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The debate over Jenni Murray suggests we don't see older women as “real women”

What happens to a female person who rejects femininity without also being prepared to embrace masculinity? In modern gender politics, they're not really anything.

Was Ulrike von Kleist a real woman? Certainly not according to her half-brother, the writer Heinrich von Kleist. In a letter dating from 1801, he complains that although he adores Ulrike, nature must have made a mistake in creating a creature that is “neither man nor woman, and shifts, like an amphibian, between two species.”

Of course, Ulrike may not have viewed herself in such presciently non-binary terms. What we do know is that she was fiercely independent, ignoring her sibling’s advice that it was her destiny to be a wife and mother, and that she often took to wearing men’s clothing while travelling. Is this enough to make a person “neither man nor woman”? It’s always been my view that Kleist’s letter tells us far more about his sexism (and that of his background) than Ulrike’s gender. But then again, maybe I’m wrong. Over 200 years after his death, it seems our most progressive voices would now be taking his side.

Take, for instance, the responses to Jenni Murray’s recent Sunday Times piece on trans politics and womanhood, some of which have questioned whether Murray herself has the right to call herself a “real woman”. One could argue that Murray has only herself to blame for having sought to set any boundaries at all. She is, after all, both old(ish) and female. It’s not really her place.

It can feel like the only acceptable role for someone like Murray in any gender identity debate is that of a kindly but ignorant old granny. She’s free to dry everyone’s tears, tell them how special they are, offer grateful applause every time someone uses big words to explain womanhood to her on account of the fact that “we didn’t learn any of that in my day”. But to have opinions of her own? That wouldn’t really do, not for someone who, as far as both left and right are concerned, has already entered No Woman’s Land.

According to Pink News’s Josh Jackman, fretful over a supposed “epidemic” of feminists having opinions about womanhood (at least since Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie dared to get in on the act), a woman is “anyone who self-defines as a woman”. Like Heinrich von Kleist, Jackman doesn’t associate womanhood with any social or embodied experience, but instead with a declared identification with femininity. The trouble is, this isn’t making womanhood a more flexible category. After all, what happens to the female who rejects femininity without also being prepared to embrace masculinity? Well, she’s not really anything. Like Ulrike von Kleist, like Jenni Murray, like any feminist – myself included – she’s a nothing, “weder Mann noch Weib.”

This is particularly true for the older woman. If the conservative right sees woman as a reproductive and/or sexual object while the left sees her as an identity, what does that make the adult human female who is no longer reproductively exploitable but who also refuses to identify with the cultural trappings and social expectations of womanhood? It makes her an aberration. The predictable slew of “Is Jenni Murray a ‘real woman’?” tweets and think pieces  which followed Murray’s Sunday Times article were from people who would doubtless have claimed to have been using the term “real woman” ironically. Yet one cannot “ironically” use sexism to win an argument if the argument also requires that one’s sexism be taken at face value.

“Jenni Murray is 66 and (I'm guessing) no longer menstruating,” declared one tweeter. “Does that mean, by her own definition, that she's not a real woman any more?” Well, no, since you ask, as Murray defined womanhood neither as reproductive capacity nor as femininity. (She did so in terms of class experience. For those who do not believe female people have inner lives – who cannot see them as anything other than vessels or templates – this may have been difficult to grasp). Yet the fact remains that Murray is a post-menopausal woman and our cultural assumptions about such women – that they are superfluous, conservative, ignorant – remain embedded in that tweet.

In the Mirror, ex-Apprentice contestant Saira Khan, when not condemning Murray for being “out of touch” for her views on gender, expressed dismay at the broadcaster’s lack of “empathy” and “warmth” on the one occasion when they met (one doubts Khan ever expected the same from, say, Alan Sugar).

Regardless of her views, it seems Murray really isn’t very feminine, at least if one takes that to mean kind, accommodating, motherly, self-sacrificing – all the things little girls are trained to be from the moment they’re born. It’s at this point that one can’t help wondering whether Murray’s biggest sin isn’t that she reinforced the boundaries of womanhood. It’s that – by ageing, by outliving her reproductive exploitability, by refusing to put other people’s feelings first, by asserting the validity of her own experiences – she has overstepped them.

It does not surprise me at all that older feminists tends to be more gender critical, nor that younger feminists tend to dismiss them as ill-educated or out of touch (with many notable exceptions). We’d all like to transcend the body. We’d all like to find a way of playing the femininity game in a way that lets us win. It takes a long time to discover that neither of these things is possible. You will get old. You will displease people. You will not be able to make room for others indefinitely. You will learn that when people told you the only alternative to womanhood as reproduction was womanhood as femininity, they were lying. There is womanhood as the vast, diverse experiences of female human beings the world over, experiences which do not offset or qualify some mythical masculinity, but which simply matter in and of themselves.

If only we could accept this, there would be no battles over boundaries or inclusion. If we recognise the humanity and diversity of female individuals, then humanity becomes the common ground we all share. But this would require the buy-in of men who’d rather see women as amphibians than as human beings. Jenni Murray may be 66, but the mentality of those judging her is stuck in 1801. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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