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Can we celebrate all who identify as women on International Women’s Day?

Between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the world's population are trans, genderqueer or intersex. Is International Women's Day for us too?

On International Women’s Day we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But can we celebrate all who identify as women on 8 March?

Between 0.1 and 5 per cent of the world's population are trans, genderqueer or intersex. Is International Women's Day for us too?

I say “us” because, despite the fact that I was born female, I don’t always find it easy to identify as a woman. With my short, grey hair and female partner, I am often identified as “sir” and feel an affinity with persons for whom the categories of biological sex and gender don’t easily align.

AH Devor, the world’s first endowed chair in trans studies, finds that the way we make sense of human beings when we encounter them in the world is very different from the way we have been taught to think about sex and gender.

As Devor notes, we have been taught to think about sex and gender in the following ways:

1) Sex is an intrinsic biological characteristic. There are two, and only two, sexes: male and female.

2) All persons are either one sex or the other. No person can be neither. Normally, no person can be both. No person can change sex without major medical intervention.

3) Genders are the social manifestation of sex. There are two, and only two, genders: men and women, (boys and girls). All males are either boys or men. All females are either girls or women.

But what actually happens when we encounter new human beings in the world?

Very few of us meet each other naked or study each other’s DNA. Upon meeting other humans for the first time, we can, therefore, say very little about their biological sexes.

Devor finds that we make assumptions about a person’s gender based on whether they present as masculine or feminine.

If they present as feminine, we see them as women. If they present as masculine, we see them as men. We assume therefore that they are biologically male or female.

Earlier this year, I saw a photograph at the London opening of Annie Leibovitz’s Women: New Portraits exhibition which helped me to understand how this works.

An extension of her project begun in 1999 with her late partner, Susan Sontag, Liebovitz’s new exhibition includes startling photographic portraits of Lena Dunham, Jane Goodall, Sheryl Sandberg, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem, Amy Winehouse, and dozens of other women.

I want to focus on the portrait of performance artist Jennifer Miller:

Jennifer Miller, by Annie Leibovitz. Photo: Women: New Portraits exhibition

Is Jennifer Miller a woman?

If, as Devor argues, in order to be seen to be a woman, one must be seen to be feminine, Miller is not a woman.  She has a beard. Were Miller clothed, we might be tempted to assume that she is a man.

By photographing Miller in the nude, Leibovitz asks us to question how we make sense of the world in terms of sex and gender.

We can see that Miller does not appear to have a penis. We can see that she has breasts. We can see that this person is probably biologically female (see this fascinating blog on the six most common biological sexes).

But Miller does not follow femininity’s rules. She has not waxed her facial hair.

What we learn from the photograph of Jennifer Miller is not that she is a woman. What we learn is that human beings are infinitely complex creatures.

We also learn that, as a society, we have been willing to place limitations on human potential by requiring that persons be seen as either women or men, masculine or feminine. Not both. Not sometimes one, sometimes the other. Not something else entirely.

The reality of Jennifer Miller’s existence in the world as a woman with masculine characteristics will make many viewers uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable. I could feel the synapses in my brain firing in unexpected ways.

Thinking about the matter of the beard got me thinking about what else those of us who want to be seen as women and yet have masculine characteristics must eliminate from our presentations of self. This thought reminded me of other photographs in the exhibition.

Many of Liebovitz’s women are leaders in their fields. She took photograph after photograph of artists and activists, scientists and politicians, feminists and business leaders.

At the Rhodes Project we curate a profile series that also celebrates many versions of what women can be, by featuring a similarly high-achieving demographic. Rhodes women are leaders in academia, business, law, science and government.

Thinking about the outstanding accomplishments of Leibovitz’s women and the Rhodes women in the masculine sphere of public space, I wondered again why the gender gap in leadership persists. This led me to grasping something new about women and masculinity.

We know that in most cultures masculinity and leadership are closely linked, as stated in this Harvard Business Review article entitled “Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers”:

“The ideal leader, like the ideal man, is decisive, assertive, and independent. In contrast, women are expected to be nice, caretaking, and unselfish. The mismatch between conventionally feminine qualities and the qualities thought necessary for leadership puts female leaders in a double bind.”

What trans, genderqueer and intersex people remind us is that becoming a woman or man in our society requires not only that bodies conform to particular biological sexes, but – even more fundamentally – that the rules of femininity and masculinity be rigorously followed.

Like Jennifer Miller, trans people who identify as women are diverse in terms of biological sex characteristics, yes, but they are also diverse in terms of their ability to adhere to the rules of femininity. The cost of not being able to adhere to the rules is, in the case of trans women, exceptionally high.

Devor’s research demonstrates that, for our understanding of gender and sex, we ignore the “profound importance of biodiversity” at our peril.

But, as one of my favourite feminist poets, Nicole Brossard, wrote: “If patriarchy can take what exists and make it not, surely we can take what exists and make it be.”

“What exists” in all who identify as women are diverse and exceptional bodies, abilities and capacities. Taking this lesson seriously is what we can do for ourselves when we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March.

Susan Rudy is executive director of the Rhodes Project, a London-based charity and research centre that collects data about women who have held Rhodes Scholarships. She is also a Visiting Scholar at Said Business School, University of Oxford.

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.