‘TERF’: A handy guide for irresponsible journalists, shady academics, and irate men

Liberal media has a problem with feminism. Namely, they don’t get it. Or they pretend not to, in any case. I am willing to acknowledge that “gender” is a confusing concept, to be fair — we’ve been told so many things about gender it’s hard to keep track: it’s interchangeable with sex, it’s about personal expression, it’s an internal sense of self, it’s pantyhose and pink lipstick, it’s an innate desire to be either a mother or an engineer. All these different views of “gender” means feminists like me — who view “gender,” generally, as a social concept — spend a lot of time repeating ourselves, in an effort to communicate a clear and coherent definition of gender. Unfortunately, between the postmodernists in queer studies (who have, despite the inability to form coherent sentences, managed to mainstream terms like “genderqueer” and “cisgender”), and an unwillingness, on the parts of mainstream, liberal journalists and editors, to do a modicum of research or attempt to represent feminist arguments accurately, the public is more confused than ever before.

It’s one thing to read dishonest, ahistorical nonsense, lacking in evidence and any basis in reality on someone’s Medium blog, or even on PinkNews — an overtly biased publication — but it’s quite another to see it published at The New York Times, a publication with a reputation it should at least attempt to live up to.

To date, The New York Times has yet to publish a feminist perspective on the gender identity question, so it was disappointing to see a column published today, by Carol Hay, an associate professor of philosophy, that once again misrepresents and misunderstands the concerns feminists have with gender identity ideology and legislation, and even goes so far as to normalize the slur, “TERF.”

It’s not only academics who can’t seem to get their heads around the basics of feminist theory. Irate men who are mysteriously committed to the fight for males to access women’s change rooms, as well as far too many mainstream, liberal publications also tout gender identity ideology as not only progressive and feminist, but as indisputable. As such, I felt a clear and simple guide to misnomers was in order.

1) The “intersectionality” trick

In almost any supposed “challenge” to feminist critiques of gender identity ideology, an author will resort to “intersectionality” in defense of their position that modern feminism must accept self-identified transwomen as literal women. In her piece in the Times, Hay leaps to “intersectionality” immediately, in order to position herself as opposed to the baddy feminists dreamed up by third wavers who don’t like to read. She writes:

“Ever since Simone de Beauvoir quipped in 1949 that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, feminists have been discussing the implications of understanding gender as a cultural construct. But more recently, this approach to gender has come under scrutiny. After all, it’s all well and good to say that gender is a cultural construct, but it’s a mistake to then pretend that cultures construct gender the same way for all people. Let’s just say that the sisterhood hasn’t always been great about attending equally to the experiences of all sisters.”

If you’ve spent much time in the gender studies department (as I have!), you’ll be told many times over that there is no one female experience. And this is true. Intersectionality theory dictates that, depending on factors like race and class, as well as a myriad of other factors, women will of course have different lives and challenges, and experience various hardships and forms of oppression. But these various experiences do not remove the common experience of being born — and growing up — female. This is always what feminism has said, and is what feminism continues to say. What feminism has not said, though, (or should not say, in any case) is that if one understands this reality (“intersectionality,” for those who prefer academic terms), one must also include males in the category of “woman,” and understand that what males who don’t identify with masculinity or their male bodies experience is another version of “womanhood.”

The conflation of the experiences of women of colour with the experiences of men who identify as transgender is something Hay predictably engages in in her piece, announcing:

“Thanks to the past 40 years of work from intersectionalist feminists, we’re finally paying attention to what women of colour have been saying since at least the days when Sojourner Truth had to ask if she, too, got to count as a woman: that what it’s like to be a woman varies drastically across social lines of race, socioeconomic class, disability and so on, and that if we try to pretend otherwise, we usually just end up pretending that the experiences of the wealthy, white, straight, able-bodied women who already have more than their fair share of social privilege are the experiences of all women.”

She does this as a preamble to her discussion, not of women of colour and their experiences of racism and sexism in a racist and sexist society, but of “transwomen,” intentionally, in my opinion. It’s a trick intended to manipulate the reader — through the use of language most liberal or progressive readers will understand to be “politically correct” — into believing that, in order to avoid being racist, one must also accept the notion of men as women, if said men claim to be “trans,” or, simply, female.

But intersectionality — as first articulated by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, long before the mantra, “transwomen are women,” existed — was never about personal identities or choices, but rather about systems of power. That is to say, it doesn’t fit within the framework of “gender identity,” as there is no historical or material basis for the systemic oppression of people who choose to identify as transgender, as, today, “transgender” has no material, clear, or coherent definition — it is and can be anyone at all. One need not “appear” transgender in order to identify as such. And a feeling is not an observable trait. There is no class of people who feel their personality does not fit exactly into the boxes of “femininity” and “masculinity” — that’s just everyone.

Originally, Crenshaw was primarily focused on the intersections of sex and race, and therefore on how black girls and women particularly experienced this world, as not just black or just female, but both.

Yes, theories and ideology develop and change over time, but if “intersectionality” now simply means that every single person on this planet has a different, individual experience and personality, that cannot be completely chalked up to being part of only one particular group, then we really don’t need a word for that, and that word really has nothing to do with feminism. We can just call it “life!” Or “people are different!”

2) TERF: a literal description of nothing

To see the word “TERF” published in The New York Times, as though it were a neutral, accepted, or accurate term was perhaps the most jarring aspect of Hay’s piece. No feminist describes themselves this way, except in jest. And considering that gender identity ideology and trans activism are rooted in the notion that we must all accept the proclaimed identities of all individuals, no questions asked, and to ascribe a different “identity” to individuals, beyond what they prefer, is akin to hate speech or violence, it seems deeply hypocritical to impose a label on feminists that they do not use themselves. Particularly when this label is used only in the pejorative, is commonly attached to violent threats, is intended to tar individuals as bigoted and to-be-ostracized, and does not accurately describe the feminist position on gender. (For those new to this discussion, “sex” refers to biology and the physical characteristics that determine whether one is male or female, while feminists use the term “gender” to refer to the social stereotypes and roles imposed on people, depending on whether they were born male or female.)

Considering that the term “TERF,” itself, is intentionally misleading, it is unsurprising that Hay was not able (or willing) either to relay feminist gender theory truthfully, or correctly explain what it is feminists are concerned with, with regard to gender identity. She writes:

“The women who are accused of being impostors these days are often transwomen. You might think that a shared suspicion of conventional understandings of sex and gender would make feminists and trans activists natural bedfellows. You’d be wrong.”

To be clear, “transwomen” are male. So the notion that “transwomen” are viewed by feminists as female imposters is also wrong. They are viewed as male, which means that the select spaces men are not welcome in (for example: change rooms, female prisons, and women’s transition houses) are also the spaces trans-identified males (“transwomen”) are not welcome in. This is also why people around the world are so up in arms about the notion of male athletes being allowed to compete against female athletes, if those male athletes identify as transgender. This is not about testing to see who is the truest woman, nor is it about being cruel. It is only about understanding that males and females are different, and that there are particular spaces wherein women are particularly vulnerable or benefit from being with only other females, and where it is not appropriate for males to be.

Hay goes on to explain that “Janice Raymond’s controversial book, The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, published in 1979… continues to inspire ‘gender-critical’ or ‘trans-exclusionary’ radical feminists — TERFs, for short.” She does generously acknowledge that “some consider the acronym derogatory,” but adds that “TERF” is a “widely accepted shorthand for a literal description of the views these feminists hold.”

Since we’re talking about “literal descriptions,” this seems like a good time to look up the literal description of the word, “literal”:

  • In accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical: the literal meaning of a word.
  • Following the words of the original very closely and exactly.
  • True to fact; not exaggerated; actual or factual: a literal description of conditions.
  • Being actually such, without exaggeration or inaccuracy: the literal extermination of a city.

It’s weird that a philosophy prof wouldn’t have access to a dictionary or the internet, but let’s not judge. For all we know, Hay identifies as illiterate.

The purpose of feminism is not to “exclude” people who don’t feel they fit the gender binary or even who identify as transgender. Indeed, feminism has been the only movement to challenge the notion that males and females are inherently “masculine” or “feminine,” and fit tidily into all the stereotypes that go along with those roles. Again, the only people being “excluded,” if we wish to frame protecting women from male predators and allowing female athletes to compete on fair terms (really, to compete at all), in this way, are men. And at no point has feminism advocated that men be allowed to parade around naked in women’s change rooms, lest some man feel “excluded” from the power and glory heaped on us in the women’s locker room at the pool.

Hay claims that feminists who believe men are not women also believe that “all transwomen have lived in the world unproblematically as men at some point.” This is a rather insane thing to say, because I doubt any man has “lived in the world unproblematically,” certainly not a man who struggles to accept his male body or masculine role in this world. It is news to no one that many men suffer immensely, and struggle with masculinity and the pressures attached to that. The point, rather, is that men have a different experience than women do, as a result of having been born male, and are socialized differently than women, as a result of gender. Beyond that, males and females are physically quite different, and there’s not much any of us can do about that. To deny this reality is no different than claiming that the earth is flat, which has perhaps experienced a resurgence in philosophy, in which case Hay is guaranteed a long and lucrative career.

3) Feminists only criticize femininity when it comes to transwomen

While Hay implies she understands why feminists might be insulted by a man claiming that “the hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear,” as Caitlyn Jenner did, she goes on to ask “why the full brunt of the most extreme TERFs’ ire is so often directed at individual transwomen who are just trying to get by like the rest of us rather than on the fact that the media insists on focusing so single-mindedly on trans performances of gender that endorse a regressive, man-pleasing version of femininity to the exclusion of the many diverse others.” (Sorry, my eyes glazed over there too.)

Feminists challenge standards of beauty promoted in the media all the time and since always. The particular issue with trans-identified men and femininity is that we are being told that these standards of beauty and femininity are literally (boy do I love using words correctly!) what makes the woman. Not being female. In other words, a man who adopts the stereotypes attached to femininity becomes a woman as a result. It is the defining of “woman” based on superficial, sexist stereotypes that bothers feminists, in the particular context of “transwomen.”

What Hay seems not to get is that women are socialized to believe they must achieve a certain standard of beauty and femininity in order to have value in this world. We are sent the message, our entire lives, that we are to-be-looked at. And that’s a lot of pressure and a lot of relentless messaging that’s not so easy to just ignore or reject. She suggests we all should be “honest with ourselves” about the amount of time and energy women are “expected to invest in our performances of femininity,” as if we aren’t. I wonder if it’s ever occurred to Hay to be honest in her portrayals of women and feminism? It seems that penning an article for the Times might offer the perfect opportunity.

There are decades worth of texts written by feminists, discussing the time, energy, pain, and suffering women endure in order to attempt to fit the standards laid out for them by porn culture, the beauty industry, and pop culture. No point in reading those, of course. Hay is clearly content to write reality right out of history and the modern world.

“Why do TERFs think it’s trans women who are specially culpable for shoring up gender essentialism?” Hay asks. (They don’t.) “Why aren’t they going after cis women like me, too?” she wants to know. (I am.)

No feminist believes transwomen are to blame for femininity, Carol. And few of us are going to let you off the hook for this train wreck of an article that should never have been published, if not only to spare you the embarrassment of having written a shamefully ignorant, intentionally dishonest piece, simply for a few cookies, but that will, in the long-term, cost you your integrity and credibility.

Apparently Ms. Hay has written a book, soon-to-be published, called Quite Contrary: A Feminist Survival Guide. One can only assume she hasn’t included “reading” among her tips, never mind “meeting a feminist in real life.”

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.