Reclaiming Radical: Taking it Back from the TERFS

The first thing I thought after reading Michelle Goldberg’s article in the New Yorker on trans-exclusive feminists (TERFs) was that I needed to stop calling myself a radical feminist. The second thing I thought was that we shouldn’t let them have a monopoly on the meaning of the term. The path from the view that women are an oppressed group to the view that transwomen are a threat is not the straight line Goldberg paints it to be.

Let’s start out by talking about what radical feminism is. The word “radical” means “root,” as in, “going to the root of the problem.” Radical feminists hold that society is organized patriarchally—so as to ensure men’s continued domination of women. Gender is a system of power, and femininity and masculinity are locations within it. As Goldberg gets right, radical feminists believe that being a member of a gender means occupying “a caste-position.” There is a dark side to socially prescribed femininity; “feminine” qualities (like inability to get angry, for instance) keep those who have them subordinate. We also hold that restrictions on sexuality and reproduction have been, and remain, important tools for locking women into a subordinate role.

Goldberg discusses the transphobia of the TERFS as though it is a logical outgrowth of these positions. But some of the TERF claims are not worth dignifying with the suggestion that they are justified by any theory; some verge on hate speech. For instance, Goldberg discusses Sheila Jeffreys’ claim that transwomen begin as straight men with so-called “autogynophilia,” the desire to have the body parts by which they are sexually aroused. But what Jeffreys ignores, and what Goldberg fails to mention, is that the autogynophilia explanation is widely empirically discredited. Worse still, Jeffreys insists on describing herself as opposed to “transgenderism.” Given that trans describes an identity category and not a theoretical position, opposing “transgenderism” amounts to opposing the existence of a group of people.

In trying to explain why TERFs view transwomen as a threat, Goldberg contrasts the radical feminist view with a view that invisibilizes women’s subjugation for the sake of being trans-inclusive. She notes only in passing that there are radical feminists who aren’t TERFs. Within the radical feminist repertoire are a number of ideas that push for the recognition of transpeople as experiencing sexist oppression. Here are few:

First, radical feminists pioneered the idea that making a person’s gender highly visible was a way of marking, and constantly reminding her of place in, the sexist hierarchy. Women’s fashion not only tells us who the women are; it paints us as sexually accessible. The famous example is the posture a woman is forced to adopt to walk in high heels. The view that people are targeted for domination on the basis of visible markers is not compatible with the view that only cisgender women are victims of sexist oppression. If gender operates through a set of visible markers, those who “pass” as women, appear to be trying to pass as women, or those who are perceived as “really” women trying to “pass” as something else, become vulnerable. And there is strong empirical evidence that transgender people are highly vulnerable to sexual violence. Studies consistently find that around 50% of transgender people report unwanted sexual activity.

Second, the view that “woman” refers to a position within a gender hierarchy can be interpreted to cut against the view that a woman is defined by her genital or chromosomal makeup. (And yes I know Jeffreys claims she thinks men are defined by their privilege, but that just doesn’t match up with the conclusions she draws.) Some important radical feminists, such as Shulamith Firestone, believed women’s bodies caused their oppression. But others suggested that placing the focus on women’s bodies was a ruse; it made oppression that was caused by contingent social relations appear biological. As Catherine Mackinnon puts it (in a passage defining radical feminist analysis, in fact), socially produced inequality “creates by force the status [women] are supposed to be destined for by anatomy (Toward a Feminist Theory of the State 90). In other words, it is a social interpretation of women’s bodies, and not simply their bodies, that causes women’s subordination. Pretending that it is the bodies themselves that cause oppression is a way of making women’s domination seem natural—like something that cannot be changed. Appealing to the view that transwomen are not women because they have the wrong bodies appeals to a naturalizing view of gender that radical feminists have reason to reject.

Third, radical feminists have advanced the view that patriarchal power works through medicalization and pathologization of sexuality and reproduction. Transpeople who are diagnosed with Gender Dsysphoria (formerly Gender Identity Disorder) are forced to rehearse pathologizing scripts in order to get medical attention. Intersex neonates, (some of whom identify as trans as adults and some of whom do not), have their bodies have their bodies surgically reshaped to fit the gender regime without their consent. The view of some people as unfit to make intimate decisions about their bodies is at work in the medicalization of pregnancy, denials of abortion rights, and the denial of transpeople’s rights to make decisions about whether and how they desire medical interventions.


It would be wrong for me to suggest that the TERFs’ view has no basis in radical feminist thought, however. If there’s one thing radical feminists have been historically bad at, it’s this: recognizing that sexist oppression is not the only oppression. Some radical feminists explicitly stated that other oppressions (like racial and class oppression) were modeled on gender oppression. In the 1960s and 70s some repudiated women who expressed forms of solidarity with men as collaborators—even when they were women of color whose futures were concretely bound up with struggles for racial justice.

We can see some difficulty grappling with the possibility of other oppressions in the narratives of some of the TERFs interviewed by Goldberg. As a woman of color, I couldn’t help but be struck by the portrayal of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival as the world as though “we mattered”—as though all women’s oppression simply dissolves when men are not present.

I don’t think it’s hard to know what to do with this particular radical feminist inheritance. The view that sexism is the only oppression is one we should repudiate. It is simply a fact know that oppressions are multiple and intersectional. Cissexism  is a real thing that interacts with sexism to shape the lives of transpeople. If TERFs refuse to acknowledge the reality of cissexism because they need sexism to be the only oppression, they are clinging to the very worst part of the radical feminist legacy. We should know better.

12 Responses to “Reclaiming Radical: Taking it Back from the TERFS”

  1. Meghan

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Serene! It’s a good reminder that a radical “justice” that harms others isn’t justice at all.

  2. Serene

    I love the idea that a justice that harms others isn’t justice at all! Thanks so much, Meghan!

  3. Tim R Johnston

    Thank you Serene for this wonderful post. I should note that a lot of TERFs object to the term TERF and claim that it is a slur (and I agree it is often said in a very negative way with malicious animus, but I do not agree that it is conceptually a slur, as it is simply an acronym describing their view). That being said, even if these people reject the term TERF, they certainly do identify as radical making your excellent points relevant, even if we abandon the term TERF altogether.

  4. Serene

    I have no problem stopping using the word “TERF.” Is it better to spell out trans-exclusive radical feminist, or do they object to that framing, too? I just want don’t them to have a monopoly on the term “radical feminist,” so I need a way to point out that they are only one current of radical feminism.

  5. LiJia Gong

    I can totally relate to the feeling of “wait a second, that is NOT what I thought radical feminism meant” when I read the Goldberg piece, so thank you for helping to clarify why I felt that way!!

  6. Serene

    LiJia, I had so many feels about the Goldberg; I am still trying to figure them all out! I am glad you felt it brought clarity.

  7. um guido

    I think radical feminism in general comes close to religious thinking. See, in Christianity, it is said that all men have sinned and fall short of God’s glory. In other words, organised religion regards humankind as a scum of the earth. Now radical feminism on the other hand says that all men are complicit in rape culture or at least that all men benefit from patriarchy. It’s eerily similar to the Christian doctrine of original sin, but it simply regards just half of the human race as a scum of the earth. And I think that TERFs simply take this “men are scum” to its logical extreme. Birth with penis is your original sin and thus you’re a scum of the earth. Even if you will transition, you might become a weirder and more persecuted scum of the earth, but you’re still a scum of the earth. TERFs are basically acting like a cult. They’re fundamentalists in their own belief system.

    I am generally rather pro-feminist. Out of all competing ideologies (including the traditional male chauvinism as well as its more modern MRM descendant), it’s the most compelling. But I can easily see that in order to best embody the spirit of feminism, you just have to be a woman. Men can only be fellow travellers. But they will still be regarded by some (such as those who wish to create women-only spaces and ultimately women-only societies) as a scum of the earth. I’m not going to whinge “not all men”. That’s pathetic. Instead, I’m simply refusing to feel any guilt whatsoever over being born male. That’s how I popped out a few decades ago. Patriarchy or no patriarchy.

    • Serene

      @ um guido I agree that some radical feminists based their feminism in spirituality, but strongly disagree with your claim that the claim that men benefit from patriarchy somehow translates into the claim that men are “scum of the earth.” All feminists believe men benefit from patriarchy (though of course some men are marginalized by other oppressive systems). It does not follow from the claim someone benefits from an oppressive system they are scum. It is usually not within a privileged person’s power to stop benefiting from an oppressive system (no man can on his own stop the fact that people are more likely to take what he says seriously; no white person can singlehandedly change the fact that they are less likely to get arrested), so it makes little sense to call people scum for what is out of their personal control. Feminists don’t say people should feel guilt for how they were born. But we are saying that once one realizes one is benefitting from injustice, one must recognize that fact and work to change it.

      Men who are feminists acknowledge that they benefit from patriarchy and work against patriarchy. But part of recognizing that one benefits from an oppressive system is recognizing that one may not always understand the negative effects of the system—so that means sometimes deferring to the judgment of people who are not benefitting from it. This is why most feminists believe women should set the agenda of the feminist movement, and why some feminists (myself included) there is value in women-only spaces in certain contexts.

      • um guido

        “part of recognizing that one benefits from an oppressive system is recognizing that one may not always understand the negative effects of the system”

        To an extent this is true. I’m often baffled by how militant and angry some of these feminists appear to be. Yes, I am familiar with their reasoning for being so, but I have to question if I’m unable to understand their anger because I’m male and therefore somehow insulated from all the crap they have to handle. In a way, being angry can be conflated with being aggressive*.

        In every ideology, be it feminism, religion or quest for ecological sustainability, there seems to be this permanent tension between sticking to your guns, willingness to stay true to your beliefs and convictions and then on the other hand being too aggressive in terms of pushing your ideology on other people or judging others for having differing opinions. Or is it just me imagining this permanent tension, simply because I’m male and supposedly privileged and I would be just as much of an aggressive feminist if I woke up one day as a woman and would have to endure all of the horrors myself? For me, feminist anger is definitely a source of confusion, but for many feminist activists the answer is cut and dried: a true feminist is supposed to be infuriated by the system.

        Now on the other hand, I’m not quite certain if women’s problem are only inflicted by men. Women can be horrible towards other women as well. It’s one thing if men are accusing women of dressing like sluts. But it’s no less vile when a woman is judged to be a slut (maybe because she’s more popular with men or because she looks conventionally more attractive) by another woman.

        Women-only spaces seem to be geared as safe havens from problems inflicted by men, but if women managed to live in a society without men for a certain fixed amount of time, how long before the tensions between women themselves start to pop up? The multiplicity of the humans does unfortunately mean troubles getting on with each other. Also, slut-shaming is often a class issue. Amongst female college students, upper-middle class students can regard students of lower classes to be sluttier than themselves, even when they engage in far more sexual activity than their lower class counterparts.

        *re: aggressiveness, I certainly appreciate that your response was fairly civil and that you actually responded with arguments. I had good expectations when I read the comment policy and it does seem open and honest dialogue are valued here. Which is a good thing.

        • Serene

          @um guido As Audre Lorde wrote, anger is an appropriate response to injustice. We should be morally outraged by things that are outrageous. Women and people of color get told often not to be angry, but this can be a way of discouraging them from defending themselves and working for change. Claiming that women and people of color are angry is often a tool used to justify ignoring what they have to say.

          On your point about slut-shaming: slut-shaming is a gender and class (and race) issue. The idea that multiple oppressive systems intersect is is a key part of most contemporary feminist thought and activism.


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