A brief foreword. This is the sixth of my essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 available here.) I suspect it’s also the least polished, as I was shaken by the assault of Maria MacLachlan and wrote this to work through my thoughts, but it was written from a place of truth.
My grandmother is a brilliant woman. She is clever, compassionate, and unfailingly kind. She is selfless, generous with her time, and loyal to those she loves. I have lived with my grandmother since birth – during childhood she read me Swallows and Amazons at night, sat by the pool during my swimming lessons, and took me to the cinema to see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the film which opened my eyes to the magic of cinema as a child. Nana also sat through Shrek and, with thinly-veiled disgust, Shrek 2. If that’s not love, what is? My grandmother and I have always been close. Since my grandfather died last year, and it has been just the two of us in the house, we have grown closer still – we live like what I’d describe as an infinitely more interesting version of the Gilmour Girls.
I’ve also noticed that my grandmother has grown a bit more radical in that time. She has stopped trying to convince me that men have their uses, which she often did after I came out to her as lesbian. She now has faith in my ability to do what were once considered “man jobs”, like building furniture or running heavy things to the dump. She will readily call racism by its name is and receptive to having racism pointed out. She has identified an abusive relationship and asked me for the relevant details about shelters to pass on and how best to support the woman in question as she left the relationship – I’m very proud of her for that.
My grandmother is also pro-life. She does not believe that abortion is legitimate or morally acceptable. She’s a committed Catholic and gets letters from SPUC every so often. I once joked to her that with my advocacy of abortion and her opposition to it, the output from our household basically cancelled itself out. It’s quite strange to think that Nana is roughly the same age as Angela Davis. I used to reason that, being of a different generation, it was to be expected that she held those views. But then, especially as I grew familiar with feminists who were active during the Women’s Liberation Movement and read more feminist books from the ‘60s and ‘70s, it seemed ridiculous to reduce her politics to a matter of age. Either way, I don’t agree with Nana about abortion. She certainly doesn’t agree with me. But we love each other very much and that disagreement – the most fundamental disagreement in our relationship – doesn’t alter the fact we’re ride or die.
On our way out this afternoon, she gently pointed out that I seemed a bit down. My depression has been severe this year, and I know Nana worries. At first I didn’t say much. But months of therapy have made it substantially easier to divine the root cause of a problem. I told her that a 60 year old woman was beaten yesterday in London – that Maria MacLachlan was punched and choked for going to a talk about the Gender Recognition Act. I explained that the original venue, New Cross Learning, had backed out after being harassed into cancelling – the intensity of protest had the library worried about safety of staff, volunteers, and those accessing the community space. I briefly outlined the schism between a queer and a radical feminist understanding of gender. Mostly, I told Nana that I felt heartsick that a woman had been beaten.
Nana didn’t ask if I knew the woman in question, and I loved her for that – for getting that a woman being assaulted, any woman being hurt, was painful to hear of. What she did ask is if the police caught those behind the attack, if feminist women were challenging it. The mechanics of digital media are as much a mystery to Nana as her daily Sudoku puzzles are to me, but she sees me glued to my phone all day long and understands enough to know that if women gather our energies to make a fuss over injustice then something will come of it. And I told her the truth, a truth that left me even more heartsick: not exactly. There are women who have rallied, and there are women who have looked the other way.
And my Nana said what dozens and dozens of seasoned feminists lack the courage to say: that the attackers were brutes. She asked what sort of horrible, small-minded person would deliberately hurt a woman in her sixties.
For a split-second I wondered what the response to describing those behind the attack as ‘horrible’ or ‘brutes’ would be on Twitter. TERF, obviously – that’s trans-exclusionary radical feminist, for the uninitiated. Maybe Nazi. (More and more, I’ve noticed radical feminists who are lesbian described as Nazi – without the slightest recognition that lesbian women were persecuted, rounded up as “asocials” for their refusal to produce blonde-haired blue-eyed babies, and killed by the Nazi regime.) And then I knew, as is so often the case, that my grandmother was right. They are horrible. They are brutes.
The footage is difficult to watch. A group of women gathered at the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where they had arranged to meet before moving on to the venue – which had
been kept secret owing to the risk involved. The protest – organised by Action for Trans Health London, Sisters Uncut, and Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society – is in full swing. There’s a lot of shouting. The atmosphere is febrile. Amidst the clusters of people, Maria MacLachlan holds a camera to document the proceedings. She is set upon by someone substantially bigger than her. Two more attackers join in after MacLachlan pulls down her assailant’s hood so that they may be identified, as though the beating of a sixty year old woman is too great an undertaking for one man alone. MacLachlan gave her account of her assault to Feminist Current:
[She] had been trying to film the protest when some of the trans activists began to shout, “When TERFs attack, we fight back.” She asked them, “Who’s attacking?” At this point, MacLachlan says a young man in a hoodie tried to grab her camera. “I think he knocked it out of my hand but it was looped to my wrist. He turned back and tried to grab it again. I hung onto it.” As the two struggled, MacLachlan pulled back the hood of the man holding her camera, so onlookers could photograph his face, and another man ran over and began punching MacLachlan. Wood and a third man pushed her to the ground, where she says she was kicked and punched.
The whole incident is disturbing. There is a long history of violence being used to discourage women from collectively organising, and the assault of Maria MacLachlan opens the latest chapter of a story called patriarchy. Both the violence and the context that enabled it to happen must be scrutinised.
How have we reached a point where beating a 60 year old woman can be credited to the politics of liberation? How have we reached a point where feminists can ignore that a 60 year old woman was beaten? How have we reached a point where some self-proclaimed feminists read about this assault and questioned whether a woman was lying about violence, if it really happened, or – if it did happen – she provoked the attack? The silence and disbelief of other women, women who call themselves feminist, is like salt in a wound. Our whole movement is built around the belief that no woman should be subject to violence, and that those women who do experience violence are fully deserving of our support.
The deeper we go into feminist politics and spaces – especially digital feminist spaces – the easier it becomes to forget about certain realities of feminist struggle. The gap between ideas and reality, between the theory being developed and the everyday unfolding of women’s lives, grows until something vital is lost through the cracks of that in-between space. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that queer politics and gender ideology have flourished in the internet age; when so much of our lives are lived online, it is easier to lose focus on the significance of material reality.
While it is certainly shocking that Maria MacLachlan was beaten by trans activists, it was not altogether unpredictable. Last year a transwoman called Dana Rivers murdered an interracial lesbian couple and their son. Not long before committing triple homicide, Rivers protested the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival on the grounds that it was trans-exclusionary. For the last few years, a steady flow of violent rhetoric has been levelled against women, in particular lesbians – much of it from self-identified feminists. Kill all TERFs. Punch all TERFs. Knife a TERF. Burn a TERF. Rivers shot and stabbed the Wright family before setting fire to their house, violence that is mirrored by the language directed towards the women denounced as TERFs. The violence trans activists and allies enacted when Vancouver Women’s Library launched was similarly normalised by misogynistic, abusive language. Given that “punch a TERF” has become something of a rallying cry for those invested in upholding gender ideology, women cannot afford to feign surprise when it actually happens.
Radical feminists have warned against the violent rhetoric attached to the term TERF for years, and been dismissed as bigots for our trouble. Jokes and threats involving violence against women, often indistinguishable, are now commonplace on queer corners of the internet. Etsy stock badges that conflate trans liberation with violence against women. We have reached a bizarre point at which violence against women is circulated as a bold message of resistance by people who claim to be feminists.
Painful disagreements and challenging ideas need not result in abuse. I can’t imagine a single woman campaigning for abortion rights and access to reproductive healthcare beating up my grandmother for her opposing views. Nor could I imagine any of the campaigners who have got in touch with my grandmother beating pro-choice women, even if they do think we’re heading for an afterlife of eternal damnation. The conversations I’ve had with Nana about abortion have been hard for both of us. Realistically, we’re never going to agree. But that doesn’t mean those conversations have to be destructive.
There must be a way to talk about the tensions between gender ideology and sexual politics without abusive language or acts of violence. The subject is fraught, uncomfortable, and certainly not abstract for anyone involved with gender discourse – which is all the more reason to bring empathy to the table. Dehumanising women to the point where we are considered legitimate targets of violence only upholds the values set by patriarchy. We do not approach the subject of gender from a position of power – gender has been used, for hundreds upon hundreds of years, to oppress women. That gender is fundamental to the oppression of women is too often overlooked in gender discourse.
No matter what your politics, we should all recognise that beating up a 60 year old woman doesn’t liberate. It’s violence against women. If your politics justify violence against women, they are shitty and misogynistic politics. It is not complicated. There is no justification. Women are not legitimate targets of violence. Not for having different views to you. Not for listening to or engaging with ideas you disagree with. Never. Plenty of the progressive left looked the other way at “punch a TERF” rhetoric normalising violence against women, and this is what it led to: a woman being beaten.
Violence against women has no place in the politics of liberation. If you ignore this assault to keep your ally cookies on queer identity politics, you’re complicit. If you give language that normalises violence against women, you’re complicit. Violence against women has no place in any context. That is what radical feminists consistently argue. Radical feminist women are depicted as violent simply for our ideas about gender – meanwhile, those who perpetrate physical acts of violence against women are framed as our victims.
When radical feminists critique gender, we are accused of debating trans-identified people’s right to live free from violence or even accused of exterminating trans-identified people. Aside from being falsehoods, these claims serve to discredit radical feminists’ explorations of gender. Writing for Trouble and Strife, Jane Clare Jones unpicks queer misrepresentations of radical feminism:
[Gender] debate is not academic for anyone involved. For both trans and non-trans women, what is at stake is the ability to understand themselves in a way that makes their lives livable. For feminist women, the axiom ‘trans women are women,’ when understood to mean ‘womanhood is gender identity and hence, trans women are women in exactly the same way as non-trans women are women’ is experienced as an extreme erasure of the way our being-as-women is marked by a system of patriarchal violence that aims to control our sexed bodies.
This system of patriarchal violence also marks the lives of trans women, who are indubitably victims of the kinds of male violence feminists have spent years attempting to resist. To cast certain feminists as the principal threat to trans existence, it is therefore necessary for trans-ideology to sideline the patriarchal violence that affects both women and trans people, and instead, position feminists at the apex of a structure of oppression.
Reframing women’s oppression as a form of privilege has enabled the disciples of gender ideology to target women as the oppressor and feel legitimate in doing so. But this perspective fails to consider the reality of the situation: women are an oppressed class, marginalised as a result of having been born female into a patriarchal society. Women do not hold a wealth of structural power over trans-identified people, and claiming that women challenging the means of our oppression are enacting anti-trans violence is ludicrous. Radical feminists are the staunchest and most consistent critics of male violence, which is the cause of transphobic attacks.
If you’re a feminist who has ever used the term TERF to describe a radical feminist, stop and think about the violent misogyny it’s used in conjunction with. Think about how “punch a TERF” led to Maria MacLachlan being assaulted. Think about whether you want to be complicit in violence against women, or play a part in challenging that violence – I suspect it’s the latter.
And if you’re going to keep branding women TERFs, remember: you cannot beat dissent out of women. Trying to do so only recreates patriarchal values, which started the pattern of using violence to render women compliant. It isn’t decent human behaviour, never mind feminist. Women are resilient – we have to be, to make it through life under patriarchy. And we will not fall silent.
Marilyn Frye. (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.
Audre Lorde. (1983). The Master’s Toois Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.