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TERF (/tɜːrf/) is an acronym for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. First recorded in 2008, the term was originally used to distinguish trans-inclusive feminists from a group of radical feminists who reject the assertion that trans women are women, the inclusion of trans women in women's spaces, and transgender rights legislation. Trans-inclusive feminists assert that these ideas are transphobic. Use of the term TERF has since broadened to include reference to people with trans-exclusionary views who are not necessarily involved with radical feminism.[1][2][3]

Though it was created as a deliberately neutral descriptor, TERF is now typically considered derogatory.[4] Those called TERFs often reject the label, and instead describe their beliefs as gender critical.[5][6] In academic discourse, there is no consensus on whether TERF constitutes a slur. Critics of the word have pointed to its usage alongside insulting or abusive rhetoric, and described it as a "bullying tool",[7][8][9][10] while other academics have argued that this alone does not make the term a slur.[9][10][11]


Trans-inclusive cisgender radical feminist blogger Viv Smythe has been credited with popularizing the term[3] in 2008 as an online shorthand.[12] It was used to describe a minority of feminists[1] who espouse sentiments that other feminists consider transphobic,[2][3][13][14] including the rejection of the view – predominant in feminist organizations[15] – that trans women are women, opposition to transgender rights,[15] and the exclusion of trans women in women's spaces and organizations.[16]

Smythe has been credited with having coined the term TERF, due to a blog post she wrote reacting to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival's policy of denying admittance to trans women. She wrote that she rejected the alignment of all radical feminists with "trans-exclusionary radfem (TERF) activists".[12] In a 2014 interview with The TransAdvocate, Smythe said:

It was meant to be a deliberately technically neutral description of an activist grouping. We wanted a way to distinguish TERFs from other RadFems with whom we engaged who were trans*-positive/neutral, because we had several years of history of engaging productively/substantively with non-TERF RadFems.[17]


Smythe initially used TERF to refer to a particular type of feminist whom she characterized as "unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters" but notes that the term has taken on additional connotations and that it has been "weaponised at times" by both inclusionary and exclusionary groups.[12] The term has since become an established part of contemporary feminist language but its usage is contested.[18]

Several writers have observed that "TERF" can be used in broader senses to refer to trans-exclusionary feminists who are not radical, people with a certain kind of trans-exclusionary politics regardless of whether they are radical feminists, or even things that are culturally associated with second-wave feminism in general.[2][3][19]

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added an entry for TERF in June 2022, which states that although the term was first intended as a neutral descriptor, it is "now typically regarded as derogatory".[4] OED editor Fiona McPherson explained that because "there is a little bit more nuance behind its usage—it's not always just a straight-out insult", the dictionary's editors opted to explain this rather than simply label the term "derogatory" or "chiefly derogatory".[20]

Slur debate

Those that have the word TERF directed at them often characterize it as a slur or hate speech.[5][21][22] In a July 2018 solicitation of essays regarding "transgender identities", British magazine The Economist required writers to "avoid all slurs, including TERF", stating that the word was used to try to silence opinions and sometimes incite violence.[23] In August 2018, seven British philosophers wrote on the website Daily Nous that two articles by Veronica Ivy[11] and Jason Stanley[24] published in the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research normalized the term. They described the term as "at worst a slur and at best derogatory", and argued that it had been used to denigrate those "who disagree with the dominant narrative on trans issues".[9][10][25] In response, Ernest Sosa, the journal's editor in chief, stated that scholars consulted by the journal advised that the term could become a slur at some point, but that its use as a denigrating term in some contexts did not mean that it could not be used descriptively.[10]

Transgender rights activists generally but not always disagree that the term is a slur. Transgender author Andrea Long Chu described the claim that TERF was a slur as "a grievance that would be beneath contempt if it weren't also true, in the sense that all bywords for bigots are intended to be defamatory."[26]

Linguists and philosophers of language have been skeptical of the idea that the term TERF is a slur. Transgender rights activist[27] and philosophy of language professor Veronica Ivy argues that just because the word could be used pejoratively, it did not mean it was a slur in general.[11] In a 2020 paper published in the philosophy journal Grazer Philosophische Studien, linguists Christopher Davis and Elin McCready argued that three properties could make a term a slur: it had to be derogatory towards a particular group, used to subordinate them within some structure of power relations, and that the derogated group must be defined by an intrinsic property. Davis and McCready wrote that the term TERF satisfied the first condition, but failed the third condition, and that the second condition was contentious, in that it depended upon how each group saw itself in relation to the other group.[28] Philosophy of language professor Jennifer Saul disagreed with categorizing "TERF" as a slur, arguing that a term does not necessarily become a slur when coupled with violent or abusive rhetoric. However, she argued that the term is not accurate because not all people described as TERFs could reasonably be considered feminists, preferring the term "anti-trans activists" instead.[29]

Other feminist philosophers have differing opinions on the term. Feminist philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher argued that, regardless of whether the term was accurately classified as a slur, it "has at least become offensive to those designated by the term", which suggested it might be best to avoid "in case one wants to have a conversation across deep difference".[30] Feminist philosopher Judith Butler disputed that the term "TERF" was a slur in an interview with New Statesman, saying "I wonder what name self-declared feminists who wish to exclude trans women from women's spaces would be called? If they do favour exclusion, why not call them exclusionary? If they understand themselves as belonging to that strain of radical feminism that opposes gender reassignment, why not call them radical feminists?"[31]

Rejection of term by gender critical feminists

Feminists described as TERFs generally object to the term and sometimes refer to themselves as gender critical.[5][10][32] In 2017, British columnist Sarah Ditum wrote that "the bar to being called a 'terf' is remarkably low", citing PinkNews's criticism of Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray and a Medium writer's blog entry about Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.[33]

In a 2015 article, American feminist scholar Bonnie J. Morris argued that TERF was initially a legitimate analytical term, but quickly developed into a defamatory word associated with sexist insults. She described the word as "emblematic of the unresolved tensions between our LGBT community's L and T factions" and called on scholars and journalists to stop using it.[34]

British journalist Catherine Bennett has described the word as "a bullying tool", which had "already succeeded in repressing speech – and maybe even research".[7][35] In 2017, British feminist author Claire Heuchan argued that the word was often used alongside "violent rhetoric",[8][36] and that this violent language was used to "dehumanise women who are critical of gender as part of a political system", often lesbians.[8] British clinical psychologist and medical sociologist David Pilgrim argued that phrases like "Kill a TERF!" or "Punch a TERF!" are also posted by trolls online, and that there had been other depictions of violence aimed at women labeled as TERFs.[37]

The 2018, UK All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hate Crime received several submissions that indicated a high degree of tension between trans activists and feminist groups opposed to transgender rights legislation, with both sides detailing incidents of extreme or abusive language. The report noted that some women had submitted reports which argued that "women who object to the inclusion of trans women as female are being attacked both online and, in the street, with the term 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist' or (TERF) being used as a term of abuse."[38]

Some people who have been called "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" say that "trans-exclusionary" is an inaccurate label, as they are inclusive of transgender men, who have a female sex assignment.[39] Peter Cava notes that when trans-exclusionary radical feminists are inclusive of trans men, they often gender them as women.[40] Linguists Christopher Davis and Elin McCready view this "purported support" of trans men as a denial of their agency and self-determination, and suggest it is trans-exclusionary "because it excludes the very category of 'trans man'".[28]

See also


  1. ^ a b Stryker, Susan; Bettcher, Talia M. (1 May 2016). "Introduction". TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 3 (1–2): 5–14. doi:10.1215/23289252-3334127.
  2. ^ a b c Lewis, Sophie (7 February 2019). "Opinion | How British Feminism Became Anti-Trans". The New York Times. If the idea that transphobic harassment could be "feminist" bewilders you, you are not alone. ... With time, the term TERF has become a catchall for all anti-trans feminists, radical or not.
  3. ^ a b c d Miller, Edie (5 November 2018). "Why Is British Media So Transphobic?". The Outline. Retrieved 3 May 2019. The truth is, while the British conservative right would almost certainly be more than happy to whip up a frenzy of transphobia, they simply haven't needed to, because some sections of the left over here are doing their hate-peddling for them. The most vocal source of this hatred has emerged, sadly, from within circles of radical feminists. British feminism has an increasingly notorious TERF problem. ... The application of the term has shifted somewhat over time to encompass most people espousing trans-exclusionary politics that follow a particular "TERF logic," regardless of their involvement with radical feminism.
  4. ^ a b "TERF". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. June 2022. Retrieved 14 July 2022. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  5. ^ a b c Vasquez, Tina (17 February 2014). "It's Time to End the Long History of Feminism Failing Transgender Women". Bitch. Bitch Media. Retrieved 13 April 2019. [Cathy] Brennan, fellow attorney Elizabeth Hungerford, and other modern-day feminists continue to actively question the inclusion of trans people in women's spaces. These feminists refer to themselves as "radical feminists" or "gender critical feminists." In 2008, trans women and trans advocates started referring to this group as "trans-exclusionary radical feminists" or TERFs, a term Brennan considers a slur.
  6. ^ Gutzwa, Justin A. (2021). "Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs)". Encyclopedia of Queer Studies in Education. pp. 695–698. doi:10.1163/9789004506725_137. ISBN 978-90-04-50672-5. S2CID 246690677.
  7. ^ a b Bennett, Catherine (19 November 2017). "Bullies everywhere delight in coming up with new insults". The Guardian. the advance of terf, as a bullying tool, has already succeeded in repressing speech – and maybe even research ... ugly terf, fucking terf scum
  8. ^ a b c Heuchan, Claire (6 October 2017). "If feminist Linda Bellos is seen as a risk, progressive politics has lost its way". The Guardian. Terf stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Online, it often it [sic] appears alongside violent rhetoric: punch a Terf, stab a Terf, kill a Terf. This language is used to dehumanise women who are critical of gender as part of a political system.
  9. ^ a b c Allen, Sophie R.; Finneron-Burns, Elizabeth; Leng, Mary; Lawford-Smith, Holly; Jones, Jane Clare; Reilly-Cooper, Rebecca; Simpson, R. J. (24 September 2018). "On an Alleged Case of Propaganda: Reply to McKinnon". representative examples of derogatory uses of the term: 'kill all TERFs'; 'shoot a terf today'; 'all TERFs deserve to be shot in the head'; 'somebody slap this TERF c*nt across the face'; 'literally kill all TERFs' ... To summarize, we've considered three specific accounts of slurs, Anderson and Lepore's account which appeals to whether those targeted by the term take it to be a slur, Nunberg's account on which slurs signal in-group membership, and Swanson's account on which slurs cue harmful ideologies. We've argued that 'TERF' is a slur on all three of the specific accounts surveyed. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. ^ a b c d e Flaherty, Colleen (29 August 2018). "'TERF' War – Philosophers object to a journal's publication 'TERF,' in reference to some feminists. Is it really a slur?". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 12 April 2019. While the term has become controversial over time, especially with its often hateful deployment on social media, it originally described a subgroup of feminists who believe that the interests of cisgender women (those who are born with vaginas) don't necessarily intersect with those of transgender women (primarily those born with penises)...TERF 'is widely used across online platforms as a way to denigrate and dismiss the women (and some men) who disagree with the dominant narrative on trans issues...Targeted groups include 'lesbians who merely maintain that same-sex attraction is not equivalent to transphobia,' and 'women who believe that women’s oppression is sex-based, and are concerned about erasing the political importance of female bodies...."
  11. ^ a b c McKinnon, Rachel (7 March 2018). "The Epistemology of Propaganda". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 96 (2): 483–489. doi:10.1111/phpr.12429. many contemporary TERFs accuse trans women of coining the phrase/term—and, ludicrously, claim that 'TERF' is a misogynistic slur. ... The idea—it seems to be—is that 'TERF' is a term used to denigrate women, and so it is a slur. However, this is an absurd, nonsensical view of the nature of slurs.
  12. ^ a b c Smythe, Viv (28 November 2018). "I'm credited with having coined the word 'Terf'. Here's how it happened". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 April 2019. Due to a short series of blogposts from 2008, I have retrospectively been credited as the coiner of the acronym "Terf" (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) ... a shorthand to describe one cohort of feminists who self-identify as radical and are unwilling to recognise trans women as sisters, unlike those of us who do.
  13. ^ Dastagir, Alia (16 March 2017). "A feminist glossary because we didn't all major in gender studies". USA Today. Retrieved 24 April 2019. TERF: The acronym for 'trans exclusionary radical feminists,' referring to feminists who are transphobic.
  14. ^ Bollinger, Alex (19 December 2018). "Famous lesbian site taken over by anti-trans 'feminists'. Now lesbian media is standing up". www.lgbtqnation.com. Retrieved 5 June 2019.
  15. ^ a b Burns, Katelyn (5 September 2019). "The rise of anti-trans "radical" feminists, explained". Vox. Retrieved 29 August 2022. “I don’t think American women are buying it,” she said, pointing out that nearly every major US feminist advocacy group is vocally pro-trans rights and inclusion.
  16. ^ O'Connell, Jennifer (26 January 2019). "Transgender for beginners: Trans, terf, cis and safe spaces". The Irish Times. Retrieved 24 April 2019.
  17. ^ Williams, Cristan (1 May 2016). "Radical Inclusion". TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly. 3 (1–2): 254–258. doi:10.1215/23289252-3334463.
  18. ^ Hines, Sally (17 February 2019). "The feminist frontier: on trans and feminism". Journal of Gender Studies. 28 (2): 145–157. doi:10.1080/09589236.2017.1411791. S2CID 149145967.
  19. ^ Wilson, Lena (16 August 2018). "Do I Have to Give Up Lesbian History to Participate in Queer Culture?". Slate. TERF, as an insult, has become so far removed from its original activist intentions (rightly criticizing trans exclusion in feminism) that, at this point, it's also a word for anything that queer millennials deem uncool. Things I've seen called "TERFy" on Twitter and Tumblr include tampon ads, the word "female," the non-word "womxn," Janelle Monae's "Pynk," the Venus symbol, bangs, Jill Stein, Cardi B, and ... trans women.
  20. ^ ""Terf", "pangender" and "vaxxer" included in the OED new words list". New Statesman. 22 June 2022. Retrieved 15 July 2022.
  21. ^ Compton, Julie (14 January 2019). "'Pro-lesbian' or 'trans-exclusionary'? Old animosities boil into public view". NBC News. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
  22. ^ Goldberg, Michelle (4 August 2014). "What Is a Woman?". The New Yorker. Retrieved 20 November 2015. TERF stands for 'trans-exclusionary radical feminist.' The term can be useful for making a distinction with radical feminists who do not share the same position, but those at whom it is directed consider it a slur.
  23. ^ "Transgender identities: a series of invited essays". The Economist. 29 June 2018. Retrieved 19 March 2019. In the interests of fostering open debate we have set ground rules, both for essays and reader comments: use the pronouns people want you to use, and avoid all slurs, including TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), which may have started as a descriptive term but is now used to try to silence a vast swathe of opinions on trans issues, and sometimes to incite violence against women.
  24. ^ Stanley, Jason (7 March 2018). "Replies". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. 96 (2): 497–511. doi:10.1111/phpr.12427.
  25. ^ Weinberg, Justin (27 August 2018). "Derogatory Language in Philosophy Journal Risks Increased Hostility and Diminished Discussion". Daily Nous. Retrieved 19 March 2019.
  26. ^ Chu, Andrea Long (Winter 2018). "On Liking Women". n+1. No. 30. They also don't much like the name TERF, which they take to be a slur—a grievance that would be beneath contempt if it weren't also true, in the sense that all bywords for bigots are intended to be defamatory.
  27. ^ Magowan, Alistair (18 December 2018). "Transgender women in sport: Are they really a 'threat' to female sport?". BBC Sport. Retrieved 5 June 2021.
  28. ^ a b Davis, Christopher; McCready, Elin (4 March 2020). "The Instability of Slurs". Grazer Philosophische Studien. Brill Publishers. 97: 63–85. doi:10.1163/18756735-09701005. S2CID 216218536.
  29. ^ Saul, Jennifer (5 March 2020). "Why the words we use matter when describing anti-trans activists". The Conversation. Retrieved 3 October 2021.
  30. ^ Bettcher, Talia Mae (November 2017). "Trans Feminism: Recent Philosophical Developments". Philosophy Compass. 12 (17): 7. doi:10.1111/phc3.12438. Part of the issue, however, concerns whether the expression continues to be used as a mere abbreviation for a description of a position (i.e., Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist) as it was originally coined or whether it has also acquired a derogatory use. The issues here are delicate ... it seems that caution should at least be deployed in case one wants to have a conversation across deep difference. This seems particularly important since much of trans politics is deeply committed to the importance of self-naming and respect for self-identities.
  31. ^ Ferber, Alona (22 September 2020). "Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in 'anti-intellectual times'". New Statesman.
  32. ^ Goldberg, Michelle (9 December 2015). "The Trans Women Who Say That Trans Women Aren't Women". Slate. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  33. ^ Ditum, Sarah (29 September 2017). "What is a Terf? How an internet buzzword became a mainstream slur". New Statesman. Retrieved 13 April 2019. On the other hand, if you are a feminist, the bar to being called a 'terf' is remarkably low. Woman's Hour presenter Jenni Murray achieved it by writing an article in which she pointed out that someone born and raised male will not have the same experiences of sexism as a woman; novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie likewise made the grade by answering 'transwomen are transwomen' when asked whether she believed that 'transwomen are women'.
  34. ^ Morris, Bonnie J. (July–August 2015). "The Hijacking of Lesbian History". The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Vol. 22, no. 4. pp. 13–15. TERF is an important new slur, emblematic of the unresolved tensions between our LGBT community's L and T factions. ... It began as a legitimate means of isolating and critiquing the work of a very few controversial feminist authors, namely Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys ... TERF is a unique new insult for non-transgender lesbians by other LGBT activists, and it bears monitoring. Those women relegated to the TERF bin of bad feminism are now being subjected to traditional sexist canards, including charges of unattractiveness, mental instability, and penis envy. ... My charge to every responsible editor, journalist, feminist scholar, and LGBT historian is to please stop recycling the acronym TERF; it is defamatory. p. 13, p. 14, p. 15
  35. ^ Bennett, Catherine (29 April 2018). "Violent misogyny is unfortunately not confined to the internet's 'incels'". The Guardian. Photographs of one vitrine, featuring a red bespattered T-shirt reading: "I punch terfs!" (trans-exclusionary radical feminists/women who disagree with me), may have struck a chord with anyone following the current UK debate about the government's self-ID proposals. To date, threats, from one side, which echo, inescapably, some of those in the pro-Rodger playbook ("die in a fire terf scum") have yet to generate comparably widespread concern, even after a woman was punched. Her assailant had earlier expressed the wish to "fuck up some terfs".
  36. ^ "Claire Heuchan". Glasgow International. 30 January 2018. Retrieved 5 October 2019.
  37. ^ Pilgrim, David (20 October 2018). "The transgender controversy: a reply to Summersell". Journal of Critical Realism. 17 (5): 523–528. doi:10.1080/14767430.2018.1539825.
  38. ^ All Party Parliamentary Group on Hate Crime (2019). "How Do We Build Community Cohesion When Hate Crime Is On The Rise?" (PDF). House of Commons of the United Kingdom. pp. 25–26. Retrieved 2 November 2019.
  39. ^ Flaherty, Colleen (29 August 2018). "'TERF' War – Philosophers object to a journal's publication 'TERF,' in reference to some feminists. Is it really a slur?". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved 12 April 2019. Allen objected ... 'most radical feminists who are apparently described' by the term TERF are inclusive of trans men, and so are not 'trans-exclusionary' anyway, she said.
  40. ^ Cava, Peter (12 May 2014). "Activism, Politics, and Organizing". In Erickson-Schroth, Laura (ed.). Trans Bodies, Trans Selves: A Resource for the Transgender Community. Oxford University Press. pp. 568–569. ISBN 978-0199325351. Some feminists have perceived transmasculine people as traitors—that is, as women who identify politically with men. When inclusive of trans men, these feminists have often gendered them as women. Conversely, these feminists have tended to perceive transfeminine people as infiltrators of womanhood and women's space. Many commentators refer to feminists who think in these ways as 'trans-exclusionary radical feminists' (TERFs).

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