Discover more from The Mule by Milli Hill
I will not be silenced
It’s difficult to talk about the experience of being bullied, picked on, vilified. Sometimes it feels easier to stay silent, to quietly move on. There’s a shame that comes with being attacked, it somehow taps into the darker voices of your own psyche that whisper to you from time to time that you are bad or unworthy. It’s also scary to think you might invite further attacks, and just perpetuate an already horrendous situation. And I think as women we are often encouraged to keep our heads down and keep walking, rather than ‘fight back’. Not to be angry, not to be aggressive, not to draw attention to ourselves. Instead to hold our distress in our quietly clenched fists, in the tightness of our jaw, in the knots of our shoulders. And be silent.
But too many women have been silenced, and I don’t want to join them. There are conversations about women’s rights, women’s bodies, and the words we use to talk about women’s issues, which need to be had, but which have been made taboo in our current culture. And this is not healthy. Worse still, women like me have been used as an example to others of what happens to you if you raise questions. And others have seen these public draggings, and decided to keep quiet themselves. This kind of behaviour, in which dissidents are made a public example of in order to ensure compliance to dogma, does not have very good historical precedents. And yet it currently describes itself as ‘the right side of history’.
I don’t want to focus on the details of the ‘gender debate’ too much in this post, I just want to tell the story of how I was treated because of personal views I expressed, and expose it to the light. And I also want to be very clear that I support equal rights and absolute respect for all people, regardless of how they identify or wish to live their lives. My hope is that telling my story can both expose how women with questions are currently treated, and also encourage further dialogue about how areas of life such as pregnancy, birth, infant feeding and menstruation, can be made more inclusive without women feeling they have lost the freedom or the words to talk about their biological reality. This is a topic that needs dialogue not further division.
A bit of background about who I am and why I’ve ended up in this conversation. In 2012 I set up a grassroots organisation called The Positive Birth Movement, a network of free to attend meet-up groups for pregnant women to come together and change the narrative about childbirth. I’ve run this network single handedly ever since, and I closed it in early 2021, in part due to the extreme bullying I have experienced in the so-called ‘birth world’. I am also a freelance journalist who has written a lot of articles about birth and parenting, and the author of two bestselling books about childbirth, The Positive Birth Book and Give Birth like a Feminist. I have a new book out in August about periods, for preteen girls. My work for nearly a decade has revolved largely around women’s reproductive lives.
Two or three years ago I began to be curious about some of the language changes I was noticing around childbirth. Language is something that, as a writer, I’ve always got on my radar, and I have in fact become known for challenging a lot of the language around childbirth that is archaic or potentially unhelpful. The two new phrases I began to notice were ‘birthing people’ (used alongside or instead of ‘women’), and ‘assigned male / female at birth’. The latter I found slightly confusing. These days the sex of babies is usually determined in prenatal tests and scans, not at birth. And ‘assigned’, linguistically speaking, suggests something that is given or allocated to you by something or someone external, not something that is innate, as biological sex is. And yet this phrase that seemed inaccurate in several ways seemed to be tripping off people’s tongues.
‘Birthing people’ seemed ok – but I did wonder how the phrase had been chosen, and who had agreed that this was the best pair of words for those who were pregnant but did not wish to be referred to as women. I asked this question in a group for student midwives, but was quickly informed that questions like this were not acceptable, and I was requested to no longer post in that group. This worried me. Why was this topic so closed down, why were questions not allowed or even considered hateful? It felt like the phrase ‘women and birthing people’ was a mantra that had to be used without question, in order to show you were on board.
I had wider questions about the direction of travel. Before motherhood and writing, I was a creative psychotherapist, and a lot of my work was one to one therapy with children and young people, particularly ‘looked after children’ post abuse and trauma. I was genuinely concerned about the concept of ‘being born in the wrong body’. When I saw the spectrum shared by Mermaids of ‘G.I. Joe to Barbie’, this reinforcement of old fashioned gender stereotypes felt massively regressive to me, both as a feminist woman and as a parent. And when I started to read about the ‘affirmation model’ with children presenting with gender dysphoria, I felt particularly uneasy. This was not how I had been taught to practice as a therapist. Therapy was about holding a space, listening, allowing the client to freely explore. It was not about affirming OR denying, because this implies a bias or judgement on behalf of the therapist, which is not really the idea. Again I won’t go into depth here as there is a story to tell, but suffice to say, I felt when I said, ‘women and birthing people’, I was somehow pledging allegiance to a wider set of ideas that I wasn’t fully on board with. Not to say I had made up my mind about all of this – but I had questions. And questions were not allowed. It all felt wrong.
For the most part, I kept quiet though. I was simply watching from the sidelines and reading as much as I could. I didn’t blog or write about these issues, and only made a very occasional comment on social media. I could see clearly how this was a topic in which it was not well received if you stated an alternative view, and where my own opinions were still evolving. However, on 25th November 2020 I was tagged in comment on an Instagram post about obstetric violence. This is a topic I’ve written extensively about, and that features heavily in my book Give Birth like a Feminist. 25th November was also International Day to End Violence Against Women, so I’d been reading a lot about violence against women that day and thinking about how obstetric violence sits within that and is often overlooked. There were several slides to this post, but this one jarred for me.
My work and thinking around obstetric violence had led me to the view that it is ‘sex based violence’. Please note my use of the word sex here, not gender. Sex as in biological sex, not gender as in the social constructs around roles, clothing, behaviour etc. Like other forms of violence against women, obstetric violence happens to women because they are female. What I saw happening in this slide was a genuine mix up between the absolutely correct idea that the problem here is patriarchy, a system that oppresses and damages women on the basis of their sex, and obfuscating terminology that is unable to name the oppressed people. So I felt compelled to speak. As I had been tagged in a comment, I responded to that comment and wrote:
“Thanks. Good to see this post. I would challenge the term ‘birthing person’ in this context though, especially on international day to end violence against women. It is women who are seen as the ‘fragile sex’ etc, and obstetric violence is violence against women. Let’s not forget who the oppressed are here, and why.”
The original poster replied, “Obstetric violence is violence against anyone on the receiving end of obstetric violence - women, trans men, non-binary people, anyone.”
And I then said, “Personally I think it’s part of violence against women but if you disagree then at least don’t leave them out and say ‘women and birthing people’.
Remember, this was a reply to a comment on an Instagram post on an account with a relatively low number of followers. I didn’t expect anyone to see it apart from the person whose post it was, I just felt moved to say what I thought. But then, all hell broke loose.
A doula (professional pregnancy and labour supporter) posted screenshots of my comment in her stories. I’m going to share with you just a few of the social media posts, and the subsequent things that were said about me by others on Instagram and facebook. The posts and comments are from a variety of people, and I have concealed their identity because I don't want to incite a pile-on onto them, having experienced how horrendous it is myself. I have a whole file of these, probably nearly 100 screenshots, but they are all similar to the following.
The situation seemed to be spiralling out of control, but what then made it worse was the organisation Birthrights joined in – and not to defend me. On the 26th November, right in the eye of the storm, they posted on Instagram, not naming me directly, but stating that they were ‘proud to be an inclusive organisation’, that they would use the terms, ‘women and birthing people’, and that they would, ‘not work with individuals and organisations who do not share these values and will always challenge, either privately or publicly if appropriate, those in the maternity and birth rights movement who speak or act in a discriminatory way.’. It didn’t take long for people to work out who and what they were referring to.
Comments were eventually turned off, but it still felt like a well respected organisation (and one which I had supported wholeheartedly for nearly a decade, promoted in every article and book I wrote and even donated hundreds of pounds to during the pandemic), had ‘rubber stamped’ the appalling pile on I was experiencing, and somehow endorsed it.
Then, and this part was unbelievable, I received an email from the CEO of Birthrights at nearly 11pm that night, just as I was on my way to bed. It takes the same line as the Instagram post, with perhaps the most notable paragraph being:
“Birthrights is very clear that we are an inclusive organisation and are here for everyone who gives birth, regardless of how they identify. We reject any suggestion that respecting pregnant non-binary and trans people diminishes women’s rights. I have also seen other social media comments/replies where you undermine trans and non-binary people and state that people can only be male or female. This is harmful and distressing and in my view not compatible with a rights-based approach to pregnancy and childbirth. I'm afraid that Birthrights isn't able to work with people who don't share our inclusive values.”
The ‘other comments’ they refer to I believe to be these, made during a discussion in a private facebook group. I only have a copy of them now because they were screenshot without my knowledge and circulated by someone else, and presumably sent to Birthrights and others. I stand by what I said in these comments and don’t feel they are transphobic.
Birthrights then pointed me to their Inclusion Statement, the publication of which they said they had ‘brought forward’. Having read a few Inclusivity Statements and policies over the years this one is striking in its emphasis, not in who their organisation will work to include, but in who they will work to exclude. Again, they repeat the phrase that they, ‘will not work with people who do not share their values’.
I responded to their letter and they wrote back, ending with:
“I regret very much that it has come to this point, but as a human rights charity, we can't work closely or publicly with people who don't promote the inclusive values set out in detail in our statement.”
I responded to this, challenging their stance and pointing out the implications of it for freedom of speech. “If a human rights organisation wants to participate in furthering this environment in which disagreement, questions and alternative perspectives are disallowed then I find this extremely worrying”, I wrote. “You state that you want ‘everyone to feel welcome and safe in the birth movement’ – but it seems there are caveats to this – ‘we want everyone who agrees with us to feel welcome and safe’.” They did not write back.
(In the past week I have contacted Birthrights to say that I am thinking of making my story public. They suggested I go through their complaints procedure, which I am considering.)
Meanwhile the online storm continued, with the really intense part lasting for at least 2 weeks – although there are little ripples and shockwaves even today. Some birth workers seemed to be revelling in it, making long videos or posts about me, interspersed with other posts advertising their business. On November 30th, a trustee of Birthrights made a 16 minute video calling for my cancellation. I was attacked across Facebook pages, groups, and Instagram, often being tagged by the attackers. A ‘mother supporter’ (a type of breastfeeding support worker) for the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (ABM), shared a meme ‘How to Give Birth like an Exclusionary White Feminist’ on the 27th November, writing underneath:
“Let’s just air it. Milli Hill. We shouldn’t be buying her books. We shouldn’t be gifting them. We shouldn’t be following her. We shouldn’t be quoting her. She has dangerous opinions, beliefs and views.”
She then shared this meme to a large home birth facebook group of which I was a member, and I was deliberately tagged in the resulting comments. A complaint was made to the ABM (not by me) about her behaviour and that of two other 'mother supporters'. After a meeting of their trustees the ABM decided that their members had breached their social media guidelines and discriminated against me. Then, after one of the three posted on social media that the ABM had ‘chosen the side of the oppressor’, the ABM quickly backtracked. As I pointed out to the ABM at the time, it felt like in the end they decided that online shaming and bullying of an individual was acceptable, as long as that individual held a view that was deemed unacceptable – and to me that stance feels like dangerous territory indeed.
I should say that I also received many many messages of support. Almost all of them said that they could not support me publicly as they were so afraid of being attacked themselves. Some did try to support me, or just call for reason, and were attacked, their livelihoods also threatened. One friend told me that being linked to me ‘had caused her a lot of harm’, another told me she had been directly, repeatedly harassed and told to break all association with me. Even in the past week (July 2021), I've had reason to believe that someone who posted about liking my books on social media was then contacted and told to take the post down, which they did. This situation has affected both my friendships and my livelihood.
In many places online, there were inevitably people saying, “I’ve looked at the comments Milli Hill made about obstetric violence and I don’t quite understand the problem here”. Those people were told, “Just look at all the other things she has said” but not what those things actually were.
The theme that I had been repeatedly hateful or transphobic in the past and that this was some kind of ‘final straw’ kept being repeated, in spite of no evidence of this. Alternatively people would be told, “She always deletes comments, looks like she’s done that here”, implying that I’d said other, worse things, and then deleted them. (I hadn’t). Little fires were being started everywhere though, and I took legal advice, the long and the short of which was to lie low and wait for it to go away.
So that’s what I did. I also took the decision to close the network of Positive Birth Movement groups that I had run for so many years. I wanted to remove myself completely from the ‘birth world’, so that people no longer felt the weird kind of ‘ownership’ of me that seems to come with running an organisation like that. And which I guess is only fair – those people who disagreed with my views did indeed have a right to contact me and tell me so if they were running a PBM group. But, as a passion project that I had started with an idyllic idea of changing birth for the better, and which had barely ever generated any funds – I just couldn’t do it any more. I felt deeply tired and hurt, and along with the pandemic, and a personal desire to broaden my horizons beyond birth, the things people were saying about me online were the last straw. I have kept the social media channels and website, and I have kept the passion. I remain the author of two books about birth and I remain determined that we desperately need to improve birth for women. But the network of groups – the part that seemed to make me public property rather than just another business owner – had to go.
By sharing this story, I am aware I am laying it in front of you for your judgement. You may decide that my views about obstetric violence or the distinction between sex and gender are wrong. And that’s OK. It should be ok for us to hold different views and to respectfully discuss them. When we do so, it’s sometimes even possible to change people’s minds. Alternatively, we don’t change their minds, but our own clarity of thought benefits from the dialogue, and we develop and grow from the experience of sharing our views and disagreeing. We discover branches of thought we have not yet explored, we enter into grey areas, we see new perspectives. This is the kind of nuanced discussion that elevates humanity and promotes ideals such as peace, progress, growth and tolerance.
The opposite happens when we decide it is acceptable to mistreat, silence or bully people with whom we do not agree. It should never be acceptable to threaten individual’s livelihoods in the way that is currently happening to so many women. I can see that the tide is currently beginning to turn on this, as more women speak out – and this is my main motivation for speaking out. But I also hope that at some point there is a period of reflection on just how far the policing of women’s thoughts and opinions was allowed to go before anybody really noticed. To those of us in the eye of the storm, it felt completely dystopian, and this was exacerbated by the fact that the majority of people seemed to have no idea that a modern day ‘witch hunt’ was happening – or perhaps they did know, but looked the other way.
I also hope that people take time to consider why those who are being dragged to the pyre are not just women, but in most cases, lifelong left-leaning, open minded, educated and tolerant women, often with a history of supporting minority groups or working in areas concerned with justice and fairness. Either there is something in the water that has caused these usually rational and inclusive women to turn into hateful bigots overnight, or they have a point that’s worth listening to.
Finally I would like to stress that trans people also need to be listened to, and that we need dialogue not division. I am not hateful or transphobic. I totally respect all people, however they wish to live or identify, and support dignity, equality and equity for all. A big part of the current problem is that the ‘bar’ for what is transphobic has been set so low that it even incorporates statements of fact such as ‘humans are sexually dimorphic’ or ‘only female people give birth’. Recently I stated that there were two sexes in a facebook discussion with midwives and was told I should ‘respect other people’s beliefs’. I find it worrying that biology has somehow changed category from ‘science’ to ‘religion’ in this way. But even if we accept this, it should not therefore follow that those of differing beliefs are persecuted. Up until now I have said very little on this topic, but even so, I think people could tell from the very little I did say that I was not going to nod along with the mantras. Just for hinting my dissent, I was viciously attacked. But I am a woman who has a track record of speaking up – this is why I became well known in the birth world in the first place. I am not a midwife or a birth expert, I made my name for being an articulate woman with an opinion who was unafraid to speak truth to power. I will always be that woman. I will not be silenced.
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