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Sex and Gender

Why is this student official apologising for being bio-essentialist? 

It is not ‘biological essentialism’ to think that our material reality matters, it is essential biology

Why do we need a Women’s Officer anyway? Wind back the clock about 35 years, and that question might have provoked 20 minutes of debate in the student union bar. But while certain disgruntled male students might have moaned about the glaring absence of a men’s officer, never did we call for the women’s post to be abolished. Not seriously, anyway. 

How times have changed. Oxford University Student Union recently decided to abolish the role, currently designated ‘Vice-President (Women)’. From next year, Oxford students will no longer have the support of an officer dedicated to furthering the interests of women and defending their rights. Earlier this month, Ellie Greaves, the current and final incumbent articulated her concernswriting: 

 ‘We’re not where we need to be in terms of women’s representation and I think there’s a risk of moves to tackle sexual violence being left behind… I will continue to prioritise women for as long as I’m in Oxford.’ 

Ellie Greaves

She is right and, as the father of a daughter, I’m relieved that Greaves plans to carry on with her work – with or without an official post. There is much still to be done, not least furthering women’s health. Greaves also shared her concerns about the ‘provision for conditions such as endometriosis and PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome].’ 

In my student days, the worst that Greaves’ predecessors might have faced for making such comments might have been ill-judged mockery from boorish young men who had yet to grow up. But in 2022 a different group polices the speech of women – and this group has power. This week, Greaves issued an apology reminiscent of those statements made by dissidents following their arrest and interrogation in countries under the spell of repressive regimes: 

‘The comments I made in the article contribute to a bio-essentialist, narrow-minded narrative of what being a woman is, including the prioritisation of women over minorities. I cannot apologise enough for the damage and hurt I have caused the trans community.’ 

Ellie Greaves

Greaves might not have been sent to a Gulag, but re-education is on the cards, nevertheless. She continued: 

‘My knowledge of the trans experience is very limited at the moment, and I will endeavour to educate myself further on trans inclusivity through more open engagement with LGBTQ+ Campaign and personal research.’ 

Ellie Greaves

If you’re reading this, Ellie, you have caused neither damage nor hurt to the trans community – whatever that label now means. But you might have upset an activist lobby powerful enough to extract an apology from those who question their unprovable assertion that men and women are distinguished not by sex but by their so-called gender identity. When you protected the interests of people with female bodies, you were doing your job. It is not ‘biological essentialism’ to think that our material reality matters, it is essential biology.  

If you – or anyone else – must be educated on the ‘trans experience’, just be aware that trans people are not a monolith. Some of us think that sex matters, and we do not build our lives on the delusion that we can ever change it. We have daughters, sisters, wives and girlfriends and we value the support they get from women’s officers. So, thank you!  

The official line from the student union was that the women’s officer position was not being abolished or replaced, but ‘augmented to include more underrepresented and marginalised communities who currently do not have sufficient representation.’ But whatever they might claim, the new position designated, ‘Vice-President (Liberation and Equality)’ erases the word women from the list of officer positions. 

If the union was genuinely concerned about equality and diversity, they might have created several positions: one for women, another for trans people, perhaps another for those who like to dye their hair blue? But these are not volunteer roles – according to the Times they pay an annual salary of  £25,642 – so presumably savings need to be made.  

There was an existing post – Welfare and Equal Opportunities – that could perhaps have been ‘augmented’ to include underrepresented groups. But once again it is women who are expected to not only budge up, but then apologise for not shuffling along quickly enough. And this time, the thought police have succeeded where those boorish young men failed: the word woman has fallen off the other end of the bench. 


Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.

* This article was first published by The Spectator on 2 December 2022: Why is this student official apologising for being bio-essentialist? 

By Debbie Hayton

Physics teacher and trade unionist.

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