What are TERFs?
TERFs are trans exclusionary radical feminists. One might think it is easy to determine who is or isn’t a TERF. Are you a feminist? Are you radical in your feminism? Do you exclude trans people? Then you’re a TERF. (And btw, it’s not a slur against women — anybody can be a TERF — it’s simply a way to describe a particular philosophical view in regards to trans people).
But it’s not so simple to define what it means to be a TERF. First of all, what does it mean to be “radical” in your feminism? This is a complicated question and there’s no one size fits all answer. And what does it mean to exclude trans people? Many TERFs claim to be inclusive of trans women insofar as welcoming them into their homes or whatever. So what exactly does “exclusionary” mean? I will answer these questions in this article.
What Does It Mean to be Radical?
“Radical” means getting down to the root, so radical feminists believe they are cutting down to the core of the issue when it comes to their feminism. With regard to gender politics, they typically frame their analysis in terms of the patriarchy and how patriarchy shapes society. The patriarchy is the overarching system of male dominance that has ruled human society since at least the Agricultural Revolution. It’s the system that leads to female genital mutilation, women being seen as docile childbearers rather than capable of leadership and scientific thought, toxic masculinity, not having equal pay, etc., etc. The patriarchy affects all genders, not just women, and men are harmed by the patriarchy as well although they also benefit from it. To some extent we are all complicit in upholding the patriarchy because it is a systemic issue in the same way that racism is systemic and institutional.
Furthermore, radical feminists typically believe in socialization theories of gender whereby there are no “innate” essences of men and women. Rather, women and men are made as such through processes of being raised in the patriarchy. So men are “strong” and “aggressive” and women are “meek” and “soft” only insofar as they are shaped by the culture they have been brought up in. But in an alternate reality, these stereotypes would not exist in the same way.
Another view of radical feminism is that gender is a social construction, is not real, and that biological sex is the only thing that is “real”. This is the root issue in regard to why most radical feminists are also trans exclusionary: they think the sex you were assigned at birth determines your gender. So for radical feminists you are a woman if and only if you are an “adult human female” i.e. someone who, under normal developmental circumstances, would have ovaries capable of producing large gametes aka eggs. And vice versa for men being males who produced sperm.
From this foundation, everything else springs. Because radical feminists don’t believe gender is “really” real, they don’t believe gender identity is real either. All that exists is sex and gender is simply a cultural construction built upon the foundation of biological sex. And so they don’t think trans people are even capable of existing. A trans woman is really just a very feminine man. And a trans man is really just a very masculine woman. And nonbinary people are just confused people following social trends. That’s their taxonomy in a nutshell.
That’s what it means for TERFs to be exclusionary. Because they don’t think gender identity is a real thing, they don’t include trans women in the category of women (because they don’t have ovaries) and they don’t include trans men the category of men (because they don’t make sperm). This is reinforced by their socialization theory. Because trans women did not have the experience of being raised as females in the sense of being vagina-owners-with-ovaries, they missed out on the critical socialization that shapes the essence of womanhood.
So there are in fact two prongs to the TERF worldview: biological essentialism and socialization. And they are mutually reinforcing, for it is the socialization as male or female that “solidifies” their gender roles within the patriarchal system. Because trans people can never experience this they are not “real” examples of their identified genders.
What about trans people who identity from a very early age and were essentially raised as their identified genders from, say, 3 years old? This is a harder case for TERFs but they will just dig their heels in and say they were not raised as male or female. For example, a teenage trans girl would not have the experience of worrying about getting pregnant, or experience the social-shame associated with periods. For TERFs, their experience would be that of being raised as feminine males.
What’s Wrong With TERFism?
So what’s wrong with this view as I have laid it out? The problem is it essentially begs the question in its definition of what it means to be a woman. The view starts with the assumption that you are a woman if and only if you are an adult human female. But one might think trans women are a counter-example to this definition. In logic, all it takes is one counter-example to your definition to render it defunk as a necessary definition. Having ovaries is neither necessary nor sufficient. It’s not necessary because trans women are women and they don’t have ovaries nor is it sufficient because trans men have ovaries and they’re not women.
TERFism is defined by thinking this is not a counter-example. They dig in their heels and say, no, trans women are not counter-examples to the definition. And trans people and trans inclusive feminists retort by saying it is a counter-example. They say, look, here are a bunch of women, they don’t have ovaries or the capacity to produce eggs, and yet they are women nonetheless. The argument then goes round and round in a circle, both accusing the other side of using circular definitions. For trans inclusive feminists, however, what makes trans women women?
This is where things get tricky as there are multiple competing theories. One is the identity theory, which is that trans women are women and trans men are men because they identify as such. TERFs respond by saying this is too weak because anyone can identify and it’s a meaningless term with no real teeth. For example, someone could just wake up one day and identify as a woman — would that make them a woman?
Another approach is to collapse the distinction between sex and gender altogether and say that trans women are female and trans men are male. This is hard to wrap your head around but it’s based on the idea that the body parts a trans women is born with are not inherently male because there are no such things as “inherently gendered” body parts in the same way there are no male or female elbows, there are just elbows.
I am partial to the identity theory myself but I would add a qualifier. The identity must be authentic. And if someone does just “wake up” one day and identify as trans it’s likely because that identity as been repressed for years or been developing unconsciously under the surface of the conscious mind. But what does it mean to be authentic? It means living your life according to the deepest vision of how your life ought to go.
“Deep” here means it’s not just a whim, but something that springs from the core of your truest Self. Which is not to say all trans people know from an early age, or are necessarily “born that way”. Trans identity is rich and complicated and can develop unconsciously and consciously over time. But no authentic trans identity just pops out of nowhere one day, ruling out the TERF counter-arguments that identity is too weak to metaphysically ground something as powerful as womanhood or manhood.
How else do I know that trans women are counter-examples to the definition of womahood provided by TERFs? I know it in the way I “just know” that the world is real. I can’t prove the world is real. There is always room for epistemological skepticism. But I generally trust my senses to deliver me truth. If I see a tree in the yard, I trust it is a tree. Similarly, I just know a woman when I see one.
In the same way, I have been around enough trans women, been intimate with them, been friends with them, to know they are just as womanly as non-trans women. Are they identical to cis women? No. But black women aren’t identical to white women and yet they’re still women. The experiences of women don’t have to all be identical to be valid. Trans women are essentially a unique sub-type of woman, just like disabled women are a sub-type of women or very tall women are a sub-type of women. But being a sub-type does not imply cis women are the “standard” or that able-bodied women are the “standard” in a normal sense. Cis women are also a sub-type and able-bodied women and white women are also a sub-type. We are ALL sub-types.
This is the basis for intersectional approaches to feminism, which are in contrast to the bioessentialism of radical feminism. Intersectional approaches look at gender in terms of how it interacts with race, class, disability, age, and cis-ness or trans-ness, etc. It is the only real way to capture the true diversity of the gender spectrum and how complex and multifaceted gender really is.