I recently wrapped a little research project that involved reading about some early radical feminists from the 60s and 70s. I felt inspired by these people who were instrumental in putting reproductive rights and sexual violence on the map, expanding feminism beyond, e.g., taxes and employment. But in the course of my research, I also discovered that some of them have endorsed TERF positions in recent times. This is all very disappointing, and any desire I had to admire these people fizzled out rather quickly.
And that reminded me of a little thing that bothers me, when people say that TERFs are not real feminists, or are pretending to be feminists. I’ll grant that they are “bad” feminists. But to say TERFs aren’t feminist is to sweep problems under the rug.
In general, I am wary of defining political identities in a way that restricts them only to “good” people. For example, if we define a “Christian” as someone who is morally righteous, compassionate and loving, then what happens when we find a Christian who isn’t? To say, “They weren’t a true Christian,” is to dodge all responsibility. Rather than addressing the fact that some Christians behave badly, it ignores it, denies the very possibility of a problem, and therefore denies the possibility of a solution.
To give another example, it is a common belief that all BDSM practice is a form of sexual abuse. In response, sometimes people define BDSM specifically in contrast to abuse–something that Coyote has written about. This definition goes too far, because it denies or minimizes the possibility of any abuse among kinky people. Declaring abusive doms to not be “true” doms makes it difficult to address abuse within kink communities.
On the flip side, there are also real pretenders to feminism. One of the best known examples is Christina Hoff Sommers, who identifies as a feminist, but who has been a conservative critic of feminism for her entire career. Sommers is one of several public figures who call themselves “equity feminists”, a term that, as far as I know, does not have any real history within feminism, and seems to have been invented by external critics.
So it seems we have a difficult task, finding a definition for feminism that includes TERFs, and yet excludes equity feminists. Ideally, the definition would also apply to feminists of the past and future.
I suggest that there is a simple definition that, while not perfect, closely matches our intuition. Feminism is a tradition. Feminism is a set of ideas expressed by a group of people interacted with one another. And then some of those people left, other people joined, some groups split off, other groups were directly inspired, and so on. And in this process, the ideas that constitute feminism developed and transformed over time. What seems like an essential belief at one time may later become controversial or rejected. And yes, some ideas within that tradition can be just plain bad ideas.
This is no different from how I would define other political groups. For example, the new atheist movement is not defined by adherence to the views of a small set of public intellectuals, it’s a tradition that was kicked off by a group of intellectuals, and which has the power to leave them behind.
There are, of course, ambiguities in the definition. When does a set of ideas depart so much from feminism that it constitutes a break in the tradition? But I say that this is not a flaw in the definition, but a real ambiguity that the definition has correctly recognized.
As far as TERFs go, I think it’s unambiguous that these views are part of a decades-old feminist tradition. Let us not be so proud that we refuse to see that.
One way I’ve heard the history told, is that 2nd wave radical feminists were so influential, that many of their ideas (such as reproductive rights and sexual violence) were absorbed into mainstream feminism, and are now simply considered mainstream. People who identify as radical feminists today often do so because they accept one or more of the leftover ideas that did not get absorbed. Not all radical feminists were trans-antagonistic, but some of them definitely were. So a lot of trans-antagonistic feminists gravitate towards that side of the tradition. I think this is a situation where we’re remembering radical feminism for its flaws, and the tradition is often carried by people who have an attachment to those flaws.