There Is a War Going on Between Feminists That Won't Go Away Anytime Soon

June 2nd 2017

Kyle Fitzpatrick

Feminism has gone mainstream, freed from gender studies departments and liberal enclaves of California. 

A majority 6 in 10 women and a third of men identify as feminist, and 7 in 10 of all surveyed say they find the movement to be empowering, per a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in 2016.

Yet, while seeking gender equality, feminism has a history of failing one group: trans women.

Even feminist icon Gloria Steinem made her transphobic beliefs known in the late seventies only to reverse on the issue in an apology op-ed published by "The Advocate" in 2013.

Steinem's opinion was further complicated by her support of feminist and doctor Janice Raymond whose work against medical abuses of women led to a troubling book that recommended "morally mandating [trans people] out of existence" and bolstered government efforts to reduce trans health services in the 1980s. 

Much of the problem stems from deep discussions surrounding what makes a woman a woman, causing a rift among feminists.

What began as the First Wave of feminism via women’s suffrage evolved into the more radical Second Wave feminism associated with anti-man attitudes leading to the more open and queer Third Wave, with some suggesting an even more nuanced emerging Fourth Wave.

Yet, the more recent rise of the transgender rights movement has added a complexity to the discussion of what makes a woman. Some have questioned the authenticity of the experience of trans women, creating friction.

The most recent glaring example of this was noted feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s comments that trans women are not actually women as they have lived with a male privilege.

The strife has yielded fresh use of a term in feminist corridors: "TERF" which stands for “transgender exclusionary radical feminist.”

The acronym has been around for decades, and is typically aligned with Second Wave feminism’s anti-penis attitudes (which is where feminists like Steinem found an intellectual home).

The point of view associated with “TERFs” is that women who aren’t born biologically female (i.e., trans and queer women) still retain an element of maleness. Persons who align with this thinking are often seen as transphobic and exclusive, dividing a group that is ultimately working for the same advancement of women’s rights.

Transgender feminists are standing up to “TERFs,” explaining that such biases enforce the oppression of transgender individuals.

While the notion of “TERFs” is not new, the discontent with the point of view is becoming more and more pronounced as transgender women worry that the "TERF" point of view enables violence against them.

As Emma Allen wrote for “Radical Women” in June 2013, this means of blocking trans women aligns with “the traditional radical feminist notion of biological determinism.” This causes them to “view transgender people as a threat to that ideal.”

“They contradict their desire to abolish gender when they claim that trans women can't be true ‘women’ because they don't know what it means to be oppressed as biological women,” Allen continued. “In reality, trans women experience the pressures of sexism and frequently point out the stark contrast of how they are treated when the world perceives them as women.”

Some feminists and transgender activists are calling “TERFs” out on social media to highlight how marginalized and vulnerable the population is. The results aren’t always polite.

Many express their dissatisfaction and anger at “TERF” related thinking as a means to show an example of the problem.

While this is typically conducted with tact, some have evolved the calling out into attacks.

Thus, calling out “TERFs” now faces backlash and accusations that it has become a shield for misogynistic, inappropriate behavior.

The concept of “TERFs” has also become a means for people to harass women and has been a well documented threat.

Miranda Yardley, publisher of “Terrorizer” magazine who identifies as transsexual, has concerns with how these grievances are being expressed. “I don’t use that word,” Yardley told ATTN:. “‘TERF’ is incredibly problematic.”

“First of all, most of the people it applies to are not radical feminist and it is applied indiscriminately,” Yardley explains. “The phrase ‘trans exclusionary’ is never defined. Excluding trans people from what? Health care? Housing? What I think it is is womanhood, the ability to claim female.”

“The biggest problem is the way that it is used to dehumanize women,” Yardley says. “[‘TERF’] is used to justify awful behavior and is often accompanied with death threats, rape threats, etc. It’s accompanied by some pretty awful rhetorical violence. Words aren’t violence but it goes into the real world.”

Therein lies the rift: anti-"TERF" feminists are trying to point out a double standard in equality but are being met with attacks and over simplification of identity.

As trans woman Jade Lejeck shared with Mic in January, the issue comes from a genital-based construction of femaleness.

"I believe there's a lot of inequality that has to do with genitals —  that's not something you can separate from the feminist movement," Lejeck explained to Mic. "But I feel like I've tried to get involved in feminism and there's always been a blockade there for trans women."

Yet, as Yardley explains, the block is the manifestation of feminist women standing up to attempts to negate their being.

“There is more of a push back against it, particularly by women who are sick of being told what to do,” Yardley says. “You see women’s groups who are attacked for being perceived as ‘TERFs’ because they wish to have women’s spaces of their own...They’re going after a target that is perceived as an easy target.”

These differing points of view are troubling and can excuse both misogyny and transphobia—and this rift isn’t going to be patched over soon.

While alarming, the discussion of “TERFs” is ongoing and will require deeper conversations beyond social media that is sensitive to all parties involved (with the exception of more extremist voices on either end).

Yardley suggests taking the conversation to those who are completely outside of the feminist community. 

“If this was being aimed at the homophobic and misogynistic men, who are the people who really do make problems for trans people, I think that would be more productive,” Yardley says.