Note: This piece assumes that readers have a basic familiarity with what TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) means to transactivists, and that it is applied to women whose views are not in alignment with any facet of transactivism whether or not they are actually radical feminists. Readers who are not familiar with this term may want to read the links provided at the end of this piece first, as time will not be spent on the term’s definition or lack of legitimacy.
The misogynistic left and progressives have always had a problem with women. From socialist revolutions to anti-racist and indigenous rights movements to gay liberation, misogynistic leftists and progressives (abbreviated here to “misogynistic ‘left’” for simplicity’s sake)* have expected women to struggle in the service of ‘their’ men and to be silent about women’s oppression or to put women’s concerns on hold until men have achieved their goals. In 1964, American Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael infamously said, “The position of women in [the organization] is prone.” Whether he meant it as a joke or not–so often the excuse we still hear to this day–the statement was emblematic of the environment female activists endured throughout the left. The misogyny of the New Left, an unbroken legacy of patriarchy’s thousands of years of existence, has not been resolved half a century later.
Radical feminists and other leftist feminists are quite familiar with misogyny from all points on the political spectrum. However, this blanket condemnation of a subset of women who recognize the relevance of biological sex and gendered socialization–a minority of activists in neoliberal centres of capitalism, perhaps, but the vast majority of women worldwide–is uniquely weaponized by the misogynistic ‘left.’ In the past, it was more difficult for liberals leftists to find broad support for their overt misogyny because they were not as easily able to hide behind virtue-signalling in order to deflect criticism onto “problematic” women and turn focus onto ejecting women from their own movement. The creation of the concept of ‘TERF’ has been a gift to the misogynistic ‘left,’ from the increasingly accepted and constantly escalating threats of violence to concrete acts of violence against women labelled ‘TERF.’
A brief examination of the functions of ‘TERF’ is important for understanding how its use has come to be an acceptable expression of misogyny. Radical feminists and other theorists critical of the ‘TERF’ terminology have varying opinions about whether or not ‘TERF’ can be considered a slur or hate speech. (Readers can consider the links in this post or do additional research and come to their own conclusions.) However, these facts about ‘TERF’ are clear:
- It is assigned to radical feminists: ‘TERF’ was created by liberal feminists so that they could appoint themselves arbiters of who is a “good feminist” or a “bad feminist” (and more recently, determining if a woman of colour is actually a White Feminist™, or deciding that an anti-feminist transwoman is actually a ‘TERF’); the majority of radical feminists reject any serious identification with or acceptance of the label.
- It is used as a thought-terminating cliché: ‘TERF’ is regularly invoked with the intention of shutting down conversation, removing content and soliciting apologies, controlling whose work is ‘allowed’ to be read/shared and whose work is forbidden, and preventing any and all questions about trans ideology, however genuine, from being asked.
- It is used to dehumanize: People (most often women, particularly lesbians, and sometimes children) labeled ‘TERF’ are considered irredeemable bigots and are often called subhuman, vile, trash, referred to with racist slurs, told to get cancer or die in a fire, and are–ironically–reduced to their genitals through misogynistic and pornographic slurs.
- It is used to instill fear and coerce: People (most often women, particularly lesbians, and sometimes children) are made fully aware that if they are labelled as or associated with ‘TERF’ (including “reblogging from a TERF” about completely unrelated issues or being a gender-critical trans person), they will be immediately and permanently excommunicated from “progressive” groups, harassed, doxxed and driven off of social media, have their groups infiltrated with the intent to dox and ruin their lives, and be barred from “real life” spaces that they may have depended on for safety and support; lesbians in particular are coerced into acquiescing to sex with males under threat of being accused of “transphobia” for their sexual orientation.
- It is used as a threat to livelihood and an incitement to violence: People (most often women, particularly lesbians, and sometimes children) labelled as or associated with ‘TERF’ are threatened with physical and sexual violence, threatened with violence against loved ones (including children) and made to endure mocking of loved ones’ suffering, threatened with murder and mutilation, encouraged to commit suicide, no-platformed, professionally intimidated and fired from their jobs, driven from their homes, and physically attacked.
Regardless of the intent behind the creation of the ‘TERF’ label nearly a decade ago, it is clear that in 2017, ‘TERF’ is imposed upon women in order to prevent critical thought, silence, slander, dehumanize, threaten, instill fear, and in some cases, ruin lives. Because these are the virtually inevitable and irreversible consequences of accusing someone of being a ‘TERF,’ any use of ‘TERF’ against an individual is a statement of acceptance of these consequences.
What is the solution, then, to this excuse of misogyny on “feminist” grounds? Although misogyny will exist until patriarchy is eradicated, it can and must be opposed.
The primary responsibility belongs to men on the left. Men, if you truly want to be allies to women, you will condemn misogyny, even against women you disagree with. You must refuse to exploit the brand of ‘TERF’ or ‘SWERF’ in order to silence women, and recognize that terrifying women out of speaking or asking questions is not winning a debate. You must not accept divide-and-conquer tactics being used to exploit rifts within feminism purely to undermine female solidarity and shared goals. You must respect women’s right to our own spaces where your participation may not be welcome, and our right to define and shape our own movement without your uninvited input. Most importantly, you must challenge the misogyny of other men and never allow it to be considered acceptable activism in your movements.
Women must recognize misogynistic tactics regardless of who they come from. We must refuse the use of ‘TERF,’ ‘SWERF,’ and other anti-feminist labels. We must not sacrifice other women on the altar of leftist misogyny–least of all the trafficked, impoverished, abused, and enslaved women and girls here and around the world for whom biology is all too consequential. We must not fall for externally-created, artificial divisions between women and instead must work to end racism and uplift marginalized women within feminism. We are not obligated to brand ourselves with a label that does not represent us, or that classifies us as subhumans deserving of violence. We are not obligated to unquestioningly follow ideologies that deny material reality. We are not obligated to shut up and do as we’re told.
Women who would be considered ‘TERFs’ have always been the left, and the left could not exist without us. There is no liberation without the full liberation of women and the end of patriarchy. It’s time for the rest of the left to realize that.
Further Reading on arguments for TERF as a slur or hate speech:
Deborah Cameron – What makes a word a slur?
Sarah Ditum – How ‘TERF’ works
Sarah Ditum – What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur
Terry MacDonald – Are you now or have you ever been a TERF?
TERF is a Slur: Documenting the abuse, harassment and misogyny of transgender identity politics
Meghan Murphy – ‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech
Mumsnet Discussion on ‘TERF’ isn’t just a slur, it’s hate speech
Sister Outrider – ‘Punch a TERF’ Rhetoric Encourages Violence Against Women
*The misogynistic ‘left’ is, unfortunately, not just men. See Miranda Yardley’s videos for the perspective of a gender-critical transwoman who was a scheduled speaker and eye-witness to the attack at Speakers’ Corner. Particularly notable is a young woman who says she’s “glad” that a transactivist hit a woman, and who is later seen flinching away from the aggressive action of the male attacker on ‘her side’ of the conflict. Misogynistic men benefit from/instigate/encourage divisions between women, utilize women against each other, and discard them when they are no longer of use. Women who side with misogyny eventually tend to find out that they are not safe from it. However, since the root of this problem is patriarchy and the victims are largely women, the male misogynistic ‘left’ remain the focus of criticism.