The Transnational Battle at the Heart of Modern Feminism

Erin Toohey

Each year, International Women’s Day (IWD) brings to the fore the opportunity for feminist activists across the world to celebrate our achievements as a community and reflect on oppressions we’ve still to overcome. However, among the solidarity and celebration there is an increasingly vocal and transnational movement, which instead leverages the language of feminism against transgender women and girls who are among the most vulnerable to patriarchal violence and oppression.


These are the trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERF’s), or as they more euphemistically prefer, ‘gender critical feminists’. They subscribe to interpretation of feminism which cleaves the rights of transgender people apart from those of cisgender women in an effort to argue for a zero-sum game between the two. However, an investigation into the state of transnational TERF movements in 2022 makes it clear that efforts to oppose the rights of trans people can only lead to worsening political conditions for all women.


On International Women’s Day, staunchly self-identifying feminist and Twitter’s de facto leader of the TERF’s, JK Rowling, claimed to be ‘defending the rights of women and girls’ by criticising the UK’s Shadow Equalities Minister for statements made in support of including trans women in the Labour Party’s definition of ‘womanhood’. This supposedly feminist position garnered the support of conservatives who in no sense prioritise advancement of women’s rights. Most notably, JK Rowling sent ‘big love’ to Caroline Farrow, the UK and Ireland’s Director of the ultraconservative international Christian organisation Citizen Go. Citizen Go certainly shares Rowling’s anti-trans position, taking credit for stalling trans rights legislation in the UK, the USA, and Australia. Alongside these ‘victories’, however, lie a slew of anti-abortion campaigns and support for maintaining women’s place within the ‘traditional family’.


Far from an anomaly, this cosiness between an ostensibly liberal ‘gender critical feminist’ and an ultraconservative reflects an alarming international pattern.


The LGB Alliance is a further case study to look to. The UK-based organisation claims to ‘protect lesbians from gender ideology’. They similarly dedicated their IWD messaging to women’s right to single sex spaces’. Such is this organisation’s dedication to ‘protecting women’ that they embrace the support of Neo-Nazis and work alongside conservative lobbyist group the Heritage Foundation. LGB Alliance founder Bev Jackson called this alliance ‘the only possible course of action’ to forward their campaign against trans people—particularly trans women—internationally. According to Jackson ‘it was their [Heritage Foundation] publicity that made it possible to launch a gender-critical movement in the US’.


The Heritage Foundation’s impact on policy is direct, having lobbied for federal anti-trans legislation in the US. Once again, these allies to a supposedly feminist cause also readily throw their lobbying power behind anti-abortion legislation. This alliance between TERF and conservative groups is having a demonstrably destructive effect on the lives of both women and trans people throughout the US.


The Women’s Liberation Front (stylised WoLF) is another organisation ‘fighting at the front line of feminism’ that has worked with the Heritage Foundation alongside Republican lawmakers to push anti-trans legislation. This has led to an unprecedented increase in both the number and severity of anti-trans bills introduced in the US. Chief among these is Texas Senator Greg Abbott’s bill proposing trans children be separated from their families. Senator Abbotts’ political resume has led New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow to call Texas a ‘harbinger of doom’ for its outstanding anti-progressive agenda.


Here in Australia the link between transnational TERF movements and conservative politics is no less stark. LGB Alliance Australia features an interview (21:00) with Liberal Senator Claire Chandler where she discusses being inspired by JK Rowling and her bill to ‘protect our girls’ by barring trans children from participating in gendered sports. This bill received vocal support from Prime Minister Scott Morrison not even a month after the rights of transgender people to be protected from discrimination was used as a political football during the debate of his religious discrimination bill.


Senator Chandler and her Liberal peers perhaps more than anyone expose the feminism of the gender critical movement as an utter fallacy. The Liberal Party has over the past year accrued a damning reputation for its mistreatment of women and its dismissal of women’s issues. Senator Chandler herself has in the past voted against legislation to reduce the gender pay gap and support legal abortion.


The misappropriation of feminist language has allowed transnational TERF movements a political reach that has unequivocally led to a more unstable and dangerous political environment for all women. UN Women advocates for a feminism that is intersectional because standing together as a single community is the core that fires the political force of modern feminism. To cut trans rights out of feminism is to destroy it altogether. For those fighting against the oppression of women, this corruption can only be curtailed by holding solidarity with transgender people at the heart of modern feminism.