Transphobic TERFs believe they're the last true feminists for refusing to conform to outdated gender norms. So why are they upset that Always maxi-pads has ditched the "lady" symbol on their packaging?
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There may be no woman with a more fragile sense of her own gender than a TERF. The TERFs—“trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or “gender-critical feminists,” or whatever they’re calling themselves these days—style themselves as the last true feminists, prophets in the wilderness, excluded for their refusal to conform to outdated gender norms. In practice, however, TERFs ascribe to a cartoonishly fragile femininity, in which a woman’s every outfit, belonging, and activity must be visibly gendered, lest her whole sense of self fall apart. There is no other reason why TERF figurehead Julie Bindel would be sighted, in public, throwing a fit about insufficiently feminine menstrual products.
The “controversy” in question concerns the sanitary-pad brand Always, which, in the U.K., used to have a Venus symbol on its packaging. In response to a handful of complaints from trans men and non-binary people, including award-winning teen activist Ben Saunders, Always vowed to ditch the lady symbol and market the sanitary pads as gender-neutral. You can, as always, stick Always pads in your underpants to staunch a blood flow. Or use them to mop up spills. Or pelt your enemies with them as a ghoulish prank. They’re wads of bleached cotton, not the sacred wellspring of Womanhood— unless you are Julie Bindel, whose entire being is apparently founded upon them, and who therefore accused the maxi-pad manufacturer of “eliminating women.”
“One of the defining moments for me, and for most females on the planet, was when I started menstruating,” Bindel begins, in an article that somehow gets even more reductive and essentialist from there, and includes, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend, the following line: “That means, in the immortal words of Alice Cooper: ‘Only Women Bleed’.”
Now: This may come as a shock, but Alice Cooper is not, in fact, a medical doctor. (Or a lady! You’d think Bindel, who spends most of her time furiously accusing trans women of being “men” who change their names and wear makeup for attention, would notice that she’d approvingly quoted this guy.) And equating womanhood with menstruation is a perilous route for any “feminist” to take. Cisgender women have so often had to prove that we are not just our bodies; we’ve had our justified anger invalidated and cast as mere “PMS,” our ambitions erased by the supposed “biological clock” ticking in our brains, our leadership undermined by “jokes” about how we’d start firing people or launching missiles whenever we were on the rag. Defining ourselves as walking uteruses hardly helps. Yes, there’s power in reclaiming those stigmatized, gooey, icky parts of cis female embodiment, but you can reclaim your own period without pretending a trans man’s doesn’t exist.
Nor is the Always fracas the only recent case of TERFs “protecting” cis women by confining people to outdated and anti-feminist gender roles. One of the more pressing instances is playing out in the Supreme Court as we speak: R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, in which SCOTUS will rule whether employees can be fired for being trans—and, in the process, rule on whether employers can institute strictly gendered dress codes and potentially fire cis people for looking inappropriately “feminine” or “masculine” at work. TERF groups like the so-called “Women’s Liberation Front” have filed amicus briefs in favor of gendered dress codes, citing their interest in “abolishing gender and sex discrimination.”
The damage done to cis people hardly outweighs that done to trans people, who are having their very right to exist debated in the nation’s highest court, and it’s not useful or appropriate to center them here. Yet there’s a tragedy at work. The women who are currently railing to keep women trapped in stereotypical boxes used to think of themselves—maybe do still think of themselves, in some sad, twisted way—as warriors against the gender binary.
I know the theory TERFs are working from because I’ve read it. It wasn’t easy to lay your hands on feminist writing in the mid-1990s, or in suburban Ohio. I had a vast craving to understand why the world was so unfair to girls, or why the cultural images and stereotypes of “girls” did so little to describe me, but the only answers I got were from the battered collection of mid-80s paperbacks on the bookshelf of my local food co-op. As it turned out, whoever was donating those paperbacks hated trans people. My early feminist education was pieced together from some of the most noxiously transphobic feminists in history: I hacked my way through truly astonishing amounts of Germaine Greer and Mary Daly, read quite a lot of moony women’s-spirituality texts about the power of my sacred womb. I never read Sheila Jeffreys, thank God, but I got a lot of poison into my bloodstream before college.
Yet in those texts, I sometimes saw the shadow of an idea vertiginous and beautiful enough to change everything: “The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege, but of the sex distinction itself,” wrote Shulamith Firestone. “Genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.” This shift evidently also entailed “a reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality,” which sounded like fun.
The fundamental claim of the radical feminist texts that gave rise to TERFism was that gender is a social construct—a set of stereotypes and rules laid down on bodies that are naturally unruly, and that rarely adhere to those social roles or stereotypes in real life. In patriarchy, gender is inextricable from power, but if those power relations were to be eliminated, and we were free to live in our genders and bodies as we saw fit, very few people—in radical feminist thought, pretty much no people—would actually behave in a way that lined up with (stereotypical ideas about) their assigned sex.
In other words, what those early feminists were describing—as I found out in college, where talking about pansexuality and socially constructed genders and not wanting to be defined by your body attracted a very different class of thinker—was non-binary trans existence. The idea is admittedly over-broad. Some people are women and some people are men—it’s just not everybody, and “genital differences” at birth don’t have anything to do with which gender you are. But, in trying to imagine a life outside of the gender binary, radical feminists were inevitably talking about trans-ness, and even idealizing it, by framing trans liberation as the ultimate outcome of any feminist utopia.
That part, for the record, is true. There is no viable feminism without trans feminism, and to the extent that there was ever anything radical in radical feminism, it’s being developed and worked through these days mostly by trans writers. There’s something profoundly sad in how little transphobic feminists realized the implications of their own work; this was a movement that prized androgynous and masculine-of-center aesthetics, that theorized complicated post-human workarounds for processes like childbirth, that argued endlessly for the distinction between assigned sex stereotypes and the true inner self. Bindel herself, as recently as 2009, publicly argued for “political lesbianism,” the belief that “all women can be lesbians” and all women should, because “sexuality is not determined by a gene which we are born with … [and] can change over time.” How does a woman who believes we can rewire our bodies on the basic level of sexual desire also believe that our essences are defined, for our entire lives, by the genitalia we had as two-year-olds?
It’s not that feminism ever existed in some perfect, pre-transphobic state. As Katelyn Burns has ably covered elsewhere, TERFs in the ’70s viciously harassed, attacked, and excluded trans women, too. Yet holdovers like Bindel and the hate groups they’ve created occupy a uniquely pathetic place in history: Women who walked right up to the door of the gender binary, and who not only refused to walk through it, but who now stand, blocking the exit, jeering and throwing rocks at anyone who tries to get past. The people who claim to be “gender-critical” or to want “the abolition of gender” are also the most furiously, defensively unable to critique the linkage of gender to assigned sex, or to imagine genders outside of male and female. The “Women’s Liberation Front” wants your boss to be able to force you to wear lipstick. Bindel, who surely thinks she opposes sex stereotypes, is left clinging to them to maintain any sense of her own identity, railing into the wind about how her tampon packages don’t look feminine enough to assure her she’s a woman.
So TERFism ambles and stumbles on as a sort of zombie feminism, devoid of vitality or usefulness, with its one vital spark of insight long since passed into the hands of the people it thinks are enemies. We can look on it in fear, or in pity, but there is no bringing this one back. We can only move forward, trying to create the future the TERFs almost grasped but were never quite brave enough to imagine.
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