Within minutes of my arrival at the Alloa Women’s Festival in the town hall last Saturday my carefully-planned, tactical strategy has begun to unravel. It had seemed like a good idea: bearing witness to extraordinary women celebrating their womanhood and fighting for their threatened sex-based rights.

Yet, as the day approached, the doubts crept in: I’d probably be one of only a handful of blokes among 200 women; I’m not a very good feminist (can a man be a feminist, anyway?) and I’m a bit clumsy in my language. Very often, I only notice the point at which I need to shut the f*** up long after others have seen it.

And so, I resolved to keep it low-key and tight at the back. I’d stay in the shadows; listen intently; speak quietly (and sparingly) and basically not make a horse’s fundament of myself. Should I wear something pink to convey solidarity? Or, maybe one of the suffragette colours? Nope: that would make me look even more foolish.

And then I went up the stairs to register and let the organisers know I’d arrived. They seemed pleased to see me before handing me a large scrap of white paper with the word ‘PRESS’ scrawled on it. Why don’t you just give me a bell to go with it, I’m thinking?

Across the hall there’s another space in which various groups and organisations have set out their wares. In the centre there is a rather startling artwork featuring a large, upright penis (complete with its underhanging mechanics). It bears the legend: “There’s No Such Thing as a Female Penis”. And it’s pink because, well … of course it’s pink.

It’s actually very skilfully rendered: good draughtsmanship and that. There’s more detail, but I’ll just end it there, if you don’t mind.

Within moments, I’m feeling the heat that comes with gazing at a large pink penis in a room full of women. I shuffle away trying to affect insouciance and the impression that it will take more than this to faze me. But I’m fazed oot ma nut.

I probably don’t need to tell you who was responsible for this portraiture. Take a bow, Women Won’t Wheesht. It’s good to know you won’t be wheeshing any time soon and that you can still bring some colour to an old hack’s grizzled coupon. Their sisters in For Women Scotland and Glasgow Tactical Feminists (GTF) are here too: the backbone of the resistance. We won’t be silenced; we won’t be fetishised; we won’t be erased.

A brass plaque over the entrance to Alloa Town Hall tells you that The Beatles played there on Friday, 20 May 1960. Within a year they would rock the foundations of global culture. More than six decades later, these women whose mums might have swooned at their feet are now shaking the pillars of male entitlement.

Down in the hall in the body of the kirk there are around 20 tables of women already setting about a buffet that seems to replenish itself – loaves and fishes style throughout the day. Some of these women are victims of male violence. For good reasons they might not appreciate the presence of an unknown male traipsing about the shop.


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Others fear being targeted in their workplaces for expressing gender-critical views. And so, I resolve not to name most of them.

Many of the most prominent voices in Scottish 21st century, gender-critical feminism are here: Joanna Cherry, Johann Lamont, Ash Regan, Joan McAlpine. And so is Lisa Mackenzie, one of the Murray Blackburn Mackenzie academic and policy triumvirate which has dismantled the doctrine of gender self-ID.

They will take to the stage to provide dispatches from the war against women’s rights being waged in Holyrood, a parliament for which they once agitated. They will also offer lucid testimony to the ways in which each had been marginalised for defending what they considered sacred: a women’s right to her protected spaces, such as single-sex changing rooms and toilets, and characteristics and the right to say that women don’t have penises and that transwomen are men.

One by one, a dozen others will bear witness to the challenges of being a woman in 21st century Scotland. The testimony of one woman detailing how she was trafficked as a child was horrific and heart-rending. Annemarie Ward, chief executive of FAVOR will detail the hidden consequences of addiction for working-class women. There will be a critique on the dangers of normalising prostitution.

Annemarie Ward greets me and I’m glad to see her. She senses my slight edginess. She guides me to a table where a group of women are happy to speak eloquently and passionately on their fears about the Hate Crime Act which will come into force on Monday.

“One of the aspects of this which angers me most is that women like me are labelled transphobic simply for stating a biological truth. None of us here are bigots: we would never allow a transgender person to be bullied or discriminated against. Some bad actors use the ‘transphobic’ slur to try to silence us.”

Her friend can’t believe that 10 years after the high of the independence campaign when many women found their political voices that they are now being silenced by those they helped get into office. Like many others here, she had been a member of the SNP and is still pro-independence. “But I’d have to think long and hard about voting Yes again if it meant some of these people benefiting from it,” she says.

The Herald: The Alloa Women's FestivalThe Alloa Women's Festival (Image: free)

“Are we perhaps in danger of over-stating the potential consequences of the Hate Crime Bill,” I ask. But they’re not having it. “Look, if we’re being honest about this, one of its main purposes is to intimidate women like us into silence. Who gets to decide what constitutes ‘stirring up”? As far as we can see the police have been guided exclusively by organisations who want to dismantle all those characteristics of what it means to be a woman.”

All of them are fearful of the sudden knock at the door and a police van sitting outside. They note that those “who are telling us to calm down are all men”.

Later, I’ll speak to a woman who tells me that after suffering an assault by a male trans activist in Aberdeen last year the police have still taken no action against the perpetrator. And how, with several other women, she had faced down a similar threat from a male activist in Dundee two weeks ago.

The events in Dundee and Aberdeen follow a pattern evident in many other towns and cities over the last five years. It suggests that Scotland offers few places where women can gather safely to speak about their protected spaces and characteristics. In the course of the day I was asked the same question several times: “How did we get to this place.”

Other women approached to express gratitude that I was even there. Yet, the gratitude was all mine. Like other men who fancied ourselves to be “on the right side of history” we’ve been happy to stand with these women as they fight an old battle once more.

The struggle to protect their sex-based rights, though, has also led to an awakening among some of us and caused us to reflect on the slow-motion car crash of some of our previous interactions with women. And that this was about so much more than gender self-ID; that it provided a long overdue education in the challenges faced exclusively by women in all facets of their lives.

If men like me were being honest with ourselves we’d be forced to admit that when it comes to women we like what we see, but we don’t really want to know about the workings.

The Herald: The Alloa Women's FestivalThe Alloa Women's Festival (Image: free)

We had thought we were exceptional because we attended the births of our children and held our wives’ hands limply while looking the other way before the whisky and cigars afterwards and the congratulations of our chums for “being all modern and progressive”. That was peak feminism for many of us.

These Alloa women – bold, smart, eloquent, brave and sexy (can I say that) – are winning, just as the suffragettes eventually did. And they’re giving men like me a life lesson.