The War on Women and the Non-Binary


The 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has resonated widely and had a significant cultural impact, with the iconic red-cloaks and white, face-obscuring bonnets appearing in a range of protests around the world. The novel and this latest adaptation portray a patriarchal society in which women’s roles are reduced to those of submissive wife, exchangeable baby maker, or receptacle for male sexual desire. Meanwhile, female desire, control and independence are punishable by torture and death. That a tale written over thirty years ago, and set in a world that mirrors a puritanical society harking back centuries, should strike such an emotional chord today, says a lot about the state of current attitudes and legislation surrounding gender and sexuality, women’s rights and reproductive choices. Many of the gains made for women and the LGBTQI community in the past 50 years are now being chipped away, corroded or simply swept aside.

The 18th Century Age of Enlightenment saw the birth of ‘science’ as we know it today, and central to that was the attempt to explain, and contain, the complexity and diversity of the natural world through a system of classification into different species and suborders. Today we continue to categorise the world around us in order to understand and control it. We use the biological distinction between male and female sexes based on genitalia, reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones. However, research has also been carried out into the balance of influences on human development, between biological (nature) and learned behaviour from societal messages and pressure (nurture). This has given us the concept of ‘gender’ as a social construct of what is considered masculine and feminine, challenging the belief that ‘maleness’ and ‘femininity’ are ‘natural’ biological propensities. But even this is an oversimplification and there is in fact a diverse spectrum of biological and behavioural differences when it comes to assigned biological sex, psychological experience, sexual identity and sexual attraction, which do not fit into basic binary models. Central to many of the current regressive changes in legislation and attitudes is the desire to uphold a simpler binary notion, which sees women with a primary role as child bearer and keeper of home while men protect and go out and ‘do’. In this model, sexual intercourse is viewed as a means to procreate and so homosexuality is also demonised, and anything other than the binary concept of gender and sex is utterly rejected. Those who are made uncomfortable or feel threatened by those not conforming to these ‘traditional’ roles, are currently working to influence discussion and legislation around abortion, women’s rights and LGBTQI rights in order to suppress what they see as aberrant behaviour and to maintain control over other bodies and reproduction.

Examples abound, including changes in US policy under the current administration to reduce funding for women’s health initiatives and sex education, with budgets being cut from health clinics making referrals for abortions. Funds have also been diverted from education on pregnancy prevention through contraception towards programmes that emphasise abstinence. Legislation that has recently been passed includes religious freedom rules, allowing employers with moral objections to opt out of contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act and doctors to deny treatment to women who have had abortions or to LGBTQI patients. Meanwhile, states such as Georgia have passed ‘heartbeat bills’, criminalising abortion after 6 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Much of this is in line with the wishes of Christian evangelicals, whose endorsement helped the current president into office. At the highest levels of Trump’s administration, figures such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are known for their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, a lack of concern for LGBTQI rights and a desire to see the end of abortion access. Meanwhile, both of Trump’s supreme court nominees, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsich, caused concern at their confirmation hearings by either equivocating or refusing to discuss whether they believe Roe v Wade (legal access to abortions) and Obergefell v Hodges (marriage equality) are settled law. A recent 5-4 decision by the court enabled the Trump administration to continue pursuing their attempts to overturn an Obama-era law and to prohibit transgender people from serving in the military.

The US’ dangerous and regressive stance has far-reaching international consequences. One of the Trump administration’s first moves was to enforce the Global Gag Rule, which has resulted in a denial of funds to NGOs giving advice on abortion services, damaging health provisions in developing countries and reducing the ability to treat other issues including TB and HIV. Then, last month at the United Nations, the US threatened to veto the latest update of the Women, Peace and Security resolution, which protects civilians from sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. Their objection surrounded the language in the resolution, which was added in 2013, guaranteeing access to reproductive and sexual health services for victims of rape, and to the inclusion of the word “gender”. Their objection to that single word covers all UN documents, and is an attempt to undermine the rights of transgender people. The resolution in question only passed after the requested changes were made and the US voted in favour, while Russia and China abstained.

Restrictions on the rights of women and LGBTQI are a global problem with countless examples around the world, many in nations with strong, autocratic, male leaders. In spite of the claims that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is having a liberalising influence in Saudi Arabia, numerous women’s rights activists are currently imprisoned, and have allegedly been tortured. The kingdom continues to resist any loosening of the guardianship laws, which prevent women from studying, working or travelling without male consent. Meanwhile legal abortions remain out of reach in many countries, domestic violence laws were recently weakened in Russia, and in Brazil’s October 2018 election, the country voted in a man who stated, “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.”  Homosexuality remains illegal in over 70 countries, and international condemnation was muted at best amidst recent crackdowns on gay rights in Tanzania, Russia and Chechnya. However, Brunei has backtracked a little on their recently announced plan to punish gay sex with stoning to death. A moratorium was called after high-profile figures called for a boycott of the luxury hotels owned by the kingdom, showing the importance of publicity and influential allies in this issue.

There are, however, also powerful influencers working on the side of those who cling to fundamentalist readings of religious scriptures in order to restrict rights and choices. Pope Benedict recently resurfaced, 6 years after abdicating from the Holy See, in order to blame sexual abuse within the Catholic church on the sexual revolution. He explained in a letter that clerical abuses were due to the “all-out sexual freedom” of the 1960s, which led to a “dissolution” of morality in Catholicism, homosexuality and paedophilia. In the background of Benedict’s reappearance is Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor whose current mission is to unite nativist, far-right, populist movements in Europe. Part of Bannon’s effort has involved advising Italian interior minister Mario Salvini that Pope Francis is too liberal and an enemy who should be attacked, telling him, “[populism is] catching fire and the Pope is just dead wrong”. After meeting Bannon, Salvini wore a t-shirt that declared, “Benedict is my Pope”.

It is not only cisgender men who are driving the restrictions being placed on women and LGBTQI, but also some women acting as policy advocates, attacking other women and defending the actions of men who would erode the rights of those less privileged. One such example is US lobbyist Janet Porter, whose organisation Faith2Action supports gay conversion therapy. Such programmes, now banned in many states, attempt to pressure people to repress their true identities and have resulted in serious mental health issues and led to suicides. Porter, assisting GOP legislators, has also been instrumental in pushing for the ‘heartbeat bill’ (based on the false idea that a human heart is fully formed and beating by 6 weeks after conception) but wants to go further, advocating for a total ban on abortion and a legal definition of life as beginning from conception. This all in spite of the evidence that shows abortion bans place women’s lives at risk due to unregulated illegal procedures. Women are also complicit in much of the vitriol currently being directed against transgender people, with some feminists arguing against the inclusion of trans women in female spaces. Many refuse to see trans women as women and are resorting to some of the arguments that were used in the past against homosexuals, painting them as predators and paedophiles who are not to be trusted in bathrooms and changing rooms. However, there is no evidence of women or children being placed at risk by having trans women in female spaces, and while these trans-exclusionary feminists may believe they are supporting women’s rights, their stance is actually bolstering the essentialist binary agenda and aiding discriminatory messages and policy.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ may be dystopian fiction but there is a reason it doesn’t feel far-fetched right now. Worldwide, there are concerted, often co-ordinated, efforts to deny women and LGBTQI of their rights. It’s not just about misogynist, homophobic and transphobic trolling on social media. It’s not just about wolf whistles, name calling and discriminatory behaviour. This is a determined effort by those in power to reverse progress, through policies and legislation that disadvantage women and those who do not sit comfortably in a narrow, outdated definition of gender and sex. Many currently in positions of power scoff at ‘identity politics’ but their own policies often specifically target LGBTQI, women and minorities. This is a war on women and the non-binary. And what is required in response is an army. The reason the original LGB initials have grown over the years has been a recognition of all gender and sexual diversities, and of the need to work together as allies. We need cis men and women, trans men and women, lesbian, bi, gay, queer and intersex all to advocate for recognition of a full spectrum of identities with equal rights and full autonomy and agency over their bodies. We need to fight for the right to choose when and whether to have children, and to support parents in finding the balance between work and childcare that suits them. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI of colour and low socioeconomic status, who are disproportionately affected by restrictions on sexual health services. We need to challenge the binary modal whenever we are faced with it and to celebrate diversity. We need to demand that all people be safe to be themselves and live openly with whomever they choose, without fear of censure, discrimination or violence. We need to stand up for all people to have access to the career paths they choose and the healthcare outcomes they need. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI striving to reach positions of power in business, the media and politics, and to help them change attitudes and influence policy. Together we are powerful, we are a supermajority, and this is a war we need to win.

Jacqueline MacDonald

9th May 2019

Politics and Protest: Voices of Youth

Youthful enthusiasm and optimistic visions of how to create a better world are not new in society and politics. There are countless examples throughout modern history of students and young activists around the world taking to the streets to demand change:

  • in the US Civil Rights movement, the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in was carried out by four young men aged 17-19 and led to the creation of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), while the nine students in Little Rock Arkansas, standing up against their state’s refusal to integrate their schools in 1957, were aged between 15 and 17
  • in 1968, student protests rocked cities around the world, covering a range of issues including civil rights, gender equality, environmental protection, antiwar, anti-colonialism and struggles against repressive governments
  • in South Africa in 1976, protests against the compulsory use of Afrikaans in schools originated with school children in Soweto, Johannesburg
  • in China, the iconic image of the protestor facing down a tank in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was part of a student-led hunger strike and pro-democracy movement in 1989, calling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech
  • starting in 2010, social media helped drive anti-government demonstrations from Tunisia across Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and the rest of the Middle East, in what became known as the Arab Spring

Youth people engaged in non-violent protest and civil disobedience have undoubtedly changed aspects of society but have also been met with repression, imprisonment, police brutality and military force, sometimes deadly. Government crackdowns on protesters are estimated to be responsible for 600 deaths in the Soweto protests, over 800 in Egypt’s anti-government demonstrations and 10,000 during the Tiananmen Square movement, while many others have been imprisoned in countries around the world for raising their voices. Even when governments do not use physical force, those in power who are wary of protests often attempt to suppress dissent and to demean the young who rise up, belittling their struggle for change.

Young activists today are leading the way in the efforts for climate change action. Youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and School Strike for Climate Action are using protests, school walkouts and legal action against governments to pressure politicians into taking more concrete measures to protect the future of the planet. The school strikes, which have now taken place in over 200 countries, originated with Greta Thunberg (16), who began with a weekly Friday protest outside the Swedish parliament until the government live up to its Paris Climate Agreement commitments. Her passionate, no-holds-barred speeches at Davos and the United Nations went viral and have given her a global platform. While the worldwide school strikes she inspired this March were met with support from the UN and many other world leaders, they also faced criticism, including from UK Prime Minister Theresa May and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In an angry parliamentary session Morrison asserted, “we do not support our schools being turned into parliaments. What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools” . However, in the face of such criticism, Thunberg and thousands of school students have continued to argue that the strikes are imperative in raising awareness of the need for legislators to take decisive action now to protect the planet. For her efforts, Thunberg has been nominated by Norwegian lawmakers for the Nobel prize. To date, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace is Malala Yousafzai, who was 17 when she was awarded it in 2014. Malala was already renowned for her advocacy for girls’ education in the Swat Valley in Pakistan when she was shot and critically injured. The Taliban, who had banned girls from school, targeted Malala specifically to intimidate her and other girls who attempted to gain an education. However, she has used her international profile since the attempt on her life to continue to fight for equal rights for young women worldwide, and has refused to be intimidated or silenced by the violence wrought against her.

Around the world, youth movements are undeterred by criticism and threats, and are continuing to speak out for change. In the US, in light of the country’s record of violent crime, the quest for reform of the gun laws is being led by the survivors of shootings. March for Our Lives, which saw over 1.2 million people gather in Washington DC and around the US in March 2018, was organised by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland Florida, a little more than a month after their school had suffered a mass shooting. High profile figures from the group, including Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, who Greta Thunberg has credited as the inspiration for her own activism, have worked together with other advocates for gun safety, co-ordinating and promoting the cause on social media. For standing up to the powerful gun manufacturers’ lobbyists in the NRA, they have been targeted by right wing media and commentators, whose tactics include photo-shopped images and the propagation of conspiracy theories that the teens are ‘crisis actors’ or left wing puppets. Similarly, in the fight for environmental protections and indigenous land rights, much of the battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock was organised by young activists. The International Indigenous Youth Council and Rezpect Our Water were integral to the pushback against the oil firms and criticism of the government for granting rights to commercial interests on native lands. 12-year-old Tokata Iron Eyes and 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer co-ordinated actions such as a 160,000-signature petition and a 2000-mile march on Washington DC. In response, security services set dogs on the pipeline protesters, soldiers and armed police were sent in to dismantle their camp, protesters and journalists were arrested and strip-searched, and water cannons and tear gas were fired upon them. Similar tactics have been used against the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, whose protests have been met with riot police, and participants have been labeled ‘terrorists’ and ‘unpatriotic’. When the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick (29) protested against police brutality and discrimination by taking a knee during the national anthem, the attempts to demean and silence him and paint him as the villain reached the highest level of the nation. President Trump blasted the protest and angrily called for the NFL to take punitive action. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

As well as protest movements, the younger generations also have an important voice within the political process. In the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum, only 29% of 18-24 year olds voted to leave the European Union compared with 64% of those aged over 65. Some countries, including Austria and Argentina, have a legal voting age of 16, while in Scotland, it was lowered from 18 to 16 for the independence referendum in 2014. Other countries, including Australia and the UK, have also broached the idea of giving full voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds. As there is still a tendency by many voters to cling to the image of the ‘elderly statesman’ as the ‘natural leader’, youth and diversity are vital in political representation, as well as in media and the arts, in order to reflect the full spectrum of society and provide role models for future leaders. The voices of all ages, abilities, races, religions, genders and sexual identities need to be heard, and there are signs that voters are beginning to place faith is younger, more diverse candidates. New Zealand has a 38-year old female Prime Minister and an opposition leader who is a 42-year-old Maori man. In Ireland, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is a 40-year-old gay man. When Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 2nd youngest ever Prime Minister, aged 43, he chose a cabinet divided 50/50 male/female, with most aged under 50, and including members who were Sikh, indigenous, refugees and with disabilities. Trudeau explained, “It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,… Because it’s 2015″.  The US also seems to be becoming more receptive to younger, diverse lawmakers, with current high-profile political figures including Alexandria Acasio-Cortez (29, Latina), Cory Booker (49 African-American), Stacey Abrams (45 African-American), Kyrsten Sinema (42, LGBTQ), Ilhan Omar (37, Muslim), Sharice Davids (38 LGBTQ Native American) and Pete Buttigieg (37, LGBTQ). It remains to be seen how those running in the 2020 presidential election, where voters tend to have a conservative view of what a president should be, will fare against Trump (72), Joe Biden (76) and Bernie Saunders (77). However, their success in local and congressional elections to date signals a desire from many for a variety of younger voices in government.

Of course, younger doesn’t always necessarily mean better. Experience and historical knowledge are still vital in politics and diplomacy. A 38-year-old real estate developer with no experience in public office or international relations should not be given unfettered influence at the highest level of government and be placed in charge of negotiating peace in the Middle East, finding a solution to a national opioid epidemic and developing trade relationships with Mexico and China. (However, the same could be said of a 72-year-old real estate developer with the same deficit in government experience or public service). Similarly in business, innovation, ambition and entrepreneurship must come with a share of responsibility and consideration of real-life repercussions. The lauded young tech titans like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are now discovering this, as their careless disregard for the consequences of their decisions and actions mire their companies in controversy and investigations, and endanger ordinary people. And there are also some young people who feel threatened by the changes occurring in society, who are raising their voices against diversity and inclusion. They can be heard on social media, in anti-EU sentiments in the UK, amongst Trump supporters and high-level advisers, and in acts of violent extremism and terror. At its worst, their perceived loss of status drives a hatred of, and willingness to bar or destroy, the ‘other’. Their desire is to hold onto the power, privilege and influence they feel they deserve by excluding others, or to return to some promised but imagined halcyon age, where they have been told things would have been better for them.

Thankfully, today’s youthful voices calling for a cleaner, more equitable, more compassionate, kinder society show no signs of being silenced by the trolls, commentators and politicians who fear the change they desire. Rather than belittling, demeaning, suppressing or silencing demands, the older power brokers need to listen to the voices of all sectors of society, representing a full range of experiences of the world around us. Today’s issues will have an impact on the young long after the elderly leaders of today are gone, and so it is only fair that they have a place at the table, as an integral part of the decision making process, shaping policy and planning a better future for everyone.


April 17th 2019

Jacqueline MacDonald

Flash Competition: Persistence

The journal The Molotov Cocktail recently held a competition entitled Flash Rage, soliciting submissions of less than 1000 words, inspired by the spirit of protest. Although my entry did not make it into the top ten, it was included in their ‘Close but no cigar’ list. My story, below, is called Persistence


January 1908

The bitter metal digs into my waist; cold, even through my woollen jacket, my blouse, petticoat and corset. Unrelenting. Bound; here at the seat of power, calling out to those in control. Solid in our cause, singing in unison. Undeterred.

“Our voice, our vote.”

With the shrill scream of whistles and the thud of weighty feet, the uniforms arrive. Bolt-cutters in hand, the chains snap as they are severed. My boots scrape on the kerbstones as we’re dragged into the road, unsilenced.

“Votes for Women.”

The bitter metal digs into my wrists. He spits in my ear.

“Ain’t gonna ‘appen luvvy.”

October 1910

The bile-green walls close in on me. Encased behind impenetrable doors and frosty barred windows. Antiseptic odours fused with faeces. Tormented cries echo down to me along sterile corridors, and my brain screams in reply. They have told me this is for my own good. They don’t want me to cause myself harm. Who knows what I might do in my next, hysterical attack.

I would like to go to the park though, to go for a walk, see trees. In truth, I would like to go home. I would like to see husband, my family. But I have been made to understand that that is not going to happen.

July 1922

Skinny little legs protruding from shorts. A bulky satchel bowing him over like a man five times his age. It is brimming with knowledge: formulas and dates and capital cities, explorers and discoveries, stories and ideas and truth. Overflowing with opportunity.

Our mother hands him a metal lunchbox, then prods him out the door. I watch him as he trudges reluctantly up the path, looks back forlornly, then disappears along the lane.

“Why can’t I go too?” I whine.

“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s just not possible, not for you.”

March 1977

Grandma’s gift is scrunched in my clammy little palm. So many choices, such an important decision. I stare down at the banknote, then back at the plastic children on the dais ahead. A confusing array under hot lights: floral dresses, lace-trimmed socks, pretty ribbons, caps, sporty shorts, checked shirts, tidy little suits with waistcoats. Mum nudges me.

“What do you want to get?”

I point to a blue t-shirt, baggy and emblazoned with a team logo. Mum smiles but shakes her head.

“No, not that one my love. That’s not for you.”

June 1993

The doctor beams ecstatically, having delivered the “glorious news.” My heart racing, skin cold, hollowness consuming me.

“What happens if I don’t want it?” I mumble.

His face blanches, the stupid grin transforming into a sneer.

“Well, if that’s the case,” he sighs deeply “we can look into adoption.”

“And termination?”, my voice barely audible.

“Elsewhere that may be possible, but that is most definitely not an option for you here.” His cold eyes penetrating. “Absolutely not going to happen.”

February 2012

“Take the offer,” she urges.

An offer of anonymity; for him. A slap on the wrist and affirmation that it was merely a momentary lapse in judgement. An alcohol-induced slip up. But I want justice. I want everyone to see the bruises on my body, the dirt in my hair, to taste the bile of fear with his hands on my throat, to feel the burn as he shoves inside. I want him to share my humiliation, my suffering. I want people to judge him, just like they judge me now. The lawyer shakes her head.

“I must advise you, a victory in court, a custodial sentence, those are highly unlikely to happen.”

August 2014

A whirling maelstrom of ideas and opinions perpetually circling the globe. Idealistically, naively, I had added my voice. A critical analysis of a game, a questioning of the status quo; pounced upon by self-appointed gatekeepers protecting their exclusive domain. A coordinated defence mounted; a multi-fronted attack. Weaponised sharing, multiplying exponentially.

“What do you know about it bitch? Get back to the kitchen!”

“You and your opinions can fuck off and die!”

“Don’t block me snowflake. Get off the Internet if you can’t take it. Stop being a victim.”

“Think we’re going to take advice from a cunt? Never going to happen!”

November 2016
I can withstand the criticism, the whispered innuendo, the outright attacks, the blatant lies. Because I know I’m right. I have worked a lifetime dedicated to the craft. I am qualified, experienced, professional. I have proven myself capable at every turn. I have fought and won endless battles and I deserve this opportunity.

And my competition? A slapdash novice, unversed in complexity and subtlety. A foul-mouthed bullying abuser; a proven incompetent who has bluffed and wheedled and golfed his way upwards. It should be a cinch. It should be mine.

January 2017

In the bitingly cold air, our breath condenses in a haze, hovering overhead. We are a sea of pink wooly hats rolling unrelentingly into the distance, stretching on towards the seat of power. We have communicated, coordinated, united and now gathered in our thousands, tens of thousands. We raise a rallying cry, our voices united in our demand for control; control of our own opinions, our own choices, our own education, our own careers, our own participation, our own appearance, our own bodies. Undeterred, unsilenced, we march onwards.

We have been warned.

We have been given explanations.

Nevertheless, we persist.

Jacqueline MacDonald, March 2017