On feminist causes, alliances, and free speech. Letter one
Can feminist causes be furthered by working with right wing or religious people and groups? And should we support and defend blanket free speech?
This is part 1 in a 6-part correspondence series between writer Meghan Murphy and me, Julie Bindel. I will be writing parts 1, 3, and 5 here at Misogyny: what is it and why won't it die? Meghan will be writing parts 2, 4, and 6 on her Substack, The Same Drugs.
Meghan Murphy with security at one of her events
Julie Bindel at York University
You and I have been friends and sisters-in-struggle for years. We met in Vancouver, capital of what we now call Tranada, in 2015, when I was researching my book on the global sex trade. I had read Feminist Current, the brilliant blog you had founded, and been interviewed by you about Nevada’s grotesque legal brothels, back in 2012.
We spoke about the terrible bullying and misogynistic targeting you had endured from the blue-fringed idiots as a result of your principled decision to speak out against prostitution and the ‘sex work is work’ bullshit. They came after you because you refused to capitulate to transgender ideology. You had my gratitude and respect back then, as you do now.
We agree on a number of issues – such as the importance of naming male violence as a huge threat to the human rights of women and girls, and the necessity of resisting attempts to silence women like us who are speaking out about rape, sexual exploitation, and femicide.
We agree that trans ideology and activism are a major threat to the legal rights, safety and wellbeing of females. Both of us, along with a growing number of women (and men) seek to repeal laws and policy that elevate so-called ‘gender identity’ above biological sex, and to dismantle the ‘rights’ attained by trans activists that allow men who identify as women to access single sex spaces.
Where we disagree, I believe, is about how we overcome these monumental hurdles in order to bring about true liberation for women and girls.
I’m writing this on a train back to London after investigating the horrific murders of Raneem Oudeh and her mother, Khaloa Saleem. The victims were Syrians, living in the UK having escaped the horrors of war. The perpetrator, Janbaz Tarin, is from Afghanistan. If I, as a founder of the feminist law reform group Justice for Women were to approach right-wing campaigners concerned with upholding justice and honour, I would likely be told that Afghani men are ‘known to be violent’, and that he should never have been allowed to enter the UK.
And if I were to approach religious conservatives, they would look to the behaviour of Raneem, asking what ‘caused’ Tarin to flip and kill both her and her mother. Why did she not make the marriage work? Did she dishonour her husband? Was she, perhaps, having an affair?
Tommy Robinson, much praised by some so-called ‘gender critical’ women, would put the murders down to Tarin’s ethnicity.
Feminists put male violence down to patriarchy, not what is often referred to by white cultural relativists or racists as ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’.
In this right wing world, men are naturally superior to women, and feminism is an anathema. These people do, however, dislike trans people, along with lesbians and gay men, because we upset the patriarchal order and the traditional family unit. It is a case of ‘your enemy’s enemy…’. They are not on our side.
Although right-wing religious men hate feminism, they can get behind certain ‘women’s rights’. They support the right of women to be homemakers, mothers, and the protectors and moral guardians of their children.
Right-wing religious men often claim to loathe pornography and prostitution, even though many use porn and abuse women in the sex trade.
Left-wing secularist men tend to approve of a feminism that allows them to support the sex trade, masturbate to sadistic rape fantasies, and celebrate ‘choice’ and ‘agency’.
I have written reams and talked endlessly about misogyny on the left. I have also directly challenged individual men, at great personal cost. I have shouted from the rooftops about the left- wing appeasement of Islamic woman-hatred and have ended up on Islamophobia Watch for my efforts. I was the very first journalist to publish an investigation into the so-called grooming gangs in the UK, back in 2007 – yet I constantly hear (from women opposed to the left) that right-wing racist men, such as Tommy Robinson, first blew the whistle. This is a repellent misrepresentation of the truth: men like Robinson began talking about this issue many years later – and then only to provoke racism and rioting.
I want to ask those women who ally with the Right: “Do you ever challenge them?”
I became a feminist aged 17, in 1979. The idea that it is only in the past few years that women have been under attack, since gender ideology became mainstream, is madness. As the bodies of women and girls pile high in the morgues, some dead as a result of illegal abortion, others through prostitution, many killed by men for fun, we have fought right-wing and religious men who tell us all we need do to stay safe is behave ourselves – not answer back, not drink, not enjoy sex. I have been campaigning to end male violence for more than four decades, whereas most of the women hurling insults at those of us on the left for trying to counter this movement in a strategic manner, tend to focus only on trans ideology. They don’t seem to understand that the free speech warriors (most of them upper-class white men) only noticed that feminists were being silenced and bullied when we spoke out about gender ideology.
Where were they when I was being de-platformed, threatened, attacked and vilified before the gender war became fashionable? When I and other feminist activists were being cancelled from elite universities and elsewhere for speaking out against rape, child sexual abuse, and femicide, why did none of them come to our defence? The sex industry and the normalisation of rape, torture and degradation through the medium of pornography is a huge threat to women’s safety and dignity, and yet the fight against misogynistic trans activism has now been reframed as being about ‘free speech’.
When the pornographer Larry Flynt died in 2021, most headlines described him as a ‘free speech hero’. The man who masterminded the infamous Hustler cover depicting a naked woman’s head being pushed headfirst through a meat grinder was credited with protecting freedom of expression. And let’s not forget – that image of a woman being grotesquely mangled was just one of many: pictures of women being raped and tortured, subjected to bestiality, nailed to a cross, led by a leash – all of these have featured in Hustler.
In the US today, just as in the Hustler days, the most passionate First Amendment debates on pornography concern sexual violence against women. US universities often use examples of pornography in classes about the First Amendment, and whenever I’ve attended debates about whether or not porn is harmful and degrading to women, the counter-arguments are always about how, by protesting such imagery, feminists are curbing free speech. There was even a group, Feminists against Censorship (FAC) set up to protest feminist critiques of porn – despite the facts that a) the women in FAC were not feminists, and b) we feminists were not pro-censorship.
Free speech absolutists will not help women fight misogyny; they step up only when it suits them. If we rely on these men, who are often right-wing libertarians, to defend us, we will end up being consumed within their ideology – a set of beliefs that clash with those of feminism.
We cannot give up on the true principles and politics of the women’s liberation movement, because if we do, those women with least agency, who are most at risk, will face the brunt of the consequences. Right-wing religious men do not support feminism. We must reclaim the left, and refuse to be kicked out of our own movement.
As Andrea Dworkin wrote:
“The Right in the United States today is a social and political movement controlled almost totally by men but built largely on the fear and ignorance of women.”
In sisterhood and solidarity,
Thank you so much to you and Meghan both for creating this. What a necessary gift in this moment. I am an American feminist, have read your books and been very persuaded by your arguments. I also have been very persuaded by Meghan's arguments and others on the side of working with "the right." Your first piece tugs at me considerably. I really look forward to all your thoughts in this exchange. But like many American and Canadian feminists, I still veer more to Meghan's point of view. I am planning on attending one of the Speaker’s Corner events with Kellie-Jay in a few weeks.
I was on a panel that opposed a bill last spring in my state of Washington that destroys the public's ability to know if males are in the women's prison. The panel was organized by the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF), who as you know partner with conservatives. It was my first time putting my face and name in the public record in opposition to the grotesque anti-woman policies of self-ID laws and policies. As a life-long Democrat who had worked for Democrats in my state legislature and knew the Senators I was addressing on a first name basis, it was terrifying. I almost did not do it because of the possible repercussions to my entire life. Still reeling from the mass exodus of my former friends and band mates, others in the arts and in politics-- my entire network really. But I did it and am glad I did it--and I was one of only three (besides WoLF staff) who were from the left. One of the evangelical Christian women who testified has become a very good friend.
Without WoLF opening its doors to all women, there would have been only a few of us of us standing up against this madness. Yes, we lost in my very blue state, but that was to be expected. The record counts, as you know. WoLF was the only place I could find to join that was organizing on behalf of incarcerated women in the US. They are the only ones who had a lawsuit. They were the only place the conservative women could make their voices heard, too. They are the reason I learned about one of the plaintiffs, Tomiekia, who inspired a song I recorded. Their website informed me of the abuses happening and helped me understand the law in California that has opened the door to such horrific abuses.
Tomiekia has now become a friend who writes me about further abuses. She herself is not a feminist and is a Christian. She’s a Black woman a generation younger than me, I’m a white woman who has never been near a prison but who wants to understand her life on her terms. She killed her husband after years of physical abuse, that’s why she’s in prison. We write to each other and try to find common ground.
Another flaccid opponent of the bill in WA was the organization representing the press. You’d think they would have fought the lack of public disclosure access tooth and nail, but they did not. They came up with a meaningless “compromise” that only compromised women and allowed the self-ID policy to stand. Bottom line, because of this bill we cannot find out how many men are in the women’s prison. The bill was crafted precisely to keep this information from the public. If those men “identify” as women, they are counted as women. And the local press ALSO did not report on it! I spent hours talking to the lobbyist for the press, who I knew well in the Days Before, but even though he said he “got it,” he wouldn’t really fight it.
The only report was by a very conservative national US paper, the Washington Times. A paper I had never heard of because most of my life I have trusted the New York Times and the Washington Post and National Public Radio. As you know Julie, having been reported on many times, the press almost never gets things right when you actually know the inside story. But Valerie Richardson did real journalism. It was not a right-wing flame-up-the base piece, it was completely accurate. That is the only significant press this horrible bill got, putting the women in our state into even greater danger. I was grateful. I thanked her sincerely, and I am still in touch with her about what I know of what is going on in Washington prisons.
So it’s a complex terrain across the pond. My new friend that I met who testified against this bill with me calls herself a Christian feminist. She is in the trenches supporting the women in our prisons too, doing the work of trying to get their stories out there. When we had the “abortion conversation,” it turned out we are not even very far off on that from each other. She used to be a committed pro-lifer, but has mitigated her stance to include exceptions for rape and incest. She is even open to first term abortions at this point. Over the decades, it can be (and has been) argued that the unwillingness of feminists and others on the left to compromise an inch about abortion to instate policies most Americans support has put us in this terrible place where the right to have an abortion in any circumstance is being destroyed in state after state—and may be destroyed entirely if the Republicans control Congress and the White House, as is a real possibility.
I know there is the strategic argument for working with conservatives, that’s obvious. But I have found that my horizons have expanded by knowing and working with conservatives who are good people. And I think their horizons have expanded by knowing me, by considering feminist perspectives, by being reminded that feminists have done so much for all women. My in-laws are Mormons, and my sisters-in law are very conventional in most ways—but they would never go back to the 1950s. They like their daughters having options. It’s a bitter irony that it is feminists like you and so many others who have made that possible and succeeded in making the culture better for women. You will never get the credit you deserve. But maybe you’ll get more credit than otherwise as people coming from different places talk to one another, work on common goals, and try to see the world from different viewpoints.
The strongest part of your argument for me is that if we don’t see that patriarchy as the root of the issue, we are not really solving the problem of women’s oppression, we are not really moving towards women’s liberation. Julie, I was honored that you quote-tweeted an article I wrote on Colin Wright’s Substack about the prison issue a few weeks back. Colin, who is a good editor, toned down some of the original feminist perspective in my piece. The final was more of a “progressive to progressive” argument and a bit less of a feminist argument. I allowed the edits and decided that was a good choice, as it might reach more people. The result? JK Rowling quote tweeted my article within minutes of it being posted, which is why you saw it. Alison Bailey, Maya Forstater and John Cleese all quote tweeted it too. What went out to tens of thousands of people was a compromise.
Here is just one para that was omitted:
Why does this fight for women’s safety, dignity, and empowerment create such backlash, such bewilderingly blinkered thinking, even from progressives who used to proudly fight for women’s rights? I believe the answer comes back to the remarkable persistence of patriarchy over many centuries. Women (with our male friends at our sides) beat it back again and again, age after age. But patriarchy has a way of reconstituting itself, arising like a zombie from the dead to plague us in new ways. Patriarchy is like a poisonous smoke which finds its way into the cracks of any culture, destroying empathy and reason. Our entire culture is threatened by the seismic crack of gender ideology, which at its heart denies the reality of biological sex. Patriarchy seeps through and is bad for everyone. But as throughout the ages, those most harmed are women and children.
I also submitted the article or a pitch to every feminist site I knew of before submitting to Colin. In the end, I felt like it was “feminist enough,” and I knew Colin had a pretty big reach well beyond my little Substack. Given the urgency of this issue, I think the compromise in the tone and message was justified. Women are being hurt every single day and I want people to care about it, from whatever vantage point they can. And Colin is not a “right-wing” guy, he’s an evolutionary biologist who has been center-left most of his life. My point is that we always make some compromises to work with others. The issue is where we draw the lines. And it is not an easy decision, ever.
I really appreciate you making this post and further letters to Meghan available to all of us. It’s such an important conversation.
As you have pointed out, men on both sides of the political spectrum are not really supportive of women's rights. So really, we need a plan that addresses issues on both sides. I've not come across any GC feminists saying anything about Tommy Robinson let alone praise him but I will take your word for it. It is not only men who disappoint. In my view this fight can only be won by getting sufficient numbers on board to help educate the vast majority of uninformed people about the true nature of transgenderism and the full impact and insanity of their demands. We need it to snowball. On that basis I would not start getting too choosy as to who I will and won't work with. As for Free Speech, absolutely we need to define boundaries beyond which it is not free. But these boundaries have to be democratically decided not surreptitiously brought in through the back door, as Stonewall has been doing so successfully. They would make it illegal to call a man a man if he claimed he was trans. And that makes my blood boil. The truth has to fall within the boundaries of free speech.