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A feminist with a vivid love of life, gone too soon

Magdalen Berns (1983-2019)

MAGDALEN was born in London and lived all her life in the capital until, as a mature student, she went up to study engineering at Edinburgh University. 

She changed course to physics in her second year and graduated in 2016. 

Not long afterwards, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  

Those dry words obscure the vividness of Magdalen’s life and personality. 

Witty and warm, and with an acute intelligence, she was an activist from her early teens, campaigning against Huntingdon Life Sciences, laying siege to a long-gone fur shop near Piccadilly and giving out election leaflets for the Socialist Labour Party. 

In her twenties when she was working as a sound engineer in the clubs and pubs of north London, her political energies turned to women’s issues. 

During her time at Edinburgh University she repeatedly clashed with LGBT and women’s groups over her determined defence of women’s sex-based rights and the rights of lesbians to assert their sexuality in the face of relentless demands to redefine sex as gender. 

She set up her video blog and, in April 2016, published the YouTube video, “There’s no such thing as a lesbian with a penis.”

Magdalen’s direct, deadpan delivery coupled with her sharp wit and the incisive intelligence with which she skewered the absurdities of gender ideology made her an international hit and, as one of the best-known feminist speakers of her generation, she spoke at meetings across the country. 

Her tiny stature belied her strength and courage — courage which was often called for in the face of harassment. 

She never backed away from speaking her truth and encouraging others to step up and speak up also.

Recognising the threat to women’s rights posed by attempts to reform the Gender Recognition Act, Magdalen campaigned during the government consultation alongside other feminists at Women’s Spaces In Scotland. 

After the consultation closed, she and others realised that the fight had only just begun and that the need to raise awareness was stronger than ever. 

In June 2018, she therefore co-founded the group ForWomen.Scot which has grown to become the largest women’s rights group in Scotland.

And Magdalen had other strings to her bow. As a pioneer of female boxing, she won the Haringey Box Cup in 2010 and became a member of Scotland’s first female Boxing Squad in 2011 when she won the British Universities Boxing Championship. 

Study then took her away from boxing as she became fascinated by coding, participating in the Gnome Foundation (Google) Summers of Coding in 2013, 2014, 2015 in San Jose and Prague, where she worked on a programme to help the severely disabled.

Terminal brain cancer is a terrible diagnosis at any age and for a young, active woman in love with life it came hard. 

Truthfully, she never complained: she took the stoical attitude that everyone dies and she had lived a full life and was happy to have fought the fights she had. 

She leaves behind a grieving family and friends as well as many others fired and inspired by her energy and courage.


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