When Suzanne Moore left her job at The Guardian, she announced the news on Twitter, accompanied by a sassy picture of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson strutting down a corridor with her belongings in a box.
“I have left The Guardian. I will very much miss SOME of the people there. For now that’s all I can say,” she declared.
The picture was “just a little joke,” says Moore, winner of last year’s Orwell Prize for journalism, her face half-hidden by that familiar cascade of hair as she relates the events that led up to her sensational resignation, 25 years after she joined the paper, over Zoom.
She would have loved to march out Peggy-style, but the truth is she went into the office no more than once or twice a year: “I don’t fit in there and never have.”
As she reflects today on some of the more absurd aspects of the row about transgender rights that has ended her time at the paper, Moore, 62, allows herself a laugh, but beneath the calm exterior she is very, very bruised.
“I feel betrayed,” she says. “We are living in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to say certain things.
“Almost every week now a different woman is put on the pyre: J K Rowling, Rosie Duffield, Selina Todd. It’s always a woman who is some sort of heretic and must be punished. If all this is about how trans people can have the best lives they can possibly have, how does this help them?”
J K Rowling became a victim of cancel culture in June when she mocked the phrase “people who menstruate,” saying: “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Labour MP Rosie Duffield received death threats after liking a tweet suggesting “people with a cervix” should be called women. Selina Todd, professor of modern history at Oxford, was condemned after addressing a meeting of Woman’s Place UK, a group campaigning for women to have separate spaces on the basis of biological sex. Opponents regard it as a “trans-exclusionary hate group”.
Now Moore and one of Britain’s most venerable newspapers, founded in 1821, have fallen victim to the culture war that has engulfed universities and become a powder-keg issue on the Left. “It was entirely my decision to leave,” says Moore defiantly, but still she feels that she was hounded out.
The drama began back in March, when Moore wrote a column lamenting the culture of cancellation and no-platforming and spoke of her sadness at the way a once-united campaign for sexual freedom – where women wanting abortion reform marched alongside men and women seeking gay rights and vice versa – has fragmented into factions, at one another’s political throats.
She also reiterated her view that women are women: that sex is a biological fact, rather than a construct assigned at birth (unlike gender, which suggests boys and girls should behave in a certain way). Feminists like Moore have become increasingly concerned at the prospect of being made to make way for trans women, even those who have had no surgery and therefore have essentially male bodies.
There are concerns about allowing them into women’s changing rooms or refuges and there has also been controversy about transgender women competing in women’s sport, where they have a natural physical advantage.
To most people, such concerns would be entirely unremarkable, but to the transgender lobby, which wants sex to be recognised depending on whether you feel yourself to be a man or a woman, this was incendiary.
“The way the column is spoken about, it’s as if it was Mein Kampf,” says Moore. “Obviously I defended Selina Todd, but it’s mad that a professor of modern history at Oxford has to go around with security. The situation has become so crazy, I have friends, academics and others who are afraid of losing their jobs because of inadvertently saying the wrong thing.”
First came a letter of complaint with 200 signatories, including the author Reni Eddo-Lodge and Sian Berry, co‑leader of the Green Party.
“In an editorial conference, I’m told, a trans woman, who had resigned some weeks earlier – so not over my column – made a dramatic and upsetting speech about feeling unsafe and I think that was horrible for everybody,” says Moore.
“Hadley Freeman [another columnist and writer], who’s been a staunch, brilliant supporter, defended me. But then all these people signed a letter saying The Guardian should be a safer place to work because apparently three trans people had resigned in the last year. I didn’t know that because I didn’t go in there.”
Then 338 Guardian staff signed a letter to the editor, Katharine Viner, urging her to do more to make the newspaper “a safe and welcoming workplace for trans and non-binary people” and criticising its “pattern of publishing transphobic content”.
The letter did not name Moore, but was clearly prompted by her column.
“I naively thought I would be defended, because that’s what’s always happened at other newspapers,” she says. “I thought a public statement would be issued making clear this letter-writing business was not on. What happened was, the editor offered to take me out to lunch. I said I didn’t want a lunch. I’m not five, I don’t need to be patted on the head and given a veggie burger.”
It was hardly the first time Moore had encountered opposition. She had to have police protection some years back as a result of voicing an unpopular opinion and she has been deluged with abuse, rape and death threats online, even threats to rape her children.
Though her career began at The Guardian, she has written for other newspapers including The Mail on Sunday, where she worked alongside Peter Hitchens, one of Britain’s most vociferous Right-wing columnists. “Peter and I would have stand-up rows, we’re opposites, but that was it: next day we’d be back to normal. I’m able to work with people I disagree with,” she says.
For years, she was also able to campaign alongside people she disagreed with on certain points, and they with her, but she says that is not true of the new generation who revere Jeremy Corbyn.
“These young people, Momentum people, cannot tolerate difference,” she says. “They think they can, but they can’t. We saw it with Brexit. If you’re a Remainer, how do you win over people to your side? I know! Call everyone who doesn’t agree with you a racist idiot. That really helps, doesn’t it?
“It’s the same with Labour. Anyone who doesn’t like Jeremy Corbyn is a Tory, so guess what, people in the Red Wall voted Tory. So much for the art of politics being about persuasion.”
When the names of the staff who signed the letter were leaked, Moore was horrified to see they included a couple of people she had regarded as friends. “I just wonder why no one picked up the phone,” she says.
Author Irvine Welsh, sports presenter Gary Lineker, MP Jess Phillips and the rock band Primal Scream have given Moore their support and she received – and is still receiving – many messages in private.
“All the major writers on the paper wrote letters or messaged me. I got a message from someone saying: ‘I wish I could have spoken up for you but I was afraid of losing my job.’
“There are a lot of people with mortgages and with children who want to speak up but can’t – women especially. This isn’t just about newspapers. I can walk along my street and a woman will stop me and say: ‘I’m a teaching assistant and I said something the other day and I think I might lose my job.’ It’s because of the incredible lobbying and institutional capture Stonewall [which campaigns for LGBT rights] has had on our education and public sector. It’s become quite a witch-hunt.”
That self-censorship should hit The Guardian, which has always regarded itself as a beacon of liberal thinking, strikes her as particularly sad: “I know within the paper many, many women are unhappy because when something like the J K Rowling incident happens there are some people at The Guardian who feel they cannot defend her. I don’t know what the logic is any more, yet we have to have articles about some bloke who’s taken HRT and learnt to cry, and an obituary for Peter Sutcliffe.”
Moore’s column was published on March 20, three days before the country went into lockdown. So all this was happening while the Covid crisis was at its height and Moore did what most people did. “I just got on with life. I kept writing. I was so shocked I didn’t process my feelings.”
It was only when lockdown was relaxed, over the summer, that she allowed herself to think about what had happened. “I realised how horrible it had been and I finally put a name to it all, which was bullying. That was a hard thing to do, as I don’t like to think of myself as the sort of person who might be bullied. Who does? But then I thought: ‘338 people sign a letter that wants you fired and no one really stands up for you, this isn’t a nice place to work…’ ”
So she has walked. She has occupied herself since in writing a detailed account of her side of the story – and the wider debate on transgender rights – for the website Unherd, which will be published today.
She is not sure what comes next, but one thing is for certain: she won’t be silent for long.