At dinner the other night I was wedged between two friends of my husband’s, with another facing me. They had made their living as academics and were, frankly, old men. None of them, I was surprised to find, knew what a TERF was, despite its frequent discussion in The Spectator.
Feminists of my acquaintance believe that everyone in the world knows what a TERF is. In the past five years, TERF wars have turned from a jokey headline into a standard reference to permanent hostilities. Since I first wrote about TERFs in 2018, the Oxford English Dictionary has given it an entry, its earliest citation from 2008. This is its definition: “A feminist whose advocacy of women’s rights excludes (or is thought to exclude) the rights of transgender women. Also more generally: a person whose views on gender identity are (or are considered) hostile to transgender people.”
In that OED definition, the exclusion is of “the rights of transgender women.” In 2018, I took it to be exclusion from the feminist sisterhood, by those who rejected “alliances in their struggle with people who used to be men.”
In 2018, Germaine Greer was the best-known feminist to deny that men could become women by simple declaration or even a spot of surgery. “The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women,” she said, “is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.”
Today, J.K. Rowling is the most famous person to say a woman is different from a trans woman. To me, as an older woman, the striking thing even since 2018 is the violence of opposition to so-called TERFs. People are often urged to punch, burn or kill them.
Semantically, it is hard to find a fair discussion of meaning. A contributor to the Canadian magazine In gives this definition: “TERFs are transphobes loosely organized into a trans hate group.” In’s role is “celebrating Canada’s 2SLGBT- QI+ communities.” In that celebration, 2S has a peculiarly Canadian place. But that is another story.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2023 World edition.