In this article:
- TERF is an acronym that stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.”
- The term refers to a specific strain of anti-trans rhetoric among radical feminists who believe that transwomen do not belong in the feminist movement.
- The justifications TERFs give range from “transwomen aren’t really women” to “transwomen don’t share the same lived experiences as those who were raised as girls.”
- The negative connotations of “TERF” have led some radical feminists to reject the label, even though they’re still advocating for a trans-exclusionary brand of feminism.
- While TERFs might argue that their anti-trans ideology is meant to protect feminist interests, it’s worth considering what other groups and ideologies have a vested interest in strictly defining women according to their reproductive organs and capabilities.
If you’ve been online in the past couple of years or so, you’ve likely seen people call J.K Rowling a TERF. The once-beloved Harry Potter author’s reputation has taken a nose dive in recent years following several controversial statements she made regarding transgender issues, leading ex-fans to call her a TERF.
But what is TERF? What does it mean and what do TERFs believe in?
What Does TERF Stand For?
TERF is an acronym that stands for “Trans exclusionary radical feminist.” The term was originally coined by blogger Viv Smythe who wrote a blog post that called out transphobia in the British media or, at the very least, her website is the only one still around that has the oldest mention of it. The term was originally created with the intent of calling out the anti-trans rhetoric of certain radical feminist activists.
The easiest and most basic way to understand what it means to be a TERF is to separate the first two words from the latter half of the phrase.
Let’s start with trans exclusionary. Trans exclusionary means that TERFs make the assertion that transwomen do not count as women. Individual TERFs may vary in how they conceptualize the difference between women and transwomen.
While some TERFS may say that they exclude transwomen from feminism because transwomen weren’t born as “biological women,” others claim that their exclusion of transwomen is based on transwomen’s limited shared experiences with people who were born and raised as women.
Still, others may say that they exclude transwomen on the basis of necessity: They don’t want to count transwomen as women because it threatens the female sex as a minority class and makes it harder, supposedly, to rally women around feminist ideologies.
The TLDR of it is that TERFs generally don’t want transwomen in their feminism.
Now, let’s talk about radical feminism. Radical feminism is, as the name suggests, a radical branch of feminism that believes the patriarchy must be uprooted completely rather than wait around for reforms and gradual social shifts to make conditions better for women.
Radical feminists have made landmark leaps for women’s rights, particularly those related to reproductive rights and the cultural shift that’s led many women to reconsider whether the home is the only place for them.
That said, even radical feminists aren’t a monolith. A subset of this group, particularly the ones who are political lesbians, overlap with TERFs. Not only do these people reject transwomen from the umbrella of feminism, but they may also reject bisexual women as the feminist equivalent of class traitors.
If you can picture all that as a Venn diagram in your head, you already have a working knowledge of what TERFs are. This brings us to the next question: What exactly do TERFs believe in?
What Do TERFs Believe In?
Feminism isn’t a monolith so, again, though TERFs are a specific subset of radical feminists, not all of them agree on the same things.
That being said, many TERFs reject transwomen and their womanhood because they believe that transwomen are invading women’s spaces. In the eyes of TERFs, transwomen are men pretending to be women.
They may believe that transwomen are fetishizing womanhood or have patriarchy-warped perceptions of what it means to be a woman, hence their seeming “need” to perform a stereotypical brand of femininity. Either way, this more or less boils down to the fear that transwomen threaten the existence of women as a social group.
Because of this, radical feminist TERF group “Get the L Out” has protested against transwomen and transactivists, claiming that “Transactivism Erases Lesbians.”
The negative press that TERFs have received, which is why the term is almost curse-like when used against people, isn’t something that some female activists want to associate with, despite sharing similar views. Instead, they frame their beliefs in a more pragmatic approach toward organizing women around feminist ideals.
Kathleen Stock, a Reader in Philosophy at the University of Sussex, argues that the concept of transwoman should be more sharply defined to make it clear that women, as a social group, still exist regardless of whether that includes transwomen or not.
The arguments are, more or less, central TERF talking points that include:
- Allowing people to simply self-identify as a woman dilutes the “woman” as a concept. Though intersex people may exist, they are statistical anomalies, not part of the norm that defines women as having XX chromosomes and a female reproductive system, factors that make being a woman have its own lived physical experience that is different from the experiences of transwomen and men.
- Accepting transwomen into women’s spaces, such as bathrooms, exposes women to the risk of being assaulted by men in spaces where they expect to be relatively safe. Stock extends this to other protections, such as scholarships, afforded to women on basis of systemic discrimination against their sex.
- Changing “woman” to include transwomen de-stabilizes the lesbian identity since lesbians are defined as women sexually attracted to other women, something many political lesbian TERFs are opposed to because some transwomen retain male genitalia.
Other non-radical feminist writers have made similar arguments.
TERF Dog Whistles 101: What Is a Dog Whistle and How Can I Tell if a Phrase Is a TERF Dog Whistle?
You may have seen lists of terms that are claimed to be solely used as dog whistles by TERFs. If you haven’t heard of political dog whistles before, a dog whistle is a coded phrase or statement that allows members of an in-group to identify each other without calling negative attention to themselves.
It also has three other benefits:
- Dog whistles seem so innocuous and factual that a negative reaction towards them makes the person who calls them out appear reactive and even hateful.
- Dog whistles seem so innocuous and factual that people who aren’t familiar with the ideology of a radical group can be led to agree with a statement they don’t realize has underlying implications, leaving them open to further radicalization by the group.
- Dog whistles seem so innocuous and factual that the people using them can easily claim ignorance of the group and their ideology despite understanding what it means.
Now onto the TERF dog whistles themselves. To be clear, these dog whistles are acknowledged as such because TERFs often use them, however, you may see certain phrases like “natal man” or “natal woman” used in philosophy papers arguing both against and for the inclusion of transwomen.
Common TERF dog whistles include:
- Lesbians as female homosexuals: The real meaning of this phrase restricts the meaning of lesbian to a woman with female reproductive organs and XX chromosomes attracted to women with those same physical traits (i.e., to women who are not transwomen).
- Trans-rights activists: Seemingly neutral but almost exclusively used by TERFs to refer to trans activists.
- Natal woman or woman-born woman: A woman who has XX chromosomes, female reproductive organs, and was born that way. Again, this categorically excludes transwomen from the definition of woman.
- Transgender Identified Female and/or Transgender Identified Male: These terms seem to acknowledge transpeople’s identities in the same way that FTM and MTF do, but in reality, they are intended to emphasize the “biological sex” that a trans person was born with.
I’m Not Trans, Are My Interests Aligned With TERFs?
Unfortunately, that’s a conclusion that only you can make on your own. But if you’re going to study TERFs and their ideology further, you might find it worth your time to consider a few questions first.
TERFs are invested in defining women by their biological qualities — being born female and having natally female bodies — to protect feminist interests.
But what other political groups are interested in defining womanhood on the basis of biological sex? What implications would defining women by their biological features and capabilities have? And, given the answers you find, do your political interests align with TERFs or not?
So, we’re just not going to have women’s sports anymore? And housing men in women’s prison is a great idea? And parents should be allowed to sterilize their children?