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Mind your language

Terf wars and the ludicrous lexicon of feminist theory

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

5 May 2018

9:00 AM

Fiore de Henriquez, a sculptor, had a wonderfully high-windowed studio at the bottom of Cadogan Square, where I sometimes visited her. She was passionate and outspoken. My husband was of course terrified of her. She did not mind mentioning that she was a hermaphrodite.

‘If God made me hermaphrodite, that is how I stay,’ she said. I mention Fiore because if she were alive today she would come in for public obloquy. Sex and gender are a battleground, and words are made shibboleths. Take terf.

Terf is an unlikely acronym, deriving from trans-exclusionary radical feminist. It is a label given by their enemies to feminists who reject alliances in their struggle with people who used to be men. Germaine Greer, for example, denies that men can become women by a simple declaration or even by a spot of surgery.


‘The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women,’ she says, ‘is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.’

Some enemies of terfs chant, or post on Twitter, slogans such as ‘Burn terfs’ or ‘Kill terfs’. Thus others regard the very uttering of the word terf as a ‘hate crime’. I am not aware that any terfs in Britain have been burnt or killed, but last year a woman at Speakers’ Corner was punched by people she identified as ‘trans activist bullies’.

To me all this seems absurd, by which I mean beyond common sense. The idea expressed by common sense is determined by a culture. Until recently it was common sense that marriage was between a man and a woman.

Twenty years ago if someone asked me if I was a feminist, I would have said, ‘Of course’. But I have nothing in common with people calling themselves activists who see women as an oppressed group ripe for exploitation in a never-ending post-Marxist struggle, in which they weaponise terms such as terf or transphobic.

People who have remained innocent of such language are enviable. They tacitly preserve a common culture under constant attack, as though by Sentinels in the Matrix fantasy. And if the mythology of the Matrix films isn’t worth mastering, nor is the lexicon of feminist theory.


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