My title is a hostage to fortune: echoing the form of Freud’s enquiry, “what do women want?”, it risks situating the (male) questioner in a position of bemused presumption. But I am here to negotiate for this hostage’s release, since my question is precisely not “what do TERFs qua women want”, but rather, what desire extrinsic to identification as a woman does the discourse of the TERF seek to incite? What uses does it propose for the name “women”, and to what ends?
In other words, I want not to have conceded from the outset that the TERF speaks as a woman, or for women as such. The TERF speaks firstly as a TERF — that is, as an operator of the discourse of the TERF, a player of the TERF language game — and then on that basis advances a claim over the political name “women”. If that claim is successful, then a closed loop of authorisation is retroactively formed: it is now women who are understood to be speaking, through the discourse of the TERF, as and for themselves. To attack the discourse of the TERF, or even to name it as such, is then simply to attack women (“TERF is a slur used to silence women”, and so on). It follows that if we are to gain any purchase on the discourse of the TERF itself, we must first of all interrupt the completion of this loop.
Manifestly, it is not the case either that all TERFs are women, or that all women are TERFs. Rather, the discourse of the TERF is a language game that anybody can play, as more than a few male opportunists have discovered for themselves. Equally, anybody can refuse to play this game. The task at hand is to motivate and empower that refusal.
A “political name” is a name that performs a totemic function in political struggle. It directs attention, grounds claims, and serves as a rallying point for action. Its use in discourse communicates priorities, and lends persuasive or even terroristic potency to the phrases with which it is associated. There is often a political division between those who will use a certain name, and those who will not. For example, “TERF” is itself a political name, of a certain type: the name given to an enemy. Those who use it, indicate by that use that they are the enemies of those about whom it is used. Those about whom it is used prefer a different name (“gender critical”, most commonly), and bitterly resent the identification as enemy, as the legitimate target of hostile action, which it pleases them to interpret as incitement towards violence against women as such. A political name is not only a symptom of contradiction, a sign that a struggle is going on, but an actively contested element of the struggle itself. Its meaning, its ownership, its rightful use, are themselves things to be struggled over.
“Women” is a political name in this sense. For the radical feminists of the second wave, it was perhaps the pre-eminent political name, the name above all names: it indexed the primary contradiction underlying all other political struggles. Today’s feminist and other emancipatory movements are inexorably concerned with a multiplicity of names, without any being given a singular priority. The organising metaphor of the centre and the margin is often used as a shorthand, as when someone refers to “the marginalised”, but “the marginalised” does not really function as a singular political name. There are many margins.
The discourse of the TERF is once again organised around a singular name (albeit a plural noun), “women”, and is pre-eminently concerned with the proper disposition of this name. Who is, and who is not, a woman? Who can, and who cannot, legitimately speak as a woman? The answers to these questions are purportedly grounded in biology, but in the actual discourse of the TERF they inevitably and symptomatically slip loose of this supposed mooring: cis women who do not espouse the correct political identification — “faux feminists”, “fun feminists”, “handmaidens” and so on — are themselves cut off from the proper sense of the name “women”, expelled from the territory it commands. Their “biological” womanhood may be supposedly beyond question, but their political womanhood — their right of association with, and under, the political name “women” — is readily invalidated.
TERFs sometimes complain that contemporary feminists have all but abandoned the political name “women”, and with it the very basis for feminist analysis and action. Consider the question of whether tampons and sanitary pads should be exempt from sales tax, or even made freely available. We could agree to describe those most directly affected by this as “menstruators” — thereby including those who menstruate but do not identify as women, and leaving out of consideration those who identify as women but do not menstruate. But “menstruators” is not yet a political name. It says nothing about the historical reasons why public policy towards menstruation is shaped as it is, or why reshaping it to be more practically just would have wider ramifications in terms of the value and significance accorded to women’s needs and priorities more broadly. To identify menstruation as a “women’s issue” is to connect it to the gendered division of labour according to reproductive function, to the history of medicine as a male-dominated practice with its concomitant failure to attend seriously and sympathetically to women’s health, and so on. Even women who do not menstruate have a stake in shifting the way that these matters are understood and organised.
There is for this very reason no cause for a trans-inclusive feminist politic to refuse the name “women” when speaking of those whose interests are at stake in deciding how sanitary products should be distributed, and in fact this can serve as a powerful basis for solidarity between struggles for reproductive rights and for trans healthcare (both of which are moreover under attack from the same right-wing sources). But refusal of the name “women”, or indifference towards the political horizons it indicates, is not the true reason for the introduction of a term such as “menstruators”. If the truth be told, there are but few male menstruators; but it is sometimes necessary to be precise in our language, and to acknowledge the reality that the sets of women and of menstruators are not extensionally identical.
Here one of the noteworthy contradictions of the discourse of the TERF comes into view. TERFs claim to be scientifically exact — unlike free-wheeling postmodern types who suppose that words can mean anything they want them to — when it comes to the proper definition of terms such as “woman”, but snigger with contempt when presented with any attempt to retool our language to address the realities in front of us more accurately, and without harmful indifference to those who fall between the cracks of our existing categories. Out of such realignments, the possibilities of new political vectors sometimes emerge: it is not inconceivable that “menstruators” might become a political name under the right conditions.
If the discourse of the TERF often seems caught up in a strange struggle over terminology, over the correct use of words and the categories they invoke, this is because it is an attempt to capture the political name “women” and arrogate it to a limited set of uses, defining all other uses out of legitimacy. The capture of the name is not the end goal, however, but the primary means through which a wider political enclosure can be secured. It is a way of determining who can be recognised as a political agent, and who has the authority to recognise, or refuse to recognise, others as political agents.
Which political struggles are those in relation to which “women” functions as a political name? The question admits of relatively expansive and relatively parsimonious responses. Let’s say that “feminism” is the politics of women, the movement through which women decide for themselves what concerns them politically and address themselves, collectively, to these concerns. A “rights-based” feminism would be one which addressed itself primarily to the question of women’s social rights and recognition, raising challenges against institutions that failed to uphold those rights. Among these are rights of protection and redress in cases of harassment and abuse, rights of equal access to the economic goods of society, and rights of symbolic representation and recognition (whose faces appear on the nation’s currency, and so on). There are also, very importantly, rights of bodily autonomy: the right to dispose of one’s own body as one sees fit, especially in sexuality, and to make free use of technologies for controlling fertility. Very schematically, we could say that the chief historical determinants of the social place of women in Western societies have been the gendered division of labour between those assigned to production and those assigned to reproduction, and the circumscription of bodily autonomy.
The name “women” thus ties together a locus of subordination — an inferior social place, to which those identified as women are assigned — and a locus of insubordination — a political struggle, “the women’s movement”, which seeks to overturn these conditions. The full incorporation of women into the sphere of production and the decision-making processes of public life has been one of the goals of the women’s movement, and the securing of greater bodily autonomy, in the form of reproductive rights and freedom from sexual coercion, has been another. The “women’s rights” upheld by this movement have thus included the right to equal pay, the right to abort a pregnancy on demand, the right to access safe shelters from violent and controlling sexual partners, and so on.
When TERFs speak of “sex-based rights”, they may seem to be speaking of “women’s rights” in this sense: rights which have been asserted as a way of overturning women’s subordinate social place. Some of these evidently have a direct bearing on reproductive capacity: it may seem frivolous to assert a right to abortion on demand for people who are not capable of falling pregnant, for example. But, as previously noted, to grant the right of abortion on demand to all who may need it is also to recognise and strengthen the principle of bodily autonomy for all women, whether capable of pregnancy or not; it is by this token a “women’s right” rather than simply a “gestators’ right”, just as the right to obtain sanitary products needed by those who menstruate is not merely a “menstruators’ right”. The circumscription of bodily autonomy is, in various guises, part of the oppression which constitutes the social place of women as inferior; to weaken it at one point is to weaken the overall system of bodily oppressions.
A trans-inclusive feminism is not only possible on this basis, but overwhelmingly indicated. Rights of bodily autonomy are of signal importance to those who need to transition. Protection from sexually-motivated violence is of signal importance to trans people subject to homophobic and transphobic intimidation, the threat of assault and sexual violence, often intended as retribution or “correction”. But when TERFs speak of “sex-based rights”, they do not mean these rights, accorded to those people. They mean to provide a basis for women’s rights not in women’s subordinate social place, and the political activity of women aimed at overturning that subordination, but in the biological particularity of women, narrowly construed.
The biological particularity of women is not straightforward to delimit, and nature has surprises in store for anyone who believes it can be localised to a chromosome or a gonadal configuration, but we will not enter into that discussion here. The focus of our attack is rather on the causal chain constructed by TERF apologetics: women’s biological particularity is the entire basis of women’s subordination, and rights constructed to contest that subordination are thus infallibly indexed to that particularity. In this account, the core of women’s oppression is the control by men of women’s reproductive capability, and the securing of men’s sexual access to women at the expense of women’s bodily autonomy and integrity. It is precisely as sex objects in a system of objectification and exchange that women are oppressed, and only a “biological woman” is equipped to function as the target of, and hence properly targeted by, such sexual objectification.
It’s important here not to subtract anything from this account, not to minimise or gloss over these oppressions, but rather to expand our picture in such a way that it encompasses more of reality: so that it takes in those forms of subordination which are clearly gendered, but not anchored to reproductive capability or availability for sexual exploitation within a patriarchal heterosexual system. Women who do not present as useful in either of these capacities are not thereby excused from womanhood, but rather assigned a devalued form of womanhood: hypersexualised or treated as repugnant, as convenience dictates. If fertility and fuckability are highly prized within this system, they are also promoted as fantasy ideals to which all women should aspire — while the realities of conception, gestation, labour and motherhood, and the anxiety and toil that go into maintaining an attractive facade for others’ enjoyment, are quietly invisiblised, along with all the exploited labour performed by women that has little or nothing to do with these activities.
TERFS are both inheritors of a long and serious feminist investigation into these conditions, and reckless squanderers of this inheritance. They preserve the outline of a fantasised ideal kernel of womanhood — albeit spiritualised, transmuted into a radiantly life-giving and pro-social female “energy” — while decrying all the uses to which patriarchy and capitalism put this fantasy. No less than the master propagandists of the patriarchal imaginary, they too curate a teratology of “failed” femininities, grotesque and parodic, poisoned and deformed: non-standard women whose very existence is to be understood as shameful, botched, mistaken. In the end, they want women to have rights because women are good — which means that, in the end, they only want rights for good women.
The social place of women is not a single, coherent topos. If women form a “class”, it is a class with its own internal class-contradictions. When the TERF speaks of “sex-based rights”, they do not mean rights as the political weapon of women in the fight against subordination, but rights as the property of some women, granted — and insistently gatekept — on the basis of an identification governed by sexual characteristics. What makes up the “sex” of this privileged subclass is a matter of comportment as much as it is a matter of “biology”. It is a collection of attributes akin to “whiteness”, to “middle-classness”, and sharing significant characteristics with both.
We are compelled to admit (although it doesn’t cost us anything to do so) that biology is real. But all identification takes place on the basis of fantasy: every act of identification is mediated by some imaginary. This is as true of cis women’s identification-as-women, and cis men’s identification-as-men, as it is of the identifications of trans men and women. An identification governed by sexual characteristics is only possible if these characteristics are themselves lifted in the realms of fantasy, commandeered as props in the construction of a scene. The discourse of the TERF makes a scene of biology, and in doing so lets slip precisely the real of biology itself.
The slogan of “sex-based rights” does not place the properly political slogan of “women’s rights” on a firmer footing, but ensnares it in a projection of ideal womanhood that is no less confabulated for being supposedly rooted in the materiality of flesh and blood. It is for a trans inclusive feminism to declare, with the political name of women foremost in its mind: everyone is made of flesh and blood, and an injury to the bodily autonomy of one is an injury to the bodily autonomy of all.
What TERFs want
The desire of the TERF is twofold: the securitisation of the political name “women” against an identitarian norm based on a fantasy of idealised sex-characteristics, and the politicide of non-standard women, whose appearance on the scene threatens to ruin or derail the fantasy. In this desire they find a ready accomplice in the doctrines of religious conservatives, who have centuries of practice in deploying an idealised femininity against the political demands of non-standard women, and who regard “gender ideology” with the petrified horror of misogynists down the ages. We can now see clearly the formation of an unholy alliance between these two interests. We must combine our weapons and our analyses in order to fight it.