In late 2020, I found myself teaching a course on gender, law and development. I decided to start with the basics, including a crash course on feminist legal theory for those of my students who were not familiar with it. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State and I was…furiously nodding in approval? It had been almost a decade since my last semi-serious engagement with radical feminism, with which I became intensely, but very briefly, enamoured in the late 2000s. Soon thereafter, I discovered the ‘sex wars’, lesbian separatism, and – worst of all – Judith Butler, who took my thinking about gender toward a radically (?) different direction. MacKinnon’s ongoing commitment to law and law reform as well as her objections to ‘postmodernism’ that more than occasionally hinged on pedestrian anti-intellectualism (‘Nice neutral word, difference, and it has all that French credibility.’) did not help my relationship with radical feminism either. The rise of TERFism (trans-exclusionary radical feminism) in the past few years only solidified my conviction that radical feminism had run its course as a political and intellectual movement. Is it a coincidence – I asked, rather rhetorically – that radical feminists found themselves once again in cahoots with the religious Right?
But then, there I was, nodding. Around the same time, I came across a surprising (?) interview of MacKinnon, where she shut down without second thought any suggestion that her work and activism was trans exclusionary. Channeling Simone de Beauvoir, MacKinnon insisted that nobody (cis and trans) is born a woman, but we all become one within society. It is this social process of subjugation that concerns her both as a matter of feminist theorising and as an object of social practice. Equally, the late Andrea Dworkin was also trans-inclusive in both her theory and practice.
Of course, TERFs themselves object to the use of the acronym, arguing that it is a misogynistic slur. Often left unelaborated, this assertion largely equates (intense) disapproval with slurs. There is no doubt that the acronym is used in a derogatory way (I certainly use it in this way), but this does not make it a misogynistic slur – it does not dismiss TERFs for being women, but rather for a political position that they publicly hold. In fact, accusations of TERFism place the politics of the trans-exclusionary individuals at the centre of criticism. Nevertheless, there is something to the claim of Jennifer Saul that the term can be misleading and obscure disagreements not only between different feminisms, but even within radical feminism. Relatedly, Joanne Conaghan has also cast doubt on whether any of the basic TERF propositions are readily recognisable as ‘feminist’.
This raises another, more specific, question: in what way — if at all — is ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminism’ radical feminism in any meaningful sense? The question is not asked often, not least because of the very vocal, long-standing association of prominent radical feminists, for example Sheila Jeffreys, Janice G. Raymond, and Julie Binder, with positions that are not ‘simply’ exclusionary of trans women (and patronising toward trans men) but outright hostile. The question is further complicated by the fact that many vocal TERFs have not had a long-term engagement with feminism (radical or otherwise), but have adopted feminist self-identifying arguments relatively recently for the sole purpose of opposing the inclusion of trans women in female spaces and of asserting that trans men remain women despite their latter’s insistence that this is not true.
Bathroom panics are at the heart of these objections. The argument goes as follows: legislation that allows trans women to access female spaces, regardless of whether and what medical procedures they have chosen to undergo, will allow ‘predatory males’ to dress up as women and access restrictive spaces in order to assault them. There are a number of reasons to oppose this reasoning on radical feminist grounds. One would involve the consequences of this line of thinking: indeed, it is highly likely that the victims of a more ‘vigilant’ approach to bathrooms will be non-stereotypically feminine women, either trans or cis. Since going to the loo does not generally involve genetic tests, assessments of whether someone is in the ‘correct’ bathroom hinge on ‘on the fly’ assessments of their conformity with gender norms, assessments that have been used for centuries to police female behaviour and can (and, indeed, have been and still are) be especially harmful even to cis women who are perceived as masculine, notably butch lesbians. In fact, butch lesbians and other gender-non-conforming cis women are reporting increasing levels of harassment in the shadow of rising anti-trans hysteria in the UK.
However, the biggest tension between this line of thinking and radical feminist theory (and practice) is not the unintended consequences of these bathroom panics, but rather the abandonment and even reversal of core radical feminist propositions about violence, sex and gender in patriarchal societies. The bathroom parable relies on a ‘stranger danger’ understanding of sexual assault and gendered violence: some, arguably particularly monstrous and determined ‘predatory males’ (who might or might not ‘seriously’ perceive themselves as being trans) are willing to ‘put on a dress’ in order to access female spaces and hurt women. In many respects, this is precisely the imaginary of rape and sexual assault that feminists, including radical feminists, have spent the last few decades deconstructing. The idea of gendered and sexualised harm as exceptional, monstrous and spectacular, as taking place in public bathrooms and not in private homes, and — crucially — as being the doing of particularly aggressive men and not as a social structure that benefits all men has been anathema to radical feminist theory and practice.
Let me elaborate: radical feminists have been making a number of inter-connected claims about women, sex, and violence in patriarchal societies. The first is an empirical one: radical feminists (rightly) claimed that rape, sexual assault and violence against women are much more prevalent in society than commonly assumed, but because of the all-encompassing nature of male power women do not necessarily recognise them as such in a spontaneous manner. Rather, collective processes of consciousness-raising were necessary to de-atomise women’s experience with the patriarchy and allow us to understand our position as one of thorough subordination. The role of black radical feminists was nothing short of pioneering in that regard. Secondly, radical feminists posited that even men who were not themselves physically violent and sexually aggressive against women nevertheless benefited from this structure of violent subordination. When MacKinnon urges us to conceptualise rape, prostitution (her words) or pornography as forms of torture — a label commonly reserved for violence inflicted by state officials for political purposes – she is not simply saying that these practices are extremely harmful (even though she was certainly also pushing against the minimisation harm in these contexts). Rather, she was also pointing at the political functions of these acts as the ‘enforcement’ mechanisms of a much broader and deeper structure of masculine power. Much like state-sponsored torture, rape, violence and misogynistic intimidation serve a ‘public’ rather than a purely private purpose, in the sense that they ensure the unequal distribution of power between men and women.
These realisations raised the question whether heterosexual intimacy and sex could ever be even notionally free from the all-encompassing nature of masculine power. The question was especially urgent since for radical feminists the locus of women’s oppression was not some supposedly socially unmediated ability to menstruate, bear children or simply be in possession of a vagina (as many TERFs would have it), but rather compulsory heterosexuality , the naturalisation of heterosexuality, its turning into the inescapable horizon of women’s existence. For some (but certainly not all) feminists the answer became obvious: lesbianism was the only option if women wanted to live a fulfilling, non-violent life away from patriarchal oppression. Needless to say, political lesbianism did not fair particularly well, not least because, as Andrea Long Chu noted, attempting to make desire conform with political principle is as easy as trying to give a cat a bath (I am myself a feminist who has been dieting on and off since I was 12, so I would know).
My intention here is not to re-litigate the merits of political lesbianism, even though it is arguably more attractive than the ‘born this way’ discourse that took over the LGBT+ movement the past few decades. My purpose, instead, is to observe the marked absence of all and any of these arguments in TERF reasoning. Indeed, for heterosexual trans-exclusionary feminists, the idea that the main danger to them does not linger in the public restroom, but in their own living room might be disconcerting, but it is a core proposition of radical feminism (there is also a lot to be said about the fact that lesbian TERFs seem to have forgotten their own arguments that straight and bisexual women ‘sleep with the enemy’). If politics is all about prioritisation, trans-exclusionary feminists have decided to obsess over the entirely fictional scenario of the dress-wearing bathroom predator over the ever-present masculine violence – especially at a time when women find themselves in lockdown with their abusers and working class women of colour face the economic consequences of the collapse of the service sectors in advanced capitalist economies. None of this should be taken to mean that aspects of radical feminism were not open to the type of arguments TERFs make against trans women. For one, radical feminists, including MacKinnon, often found themselves oscillating between making sophisticated arguments about the eroticisation of domination under the patriarchy to elevating sex into the prime (if not, de facto, exclusive) site where women’s oppression is articulated, notably to the detriment of wage labour and social reproduction. However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that a re-appreciation of the basics of radical feminism would, in fact, help us make the case for a trans-inclusive feminism and, fundamentally, for a feminism that confronts the root of women’s oppression instead of devolving into moral panics. In so doing, we can only benefit from engaging carefully with the writings of trans feminists themselves, who have long been articulating careful and generative readings both of radical feminism but also of women’s oppression through intersectional lenses that remain alive to the horizon of comprehensive human liberation
* With many thanks to Yvette Russell for her careful reading and comments.
 In a sense, this post is also a commentary on the tendency of the neoliberal university to treat teaching as feminised labour and to devalue it accordingly, especially in relation to research which is often coded as masculine. I learn with and from my students as much, if not more than, I learn in my ‘research time’ and for this,I am extremely grateful.
 Sex workers themselves have retorted that equating rape with all sex work obscures the harm inflicted on them when they do get raped: Juno Mac, Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (Verso, 2018).
 This insight also enables us to see in different light the TERFy argument that trans inclusion makes homosexuality – understood as same sex attraction -impossible. It is the entire structure of patriarchal societies that makes homosexuality often unthinkable and nevertheless, queer women have been overcoming these odds for centuries. The ‘concern’ is not only hypocritical and patronising, but also reveals a profound ignorance not only of feminist theorising but also of the lives of queer women.