Multiple Sclerosis society defends staff who sacked 90-year-old volunteer for asking questions about preferred pronouns

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society has defended firing an elderly volunteer after she allegedly breached its “diversity, equity and inclusion” policy when asking a colleague what preferred pronouns are.

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the U.S. has defended firing an elderly volunteer after she allegedly breached its “diversity, equity and inclusion” policy when asking a colleague what preferred pronouns are.

90-year-old Fran Itkoff was terminated by her local Californian branch of the society after querying an order from an unnamed representative at the company to begin using pronouns on her email signature.

“I was confused,” she said in an interview with Libs of Tiktok’s Chaya Raichik. “I had seen it on a couple of letters that had come in after the person’s name, but I didn’t know what it was and what it meant.”

Her colleague told her that it was about being “all-inclusive”, which confused Itkoff still further. “It sounds like you are labelling for females, not males, if you are just putting in she/her,” she said.

Following the conversation, she received an email explaining that she had violated the society’s DEI guidelines.

“We appreciate your dedication and contribution as a Self-Help Group Leader with our organization,” the email to Itkoff read. “As we discussed earlier during a phone conversation, after a thorough review of our guidelines and standards, it has come to our attention that there has been a failure to abide by Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion guidelines during your time as a volunteer.”

The email continued: “Unfortunately, based on the situation, we have made the difficult decision to have you step down from your volunteer position, effective immediately.”

“Have you stand down.” As George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language reminds us, the defence of the indefensible is rarely attempted without recourse to euphemism.

Itkoff said: “I was completely shocked. I can’t believe… I had to read it a couple of times to see if I’m getting what she said.” 

Perhaps unsurprisingly the organisation quickly came under fire online for its treatment of Itkoff, a disabled nonagenarian who spent the best part of 60 years volunteering for the organisation to help patients suffering from multiple sclerosis.

“What has been done to this woman in the name of ‘progress’ is one of the sickest examples of this vile movement,” feminist campaigner and writer Julie Bindel said on X.

Addressing the society directly, author Melanie Notkin said: “This is ageism, compelled speech, and awfully disappointing. Is your corporate team aware of the message this sends out to patients, donors, sponsors, and of course, your remaining volunteers?”

Many users threatened to withhold their donations, and encouraged others to send funds elsewhere. “What’s extraordinary about this,” the actor James Dreyfus wrote on X, “is the fact that I’ve now read so many reactions from people who either have MS or are affected through friends and family, saying they will no longer donate, for the abysmal way they’ve treated Fran Itkoff.”

Despite the criticism, the MS society has now doubled down on its decision, stating that staff acted with the “best of intentions” – not quite the “good intentions” with which, according to the well-known aphorism, the road to hell is paved, but not far off either.

“Recently, a volunteer, Fran Itkoff, was asked to step away from her role because of statements that were viewed as not aligning with our policy of inclusion. We believe that our staff acted with the best of intentions and did their best to navigate a challenging issue,” the statement said.

For Brendan O’Neill, writing for Spiked, Fran’s case tells us a lot about our times. The casual disdain shown towards Itkoff by her younger, woke-ified colleagues isn’t some one-off aberration, he says, but fits a broader pattern of “misogynist ageism”.

Witness the ceaseless haranguing of ‘Karens’, a derogatory term for middle-aged, mostly white women who dare to stand up for themselves in public. Indeed, when the SNP’s Deputy Westminster leader Mhairi Black took aim at gender critical feminists last summer and suggested they couldn’t be “decent” people, she didn’t just call them “Karens” and leave it at that – she made a point of stipulating that they were “50-year-old Karens”.

Then there’s the haggard woman’s face that Oxfam chose to use in the “TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) section of its recent Pride campaign.

Earlier this month, we learnt that 68-year-old Una-Jane Winfield had been threatened with a substantial fine by her Stonewall-affiliated London council over gender-critical posters she fixed to her front door.

Late last year, a pensioner from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, was questioned on suspicion of a hate crime, having stopped while out on a walk to take a photo of a sticker on a Pride poster that carried the ‘gender critical’ message “Keep Males Out Of Women-Only Spaces”.

More recently, a private medical hospital in the U.S. refused to treat a woman undergoing treatment for breast cancer based on “disrespectful and hurtful remarks” she made in a private email to her physician. What were the outrageous things she said? She objected to the presence of a trans pride flag in the clinic’s reception area

The author Victoria Smith refers to it as ‘hag hate’, an ageist misogyny aimed at women who are perceived to be well past their sell-by date and – worse – apparently incapable of keeping their gone-off views from leaking all over the public square.

But for Brendan O’Neill, Fran Itkoff’s case alerts us to something else, namely, that today’s fashionable ageism isn’t just misogynistic – it’s Maoist. The aim of the Cultural Revolution was, after all, to wage war on the ‘Four Olds’ – old ideas, old culture, old customs and old habits.

Are we not witnessing something similar today, he asks, when statues of ‘problematic’ historical figures are torn down, university syllabi are ‘decolonised’, literature is rewritten, history is distorted to confirm current political positions, institutions are cleansed of ‘colonial’ legacies, the language of womanhood is erased, and old people – particularly old women like Fran – are sent into social oblivion?

How long, he wonders, before the Maoist ‘Struggle Session’ makes a comeback, and we arrive in a world where people like Mrs Itkoff “are not only cancelled but made to stand in public squares with placards around their necks identifying them as rancid old wrongthinkers”?