Reply to Daily Nous "TERF" Letter

A note: I wrote this last August, after the letter was posted, but I lost track of trying to place it in the beginning of the term. I shared it a few months ago as a PDF on Twitter. I am posting it here now to have things in one place.


I’m extremely concerned by recent attempts to normalize a strain of anti-trans politics in philosophy: a few months ago from Kathleen Stock on Medium, and last week from Sophie Allen, Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, Jane Clare Jones, Holly Lawford-Smith, Mary Leng, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, and Rebecca Simpson on the Daily Nous. Philosophers’ general unfamiliarity with these issues, I think, is being exploited to paint a false picture of the debate. This contributes to a hostile environment for trans philosophers, and in this case directly targets—and I think attempts to silence—one trans woman.


Allen, Finneron-Burns, Jones, Lawford-Smith, Leng, Reilly-Cooper, and Simpson’s focus is Rachel McKinnon’s contribution to a symposium on Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works. (The paper is only six pages long, so everyone can take a look before weighing in!) McKinnon discusses examples of TERF propaganda to assess how well Stanley’s account accommodates it. It’s an important case. TERF propaganda is powerful and slippery, as philosophers are currently experiencing—if they will see it. It is true that McKinnon is not arguing against the best possible versions of arguments for the exclusion of trans women. Encoding nuanced, rigorous arguments that can then be subjected to rational assessment is not how propaganda works.


Allen, et al. frame their complaint as a response to both McKinnon's paper and Stanley's reply, which uses 'TERF" as well. Stanley's inclusion is seemingly a bit of window dressing—none of their substantive discussion involves him. They say their complaint is with the PPR's editors rather than either author, but go on to speculate about McKinnon's intentions and activity on twitter.


They level two charges against McKinnon’s piece: First, that by using the term ‘TERF’, she uses a misogynistic slur, or at least a term used to denigrate women. Second, that she makes a false empirical claim. Both accusations are unfounded.


In attempt to show that 'TERF' is a slur, the authors claim, bizarrely, both that there are uncontested neutral alternatives and, immediately after that, that the term has no coherent descriptive content. Both claims are false. They support the second by misrepresenting McKinnon: “The exposition that McKinnon gives of ‘TERF’ beliefs is somewhat unclear,” they say, and then present some of her examples of TERF propaganda as though it is her attempt to define the term. It is hard to see how such a confusion could have happened. McKinnon in fact begins with a straightforward gloss of 'TERF':

It’s meant as a descriptive phrase to separate radical feminists into those who accept trans women as women, and those who don’t. … Trans-exclusionary radical feminism can [be] summarized by a popular slogan among their ranks: womyn-born-womyn. Contrary to the famous de Beauvoir phrase that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, TERFs claim that one’s birth-assigned sex is forever one’s sex. Moreover, one can only experience the oppression that women face by living one’s entire life as a woman (and with female body parts). So trans women are not, and never could be, women. At best, they’re deluded men, playing at womanhood—or perhaps they’re “constructed” females, but not authentically female. Moreover, trans men are really women, deluded by the patriarchy into abandoning masculine (often butch dyke) female identities. This is the heart of the TERF (flawed) ideology. (484)

Philosophers tend to want political designators to pick out theoretical positions. In real life, they more often refer to political movements united by their material activism with a somewhat looser set of shared theoretical commitments. There's no key claim, for example, acceptance of which makes you a radical feminist; radical feminism is better characterized as a second-wave political tradition that centers the politics of sex and sexual violence and pushes for women’s liberation as a class (though that’s not especially descriptive!), and is exemplified by theorists like Andrea Dworkin and groups like the Redstockings. We can do much better for ‘TERF.’ As the acronym suggests, TERFs are distinguished by refusing to include trans women in their feminism. Like McKinnon says, they prototypically insist that trans women are not truly women. Recently, they may alternatively purport to grant that trans women are women but insist that they are not really female and claim the appropriate scope of feminism is not women's liberation after all, but rather exclusively female liberation. Their recent activism focuses largely on denying trans women access to women’s facilities, centrally bathrooms. Participants share various group identifiers, such as refusing to accept any of the terminology of trans theory and instead, for example, insisting on referring to cis women as "natal women."


It is also the movement that has engaged in the kinds of propaganda the authors pretend is McKinnon's definition of 'TERF': that trans women should not be provided transition-related healthcare and both metaphorically "rape" women by transitioning or being included in women's spaces and are literally sexual predators, or at least fetishists. On this point, the authors veer into denialism: "The term 'TERF' likely doesn't refer to any existing person," they say," ... None of us hold these beliefs, and we have all been called 'TERFs' online." OK. Many in the movement, including its principal theorists—Janice Raymond, Mary Daly, Shelia Jeffreys—indisputably have.


It is also the movement whose members have recently begun referring to themselves as "gender critical feminists," the phrase the authors claim is a neutral equivalent to 'TERF'. It is not. As I have written before, “gender critical” is straightforwardly descriptively inadequate, especially to distinguish among varieties of radical feminism: all radical feminists—including trans radfems—are critical of gender structures.


That's not an accident. The original TERF demand was to be called "radical feminists" simpliciter. That obviously also does not come clsoe to picking out the group we're trying to discuss: most radical feminists do not center their politics around opposing trans women's inclusion, and many are explicitly trans inclusive. Though there has been a nasty strain of transphobia within radical feminism, trans exclusion just does not follow from standard radical feminist commitments, including the ones TERFs like to focus on: You can think that women’s oppression is best explained as targeting certain reproductive capabilities without thinking that you have to be read as having those reproductive capabilities to be oppressed qua woman. (You might also think racial oppression is best explained as targeted for colonialist labor, land, and resource extraction, when of course you do not need to be read as possessing natural resources or capable of performing labor to be oppressed qua person of color.) You can think that gender is an inherently oppressive system that should be abolished and also think, like Dworkin did, that in our present world of robust gender structures it is imperative that trans people be included. This strikes me as the obvious practical conclusion if you take trans people’s experiences seriously.


The descriptive inadequacy is part of a more general effort to disguse the exclusion as an inevitable part of radical feminism, and, worse, to portray trans women as naturally outside its scope—as not actually women, or as not like other women in the way that really matters. Take Lawford-Smith's pinned tweet:

"TERF" is a slur. we're just RFs: radical feminists. calling us 'trans-exclusionary' centres males. ...

By "males," she means trans women. (Cis men, obviously, are not centered by the term "trans-exclusionary radical feminism.") This is the actual crux of the demand: TERFs do not like the term ‘trans-exclusionary’ because it suggests, correctly, that a feminism that does not include trans women is a “feminism” that does not include all women. They instead insist on descriptors that effectively misgender trans women. (In a particularly transparent example, one TERF on Twitter told me that the appropriate alternative to ‘TERF’ was ‘women’, because “any other term is abusive.”)


In this context, the term ‘TERF’ was coined by other radical feminists to make the needed distinction in a descriptive, neutral way. It is perhaps sad to find your movement generally referred to by a term coined by its opponents. It is also one of the risks of insisting on being referred to in ways that misgender trans people and euphemize rather than describe.


Allen, Finneron-Burns, Jones, Lawford-Smith, Leng, Reilly-Cooper, and Simpson suggest McKinnon’s decision to use ‘TERF’ rather than a obfuscatory term that misgenders her should be taken as evidence that she really meant ‘TERF’ as a slur:

Furthermore, if McKinnon herself didn’t intend it as a slur then it’s hard to see why she would have been so adamant about keeping it given this contestation. [emphasis theirs]

This is egregiously deceptive. No one need imagine why McKinnon might have found it important not to bow to their pressure, because the insistence that ‘TERF’ is a slur is one of McKinnon’s examples of TERF propaganda in the paper in question.


The other allegation is even less scrupulous. In discussing how the trope that trans women are sexual predators is used to exclude trans women from women’s spaces, McKinnon notes:

[T]here’s never been a verified reported instance of a trans women sexually assaulting a cis woman in such spaces. (485)

This is the supposedly false empirical claim. The authors present one such case. It was reported in July of this year, two months after McKinnon's article was published in March.


They also point to assaults committed by a man who claimed to be trans to access his victims and suggest he should be counted as a trans woman woman because “trans activism is committed to self-identification as the sole criterion of determination.” But the offender was not reported to have actually identified as a woman. (The sense of “identifying” relevant here, of course, is not a matter of merely raising your hand. A frequent TERF tactic is to conflate the common position that governments should not require people seeking to change their legal gender to provide proof of their gender identities beyond their own testimony with the seemingly unoccupied position that there’s nothing more to gender identity than a person’s occurrent claims.)

The authors' inability to find any actual examples within the scope of McKinnon's claim is in reality good evidence it was correct. But they continue: If we broaden the scope from sexual assault, they can offer a case of voyeurism and two cases of trans women sexually harassing cis women in women’s spaces—another of which occurred after McKinnon’s publication date, and all of which occurred after McKinnon’s page proofs were approved in January of 2016. (That date isn’t transparent. It also would be this first thing I’d ask if I seriously had this kind of concern.) They then spend a paragraph arguing that it's nevertheless reasonable to be concerned about trans women's inclusion in women's prisons, and conclude that though this does not show that all trans women are sexually abusive, it shows “that McKinnon’s claim is demonstrably false.” It demonstrably does not.

To recap: Allen, Finneron-Burns, Jones, Lawford-Smith, Leng, Reilly-Cooper, and

Simpson portray McKinnon as struggling to define ‘TERF’ by substituting her examples of

propaganda for her definition of the term. They mark her use as suspect by claiming that “gender critical feminist” is available as an “uncontested alternative” when its contested status should be obvious to anyone familiar with these debates. They suggest her use of ‘TERF’ in the face of “gender critical” objections can only be explained by her intending it as a slur when the propagandistic nature of those objections is one of her three central examples in the (six page!) paper in question. They accuse her of making an empirically false claim on the basis of a case that occurred months after her article was published, plus the suggestion of a few other cases that would falsify related claims she did not make.


The spuriousness of these charges is disturbing—all the more so because they target a

marginalized and junior philosopher. On their basis, seven philosophers joined to publicly censure McKinnon on one of the discipline’s most read blogs. Lawford-Smith contacted the PPR’s editors to request at least a correction and apology and engage in some informal “back and forth” about retraction.


This looks very much like targeting a colleague's reputation and career because she is trans and a vocal advocate for trans rights. This is not OK.

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