Selina Todd and the rise of academic mobs

Academia used to be about open debate. No longer.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams


A female professor is invited to a university to speak about social class. This is bound to go down well with left-leaning academics who measure gender equality down to the nearest penny, right? Apparently not. Next month, Selina Todd is due to speak at the University of Kent as part of a series of public lectures organised by the School of English. In response, an open letter is now circulating, signed by academics and students from Kent and around the world, demanding Todd’s invitation be withdrawn.

Todd is a historian who specialises in the lives of women and the working class. She has dared to suggest that ‘women who posed as men in the past were often lesbians seeking to protect themselves, or because they wanted to do jobs that were only available to men’. Unless we are to assume that every woman who donned a pair of trousers back in the Victorian era was actually a transgender man, over a century before the notion of being transgender had even been invented, this is hardly a controversial view.

Todd’s crime is aligning with gender-critical feminists who believe that a person with a penis is a man and that, while all people should be treated with respect, a man can call himself a transgender woman all he likes, but can never become an actual, biological female just by saying so. Gender-critical feminists are particularly concerned that self-identification might mean an end to female-only spaces or undermine women’s rights. For simply wanting to discuss this, they are labelled transphobes. Todd, having received death threats, now has bodyguards accompany her to lectures.

The open letter to Kent’s School of English is a word-soup of woke cliches, pomposity and tortured academese. It kicks off by stating:

We believe that the message that our hosting of Selina Todd sends to trans and non-binary students and staff in the university, our students who are trans and non-binary allies, and our trans and non-binary future applicants is that the school, and more broadly the university, believes that trans identity is “up for discussion”.

Note the sneering quote marks: how outrageous that anything could be ‘up for discussion’ in a university of all places! But Todd was not even invited to speak about transgender people; the signatories just don’t want her appearing on campus at all. Her very presence is a heresy to the orthodoxy promoted by the transgender movement. Rather than discussing or questioning their ideas we are simply to get in line and repeat their every edict. Black is white. Two plus two equals five. A man who utters the magic words ‘I am a woman’ is a woman.

The letter continues: ‘The English Keynote Lecture series is designed to represent and reflect the attitude, politics and image of the School of English and, by extension, the university.’ But universities, as institutions, are not supposed to have a political position on any issue. Doing so would be antithetical to education; it would suggest that research and teaching must lead to certain pre-determined and incontestable conclusions. It is not the University of Kent, nor the School of English, but the letter-writers themselves who have a closed-minded hostility to difference of opinion.

They go on: ‘The power dynamics of providing a platform to Selina Todd in the name of “academic free speech” means putting trans and non-binary members of our community into the position of having to defend their right to exist.’ This time the scare quotes imply academic freedom is just an excuse for bigotry and suggest that ‘providing a platform’ means far more than simply facilitating a discussion. To substantiate the melodrama of people being forced to defend their existence, they turn to the High Priestess of Academic Wokeness, Sara Ahmed, and her claim that ‘there cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are, in effect or intent, arguing for the elimination of others at the table’. This is truly bonkers. Do the signatories really think that Todd is arguing for the ‘elimination’ of people who describe themselves as transgender? Do they assume that those listening to a lecture on social class will rise up, grab pitchforks and go on a violent rampage against transgender people?

But they continue: ‘The idea that trans people are a threat to women… is a false and harmful narrative.’ All false and harmful? What about Karen White, the male rapist who identified as a woman and sexually assaulted women in prison? What about the male-bodied transgender women who have physically attacked women trying to discuss the Gender Recognition Act? Or women who spend years training to compete in elite sporting contests only to be pushed into second place by men who identify as women? Or the 13-year-old girl currently seeking a judicial review against Oxfordshire County Council because she has to share school toilets and changing rooms with members of the opposite sex. Seriously? The harms inflicted upon these women count for nothing?

The letter-writers soon get to the crux of their problem with Todd: ‘Her views refuse to acknowledge that trans women ARE women, that trans women’s rights ARE women’s rights.’ Todd’s crime is a thoughtcrime. She refuses to chant along with the new orthodoxy spelt out in capital letters for those of us too stupid to read lower case. Perhaps the signatories to the open letter would like to make a bonfire out of biology textbooks. And then perhaps they can burn the witch, too. Because that’s what this open letter really is: a demand for people to pile on and cancel the latest heretic found on campus.

Things could be worse. Given the apparent global reach of the letter, it hasn’t yet garnered thousands of signatures. Many of those who have signed are not academics. Some are students tragically learning censorship at the feet of their professors. Some are professionals employed in quasi-academic roles, paid to manage diversity. The job titles of others (reader in law and social justice; co-director of the Centre for Sexuality, Race and Gender Justice; lecturer in feminist philosophy) reveal the extent to which the boundary between scholarship and political advocacy has been eroded.

It is tempting to call on government ministers to intervene and enforce academic freedom. But with some lecturers intent on deriding free speech in order to enforce political orthodoxies, this would be a futile gesture. Worse, it would further erode academic freedom as decisions about who gets to speak on campus are taken out of the hands of professors and students. What’s really needed is for academics to stand up for free speech – and to understand that this means allowing a platform for speakers they might vehemently disagree with. So good on the University of Kent for standing firm and keeping Selina Todd’s invitation open. Let’s hope they don’t buckle under the weight of a few signatures.

Joanna Williams is a spiked columnist and director of the think tank, Cieo.

Picture by: YouTube.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Dan Under

17th February 2020 at 11:23 pm

Interesting article, thank you.
The neo-Marxist identitarians seem the manifestation of a biological, social and economic dead end. All the vapid verbiage generated in an effort to control the language and so, the people.
Rank insanity on display. Women shouldn’t stand for it.

a watson

15th February 2020 at 9:30 am

As long as working class British boys from low income backgrounds are denied access to further education. Rather sell it expensively to children from abroad – let alone give them good industrial skills – we can always get skilled and cheap labour from elsewhere in Europe.

Aunty Podes

15th February 2020 at 3:34 am

It’s all rather simple – in their crass woke stupidity these poeple deny and decry the norm and reality!

In short – they are nuts!

Hugh Gibney

12th February 2020 at 4:15 pm

Excellent article.

Philip Humphrey

12th February 2020 at 8:28 am

Can’t help feeling that academia itself is now rotten. Once academics were expected to debate and discover the mysteries of life and the universe, and pass their knowledge on to students. Now we seem to be down to “gender studies” and “feminist philosophy”, and what is worse is that even the sciences seem to be being affected by it, things are no longer discussed rationally if there’s an “issue”. It’s difficult to know what to do about it, but I think we can and should make sure that not one penny of public money goes to such things as “gender studies”.

Hugh Gibney

12th February 2020 at 4:15 pm

I agree entirely with what you say in your last sentence. This has already happened in Hungary where the government has defunded “gender studies” courses in universities.


12th February 2020 at 10:02 pm

Great goulash in Hungary.

Ven Oods

12th February 2020 at 8:28 am

“Todd, having received death threats…”
Is there any hope for the human race, when folk who demand tolerance of their non-mainstream views think it’s okay to threaten the life of someone whose views they won’t tolerate?

Michael Lynch

12th February 2020 at 3:28 am

This is the behavior of a cowardly Mob and nothing more. Braying for a hanging on the flimsiest of pretext. Instead of the noose and torch they carry the IPhone and Twitter.


12th February 2020 at 10:09 am

Bit obsessed with this, aren’t you?

Hugh Gibney

13th February 2020 at 9:42 pm

Regarding the quality of the goulash in Hungary, I’ll take your word for it.

Hugh Gibney

14th February 2020 at 4:57 am

It seems to me that the quality of the good sense of the Hungarian government matches the superior quality of Hungarian goulash.


16th February 2020 at 10:43 pm

HUGH GIBNEY — Watch out or we’ll have a goulash backlash.

H McLean

11th February 2020 at 10:36 pm

The lunatic neoMarxist academics who signed this should be removed from positions of responsibility and kept away from sharp implements.

Mind Wizard

11th February 2020 at 10:01 pm

I am a rabbit. I have no fur and just two legs, but I AM a rabbit. My genetic code says otherwise but I AM a rabbit. All biological evidence points the other way, but I AM a rabbit. I neither eat carrots nor live in a burrow, but I AM a rabbit. So there is nothing to discuss here. Since I AM a rabbit, pointing out any fact that contradicts this reality is an act of bigotry and hate. In fact, you are endangering the lives of all rabbits and conspiring to commit an act of cunicultural genocide. I WILL NOT defend my right to exist.

Now, all say after me: “He IS a rabbit!”…”He IS a rabbit!…”He most certainly, indisputably and obviously IS a rabbit!”

I thank you. And I particularly thank Dr Juha Vertanen of Kent University for penning a wonderful letter encouraging others to no-platform that famous rabbit hater Professor Selina Todd. The fineness of Dr Juha’s mind (and morals) is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in his delightful experimental poem, “Land”. Read it and know, with utter confidence, that Kent University’s English Department is in the very safest and sanest of hands:

Ven Oods

12th February 2020 at 8:29 am

“but I AM a rabbit.”
You’re not just saying that to get some of that no-nonsense, anytime-at-all sex that rabbits seem to enjoy?


12th February 2020 at 10:08 am

Hare, hare! Well said!


12th February 2020 at 10:05 am

The rabbit analogy is a poor one. Men and women are the same species i.e. essentially the same thing whereas men and rabbits are different species. The rabbit analogy is a straw man designed to prevent serious discussion of the aetiology of transsexuality and the proper clinical response.

Mind Wizard

12th February 2020 at 11:28 am

Your species argument is…well, specious. The active ingredient in this debate is the notion that words alone can transform your biological status. They can’t. A man who insists that he is a woman makes the same logical and scientific error as a man who insists that he is a rabbit: he is, in fact, neither (except in his imagination or, given your aetiology reference, his psychological delusion.)


12th February 2020 at 12:02 pm

MIND WIZARD — You’ve never heard of a ‘legal fiction’, have you?

Mind Wizard

12th February 2020 at 12:30 pm

ZENOBIA PALMYRA – You presume too much. Legal fictions are right at the heart of the transgender issue. The Gender Recognition Certificate allows someone to change their sex on their birth certificate and thereby create a legal fiction: the law will treat that person in law as something that they are not in reality – that is, the law will treat them as a member of a sex that is not their biological sex. The notion legal fiction is not incidental to this debate: it is, in legal terms at least, its very substance.


12th February 2020 at 1:54 pm

MIND WIZARD — I fail to see why ‘transsexuals’ should be denied their legal fiction. Gender dysphoria exists and individuals with this condition should be accorded full legal protection and basic dignity. Like yourself, Selina Todd has missed the point completely by reducing the issue of gender, and ‘transsexuality’ in particular, to one of semantics. Todd, and others like her, are merely using this issue as a vehicle for their own prejudices and attempting, without warrant, to limit the freedom of action of people with whom they disagree.

Mind Wizard

12th February 2020 at 3:12 pm

ZENOBIA PALMYRA – once again it is you who is making the category error. Of course gender dysphoria exists. It is categorised in DSM-5, the official diagnostic tool for psychiatric disorders, and is quite rightly subject to a range of medical, psychotherapeutic and hormonal treatments up to and including surgery. It is a medical condition subject to the diagnosis of medically-qualified practitioners.

That, however, is not necessarily the same as Gender Identity as defined in practice by – amongst others – the Canadian man who insisted that female beauticians wax his scrotum on the grounds that he defines himself as a woman (and s/he has just had his/her case thrown out of court). Self-defining yourself as the opposite gendern not via a medical diagnosis but by dint of saying “I AM a woman”, is the true and absurd reduction of this issue to what you call semantics. Arguing, as some do, that there are ‘hundreds’ of genders and that I am at liberty to choose, chop and change my gender identity at will – and that you must bend to my definition of myself on pain of being labelled a bigot – is the absurd result of pandering to the most extreme example of identity politics currently doing the rounds.

In other words, contrary to our academic witch hunters at Kent University and elsewhere, this issue (and the real-world consequences it has for biological women in particular) is up for discussion. The ‘freedom of action’ for self-defining Transgender people which you insist should be uncritically accepted impinges hugely on the freedom of women to not have people with penises in their toilets and changing rooms. As the article points out, it also impinges of the freedom for women athletes not to have to compete against biological men because they redefine themselves at women. In fact, the self-evident injustice and absurdity of these and other consequences of transgender identitarians and their woke intellectual fellow-travellers is precisely why the latter will not and cannot allow the debate to be held. It is, quite simply, one that they will lose, which is precisely why they go for the person and not for her argument.

Mind Wizard

12th February 2020 at 3:31 pm

…and as to who, exactly, is seeking “to limit the freedom of action of people with whom they disagree”, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it is those on your side of the transgender identity movement. They have created a toxic environment in which people who disagree with them now receive death threats, require body guards and suffer the kind of personal and professional attacks worthy of East Germany circa 1965.

Ellen Whitaker

11th February 2020 at 8:34 pm

The identity of trans women has become sacrosanct, and not open to question. Female identity has become pernicious, and is disposable.


11th February 2020 at 11:31 pm

I’m not sure that is true. There are seems to be a great deal of mildly hysterical opposition to so-called ‘transsexuals’. So-called ‘transsexuals’ are human and it would therefore seem likely that they have a wide range of opinions about themselves and what being ‘transsexual’ is really about.

Robert Spowart

13th February 2020 at 2:39 pm

Of course Trans people are human and are entitled to the same human rights as anyone else and, should in alleviate their mental illness, I have absolutely no problem, beyond, perhaps, a quizzically raised eyebrow, with a man wishing to dress as a woman and live a feminine lifestyle, or a woman dressing as a man and having a masculine lifestyle, provided they do not cause harm to anyone else, fund whatever treatment they desire from their own sources and NOT the NHS, and provided they do not upset the horses.

However, what is guaranteed to get this old cob kicking in the traces is the pretense and delusion that such people really HAVE become the opposite sex and their continual attempts to force their delusions onto other people, especially their attempts to brainwash our young.


16th February 2020 at 8:31 pm

ROBERT SPOWART — For most legal purposes, a tg person with a Gender Recognition Certificate has ‘become’ a member of that biological sex. It is a legal fiction designed to protect the fundamental rights of the tg person, and absolutely necessary because of that. Complaining that these people ‘have not really become the biological sex they believe they ought to belong to’ really misses the point. Nobody would argue against adoption on the grounds that the child ‘was not really the biological child of the adopting parents’. In both cases, adoption and GRC, the legal fiction is justified in order to ameliorate the plight of the individual concerned. Such intervention is entirely appropriate and morally justified.

Andrew-Paul Shakespeare

11th February 2020 at 7:38 pm

I wonder what the reaction would be if I went to the University of Kent and declared: “Jesus is Lord and Saviour! This is not up for discussion!”

Ven Oods

12th February 2020 at 8:44 am

The reaction would be Kent cant.

Claire D

12th February 2020 at 1:47 pm



12th February 2020 at 10:06 pm

I would concur that Jesus is Lord and Saviour. I do, however, think there are bigger issues than transgenderism. Feminists are attacking tg people as they represent an easy target. They should really be attacking the treatment of women within Arab and/or Islamic cultures but we all know why they won’t do that – PC ideology, cultural relativism, personal cowardice and an understandable of provoking an *extremely* violent reaction from the members of the Arabian religion.

K Tojo

11th February 2020 at 5:59 pm

Is there any point in extolling the virtues of free speech when you are confronted by hard left activists who quite consciously view free speech as a weapon in the hands of their enemies?

If you assume that they do not understand the importance of freedom of speech and thought you are mistaken. They are intent on imposing a cultural revolution if they can get away with it. Denying the opposition a chance to speak whenever possible has always been a favourite tactic of the Left. Why would they be interested in free and open debate? Too risky. They might lose the argument and that would only lead to Wrongthink and Wrongspeak harming the vulnerable (their mascot).

Nope – best to steer clear of the white, middle class distractions of debate and discussion. Kit yourself out with some good wholesome (and safe) socialist ideas and you won’t go far wrong.


11th February 2020 at 5:46 pm

Is S piked still obsessing about this issue?

Jerry Owen

11th February 2020 at 10:27 pm

Seeing as you are anti empires how do you explain your support for the expansionist self confessed EU?
I’m still waiting for an answer!


11th February 2020 at 11:29 pm

‘expansionist self confessed EU’ — Yoda you are? Grammar poor that is. English before your some to attempting learn interlocutor engage.

brent mckeon

12th February 2020 at 5:32 am

ZP why don’t you answer/debate Jerry’s question instead of hiding behind critting his english?


12th February 2020 at 11:02 am

Why don’t you answer this first: Why do the British persist in supporting their corrupt, outmoded and undemocratic monarchy? The Windsors are clearly just a bunch of capitalist freeloaders:

Weyland Smith

12th February 2020 at 8:31 am

No, it’s criticising a group of academics who take it upon themselves not only to dictate the one-true-view on behalf of all other people, but to close down all discussion and thereby all dissent. Pol Pot would be proud. You could try reading the article – although I seem to remember you saying that you don’t need to.

And regardless of the grammar, you could explain why you are such an ardent supporter of the EU, which openly promotes its expansionist ambitions, and denies its citizens any democratic means to influence its program.

Geoff Cox

11th February 2020 at 5:18 pm

First they came after right wing speakers – and people said nothing;
Then they came after right of centre speakers – and people said nothing
Then they came after UKIP – and people said nothing
Then they came after Brexiteers – and people began to notice
Now they are coming after feminists and finally people are fighting back.

But every time a university or private venue gives in to these loud mouth bullies and actual extremists, it’s a victory for them and on they march.


12th February 2020 at 1:59 pm

Most of the strident university feminists I have met are embittered loadmouth bigots who are far more interested in furthering their own careers than in promoting the legitimate interests of ordinary women. It is interesting that they spend so much time attacking ‘transsexuals’ (a tiny minority) while saying nothing about the far more serious issue of the appalling treatment of women in Islamic countries.

Anakei Ess

13th February 2020 at 4:06 am

I agree with you there re the treatment of women in the third world but as you say there is no will to tackle it..
Unfortunately, while “trans ” are indeed a tiny minority, they are having an effect on the rest of us out of proportion to their numbers


16th February 2020 at 8:33 pm

ANAKEI ESS — It takes a thousand normal humans to fell a single transsexual. These beasts have Herculean powers!

Anna Bolick

11th February 2020 at 5:02 pm

I bet your bottom dollar that they cave in to these repressive eejits.

Jerry Owen

11th February 2020 at 4:26 pm

I bet a pound to a penis.. I mean a penny they they do indeed cave in.

Jonathan Marshall

11th February 2020 at 4:18 pm

“Let’s hope they don’t buckle under the weight of a few signatures.”

I bet a guinea to a gooseberry they do.

christopher barnard

11th February 2020 at 4:07 pm

The intolerance of some ‘left leaning’ people in our HE system is only effective because most students could not care less about their immature and self-indulgent antics, and most adults in the outside world don’t either.

Brandy Cluster

11th February 2020 at 4:53 pm

“Some”? Do look again.


12th February 2020 at 10:06 am

But you all get very worked up about it on these forums.

Claire D

12th February 2020 at 1:50 pm

As do you Zenobia.


12th February 2020 at 10:03 pm

CLAIRE D — Not at all, but I am enjoying seeing some of the more extremist and hysterical reactions on this website.

Claire D

13th February 2020 at 6:25 am

Your calm, measured analysis never fails to impress me Zenobia.

Claire D

13th February 2020 at 6:38 am

Sorry, that was a bit mean, take no notice Zen, an early morning quick response.

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