clear on the fact that ‘political race theory’ — or what is often nowadays described as ‘wokeness’ — should have no place in the classroom.
‘The more ethnicity is emphasised,’ she has said, ‘the weaker national identity becomes’.
Compare this sensible approach to Mordaunt’s comments in her book Greater: Britain After the Storm, published last year, which contains some surprisingly scathing comments about vintage British film and TV including Lawrence Of Arabia, and It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, the last of which is described as ‘a full-house bingo card of… casual racism, homophobia, white privilege, colonialism, transphobia, bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment’.
Mordaunt’s supporters have tried to claim that she is ‘no woke warrior’, but her record suggests otherwise. Her newly released campaign video includes this peculiarly defensive line: ‘Choose your leader, not because you agree with everything they say, but because you trust their motives’.
I think we can all guess what kind of disagreement she’s expecting. Mordaunt has realised, too late, that the ‘what is a woman?’ issue could spell her undoing. Her rival, Kemi Badenoch, is the candidate with the best answer — on this question, and on many others.
LOUISE PERRY is author of The Case Against The Sexual Revolution.
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