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Stella Creasy is clarifying her position on the word ‘woman’. “Do I think some women were born with penises? Yes”, she declares. “But they are now women and I respect that.”
We are here to talk about a horrific experience when she was threatened with gang rape at university but, as with all conversations with politicians these days, particularly Labour politicians, any discussion about women quickly turns to their struggle to define the term in the first place. Many of her colleagues have notably declined to even try.
Surely, as a fellow feminist, she and JK Rowling aren’t too far apart on the issue? “No, I don’t agree with her and I’m told I am a bad feminist because I take a different view,” she reveals.
“JK Rowling doesn’t support self-identification whereas I do. Of course biological sex is real – it’s just not the end of the conversation. I am somebody who would say that a trans woman is an adult human female. I would say that you and I were adult human females.
“As an old fashioned feminist, I’m still fighting the patriarchy. I’m not interested in fighting amongst ourselves. And one of the things that happens to trans women is that they are oppressed because the patriarchy goes, ‘Oh well you’re a woman, right that’s it, let’s pick you apart’. So it’s right for me to stand with my trans sisters and say: ‘Let’s fight these battles together’.”
Describing as “bonkers” the need for two doctors to decide whether someone is a woman or not, as the law currently requires, she adds: “That brings up all sorts of questions about what is a woman in terms of gender – what does it mean to live as a woman? I wear flat shoes, I’ve got terrible bunions, is someone going to tell me that living as a woman means you have to wear high heels for two years?
“Do I want to live in a world where we’re policing everyone who goes into a toilet? No. Do I recognise that there are very real concerns about refuges and safe spaces? Yes. Do I think we’ve got it about right with the Equalities Act? Yeah, more or less.”
‘One rule for them and one for the rest of us’
The patriarchy is something earnest Creasy, 45 has been fighting all of her adult life. (She twice refers to the Suffragette motto “deeds not words”).
Earlier this month she disclosed that she had been threatened with gang rape amid a campaign of sexual harassment after entering student politics at Cambridge.
It happened while she was running for president of the Junior Common Room at Magdalene College in the mid-Nineties when she returned to halls to discover posters had been put up saying “Don’t vote for Stella”. At the same time, the “Cr” at the beginning of her surname had been crossed out so it read Stella “Easy” instead. Rubbish was strewn around her room and she found “globules of spit” on her floor. Whenever she invited a man back, there would be cat calls down the corridor.
The hate campaign reached its peak when she said she found herself cornered in a room where she had been playing pool with a group of lads, only for one to joke about gang raping her.
When she complained to the college authorities, she was questioned about her sex life and reprimanded with no action taken against the students involved.
Revealing the culprits were the friends of a student she had had “a very casual relationship with”, she says: “I wouldn’t even call it a relationship. It’s just what you do when you’re that age.
“The harassment started because I had been involved with one of them and another one thought that therefore meant I was fair game. When I’d said ‘It doesn’t work like that, sunshine’, he took it upon himself that this was an egregious assault. A young man at a hallowed place like a Cambridge College couldn’t seem to cope with someone saying no, especially when that person was a woman.
“Suddenly I was very acutely aware of being alone with his mates and suddenly this was the big joke amongst them.
“They were joking about how they could gang rape me if they wanted to. It was very frightening.
The tutors’ reaction was, according to Creasy: “What have you done to provoke this?”
She recalls: “I was 19, having to talk about my sex life with male academics. They were people in positions of influence over my academic career and it was excruciating. I also had to talk to the porters who were very old men and didn’t really know what was going on. The fact that they then dismissed what I was trying to tell them made it even harder. There has to be a point where women can say this stuff without being judged.”
The mother of two decided to speak out in middle age because she saw parallels between how they abused their privilege and what is going on in the House of Commons right now, both in regard to Partygate and the so-called “Pestminster” scandal.
“Has that really changed, that idea that we indulge entitlement? Isn’t that what we’re seeing right now, that there is one rule for them and one for the rest of us?
“Forty per cent of the public don’t think democracy works. And a lot of that is about people looking at other people in places of privilege and entitlement, people from elite backgrounds who behave in ways that are toxic.”
Some years later, Creasy stumbled on the men who threatened to gang rape her and her legs gave way. “One of them started to try and say ‘I don’t think we were very nice to you at university’ but by then the damage had already been done. I just left.”
Since she went public she has been in contact with the university to see what measures can be put in place to protect today’s students. “The most important thing is that the complaints process is completely independent. It is very difficult to confide in people who are also marking the work that is going to decide your future.”
A latter day Harriet Harman
Born in Sutton Coldfield to an opera singer father and mother who was the headteacher of a special needs school, grammar-educated Creasy went on to undertake a PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE).
Despite her mother Corinna’s self-proclaimed “aristocratic” upbringing, both parents were Labour party members and Creasy started her political career as an intern at the Fabian Society think tank before working as a researcher and speech writer for a number of ministers under Tony Blair, including former home secretary Charles Clarke. She returned to LSE to complete her thesis, entitled “Understanding the lifeworld of social exclusion”, receiving a doctorate in Social Psychology.
Elected as a councillor in Waltham Forest in 2002, she served as the borough’s deputy mayor and later mayor from 2002 until 2003 and for four months in 2010 prior to her selection as a candidate from an all-women shortlist. She won Walthamstow with a 51 per cent share of the vote, which she increased to 76 per cent at the last general election – making it one of the safest Labour seats in the country.
Despite supporting his brother David’s leadership bid, Ed Miliband swiftly promoted her to Labour’s front bench, where she served as both shadow crime minister and shadow skills minister.
Yet it was as an outspoken champion of women’s rights that Creasy made her name as a latter day Harriet Harman, supporting the No More Page 3 campaign to stop The Sun newspaper from publishing pictures of topless glamour models and more recently arguing that misogyny should be made a hate crime. After expressing solidarity with the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, who had lobbied the Bank of England to put a woman on the £10 note in 2013, Creasy received numerous rape threats and other misogynistic messages on her Twitter timeline, leading to a troll called Peter Nunn being jailed for 18 weeks. “Twitter tell me we should simply block those who ‘offend us’, as though a rape threat is matter of bad manners, not criminal behaviour”, she said afterwards.
Having tried and failed to win the deputy leadership of the party under Jeremy Corbyn, she supported Owen Smith’s unsuccessful bid to oust him in 2016 before becoming a vocal critic of the MP for Islington North, considering Corbyn too extreme left.
‘There are a bunch of mums mad as hell that they’re being left out’
Her partner, Dan Fox, is a former director of Labour Friends of Israel. Although she refuses to detail the couple’s difficulties having children out of respect for her family’s privacy, she had made no secret of the fact she suffered concurrent miscarriages before falling pregnant with her daughter, who was born in November 2019. “It was soul destroying,” she admits. “I just thought, I’m killing my babies. I felt that my body was out to do my baby harm. That’s what it does to you.”
Becoming a mother galvanised her views on parental rights and, as part of her ongoing campaign for better maternity provision in Parliament, in 2020 she became the first MP to appoint a locum to manage constituency work after she had her daughter.
She is still calling for pregnant MPs to benefit from the same conditions as Attorney General Suella Braverman, who was granted full maternity leave under the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021, but the Government remains reluctant to extend the provision beyond serving ministers. When she gave birth to her son in September 2021, she was denied the locum. “They saw me coming,” she sighs.
If having two children under two wasn’t hard enough, her second pregnancy proved even more difficult when she was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. The diagnosis brought back painful memories of the miscarriages.
“I could never go for a scan on my own because having had a scan where I lost my baby, I’d get flashbacks to that moment. The fear I had that I would kill my baby because of what my body was once again doing was intense.”
Yet the arrival of her son sparked a different debate altogether after she was rebuked by the parliamentary authorities for bringing him into a Westminster Hall debate about buy-now-pay-later consumer credit schemes in November 2021.
Afterwards, she tweeted:
Apparently Parliament has written a rule which means I can’t take my well behaved, 3-month old, sleeping baby when I speak in chamber. (Still no rule on wearing masks btw).
Mothers in the mother of all parliament are not to be seen or heard it seems….#21stCenturyCalling pic.twitter.com/rKB7WbYQrL
— stellacreasy (@stellacreasy) November 23, 2021
She recalls: “I’d actually brought my daughter into a debate and it wasn’t a problem.
“With my son, I didn’t have any cover. I had MPs saying ‘Well you’re on a good deal, you can just disappear for four months’, but I thought, hang on a minute, I’ve got a job to do with the public.
“And I’m still feeding my son, so childcare doesn’t really work. Which is why I had him in the debate. No, I did not want to take my baby into the chamber but without someone to look after him, the alternative is that the work wouldn’t have got done. And it was an important debate about buy now, pay later companies (eg Klarna). I fed him so he was ‘milk drunk’, and perfectly asleep.”
Claiming “motherhood has become a dirty word”, she reveals that even female Labour colleagues criticised her.
“I had women do the whole, ‘Don’t make a fuss’ thing. I had one woman MP suggest that I was the reason we were losing votes.
“I’ve endured a lot of abuse about all the campaigns that I’ve run so I’m used to getting grief. But the abuse and harassment I get about motherhood… I’ve actually had a lot from some of those women who would call themselves defenders of biological sex, attacking me for talking about having a baby.
“This kind of, ‘Oh she acts like she’s the first person to have ever had a baby’. Do I? No, I’m talking about the place which makes the laws not including people who are having children in an easy way. And actually, that means we miss out on their contribution. There are a bunch of mums out there who are mad as hell that they’re being left out.
“Yes, I’ve got kids and I love them but I also have a life and things that I want to do. One of things I want women to stop doing is saying they’re ‘difficult’. I’m not difficult, I’m different. I work in different ways. We need to stop these microaggressions against women, ‘You’re difficult, you’re mad, you’re hysterical, you’re emotional, you’re not strategic”.
In March, Creasy launched “MotheRED”, to give mothers the resources to run for Parliament, amid concerns that the prevailing Westminster culture puts women off standing while their children are young.
Among those backing the campaign are Cherie Blair, Baroness Shami Chakrabarti and former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who will all help select potential candidates.
She is also pushing for Parliament to adopt some of the flexible working practices, including proxy voting, that were deployed during the pandemic.
“Notwithstanding the pros and cons of MPs on Zoom, actually, hybrid ways of working help include people – why wouldn’t we do it?
“Jacob Rees Mogg running around leaving notes on people’s desks... It’s not just the school prefect, it’s the school show off. And it doesn’t speak to the world that most people live in. Most people want work life balance.”
Despite her criticism of the Government Efficiencies Minister, she singles out the MP for North East Somerset as someone she has been able to debate with on the issues that matter to her, such as abortion. “He’s always a perfectly reasonable person to speak to. I completely disagree with him on everything he stands for but I’m ideological not tribal. That’s how I know I disagree passionately with Margaret Thatcher,” (although she concedes that the former Prime Minister was right to say she didn’t represent “every woman”. Who does?). On Boris Johnson, she adds: “I think it’s a Trumpian kind of politics he’s trying to employ but I will work with Conservatives. That ‘kill or be killed’ thing, thinking you’ve got to be right all the time. That’s where people make mistakes.”
When it comes to her own party, however, Creasy remains somewhat of an outsider. So far Sir Keir Starmer has resisted calling the woman once described as “one of the brightest lights of Labour’s new generation” to serve in his shadow cabinet.
Does she want a bigger job? “I would do it if I was asked but there’s a treadmill of being everyone’s cup of tea and if you want to get things done, sometimes you have to break cover and be someone who is controversial.”
Creasy, it seems, is determined to be the mother of all agitators when it comes to fighting for the rights of women - even those with penises.