TERFs: Is it Really Feminism if It's Exclusionary?

CW: transphobia, transmisogyny, violence 

Feminism has taken many different forms since its rise back in the 19th century. The first-wave feminist movement focused predominantly on women’s suffrage, AKA the right for women to vote. The second-wave feminist movement came about in the 1960s and 70s, and was much more of a general fight for equal rights and opportunity. The third wave is probably the most representative of feminism today. Third wave feminism was the most intellectual of the movements. A lot of third wave feminists worked to challenge societal norms along with the idea of gender itself. However, the fight for equality is far from over today, as feminism can become exclusionary very quickly. 

You’ve probably heard the term ‘intersectionality’ tossed around in discussions about feminism. If you aren’t familiar with the term, intersectionality is the idea that “all aspects of social and political identity discrimination overlap”. The term was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. Intersectional feminism includes but is not limited to gender, race, disability, sexuality, and so on. Feminism is rooted in the fight for equality for all, yet there is an undeniable presence of exclusionary radical feminists.

What is Exclusionary Radical Feminism?

Exclusionary radical feminism is something mainly associated with TERFs. “TERF” is an acronym for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists. The term was coined in 2008, but TERFs have existed far longer than that. The idea of TERFs came to be in the 70s, when it became clear that there was a need to distinguish between radical feminists who supported their trans sisters and those who didn’t. We should not consider TERFs to be ~true~ feminists, as the hateful rhetoric they push against trans people (and trans women in particular) cannot be overlooked.    

TERFs perpetuate incredibly harmful stereotypes against the trans community, and actively try to “deny trans women basic access to health care, women’s groups, restroom facilities, and anywhere that may be considered women’s space.” TERFs are very concerned with physical biology, deeming only those born with vaginas to be “real women.” This is incredibly invalidating and further pushes a skewed notion that a person’s anatomy can be the only defining factor of their gender. TERFs are far from what the idea of “feminism” stands for. You cannot claim to be a radical voice for equality when you actively dehumanize and invalidate vulnerable communities instead of supporting and fighting for them. 




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Why should I care?

If your fight for equality is not intersectional, it will never serve an effective purpose. This year alone, at least 19 trans people have been killed. The majority were black trans women. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is calling this anti-trans violence a “national epidemic.” This undeniable pattern of violent transphobia has largely affected trans women of color and HRC has been tracking these instances of “fatal anti-trans violence” since 2015. Beyond threats of violence, trans people also face housing, education, and job discrimination. TERFs exclude these women who are unfortunately very susceptible to violence, making it difficult to accept that they still choose to identify as feminists. 

It’s also important to move away from an emphasis on genitalia when it comes to feminist, women’s empowerment, and reproductive rights discussions. Having a vagina is not a defining element for womanhood. Fixating on “pussy power” and referring to reproductive health care exclusively as “women’s” health care quickly becomes isolating towards trans and non-binary people.

Prior to the 2017 Women’s March in DC, Krista Suh, a woman from Los Angeles created a pussy hat that gained a lot of popularity among protesters. People attending the march were able to knit their own hats using the pattern Suh made. While this idea is pretty innocent, the virality of the pink hat immediately turned the focus of the Women’s March to genitalia and further emphasized the (somewhat dated) ideology that there are only two genders. After the 2017 Women’s March, Marie Solis published an article that quoted a few trans people who saw these “pussy hats” as a signal that “there would be other trans-exclusionary messages at the women's marches.”  Shifting the focus from genitalia will make these spaces more inclusive and will open up discussion on how to better advocate for marginalized communities. 

Advocating for and working to protect trans people and other marginalized groups is an essential part of making your feminism (and activism in general) more inclusive and accessible.  This can’t happen when the only voices leading these movements are straight, white and cis-gendered. Utilize any sort of privilege you have to lift other voices up, not as a tool to keep yourself at the forefront of discussion.




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