Why TERFs are (sadly) feminists

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.


  1. says

    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.

    yeah, I almost never see “radical feminist” used correctly. “Radical feminism” is not a list of policy positions. It’s the feminism that targets sexism at its roots. Depending on what you see as the roots of sexism and what you see as viable tactics (and, importantly, how you view the possibilities for harm reduction in the context of an overarching campaign whose central goal is eradication), many policy proposals – some contradictory – will be advocated by the many different radical feminists.

    Yet today – and, frankly, probably even before I was born – popular culture appears to treat adherence to a certain list of policy positions as defining radical feminists and radical feminism. But that’s not it at all.

    If ending all sexism is your most important goal or at least one of your most important goals, and if you believe that feminism must attack sexism at its roots, then while you may hold any number of other values and fight for any number of other goals, you’re probably a radical feminist.

    I’m certainly a radical feminist by that definition as are many other trans advocates. But there are many trans-antagonistic folk included in the definition as well. This is inevitable since the definition doesn’t mention trans-advocacy, trans-antagonism, or any other specific value or policy besides valuing actions which attack sexism at its roots and a determination to eradicate sexism.

  2. says

    @Crip Dyke,
    Something I didn’t realize for a long time, is that the meaning of “radical” as “root” predates its modern colloquial usage to mean “extreme”. And part of the reason it came to mean “extreme” is because contemporaries perceived radical feminists as extreme.

    I don’t consider myself a radical feminist. I’m not opposed to attacking sexism “at its roots”, but I don’t frame it in those terms, and have no interest in framing it in those terms. Most of my feminism comes directly or indirectly from Julia Serano, so I guess I would call it transfeminism, except that I’m not trans. But even though I’m not coming from a radical feminist perspective, the early radical feminists read as very sympathetic to me, and they clearly deserve a lot of credit.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Very little of what I’ve seen from transgender-exclusionary feminists has struck me as “radical”.

    A lot of what I’ve seen from “TERF”-critics has struck me as lazy rhetoric-copying from right-wingers.

  4. invivoMark says

    I generally don’t like getting involved in these sorts of definitional debates. I find them largely unproductive and the disagreements tend to be a lot more trivial than anyone involved in the debate wants to admit.

    In this case, I don’t think I find your argument compelling, although I believe I understand your point. My counterargument is thus: if we define feminism as, “advocating and promoting a more equal society for women” – and I think most people would agree with a definition that is something along these lines – then TERFs are not feminists by definition. By singling out a class of women and advocating explicitly against their inclusion in a more equal society, they can’t be considered feminists.

    Obviously this changes if you define feminism as a social movement that originated out of a desire to make cis white women more equal in society to cis white men. But language changes over time, and I think in 2018 that’s an outdated and less useful definition.

  5. says

    I don’t think it is possible to boil all of feminist thought down to a short definition. TERFs believe they are advocating and promoting a more equal society for women, and they believe that the way to do this is to attack trans women. Equity feminists believe they are advocating a more equal society, and they believe the way to do this is libertarianism. Some redpillers believe they are promoting a more equal society for women, by attacking what they perceive to be women’s advantages in society. Wanting to promote equality is one thing, but there are a lot of other background beliefs that you’re taking for granted, such as “trans women are women” and “the free market isn’t enough to promote equality on its own”, and “women are not secretly more powerful than men.”

  6. anon1152 says

    I have a question about two questions.
    1. Are trans women women?
    2. Are trans exclusionary radical feminists feminists?

    Is the answer to the first one an obvious “yes” and the answer to the second an obvious “no”?

    Sometimes I get that impression.

    But behind the obvious (and vehement) answers, whatever they are, there’s a lot there. A lot of thinking hopefully.

    That’s one reason why I’m against drawing these sharp lines. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not comfortable with ambiguity and fuzzy definitions and not-fully-examined/explored premises. But I’m even less comfortable with drawing these sharp lines and separating “us” from “them.” Maybe I should say “yous” from “all y’all”. I definitely don’t feel like I have a team behind me. Or in front of me.


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