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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 Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.