In revising my Modern Philosophy class, I added the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. Based on recent revelations about philosophers such as George Berkeley (he owned slaves), I did some digging into the backgrounds of the other philosophers. While I reside in my adopted state of Florida, I believe that the past should be presented in an honest and accurate manner. I was surprised to learn that Wollstonecraft, long praised as a Modern era feminist, has been accused of being an upper class white feminist who appropriated slavery in her writings. While my experience with philosophical feminism is limited, my curiosity about this accusation lead me, indirectly, into both the TERF war and the idea that white feminism can be white supremacy in heels. Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazi” immediately sprung to mind, but with a rather different meaning: feminists who might really also be fascists. As you might be wondering about the connection, a case can be made that there is right wing line that runs through the TERFs and the MEWFs (Minority Excluding White Feminists). In this essay, I’ll focus on the TERFs.
In the beginning, the acronym “TERF” was created by the trans-inclusive cisgender radical feminist Viv Smythe. It originally stood for “Trans-Exclusionary RadFem” but now also stands for “Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.” In its early usage, TERF was presented as a neutral description—it designated a radical feminist who excluded trans women. Over the years, TERF became more inclusive in that it now includes trans-excluding people who are not radical and perhaps even not feminists. Some claim that “TERF” is now a pejorative or even hate speech and feminists labeled as TERFs generally take issue with it and prefer to claim they are gender critical. J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, is probably the world’s most famous gender critical person.
In terms of the truth of the matter, “TERF” can be seen as like “woke” (albeit in reverse). “Woke” originally had a neutral meaning that was positive in nature (being aware of racism) but the American right has worked hard to make it into a pejorative. “TERF” was originally intended to be a neutral descriptor, but the exclusionary aspect was usually criticized. Among the inclusive, “TERF” does have a negative connotation and it is fair to say that some people do use it pejoratively. The neutral definitions of many terms can have positive or negative connotations—a neutral definition of “genocide” would usually still have a negative connotation to most people. Shockingly enough, “TERF” can be used many ways—so one must look at the use before judging. I will, of course, make use of the neutral description and take a TERF to be a feminist (radical or not) who excludes trans women. But what does this exclusion mean?
Put bluntly, the exclusion is the claim that trans women are not women—they are men. Disingenuously but consistently, TERFs claim to be trans inclusive because they say trans men are women. While this view is not exclusive to the American political right, this does put the TERFs and the political right in agreement about trans people: trans people are wrong about their identity. This leads to the matter of what trans people are doing when they make their identity claims.
Since the TERF thinks that trans people are wrong about their claimed identity, they need to provide an explanation for this. One possibility they could advance is that trans people simply have sincere but false beliefs about themselves—they think they have identity Y but have identity X. This would be an epistemic error, on par with a person who thinks they are hilarious but are not that funny (or vice versa). This, however, does not seem to be what the TERFs tend to think—after all, if trans people just had sincere false beliefs about their identity, then the reasonable response would be to simply leave them alone unless the belief proved harmful. In which case, the reasonable response would be an epistemic intervention to sort out that false belief. In general, this epistemic error view does not seem common among TERFs (or the political right).
The view that seems common among TERFS (and the right), especially in the rhetoric, is the hypothesis that trans people are mentally ill. On this view, trans people would have sincere beliefs about their identity, but these beliefs would be caused by their mental illness. Until recently, being transgender was considered just that, a mental disorder and called “gender identity disorder.” Despite this resent change in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the idea that transgender people are mentally ill still remains popular. If TERFs (and the right) believed that transpeople were mentally ill, then one would expect them to also be sympathetic, in the way one might be sympathetic to someone with cancer or anorexia. But TERFs and the right are generally consistently hostile to trans people in ways that one would not be hostile to people suffering from breast cancer. While this might seem odd, hostility towards people with metal illness is common and people with mental illnesses are routinely stigmatized and suffer because of this. As such, it would be consistent for TERFs and the right to stigmatize transpeople if they thought they were mentally ill—that is how the mentally ill are often treated in the United States. We have a bizarre system in which anything seen as a mental illness is often dealt with by the police and punished rather than treated. One reason for this, perhaps, is that psychiatry has long been weaponized against those who are different and those who dissent. But there is also another possible explanation available to TERFs (and the political right).
While those hostile to transpeople often characterize them as mentally ill, there is also the view that trans people (especially trans women) do not believe their identity claims. That is, a trans woman is just pretending. But, of course, merely pretending to be a woman when one knows one is not need not be a matter of concern—after all, actors have been doing this for a very long time and their goals are typically benign: they want to entertain. But TERFs (and the right) usually claim that trans women present a danger to women, and this is why they should be excluded. Not surprisingly, the TERF threat narrative is like the right’s threat narrative.
While J.K. Rowling is but one example, she provides an excellent illustration of the TERF narrative. According to TERFs, trans women are men and thus allowing them in women’s spaces puts women in danger. As would be expected, there is a great deal of focus on bathrooms by both TERFs and the right, with bathroom bills being a key part of the culture war and war on trans people. Both TERFs and the right advance the same argument: trans women should not be allowed in women’s bathrooms (or other spaces) because trans women are men, and they are likely to assault women. The narrative is not always clear about whether the trans women are supposed to just be bad men pretending to be women so they can assault women or if transwomen believe they are women but still act like bad men. On some views, almost all men are bad and want to harass and assault women, so it would follow that if transwomen were men, then they would (probably) be bad. Some on the right and some TERFs also seem to share the view that women are naturally victims of men and require protection from men. While women are, in fact, all too often the victims of male violence and a transwoman could certainly be a bad person, there is no evidence that trans inclusive bathrooms are a safety risk. While women have reason to fear being harmed by men, this threat is not from transwomen and the bathroom bills are, at best, merely useless in terms of protecting women.
Another shared area of concern between the TERFs and the political right is in sports. In addition to bathroom bills, Republicans have been advancing anti-trans sports bills. The argument is that transwomen are either male or keep the advantages of males when competing with females and this should not be allowed because it is unfair. As the NCCA has long had rules on transgender athletes and there are relative few transgender competitors, these seems to be little merit to these bills. And, of course, if the right was truly concerned with fairness and equality for women and girls, they would get around to ratifying the ERA and address issues like pay inequality and the various real harms that women face.
While it might seem odd for some feminists to ally with far-right white supremacists, some TERFS have found shared ground with them. The reason this should seem odd is that white nationalists tare usually misogynistic, but the alliance does make sense. As noted above, TERFs claim transwomen are men who will exploit being accepted as women to gain access to women’s spaces and thus assault women. White supremacists have long focused on protecting “the purity of white women” and both TERFs and far-right white nationalists make use of fictional narratives about sexual assault as rhetorical devices. More importantly, they have a common cause in their commitment to gender conformity and opposition to trans people. While it might seem odd for self-proclaimed feminists to embrace the idea of immutable gender, this seems to be at the core of a TERF philosophy of gender. As noted above, TERFs exclude transwomen because they think transwomen are men and they (generally) include transmen, but as women. In their fear-based arguments, the seem to rely on the idea that men are by nature aggressive and that women are victims of men who require protection through gender defined spaces. That is, they embrace traditional gender stereotypes and thus find a common cause with the far-right white nationalists. This provides a smooth transition to the matter of MEWFs—Minority Excluding White Feminists.