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Feminist and environmentalist Jill Abigail at home in Ōtaki: “The Green Party Charter speaks of non-violent conflict resolution. All decisions are made by consensus. Censorship is completely out of line with that.” Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw

The Jill Abigail controversy: Sex-based rights and free speech

Jill Abigail was enjoying a quiet life in Ōtaki when her opinion piece in defence of women’s sex-based rights, published in the Green Party magazine Te Awa, caused a storm of controversy within – and beyond – the party. Branded transphobic by some, a feminist champion by others, the 80-year-old has also been thrust into the highly charged debate over free speech. She talks to Yvonne van Dongen.

Jill Abigail says she was late to everything that matters in her life today. Late to feminism (nearly 40 when she embraced the movement), to becoming a lesbian (nearly 50), an active environmentalist (at 60) and to Facebook (at 78). It was through Facebook that she encountered the gender debate 18 months ago, prompting her to embark on a belated education that led to her penning a letter to the Green Party outlining her concerns and catapulting her into the public spotlight.

Abigail says while the issue is new, she sees the current argument as part of an ongoing fight for women’s rights, a fight she jumped into, boots and all, once she discovered feminism in 1978. It was an unlikely departure for the English-born daughter of a working-class family in conservative Christchurch, who left school at 16 and was married by the time she was 20.

She would never have considered going to university if not for her boss at her first job at the Country Library Service, who insisted all staff continue their education. So began part-time study for an arts degree. After Abigail’s marriage ended, she went to England, where she worked as a photograph librarian for the BBC. Later, she took up a job in Finland and married a Finn. The couple returned to New Zealand, where Abigail spent five years working in broadcasting, including as a researcher for Checkpoint.

Back in London in 1978, she joined a women’s studies course on the history of the women’s movement. For the next two years, she read all the feminist theory she could lay her hands on. For Abigail, the most powerful of all the voices was Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will, a book that changed her life forever.

“I was very lucky – am still very lucky – that I have not experienced direct violence myself,” she says. “But reading about the widespread and varied manifestations of violence, from foot-binding to suttee to genital mutilation to rape as a weapon of war, I took all that on board as being suffered by the global sisterhood. I saw that no matter how far back I looked in history, or how widely I looked across different cultures, men’s oppression of women and its maintenance by force, or threat of force, was a knowledge I now had, and I could never ignore it or forget it. And, of course, every single day’s news brings us accounts of yet another murder, rape or beating of a woman right here in New Zealand.”

So began Abigail’s commitment to protesting about male violence against women, a commitment that has never wavered. The 80s would see her commuting between Finland and New Zealand, working for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs as its first director of information and liaison under Mary O’Regan, years she regards as a golden era. Next, she managed the YWCA of Wellington for six years, and later organised training for the judiciary on gender issues.

In her late 40s, Abigail fell in love with Joy Anderton, an ardent environmentalist. Thirty-one years later, the couple are still together. At the end of 1999, they moved to a 7ha property on the Kāpiti Coast, of which 4ha was a wetland in need of restoration.

The next 16 years involved a withdrawal from feminist work as the pair tackled the all-absorbing task of returning the land to its natural state. Their wetland is now subject to a QEII Open Space Covenant, and the Department of Conservation designated the total Te Hāpua swamp, of which theirs is a part, an outstanding natural landscape. They also won an environmental award for their efforts before selling the property in 2015 and moving to Ōtaki.

During those years they were actively engaged in community environmental issues, saving neighbouring wetlands from development and objecting to the Kāpiti expressway, causes that required endless meetings, submissions and letters. Abigail was dimly aware women’s studies courses had been renamed gender studies, and that there was something called queer theory. But despite being a news junkie, she knew nothing of gender ideology.

This changed once she began to attend Green Party meetings and learned about their push to pass legislation allowing people to change the sex on their birth certificates through a one-step statutory declaration. Along with many other feminists, Abigail saw this as having serious implications for women.

When a letter this year outlining her concerns to Green MPs went unanswered, the Green Party magazine, Te Awa, agreed to publish it as a personal opinion piece. The letter caused a howl of protest from Rainbow Green members and was soon removed, with party co-leader Marama Davidson apologising for its publication. The editor, copy editor and two convenors of the Te Awa board resigned in protest. An open letter to the party initiated by Speak Up for Women, supporting Abigail’s views, was signed by more than 260 women and men, including long-time Greens, retired academics and respected feminists.

Abigail, who’s now 80, had no intention of being thrust into the public arena on this topic. However, if it takes the conversation out of heated chatrooms and into the public domain, she says, that can only be a good thing. “We absolutely need to find solutions that are fair to everyone.”

Why are you opposed to the sex self-identification bill?

The bill would allow anybody to change the sex marker on their birth certificate without the currently required supporting evidence. That will entitle male-bodied people who identify as women to enter spaces designated as female-only, or to apply for jobs or roles intended for women. Sex-based rights for women to have female-only spaces have been established for our safety and privacy, to protect us from male violence.

Gender-critical feminists don’t accept that transwomen are the same as natal women. Hormones and surgery may create a womanly body but they do not create a woman. A woman is not only a biological female; she is the sum total of the socialisation she undergoes and her life experiences.

There are many transgender women who agree with us. Kristina Harrison, Debbie Hayton and Miranda Yardley are among those who speak out against the ideology that declares there is no difference between a transwoman and a woman.

The “innate” gender identity claimed by gender ideology cannot be proven, so basing policies and legislation on subjective feelings rather than evidence is highly questionable.

The Green Party’s policy on gender issues states that the binary system is harmful and we must embrace gender diversity. Why then does gender ideology insist on pushing men who identify as women back into the binary system, labelling them women, when they could be gender-diverse men? Shouldn’t we instead be creating new, safe spaces for gender-diverse people?

Were you surprised by the Green Party removal of your letter?

Very. The Green Party Charter speaks of non-violent conflict resolution. All decisions are made by consensus. Censorship is completely out of line with that.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has said excluding transwomen from feminist solidarity is callous, and that this is not her feminism. How is your feminism different?

I’d like to know what Golriz’s definition of feminism is. I’m told that these days feminism means “equality for everyone”. That’s meaningless! Of course equality for everyone is the eventual goal. But you first have to address the fact that half the human race is, at worst, harshly oppressed by the other half, at best is valued less. Feminism, for me, means recognising the fact that, universally, women as a class are considered inferior to men as a class. It is a political stance, founded on abundant, irrefutable evidence. So the ongoing work for feminists is to advance the cause of women, break down the barriers that are still in place, continue to erase sex-role stereotypes that restrict the full humanity of both women and men and, of course, end male violence against us. That work is nowhere near finished.

I have genuine empathy with those who struggle with gender dysphoria and who feel so strongly that they’re in the “wrong” body that they inflict medication and surgery upon themselves. It fills me with grief that they put themselves through this. And we’re now seeing a rise in numbers of those regretting their transition and wanting to change back. Walt Heyer, among others, has written books on this subject, including Trans Life Survivors. YouTube has many personal testimonies, as well as a documentary called Transgender Regret.

The rush to embrace “inclusiveness” is having some really harmful effects. These range from schoolgirls staying away from school when they have their period because the toilets have been changed to gender-neutral, through to sexual assaults in what should be safe women-only spaces, such as homeless women’s shelters in Toronto, a women’s prison in Yorkshire, and another in California. Where is Golriz’s compassion for girls and women?

Related articles: 'The gender thing': Barriers to health for trans NZ | An Auckland playwright shares a rare insight into her transition

Do you know of other women who have been silenced for expressing gender critical views?

The shutting down of discussion is one of the most shocking aspects of this issue. Literally hundreds of academics overseas have been forbidden to discuss it in their work. Fear is rife. In New Zealand, there are examples of gender-critical women losing their jobs or not having contracts renewed, and of workplace disciplinary action being taken against women for views expressed in their private life. The Speak Up for Women campaign has been refused meeting venues and their spokeswomen are threatened. Graphically violent threats are regularly posted online, in an effort to silence gender-critical women. In Scotland, a male Green MP was obliged to make a public apology simply for having attended a meeting about this. Unbelievable!

How did we get here?

In the 1970s and 80s, alongside feminist analysis, came structural analysis. This examined power structures in society, looking at who makes decisions and who benefits, and seeing power as the underlying factor in relation to sex, race and social class. But the 1980s also brought neoliberalism and the rise of the individual.

In the 1990s, the focus moved away from second-wave feminist theory into queer theory. Queer theory said there’s an intimate connection between biological sex and oppression, so do away with the notion of biological sex, change your body to suit your personality. Feminists see the same connection between biology and oppression, but say it is the oppression that must be dismantled.

A group of scientists called Project Nettie have recently stated that “attempts to recast biological sex as a social construct, which then becomes a matter of chosen individual identity, are wholly ideological, scientifically inaccurate and socially irresponsible”.

Nonetheless, here we are.

Your letter mentioned that older Green Party feminists are concerned about the bill’s implications. Is this a generational issue?

Partly. Some young people feel only empathy for the individuals concerned and have no interest in examining the political context. But I’m also meeting gender-critical feminists who are in their 20s and 30s.

Our concern is the huge rise in numbers of those experiencing gender dysphoria, a rise that can be attributed not only to social media but to the hold gender ideologists now have of Western education systems. In Wellington alone, between 2000 and 2016, the statistics for males identifying as transgender presenting to the Endocrine Service rose from nine to 51, while females presenting as transgender rose from one to 41 in that period. In the UK, the Minister for Women and Equalities last year ordered an inquiry into soaring transition rates, with a 4400% increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment in the previous decade.

And no wonder kids are confused, when they’re told having a penis doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a boy, and men can become pregnant.

Your letter also states feminist analysis of patriarchy seems to be completely lacking in gender ideology. Explain.

When gender ideology says biology is irrelevant, that it is how we feel that counts, it ignores the fact that our biology is at the root of women’s oppression under patriarchy. When female foetuses are aborted in certain cultures, it’s not because of gender identity, it’s because a biological female has no value. Female genital mutilation is carried out on a body, not an identity. Young women in war zones are captured to be sex slaves and bear children – bodily functions.

There’s been a bit of a furore this year over transgender athletes in women’s sport, with Martina Navratilova speaking out and New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard winning gold at the Samoa Pacific Games.

As a New Zealander, I personally felt embarrassed about Hubbard getting medals that should have gone to Pasifika women. I think many would have agreed with the Samoan Prime Minister that it was patently unfair. Male bodies have greater muscle mass, greater lung capacity, stronger bones, greater capacity for oxygen uptake, all advantages that set up the male body to be a stronger athletic performer. When males transition, lowering their testosterone levels doesn’t affect that inbuilt advantage.

Women have struggled for years to have our sport taken seriously, to get funding, to get media coverage, to have our stars being paid at star rates. I think it’s the height of male arrogance and entitlement for trans athletes to enter women’s sport. It would be good if those men who say they identify as women could actually identify with women, so they could see how wrong it is for them to use their physical advantage to take our prizes. Several elite international athletes, such as Brazilian volleyball player Ana Paula Henkel, have written to the International Olympic Committee protesting the rules around transgender performers. The committee has been reviewing its guidelines, but its advisers seem to have trouble reaching agreement.

The Green Party requires one male and one female co-leader, but it could be argued this is not inclusive of trans people. Are these labels up for debate?

There have been moves to dismantle those labels, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Are you still a Green Party member?

So far, yes. I want to stay in the party while this conversation continues. And I’m totally supportive of the work being done on environmental issues.                     

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.