This article has been written to coincide with International Women’s Day, and examines trans rights in relation to the feminist movement.
Trans misogyny is the intersection of transphobia and misogyny. The term was coined by Julia Serano in her seminal work Whipping Girl, and describes the unique discrimination experienced faced by trans women and femme presenting trans and non-binary people. It speaks to the intersectionality of both womanhood and trans identity and describes the way in which each influences the other.
The vast majority of 3rd and 4th wave feminist literature accepts transmisogyny as an issue, and actively campaigns to mitigate harms against trans women. Indeed, 3rd and 4th wave feminism places much more emphasis on intersectionality in general, accepting that, not only gender identity, but also race, disability, sexuality and financial status mean there is no one way to be a woman, and that the experiences of all women should count in modern feminist movements.
However, particularly in the UK, a small minority refuse to accept trans women (and all other trans identities) in the feminist movement, claiming that trans women cannot experience any form of misogyny because they are actually men. This idea continues to be so pervasive that it has created a false equivalence in the media, with the BBC and print media reporting on trans rights as if they are a threat to women’s rights.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘Trans-exclusionary radical feminists’, or TERFs, believe that including trans women in female spaces, or feminism in general, is a threat to women. They believe this because they largely subscribe to the idea that, to be a woman, one must possess certain biological characteristics, namely a vagina, a uterus and ovaries. To this group, biology is immutable and rigid, and the foundation on which womanhood rests.
Few contemporary gender theorists, medical professionals or modern feminists still use this definition of womanhood, as it is now understood that sex is not binary, and not able to be categorised neatly into male and female.
TERFs argue that only people with ‘female’ sex features can experience misogyny. This is patently false. Misogynists do not check to see whether their target has a vagina before discriminating against them. They do not ask to see a birth certificate before devaluing female contributions. They do not ask for an examination of chromosomes before paying women less, rejecting them for promotions, making unwanted sexual advances, policing their access to contraception or domestically abusing them.
Furthermore, there is simply no evidence that trans women pose any sort of threat to cisgender women.
Kate Manne has described misogyny as the ‘law enforcement branch of the patriarchy’. She writes that it is the failure of an individual to comply with expected gender norms that results in misogyny, and that the tools of violence and harassment are deployed to maintain social order.
The TERF view of womanhood and its relation to misogyny presents a bizarre kind of gatekeeping and is a continuation of the negating of the needs and challenges of all women, not only those who are white, non-disabled and financially stable.
TERFs ultimately uphold the patriarchal view that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are natural, immutable and exhaustive categories, each with expected behaviours that, if transgressed, are worthy of punishment.
So why do people with these opinions position themselves as ‘feminist’? And why are they given a platform to speak on women’s issues?
The reality is that it is easier to position yourself as ‘pro-women’, rather than ‘anti-trans’, and this is why the feminist movement is being co-opted by a small, but vocal, minority.
By repeating false claims that trans women are a threat to ‘real women’, and furthering discredited and archaic ideas about sex, TERFs have been able to position themselves as ‘pro-women’ in the minds of those only vaguely aware of the theories, concepts and arguments behind the feminist movement.
For those who participated in the 2nd wave of feminism, it might seem attractive to agree with TERF rhetoric, as 2nd wave voices and opinions have largely given way to more current scholarship, and an emphasis on intersectionality, that may leave these early feminist pioneers feeling removed from the movement they helped to spearhead.
There is no reason that 2nd wave feminists need to be outside of the current feminist movement, and indeed, the vast majority have kept up with the more intersectional approach of modern-day feminism. But in order to be included, they must commit to feminism for all, not only the select few women who experience privilege outside of their gender identity.