So help me, I did not intend to spend part of my week pitying the TERFs on Mumsnet, but, thanks to a truly fantastic article by Katie J.M. Baker at Lux Magazine, that’s where I wound up.
Mumsnet, which began as a parenting forum twenty years ago, has become the premier digital hub of the British TERF movement. Checking in on the “women’s rights” forum on a Saturday afternoon reveals users railing against trans people being allowed to donate blood (“haemoglobins won’t change if someone just identifies as a different gender”), or police reports identifying trans people by their correct genders (“rape suspects” will “choose to self-identify as female”). One of the most popular threads, with 270 comments and counting, objects to the concept of pronouns. Its title — “Why do we need pronouns when we have names?” — uses the pronoun “we.” Twice.
The first reasonable response is bafflement. Here are a bunch of well-off, mostly-white British women who logged on to discuss sleep training or milk pumps and wound up mounting a crusade against the English language. How did they get sucked in? The answer, Baker suggests, is simple: Being a new mom really, really blows.
These women log on in moments of extreme physical and emotional vulnerability, looking for answers, and inevitably, someone shows up to give them the wrong ones.
“As I read thread after thread, I noticed that many of the posters wrote about feeling newly disenfranchised and isolated after giving birth for the first time,” Baker writes. Mumsnet became important to these women in part because they view mothers as a marginalized group. Members argue that “losing the space would show a ‘disregard for mothers and our need to access support and information.’”
This is where my horrifying, self-destructive sympathy kicks in. I’ve had a baby, and I’ve used parenting boards when I desperately needed guidance, and the state of the first-time Mumsnet user — sleep-deprived, hormone-addled, terrified and isolated — is familiar to me. So is their conviction that something is inherently unfair about motherhood. These women log on in moments of extreme physical and emotional vulnerability, looking for answers, and inevitably, someone shows up to give them the wrong ones.
What concerns me is not just the fact that this has happened in the United Kingdom. It’s that it is most likely happening to someone here, in the United States, as we speak, and I don’t know which message board they’re using.
Sympathy can only go so far. Hate groups have always preyed on vulnerable people, and it’s still those people’s fault for choosing to join hate groups; lose sight of that, and you wind up sounding like one of those Jacobin articles where we learn that a racist or an incel is actually a hapless victim of Economic Anxiety.
Yet it matters to understand the unique seductions of British TERFdom, because it has been alarmingly successful at gaining converts. In the UK, mainstream feminism is transphobic feminism, and otherwise unexceptional mainstream liberals like J.K. Rowling have made frothing transphobia central to their public lives. Now, with a similar anti-trans movement revving up in the States, it behooves us to understand how an eliminationist agenda manages to present itself as a reasonable option.
A huge part of British TERFs’ success comes down to weaponized white femininity. They’re one of the only contemporary hate groups that is predominantly female. They don’t coalesce around intentionally “edgy” figures like Richard Spencer or Gavin McInnes; they mostly look like well-off, white, straight moms. The best analogy might be the housewives that Phyllis Schlafly rallied for her campaign against the ERA, who lobbied politicians by bringing home-baked apple pies to their offices; that veneer of respectable, unthreatening white femininity allows them to advocate for hateful positions without coming off as “extreme.”
TERFs also position themselves as feminists. Their claim to the title is dicey. It’s true that many feminists of the ’70s and ’80s were transphobic (Robin Morgan, Mary Daly, Germaine Greer, etc.) but it’s also true that many were not (Andrea Dworkin, the woman who practically defines our image of the scary ’70s feminist, was not a TERF). Contemporary TERFs have been denounced by most major feminist activists. Still, their ability to code-switch for different audiences — pivoting from tradwife damsel in distress to inflamed warrior against the patriarchy, depending on what plays better — has allowed them to cultivate both conservative and liberal sympathies, and thus to sow hostility against trans people on both sides of the aisle.
Trans people are presented as a group of bigots out to hurt marginalized people, rather than a group of marginalized people who are being hurt.
Our transphobes are significantly less female or “feminist” than the British kind; the leading media voices over here are often white men, with only a few white women in the mix. But their tactics and talking points are already alarmingly similar. Over here, for instance, transphobes’ self-declared victim stance often arises, not from being feminists, but from being gay or lesbian — trans people are not “misogynists” co-opting and/or abandoning womanhood, but “homophobes” aiming to infiltrate queerness and wipe out gay identities. Either way, trans people are presented as a group of bigots out to hurt marginalized people, rather than a group of marginalized people who are being hurt.
That lethal bipartisan appeal may prove transferable, too. At present, transphobia in the United States is a Republican cause. Yet a growing number of US liberals and leftists have been tilting at the windmill of “identity politics” and the supposedly bloodthirsty “cancel culture” that enables them, and this stance almost invariably entails lashing out at trans people. Rejection of “gender ideology” and the portrayal of trans people as a cancel-happy mob serves more or less the same purpose as the “feminism” of British TERFs — a way of code-switching from conservatism (deviants are out to recruit your children!) to liberalism (authoritarian cancel-culture activists are dismantling the free press!) depending on what wins the audience over.
Mumsnet or Substack, feminism or gay rights, Tavistock or Arkansas; at some point, these become distinctions without differences, the same slur uttered with a different accent. Which means that the figure of the first-time Mumsnet user — the woman at her wit’s end, looking for answers and being lied to — must be over here, too. Someone has to get to her now, before the TERFs do, because by the time they find her, she may be a lost cause.
Motherhood has driven millions of women out of the workforce during the pandemic. There’s no support for working parents, because most professional environments are organized around the idea that employees will have someone else (say it: a wife) to take care of their kids. Those same sexist expectations mean that very few straight couples distribute work equally in the home. Doctors treat pregnant people horribly, particularly Black mothers; the US has a staggering maternal mortality rate, and, as Angela Garbes wrote in her terrific 2018 book Like a Mother, most people who give birth aren’t checked for common postpartum injuries, so even a healthy birth can cause complications for months or years. Society stereotypes moms as useless, irrelevant, and vapid.
All of these problems are real, and important; I sympathize with those overwhelmed first-time mothers because I used to think of myself as one. If they had found better teachers, they might have learned that their problems are shared by trans people. Pregnant trans men and non-binary people are just as vulnerable to medical contempt as cis women, if not more so, and lots of trans women deal with the professional and social stigma of being moms. They might also learn that there is very little support for “mothers” in a regime where parents are forbidden to give their children the medicine that will save their lives, or forced to abuse their children under threat of having them taken away.
That’s not what happened. Instead, those Mumsnet moms blame trans people for the evils of patriarchy; they see trans rights as a form of “female erasure” intended to deny cis women’s oppression and take away what little support they have. In the moment before that belief took hold, they were probably on the verge of a breakthrough. It’s the lost potential that stands out.
Our organized, ideological transphobes already borrow so much from British TERFs. It stands to reason that they, too, would be in the business of stealing people’s breakthroughs; young queer people looking for a sense of identity, or socially isolated people afraid of getting shouted at or rejected for saying the wrong thing, or angry white guys (it’s always angry white guys) who feel their “traditional” masculinity being eroded by social progress. The most any of us can do is understand the lies transphobes are telling, and why certain people might want to hear them. Before they choose the wrong teachers, we have to teach them what we can.