Jane Clare Jones

Why British Feminists Are Such a Bunch of Evil Witches


The New York Times, happily peddling hate-speech.

So, before we look at this car-crash, I just want to note that someone came up to me on Twitter on Saturday morning and told me this was in the works, and knew the person writing it. I suggested she ask the author to get in touch and talk to us before she did, which seems not unreasonable by, y’know, normal journalistic standards… I mean, it’s clearly best practice to just make up a load of old cobblers about what people believe and not even bother talking to them first right? Anyway, I’m sure Sophie Lewis was just working in the interests of getting to the bottom of this whole mess and that there’s nothing remotely ideological going on here at all.

Anyway, are we sitting comfortably my lovely crones?

Last week, two British women stormed onto Capitol Hill in Washington for the purposes of ambushing Sarah McBride, the national press secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.

Ms. McBride, a trans woman, had just been part of a meeting between the Parents for Transgender Equality National Council and members of Congress when the Britons — Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, who goes by the name Posie Parker, and Julia Long — barged in. Heckling and misgendering Ms. McBride, the two inveighed against her supposed “hatred of lesbians” and accused her of championing “the rights of men to access women in women’s prison.”

Okay, so, I don’t want to revisit this in a great deal of detail. Along with a number of others, I made my thoughts known about it last week, and as we’re all aware, the resulting fall out made it a pretty unhappy few days for most of us. I do, however, want to just note the use of overblown rhetoric here – Posie and Julia went into a room and door-stopped Sarah McBride. We might disagree about the use of the tactic, but we might also want to ask whether it merits the description ‘ambush,’ accompanied by a load of ‘barging,’ ‘heckling’ and ‘inveighing.’ Socrates made a lifetime-career out of going up to people with power and being an awkward little fucker. He was executed for his trouble by the Athenian state, and in the process, philosophy was gifted its founding story, so….

Ms. Parker, who live-streamed footage of the harassment on Facebook, contended that she had come to Washington because “this ideology” — by which she presumably meant simply being trans — “has been imported into the U.K. by America, so, to stem the flow of female erasure, we have to come to its source.”

Seriously, if the best you’ve got is to ‘presume’ that the ideology of the trans rights movement is the same thing as ‘being trans’ you really have no damn business writing an op-ed about this issue in the New York Times. To repeat, had you bothered to talk to us we would have explained that our opposition is to an ideology committed to the legal and political erasure of sex, which is not the same thing as simply ‘being trans,’ and that further, we have a significant number of trans allies who are also opposed to this ideology. But of course, you didn’t actually want to know anything about that did you?

If the idea that transphobic harassment could be “feminist” bewilders you, you are not alone. In the United States, my adoptive home, the most visible contemporary opponents of transgender rights are right-wing evangelicals, who have little good to say about feminism. In Britain, where I used to live, the situation is different.

That’s right. We’re mostly left-wing feminists, we’re academics and unionists and health workers and teachers and lawyers and fire women and programmers and artists and students and mothers and women’s sector workers and activists and pretty much all manner of other women and lesbians and gay men and concerned parents and trans people, almost none of whom are the Pope or evangelicals. IT’S WEIRD.

There, the most vocal trans-exclusionary voices are, ostensibly, “feminist” ones,

If you want to suggest we’re fake feminists, you better actually make a decent argument, and not rely on throwing shade with quotation marks and ‘ostensibly’s. I thought you were all about the sanctity of self-identification? But you’re perfectly happy to refuse recognition to the fact that this resistance is both feminist, and left-wing, because it doesn’t fit the contours of the ideological narrative you’re selling, even while pretending it’s not ideological in the least.

and anti-trans lobbying is a mainstream activity. Case in point: Ms. Parker told the podcast “Feminist Current” that she’d changed her thinking on trans women after spending time on Mumsnet, a site where parents exchange tips on toilet training and how to get their children to eat vegetables. If such a place sounds benign,

Oh seriously, fuck off with your bullshit misogynist stereotype that mothers are required by patriarchal fiat to sit around looking ‘benign’ while doing nothing more political than mushing carrots and making cupcakes. I am so sick of this endless idiotic pearl-clutching about Mumsnet. Newflash people – mothers are human beings. They’re fully sentient creatures in their own right, and the fact that the people pushing this ideology – while simultaneously putting ‘female erasure’ in quotation marks – have no damn respect for mother’s humanity and political will, or the life-making role they fulfil, is pretty much exemplary of the whole damn problem here. It is not in any way mysterious why a group of women who have pushed new humans out their vaginas, and then dealt with the social experience of mothering in this culture, would be remarkably unreceptive to an ideology claiming that their sex is politically irrelevant. It is also deeply un-mysterious why a biology-erasing thought-system shot-through with a frankly terrifying transhumanist fixation on denigrating the ‘meat-house’ of the body, would treat mothering in general, and Mumsnet in particular, with such consistent contempt. As I’ve said more than once, this is all just so much revamped techno-Platonist mind-over matter body-denigrating dependency-denying bullshit. Seriously people, you are embodied minds, born through women’s bodies, and you’re all going to die someday. For the love of the Goddess, come to fucking terms with it.

consider the words of British writer Edie Miller: “Mumsnet is to British transphobia,” she wrote “what 4Chan is to American fascism.”

So, am I going to examine what the women of Mumsnet are actually saying? No, of course not, I’m just going to wheel out a quote by another pearl-clutcher tidily stringing together the epithets ‘transphobia’ ‘4Chan’ and ‘fascism’ with no justification but hey, who cares, all I need to do is make it absolutely evident that THESE WOMEN ARE EVIL NAZI WITCHES. Babe, you’re writing for the NYT here. This is sub-basement Twitter discourse. Up. Your. Game.

The term coined to identify women like Ms. Parker and Ms. Long is TERF, which stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.

You wanna say anything about either the history or use of this word? Would you like to say anything about the way it’s been used over the last five years to dehumanise, vilify, and socially coerce any person – woman or man, feminist or non-feminist – who asks any questions about trans ideology or its effects? You wanna try and outline what the beliefs or purported beliefs of the evil witches are, or why they should be burned, or why dehumanising and vilifying your critics without even bothering to engage with their arguments is totes how progressive social movements behave? Nah, guess not.

In Britain, TERFs are a powerful force.

This is some mad Star-Wars-come-Star-Trek shit. I swear they chose the word TERF because it has the same plosive all-caps hardness as the BORG. Makes it so much easier to dehumanise us as some kind of evil monolithic hivemind, spreading its dark powerful energy all across the galaxy.

In fact, of course, we’re just a bunch of middle-aged women and crowdfunded activists who aren’t inclined to be bullied by this juggernaut of an ideology, which, you should note Sophie, is currently being promoted by the largest LGBT charity, a host of other organizations, is being rolled out all across our schools and other public institutions, has convinced all the main political parties, is supported by big business and the spymasters general, and is presently going about using police-forces up and down the country to intimidate people who have the temerity to not comply with its precepts. So, yeah, tell me again who the ‘powerful force’ is here.

If, in the United States, the mainstream media has been alarmingly ready to hear “both sides” on the question of trans people’s right to exist, in Britain, TERFs have effectively succeeded in framing the question of trans rights entirely around their own concerns: that is, how these rights for others could contribute to “female erasure.”

This is unmitigated bullshit of epic proportions (or to be more blunt, it’s a flat-out fucking lie). I’ve been fighting this battle for over 5 years now. Until the summer of last year, we could get absolutely no traction whatsoever in the mainstream media or with any political organizations at all. When the government came to do the consultation on changes to the GRA, they didn’t speak to a single women’s organization about the impact it would have on them. That is how ‘effectively’ we ‘succeeded in framing the question of trans rights entirely around our own concerns.’ And if we have so ‘effectively’ framed the issues ‘entirely around our concerns,’ maybe you could take time to explain to me why not a single mainstream UK political party thinks our concerns are valid? Why women are being disciplined inside those political parties for expressing those concerns? Why women are being thrown out of the Girl Guides for expressing those concerns? Why women are being harassed at universities for expressing those concerns? Or why the police are visiting women and arresting them for expressing those concerns? Perhaps you could explain to me why the EHRC recently felt the need to make a statement underlining that our speech is lawful, prompted by the spectacular success of campaigns to no platform us in universities and other venues.? Do mainstream political movements who have complete control of an agenda usually require human rights bodies to intervene to make it clear that they do, in fact, have a lawful right to express their opinions? Tell me, please.

Many prominent figures in British journalism and politics have been TERFs;

Who? There is a handful of gender critical journalists at The Times, some at The Spectator, a few of the women who write for the New Statesman, and a couple of the female columnists at The Guardian. Who else? And as for prominent politicians, I’m drawing a total blank.

British TV has made a sport of endlessly hosting their lurid rudeness and styling it as courage;

‘Endlessly’ – citations please. ‘Lurid’ – ditto. ‘Sport’ – ditto ditto. This is all rhetoric and no trousers.

British newspapers seemingly never tire of broadsides against the menace of “gender ideology.” (With time, the term TERF has become a catchall for all anti-trans feminists, radical or not.)

Well, apparently our incessant ‘broadsides’ consist of two links to the same well-argued case made by a left-wing transsexual woman. Um.

The split between the American and British center-left on this issue was thrown into sharp relief last year, when The Guardian published an editorial on potential changes to a law called the Gender Recognition Act, which would allow people in Britain to self-define their gender. The editorial was headlined “Where Rights Collide,” and argued that “women’s concerns about sharing dormitories or changing rooms with ‘male-bodied’ people must be taken seriously.”

Yes, it took us an entire summer of pretty much tireless argument and campaigning to change the political climate sufficiently to make it even possible for The Guardian to publish an editorial which recognised that there is a rights-conflict here. Which is the fundamental point we have been asking to be recognised. Of course, by framing our concerns here as ‘anti-trans,’ you are doing no more that repeating exactly the gesture of refusing that recognition. So much for the debate being entirely structured around our concerns, eh?

Some of The Guardian’s United States-based journalists published a disavowal, arguing that the editorial’s points “echo the position of anti-trans legislators who have pushed overtly transphobic bathroom bills.”

Americans-read-British-politics-only-through-their-own-lens shocker.

A curious facet of the groundswell of TERFism in Britain is that, in fact, the phenomenon was born in the United States. It emerged out the shattered remnants of the 1960s New Left, a paranoid faction of American 1970s radical feminism that the historian Alice Echols termed “cultural feminism” to distinguish it, and its wounded attachment to the suffering-based femaleness it purports to celebrate, from other strands of women’s liberation.

Number one – In what universe can you give a supposed genealogy for a movement when you’ve given no clear account of what that movement is based on, what it believes, and haven’t even bothered speaking to any of its members? What you have in Britain right now is a left-wing (mostly) feminist resistance to a movement that is attempting to politically and legally erase sex and which is concerned about the conservative implications of essentialising gender, and medicalising gender non-conforming children without due oversight. Some of us are radical feminists, and some of us are other types of feminists, and some of us are not even feminists at all. You cannot trace a straight line between what is going on here now, and something that happened in the US in the 70s, without giving a detailed explanation of the intellectual continuity you are positing. Unless, the only intellectual continuity you are positing is ‘people who think that women are oppressed largely because they are female,’ which many of us think is, y’know, just ‘feminism.’ Which also brings us to…

Number two – “wounded attachment to…suffering-based femaleness.” WOW. So, you’ve been reading Wendy Brown hey? I know, isn’t it disgusting, all those women sitting around talking about being oppressed on the basis of being female and how it’s damaging to them? URGH. GROSS. Such victims. Isn’t it much nicer to talk about agency and empowerment and flowers and unicorns?? Lady, if you can’t look male dominance and the damage it does to women straight in the eye, stay away from proffering your opinion on our liberation politics eh?

The movement crossed over to Britain in the 1980s, when cultural feminism was among the lesbian-separatist elements of antinuclear protest groups who saw themselves as part of a “feminist resistance” to patriarchal science, taking a stand against nuclear weapons, test-tube babies and male-to-female transsexual surgery alike.

You wanna shit on the women of Greenham Common while you’re at it do you? Lovely.

In America, however, TERFism today is a scattered community in its death throes, mourning the loss of its last spaces, like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ended in 2015.

“You lost your women’s festival because you were bullied into closing it down, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. We are the forces of love and light, here to eradicate all the witches, but the witches have no cause for concern, and when they say they’re concerned it’s just proof that they’re evil witches lol.”

And so the strangely virulent form that TERFism takes in Britain today,

VIRULENT KLAXON. It’s always great when progressive people compare their critics to viruses and plagues. Because, we’re totally the Nazis in this equation.

and its influence within the British establishment,

What influence? The one that means the police keep visiting us for committing thoughtcrimes?

requires its own separate, and multipronged, explanation.

Multi-pronged? This better be good.

Ms. Parker and Ms. Long may not know it, but they’re likely influenced by the legacy of the British “Scepticism”

Well, I’m a hippy post-structuralist earth-worshipping witch, but whatever you say. It’s true that some of us are sceptics, many of us are not, and a whole bunch of the sceptics and humanists are currently blitzed on the Kool-Aid.

movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, which mobilized against the perceived spread of postmodernism in English universities as well as homeopathy and so-called “junk science.” Hence, the impulse among TERFs to proclaim their “no-nonsense” character; witness the billboard Ms. Parker paid to have put up last fall dryly defining a woman as an “adult human female.”

You can call it ‘dry,’ or you can call it ‘the first thing it says in the dictionary.’

Such a posture positions queer theory and activism as individualistic, narcissistic and thus somehow fundamentally un-British.

What the hell has scepticism got to do with thinking Queer Theory is ‘individualist’ and ‘narcissistic’? If you make ‘gender’ a defining property of individuals, destroy the analysis of gender as structural power, undermine the basis of women’s class solidarity, and then run around screaming at people for committing the sin of not respecting your sovereign identity, you might well find that people think you’re being ‘individualist’ and ‘narcissistic,’ and it might well have fuck all to do with scepticism.

It’s pretty comedy though that you present British people thinking that ‘narcissism’ and ‘individualism’ might be un-British like it’s some kind of bad thing. FWIW, you might have been in the States too long. And if you fancied following through that thought with a semblance of integrity – and factored in that we also have a pretty noble history of being really unfond of totalitarianism – you might start getting close to answering your alleged question (not that you ever wanted to).

It’s also worth noting that the obsession with supposed “biological realities” of people

Male and female people don’t stop existing because you put the word ‘supposed’ in a sentence.

like Ms. Parker are part of a long tradition of British feminism interacting with colonialism and empire.

I feel a ‘TWO-SPIRIT KLAXON’ coming on.

 Imperial Britain imposed policies to enforce heterosexuality and the gender binary,

Woah, hold up there. Britain used to be a society governed by compulsory heterosexuality. Like the vast majority of other patriarchal societies on the face of the planet. I’m sure you can make an argument that in some places colonized by Britain, there were different sexual practices… I’m not sure what the hell that has to do with the existence of male and female people, except I do, because people of your ideological disposition can’t tell the difference between sex and gender anymore, and so you think the challenge to the gender binary that all of us welcome (and which the destigmatisation of homosexuality contributes to in some significant ways), is the same thing as thinking male and female people don’t exist. Which it’s not. Also, maybe you’d also like to pay attention to the fact that many of the women you’re vilifying here are lesbians, and many others are gender non-conforming. We’re not trying to uphold the fucking gender binary you lemon. We’re trying to stop the political erasure of sex. How many damn times.

while simultaneously constructing the racial “other” as not only fundamentally different, but freighted with sexual menace;

Let’s just throw in the suggestion that we’re all racists. I mean, you’ve done ‘fascists’ and ‘homophobes’ already so you really have to go for the full trifecta of evil-imputation don’t you? I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me in a way that makes a stick of historical sense how thinking male and female people exist is an artefact of white supremacy. (The Black radfems are pretty interested in your answer as well btw). Constructing people as an ‘other’ is a primary mechanism of white supremacy, correct, but thinking male and female people exist is not a mechanism of othering. You know what is a mechanism of othering though, and, arguably, the prototypical mechanism? Refusing to grant humanity to women in their own terms, defining women through the projections and discourses of male people, and vilifying them as evil hysterical witches when they won’t play ball with those projections and start telling you to get stuffed.

With respect to the ‘sexual menace’ of non-white males. This is not women’s discourse. It is a marked feature of racist patriarchal discourses that they are obsessed with the sexual menace of non-white males to white women. (I’ve talked about this with respect to Anders Breivik here and here). This whole discourse functions through a logic of sovereignty in which racist white men tend to read the bodies of ‘their’ women as symbolic of ‘their’ territory – this, for example, is why rape is such a constant feature of territorial invasion, why ‘non-colonized’ territory is described as ‘virgin’, it’s actually at play in the whole symbolic structure of territoriality and invasion and possession which underpins the Western thinking of penetrative sex (see here and here). What has to be understood is this is part of what we would call in French feminist thought, the masculine imaginary. The white men who constructed non-white men as sexual predators were also, let’s remember, quite happily raping their own wives, and, in the context of American colonialism, the non-white women they considered their property. And they didn’t give one single thought to it because only rape committed by the ‘other’ signified any kind of injury in their discursive system (to their own property or territory) which I can assure you, was not how the women subject to their violence experienced it. Which is all to say, you cannot read feminist analyses of male violence straightforwardly through the way men have constructed rape for their own territorial purposes. Unless of course you’ve forgotten that women actually exist and have their own experience of the world. Oh, wait.

The point here is that you are conflating the feminist analysis of rape with the way rape is constructed by racist white sovereigntist men, and placing women in the position of those racist white sovereigntist men (oh hai there cis/trans binary, conveniently flipping the axis of oppression). And what you are effectively doing, therefore, is undermining the whole of the feminist analysis of male violence, which some of us might think is, y’know, not very feminist.

from there, it’s not a big leap to see sexual menace in any sort of “other,”

Trans women are male. That is not an act of ‘othering.’ It’s just a fact.

and “biological realities” as essential and immutable.

So are you going to explain to me how male people are actually female people or not? I am so beyond done with people wheeling out vague critiques of ‘essentialism’ as if the existence of anything in the world was a product of damn essences. And I’m even more done with people handwaving our concerns about the erasure of women while wheeling out vague claims of essentialism to erase women and only women, and thinking that somehow that makes them fucking feminists. (If you haven’t managed to understand that women are human yet, and that the cause of women’s liberation doesn’t reside in pretending such hateful creatures don’t really exist because you subliminally believe that if neither you nor anyone else is a woman then you might get a shot at the human-box then seriously, I get it, but I need you to keep your internalized misogyny the hell away from our politics.)

(Significantly, many Irish feminists have rejected Britain’s TERFism, citing their experience of colonialism explicitly as part of the reason.)

Oh, well that proves your intellectual gibberish must be true then doesn’t it?

But perhaps the biggest factor in the rise of TERFism has been the relative dearth of social movements in Britain over the past three decades. It’s telling that Ms. Parker thinks it was the United States that exported “political correctness” and ideas like “gender identity” to Britain; it might even be fair to say that she’s right.

In other parts of the world, including America, mass movements in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s around the effects of globalization and police brutality have produced long overdue dialogue on race, gender and class, and how they all interact. In Britain, however, the space for this sort of dialogue has been much more limited. As a result, middle- and upper-class white feminists have not received the pummeling from black and indigenous feminists that their American counterparts have, and thus, their perspectives retain a credibility and a level of influence in Britain that the Michigan Womyn’s Festival could have only dreamed of.

Um, you do realise that we’re all on the fancy new internets now and have been entirely enmeshed with American discourse for at least the last decade don’t you? How did you manage to have this idea in the middle of a paragraph in which you also mentioned ‘globalization’? Do you not remember the bit when American Intersectional Twitter killed Suffragette dead by reading it entirely through an American lens that made no sense to the political context of early twentieth century Britain? Do you not realise that our opposition to trans ideology is heavily indebted to being exposed to this Tumblrised ‘colonialism invented the gender binary’ bullshit for the last however long? Is it ever possible for you people to actually perform any fidelity to thinking or context or history and try and understand what is actually going on here, or do you always have to resort to just making shit up and patronisingly pretending that we would all stop being such evil witches if only we ‘educated ourselves’ better? We educated ourselves. And then we produced reams and reams of explanation about why we think this is ideologically, materiality, ethically, and politically flawed, none of which you have bothered to pay the scantest attention to.

Curiously, Ms. Parker and Ms. Long’s trans-Atlantic jaunt has led to a split in the ranks. Over the past few days, large segments of British TERFism have disowned both of them on social media for their Washington stunt, calling it an “ambush,” and them a “liability.” Whether Ms. Parker and Ms. Long went too far for a movement that, to date, seemingly has yet to hit a low, remains to be seen.

So, you’re not going to say anything about the political context of our movement which explains why the response to Posie and Julia’s trip was not at all curious, and was, in fact, given that we’re left wing, actually rather predictable? I’m shocked I tell you.

It is revealing, however, where Ms. Parker feels she still has friends: On her same trip to Washington, the woman claiming to be a feminist, standing up for the rights of lesbians everywhere, made sure to drop by the right-wing Heritage Foundation.

Oh, there it is, the reason, which you completely fail to link to the point above, so very inexplicably. It’s probably just as well to finish on a disingenuous note anyway, full marks at least for your consistency.

Sophie Lewis, a feminist theorist and geographer, is the author of the forthcoming “Full Surrogacy Now.”

Of course she bloody is.