Has Penny Mordaunt got away with the worst Mumsnet performance ever?

Questions that Mordaunt didn’t answer started with the basics: what is a woman, can humans change sex, and in what circumstances is it necessary to distinguish between males and females?

Maya Forstater
Wednesday 13 July 2022 14:17 BST
Penny Mordaunt calls Boris Johnson’s leadership a ‘failed model’ in campaign speech

Courting the nation's mothers by answering questions on a Mumsnet webchat is a well-established rite of passage for ambitious politicians. But Penny Mordaunt’s excruciating session appears to be one she hopes no one noticed. She left the vast majority of Mumsnet users’ questions unanswered, and evaded the point of others. “Disappointed but not surprised” wrote one poster. “Completely disingenuous”, “This is unforgiveable”, wrote others.

Mordaunt should have known that Mumsnet would be a demanding audience. She has lead the Government Equalities Office in pushing to liberalise the Gender Recognition Act so that anyone can change their legal sex without medical diagnosis or treatment. Already her office issues guidance telling businesses and public sector agencies that they should allow people to access “single sex” facilities such as communal changing rooms and dormitories based on their self-identified sense of gender, not their physical sex. And in its own internal equal opportunities monitoring it has stopped asking about sex altogether.

Questions that Mordaunt wouldn't or couldn't answer started with the basics: what is a woman, can humans change sex, and in what circumstances is it necessary to distinguish between males and females? She evaded questions on whether the NHS should be treating children with experimental “puberty blocker” drugs, and why schools have no guidance on how to safeguard children facing gender issues.

Questions about male prisoners being housed in female prisons were batted off to the Ministry of Justice, questions about fairness in sport to the International Olympic Committee. A question about an investigation that Mordaunt herself had announced six months earlier into the reason for the 4000 per cent rise in the number of young girls being referred to gender identity clinics was simply ignored.

Usually Mumsnet webchats involve follow-up questions. But Mordaunt, whose answers were delivered four days late, was gone, leaving Mumsnet users stunned and disappointed. “You were given all the information. All of it. Spoonfed it. You haven’t read it.” “Penny, if you're reading, please get back to us with a simple answer to the question: how do we protect women from discrimination if we can't define what women are?” Another asked simply “Why are you still minister for women?”

Penny Mordaunt is the fourth secretary of state to hold the women and equalities brief in a year. Her failure to address even the most basic questions from the demographic that her department serves, reflects the rock and a hard place that all political parties have got themselves into by trying to play both sides of this debate. She has called for discussions on the topic of sex and gender identity to take place in a “climate of respect, empathy and understanding”, but when faced with a group of mothers asking respectful and carefully researched questions, she ducked and ran.

Squaring the circle between people born (biologically) male who subsequently identify as women, and people born female who would like to change, sleep, shower or access services such as rape counselling and domestic violence refuges without sharing with (biologically) male bodies is a key area where equalities regulations should provide clear guidance. Mordaunt tried to fudge it saying “we are absolutely committed to maintaining protections for single sex services” but also that “transwomen are women”.

Similarly Baroness Williams, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, responds to biological women who write to her that “the government absolutely agrees that maintaining access to single-sex spaces in some circumstances is important”, but tells transgender activists that the government is committed to “trans-inclusive single-sex spaces”.

The failure of all political parties, and of institutions such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission to step up and clarify these difficult questions leaves both biological women and transwomen facing uncertainty and potential humiliation in vulnerable situations, and front-line service providers unsure of what to do for the best. Female voters seeking straight answers to serious questions feel cynical and abandoned by elected representatives who won't listen or answer.

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