When J.K. Rowling was 14 years old, she heard about Jessica Mitford, who “had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War”, and “charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her”.
By Rowling’s account, “It was the camera that captivated me.” Mitford the upper-class Communist became her heroine, and many years later, in 2006, she reviewed Decca: the Letters of Jessica Mitford, for The Daily Telegraph.
The idol of a 14-year-old cannot always withstand the mature and sceptical gaze of a 41-year-old, as Rowling by then was. But in this case there was nothing to worry about:
“Decca’s letters sing with the qualities that first made her so attractive to me. Incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.”
People who have not been following Rowling’s battle against Sir Keir Starmer and other Labour politicians on the vexed question of trans rights might suppose this to be a case of a famous author who dabbles for a day or two in Twitter without understanding what she is getting herself into.
Such a view would be gravely to underestimate Rowling. Like Mitford, she likes nothing better than a good fight. She has been deliberately, not accidentally, provocative, for she enjoys danger and is convinced of the justice of her cause.
At the end of last week, Sir Keir visited British troops in Estonia. While there, The Times reported, he said that “trans women are women”, and when asked to define a woman, replied:
“A woman is a female adult, and in addition to that trans women are women, and that is not just my view — that is actually the law. It has been the law through the combined effects of the 2004 [Gender Recognition] Act and the 2010 [Equality] Act. So that’s my view. It also happens to be the law in the United Kingdom.”
This provoked a series of furious tweets from Rowllng:
I don’t think our politicians have the slightest idea how much anger is building among women from all walks of life at the attempts to threaten and intimidate them out of speaking publicly about their own rights, their own bodies and their own lives. 1/3
Among the thousands of letters and emails I’ve received are disillusioned members of Labour, the Greens, the Lib Dems and the SNP. Women are scared, outraged and angry at the deaf ear turned to their well-founded concerns. But women are organising. 2/3
Now @Keir_Starmer publicly misrepresents equalities law, in yet another indication that the Labour Party can no longer be counted on to defend women’s rights. But I repeat: women are organising across party lines, and their resolve and their anger are growing. 3/3
Rowling speaks as a woman of the Left. She is a friend of Sarah and Gordon Brown, and gave the Labour Party a million pounds when he was leader.
Nobody could accuse her of being pro-Tory. Harry Potter, her most famous creation, spends his holidays being persecuted by the ghastly Dursley family, who live in Privet Drive and read The Daily Mail.
She has said that in 1994-95 – when as an impoverished single mother, having fled with her daughter, Jessica (named after Mitford) from her short and abusive first marriage, she was writing her first Potter book – it was Labour’s proposals for lifting single parents out of poverty which appealed to her, and Tory moralising about marriage which disgusted her.
Before the 2010 general election she wrote a piece for The Times in which she said that since becoming rich, as she did soon after her first book was published in 1997, she had not changed her mind. She still could not stand the Tories.
During the Barnard Castle affair in May 2020, when Boris Johnson stuck by his adviser Dominic Cummings, the official Civil Service Twitter account published a tweet which described the Government as “Arrogant and offensive”, and asked: “Can you imagine having to work with these truth twisters?”
Rowling wished to know the name of the official who had posted this rapidly suppressed tweet, so she could pay him or her a year’s salary. She denounced Cummings’ “indefensible hypocrisy” and described Johnson’s behaviour as “despicable”.
While the trans row is not at the front of the public’s mind, it poses a mortal danger for Labour, opposing as it does two groups which believe themselves to be in exclusive possession of the truth, while their opponents are plunged in unforgiveable error.
Trans activists maintain that men who know themselves to be women should be able on their own authority to declare themselves women. They are inclined to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being transphobic, an offence placed on a level with racism, i.e. unforgiveable.
Rowling and co hold that sex is a biological given, and say it would be intolerable to allow access to women-only spaces to men who claim to be women. Many traditional feminists are outraged that their hard-won women-only spaces might be invaded in this way.
The majority of public figures, confronted by such a contentious issue, where one is liable to be denounced in bitter terms if one adopts a clear position, try to keep their heads down. (So too many commentators. Here is a ConHome interview with James KIrkup, one of the few journalists to have followed the story.)
No less a figure than Tony Blair has warned, “Keeping your head down is not a strategy.” He went on to say:
“On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or J.K. Rowling is not going to win.”
Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary and one of Labour’s most experienced frontbenchers, nevertheless sought, the other day, to keep her head down, saying when asked to define a woman:
“I think people get themselves down rabbit holes on this one… I’m not going to get into rabbit holes on this… As you can see I’m avoiding going down rabbit holes because I just think this is pointless.”
If Cooper’s view had prevailed, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would never have been written.
Such evasiveness infuriates Rowling. On Tuesday 8th March, International Women’s Day, Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, was asked on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 to define a woman, and said:
“There are different definitions legally around what a woman actually is . . . you’ve got the biological definition, legal definition, all kinds of things.”
Pressed for Labour’s definition of a woman, Dodds replied:
“I think it does depend what the context is, surely. You know, there are people who have decided that they have to make that transition. Because they live as a woman, they want to be defined as a woman.”
“Someone please send the shadow minister for equalities a dictionary and a backbone.”
She also tweeted a picture of Joanna Cherry, an SNP MP who agrees with her on the trans issue, and provided the caption for it:
“This is what a woman who owns a dictionary and a backbone looks like.”
And as it was International Women’s Day, she tweeted:
“Apparently, under a Labour government, today will become We Who Must Not Be Named Day.”
My literary adviser (I have not read the Potter books) points out that Voldemort, the villain, is most often referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named.
Rowling has 13.9 million followers on Twitter, Sir Keir 1.2 million and Dodds 73.3K. Of the three, Rowling is undoubtedly the most entertaining.
For she is not just an avoider of questions or a creator of soundbites. She is prolific and audacious. Some authors, having sold 500 million copies of their most famous series and seen it translated into 70 languages, might be tempted to rest on their laurels.
Rowling would be bored to death by such a life. Rather than emigrate to some sunny tax exile in order to preserve as much of her fortune as possible, she married a Scottish doctor, bought a house outside Perth, had two more children, went on writing books, and set up charities devoted to such causes as multiple sclerosis (from which her mother died), social deprivation and orphanages in Ukraine.
In June 2020 she wrote a piece about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues, in which she said of her decision to support Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who had lost her job for what were deemed “transphobic” tweets:
“I expected the threats of violence, to be told I was literally killing trans people with my hate, to be called cunt and bitch and, of course, for my books to be burned, although one particularly abusive man told me he’d composted them.
“What I didn’t expect in the aftermath of my cancellation was the avalanche of emails and letters that came showering down upon me, the overwhelming majority of which were positive, grateful and supportive. They came from a cross-section of kind, empathetic and intelligent people, some of them working in fields dealing with gender dysphoria and trans people, who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well.”
Rowling was born in Gloucestershire in 1965. Her parents had been in the Royal Navy, and were both 19 when she was born. This was not a gilded, Mitford world, but the house was full of books. She went to Wyedean comprehensive school, where she was head girl, and from there to Exeter University, where she read French, which included a year in Paris.
She always wanted to be a writer, but like most people with that ambition, doubted whether it would be possible. After various unsuitable jobs, such as bilingual secretary, she found the first Harrry Potter story taking shape in her mind on a train journey.
There is a directness in Rowling’s manner which is found in few politicians. She goes for things, and on the trans question she has gone for the whole lily-livered Labour leadership.
If and when she gets them to stop nailing their colours to the fence, she will have done them a service.