The bad-faith argument of ‘protecting vulnerable women’ is often wielded as justification for discriminatory laws and vigilante violence. Protecting women means protecting all of us and our right to freely express who we are.
As Tuesday’s elections approached, conservative candidates and lobbyists employed a signature move in today’s Republican party: transphobic fear-mongering. Yet in contentious races around the country, both locally and state-wide, they lost.
Public opinion polling shows this isn’t a fluke: Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is only popular with a small faction of the extreme right wing—so why are GOP hopefuls, including many presidential candidates, doubling down on this tactic? Vivek Ramaswamy has decried “transgenderism” as a “mental health disorder” and blasted gender-affirming care as “barbaric.” Governors Ron DeSantis and Doug Burgum have banned gender-affirming healthcare in their states, while Nikki Haley has accused trans girls of invading girls’ locker rooms and suggested the stress of this (imagined) threat is causing teens to become suicidal.
Gender-specific spaces are in the cultural crosshairs thanks to “gender critical” activists—sometimes known as trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs), despite having no connection to any modern feminist movement. Their stated goal is to protect women and girls from predation by designating spaces exclusively for cisgender women (women assigned female at birth) and barring anyone who does not meet this nebulous standard. A restrictive Kansas law enacted this year goes so far as to prohibit anyone without the ability to “produce ova” from entering women’s bathrooms, locker rooms, domestic and sexual violence services, and shelters.
Trans women have played an integral role in the feminist movement, organizing alongside cis women.
Why use such a narrow, biological definition of womanhood? TERFs insist men are inherently predatory and would masquerade in skirts to assault unsuspecting cis women. If this rhetoric sounds eerily familiar, it’s the same logic that generations of white supremacists used to stir up panic about predatory Black men allegedly preying on white women. In both cases, protecting vulnerable women is wielded as justification for discriminatory laws and vigilante violence.
TERFs purport to protect cis women who seek out gender-based affinity spaces (schools, sports teams, social services), alleging we are most at risk. Given those criteria, I am their perfect—and perfectly vulnerable—woman. As a proud girls’ school and Mount Holyoke alumna, I organize mentoring and recruit students for women’s colleges nationwide. I work in the domestic violence field, where survivors are disproportionately women. Socially and professionally, my life revolves around women—a trend that started early.
As a child raised during the girl-power early ’90s, my friends and I thrived amid the proliferation of girls’ softball leagues and figure skating clubs. When I learned that women’s teams didn’t command the same audience and respect as men’s, I decided to become a professional soccer player to change that. (No matter that I’d never kicked a ball; I was determined to learn on principle.)
Feminism and the fierce pursuit of gender equity flourish in my family. My great-grandmother smuggled condoms from France into Depression-era New York City, educating neighbors about birth control when contraception was illegal. My grandmother, a labor economist, served on the state of Ohio’s Commission on the Status of Women. My mother shepherded abortion seekers to Canada pre-Roe and designed her own college major in women’s studies before such departments existed. They taught me women are not a monolith. To merge all women—even all cis women—into a fundamental shared womanhood is reductive at best and oppressive erasure at worst.
Shrinking the definition of womanhood tethers us dangerously to biological essentialism, so that our worth lies only in how many eggs we produce and whether we use them for reproduction.
I am indebted to generations of women who fought to create space in a patriarchal world. From Sandy Stone—sound engineer for pioneering women’s music label Olivia Records—to Miss Major Griffin-Gracy—lifelong advocate for trans women of color and mentor to generations of activists—trans women have played an integral role in the feminist movement, organizing alongside cis women. We still need these coalitions.
Under the guise of protecting women from predatory “interlopers” in bathrooms lines or on athletics rosters, TERFs have taken to interrogating strangers about their genitals. This approach has (unsurprisingly) resulted in cis women accosting one another. Who draws the most ire? Women who are tall, short-haired, have strong jaws or broad shoulders, are androgynous or butch—women who aren’t suitably dainty and feminine.
Western standards of womanhood are steeped as much in racism as they are in sexism. The precious womanhood TERFs claim to defend is a white, heteropatriarchal ideal that harkens back to an era of rigid gender roles and little bodily autonomy. Shrinking the definition of womanhood tethers us dangerously to biological essentialism, so that our worth lies only in how many eggs we produce and whether we use them for reproduction.
Backed by extreme right-wing lobbyists, the “gender critical” movement has ushered in record numbers of bills nationwide that police gender. It’s no surprise their major funders are working equally hard to roll back abortion, same-sex marriage, and even contraception, while promoting Christian nationalist policies. Erroneous appeals to protect women are merely the tip of the reactionary iceberg.
Ironically, “gender critical” extremism ignores real ways women’s rights and safety are imperiled. The CDC reports one in five teen girls experienced sexual violence in the last year. Abortion bans and the criminalization of doctors have already shuttered entire obstetric departments. The high prevalence of domestic violence and easy access to guns are lethal: 89 percent of women murdered in the U.S. are killed by a man they know. When almost 80 percent of rapes are committed by a perpetrator the victim knows, panicking about strangers lurking in loos is a dangerous diversion.
Banning trans women from women’s spaces due to misguided safety concerns is not only nonsensical, it is cruel. I am incensed that the spaces I love are being weaponized to advance bigotry and exclusion. This fight is not merely about access to bathrooms, schools, or sports; it is about the right of anyone who breaks out of the strictest, most conservative gender roles to exist in public. The U.S. women’s soccer stars have long been outspoken advocates for trans rights, refuting the idea that trans women and girls threaten their game. Women’s college alumnae, Girl Scouts, sorority members, anyone who attended a girls’ school or summer camp: This is our fight too. We know women are expansive, diverse and deserve to thrive to our fullest potential. Protecting women means protecting all of us and our right to freely express who we are.
U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.