December 6th, 2017 is the 28th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, otherwise known as the Montreal Massacre. 28 years ago, Marc Lépine opened fire on female engineering students because he was angry he did not get accepted into the school. He cited feminism as the root cause of that, shouting “I hate feminists!” before shooting at the women. Fourteen women were killed and are remembered today by many across the country. Not only do we remember the massacre and the fourteen women whose lives ended far too early, but we also remember it as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, which was established by the Canadian Parliament in 1991.
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.
The conversation around basic income has been gaining traction in Ontario, with the provincial government releasing a pilot program survey that will be open until January 31st. The gist of a basic income program is to grant everyone a base ‘livable’ amount of money per month on a sliding scale that decreases the amount a person gets depending on how much they make from work or other sources. Unlike some other forms of income assistance, basic income is a safety net that isn’t dependent upon working, looking for work, having to stop working in order to qualify, or proving disability. (A full report on the project from the Ministry of Community and Social Services is available here.) We at RFU support the concept of basic income because, if implemented properly, it would make a considerable material difference to countless women.
The Feminization of Poverty: Women have higher rates of poverty than men virtually everywhere. Women as a class also have more burden of responsibility for others in terms of money, time, and energy. Poverty is, of course, also correlated to race and immigrant status: women of colour, First Nations women, and immigrant women make up a high percentage of low-paying, difficult, and insecure jobs like Personal Support Workers. Women and girls living in poverty are at high risk of entering prostitution in order to survive.
Abuse and toxic relationships: Financial dependence is the primary factor that forces women to stay in abusive or otherwise toxic relationships. In addition to women’s higher rates of poverty in general, abusers usually isolate women from other sources of support in order to cultivate their dependence and destroy their sense of functionality. Making rent alone can be extremely difficult, especially in a place like Toronto, so many women feel forced to move in with partners or parents even though the power imbalance in the arrangement can be detrimental to their well-being.
Mental and physical health: People with invisible or high-functioning health problems–mental and physical–can have a difficult time getting income assistance for their disabilities and may refuse assistance due to stigma against ‘welfare.’ Women suffer from high levels of health problems including anxiety, depression, PTSD, PCOS, and untreated pain. Those who can work are still at the mercy of employers who are not particularly sympathetic to any need for reduced hours, flex time, or other accommodations.
Criminal records: The majority of women who have been through the prison-industrial complex are victims of male violence, child abuse, prostitution, trauma, and other forms of violence. Many are in prison for fighting back against their abusers, and by the end of the process, will have been victimized at least three times over: by their abuser, by a legal system that fails to do justice to female victims of male-pattern violence, and by societal prejudice against criminalized people regardless of the circumstances of their case.
It’s no exaggeration to say that basic income could mean the difference between life and death for millions of women and girls in the province. Although basic income isn’t inherently radical, it does have the potential to give workers some leverage against exploitation under capitalism by giving them leeway to reject jobs with poor working conditions, low pay, and excessive hours.
Basic income is a good idea simply because no one should live in poverty. No one should become homeless and starve to death because they don’t make good fodder for capitalist exploitation. No one who can work should have to choose between exploitation and poverty. We don’t exist to be exploited for fun or profit.
RFU has sent an abridged version of this post as a joint statement in support of the Basic Income Pilot to the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. We hope that eligible readers will take the survey, and we welcome women to comment with what basic income would mean for them and what material effects it would have on their lives.