TERF wars

Emma Allen of Radical Women attempts to explain the transphobia exhibited in some parts of radical feminism:

At the heart of the attacks on transgender people is the traditional radical feminist notion of biological determinism, which interprets humans and human life from a strictly biological point of view — holding that biology is destiny. Their view that women’s inferiority is based on their biology and that men are the enemy, is a reverse image of patriarchal hatred of women. The basis of radical feminism is to see men as the problem, painting women as the natural victims of men. If women are oppressed specifically because of the reproductive organs they are born with, rather than a deeper social-economic source of gender inequality, then transwomen can’t be part of the club. Accepting the sisterhood of non-biological females challenges the very basis of radical feminism.

The Radical Feminism talked about here is that current in feminism that sees the patriarchy, the systemic oppression of women by men as the root of all oppression, privileging it above race, class or sexuality based oppression. In the socalled Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism version of this, this belief has hardened into a belief that gender is exclusively biological in nature, that men and women are in opposition and hence therefore any trans woman is nothing but at best a spy, an intruder. At the same time because, as Allen explains, this current of Radical Feminism also believes that the feminist revolution can only be completed if gender is abolished entirely as a concept, trans women are a direct threat to their ideology, as obviously they show gender goes deeper than the gender expression radical feminism recognises.

Emma Allen’s own form of feminism, socialist feminism on the other hand recognises that:

In contrast to radical feminists, socialist feminists view the private property system as the historical and economic foundation for patriarchy and the subordination of women and sexual and gender outlaws.


The role capitalist society has assigned to women is directly challenged by the existence of transgender, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, intersex and queer people – which is a good thing!

Unfortunately however Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism is more prominent a voice in radical feminism at the moment. Born out of second wave feminism, many of its adherents and allies like Julie Birchill, Germaine Greer or Sheila Jeffreys have a voice through the mainstream media less accessible to trans feminists and their allies. And as Tina Vasquez lays out in Bitch Magazine, TERF feminists use their influence to attack and hurt trans women:

For example, transgender people were able to readily obtain government-funded healthcare prior to 1980. That year, Janice Raymond wrote a report for the Reagan administration called “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery” which informed the official federal position on medical care for transgender people. The paper’s conclusion reads, “The elimination of transsexualism is not best achieved by legislation prohibiting transsexual treatment and surgery, but rather by legislation that limits it and by other legislation that lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping.” In her book Transgender History, Susan Stryker says that the government curtailed transgender access to government social services under Reagan, “In part in response to anti-transgender feminist arguments that dovetailed with conservative politics.”

This is why Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism matters.

2 thoughts on “TERF wars

  1. While I agree as an Inclusive Radical Feminist with much of the analysis here, I prefer to avoid the term TERF, both because those to whom it refers consider it a slur, and because it’s often coupled with threats of violence or other words of hate or degendering. Womyn afflicted with mistaken and in some instances rabidly paranoid and xenophobic theory are still our sisters — although “with such allies…”

    Personally I’d prefer “Raymondian feminists” (after Janice Raymond), or most descriptively this unfortunate school of thought might be called Binarist-Immutablist Feminism. That means that it’s based on a binary “female/male only” view of sex, which is actually a continuum, with intersex people brutally erased; and the idea of immutable sexes, which denies the existence and self-determination of trans people.

    We can and must do better, with Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) of infants and children to bring them into line with the patriarchal sex binary an issue linked to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as the erasure of female sexuality and autonomy. So the “exclusion” of the Binary-Immutablist school isn’t just directed to trans people, and I emphasize this as a womon with nonintersex privilege.

    Another factor in the 1970’s, when Raymondian feminism targeted both transsexual Lesbian feminists like Sandy Stone and our sisters who accepted us as part of Lesbian feminist communities, may have been an ideology of separatism carried to extremes, where anything with a “hint of maleness” was taboo. When this became not only a choice for certain small separatist communities, but a norm to be exported to inclusive womyn’s communities like Olivia Records in the Sandy Stone affair, then an immensely destructive conflict was unleashed whose reverberations still continue.

    Certainly socialism is one antidote, as is intersectionalism with its focus on the womyn of color such as Kimberle’ Crenshaw and bell hooks who defined and developed the concept. The problems of trans exclusion and intersex erasure within feminism can be seen as part of the less happy side of herstory which also includes episodes of racism and xenophobia along various lines.

  2. Amalthea would do well to recognize that advocacy for denial of care that reduces risk of suicide from 30% to 8% is a lot more violent.

    I’m opposed to the term TERF, because as we can see right here, it’s simply used to pinkwash away a lot of the inherent and implicit transmisogynistic behavior of the cisfeminist movement. Frankly, when there’s only one anti-kyriarchal group that has to plead backfire against the people who are purportedly unidirectionally privileged, that group’s claims are empirically suspect.

    People of colour are less safe than white people, poor people are less safe than rich people, disabled people are less safe than TAB people, queer people are less safe than straight people, trans people are less safe than cis people, and Trans *women* are less safe than trans men, cis women… not so much vis a vis cis men.

    Sure, every oppression functions differently, but they all show similar effects, except one. It’s time to test theory with fact. And frankly, general cisfeminist apathy in the face of trans extermination from within their community helps undermine any political reason I might have for going along with the party line.

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