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Four Quotes from Second-Wave Feminists That Perfectly Sum Up the “TERF Wars”

“Laughter is the one true hope, for as long as it is audible there is evidence that someone is seeing through the Dirty Joke.” - Mary Daly

Josephine Bartosch
Josephine Bartosch

If there’s an upside to men with anime avatars spaffing-out death threats on social media, it’s that they’ve galvanized a feminist resistance. Every woman pushed out of a job, bullied offline, or shunned for refusing to put pronouns in her bio is a new recruit. And this new “legion of the terven” come from all political persuasions, all countries and all walks of life.

Many of us have been left staring in stupefied horror as the stiletto-clad feet of transgender activists have marched through the corridors of power. Inside a decade, institutions that were closed to women within living memory are now somewhat disingenuously claiming not to know what makes women and men different.

Reading the words of feminists of the second wave makes it clear that transgenderism is just the latest manifestation of a war on women that has been rumbling on for millennia. But unlike the wisdom of the beardy bros of ancient Rome and Athens, the work of feminists from a mere half a century ago has been largely overlooked as just a bit embarrassing.

What follows are tiny snippets from great minds who wrote great works. These are quotes that resonate within the current climate where many women have not just been left fighting for rights, but for reality itself.


“Power is being able to say complete and utter nonsense and have it be believed, powerlessness is where no matter how much cogent evidence and proof one has, to not be believed.”

- Catharine MacKinnon


For much of the last few years, I have made a living by pointing out, whilst sitting on my vulva, that biology is real. That this is a marginal view within the media, and one that only a few brave outlets will give voice to, is astonishing. Moreover, that saying ‘women are adult human females’ is framed as a ‘gender critical belief’, rather than simply a statement of fact, shows the power that transgenderism wields.

Those who identify as trans are estimated to comprise 0.03 percent of the population – and yet this tiny group has conquered policy, practice, and language across the world.

Caught on the back foot, feminists have now wasted the best part of a decade trying to provide proof of what each animal on the planet instinctively knows; that sex is real and that it matters. Indeed, in the UK, it is only within the last month that our Prime Minister Boris Johnson has found the courage to say that he thinks sports should be separated by sex.

And yet schools now routinely teach children that biological sex is socially constructed, mainstream newspapers claim that there is no advantage to men in women’s sports and trans activists like former presenter India Willoughby compare themselves to Jewish people during the holocaust.


“It is interesting that many women do not recognize themselves as discriminated against; no better proof could be found of the totality of their conditioning.”

- Kate Millett


Right up there at the front of any squalling cluster of transactivists are women. They might not be throwing the punches, but they will certainly be soothing the grazed knuckles of abusive men. From the misplaced sympathy of writer Laurie Penny for her “trans siblings” to the failure of women-led organizations like Fawcett Society, many women are all too willing to believe it is in fact men wearing “woman face” who are at greatest risk and most oppressed in society. Much to the chagrin of feminists, polls consistently show that women are more accepting of men who identify as women than men are,

This is because, as Millet explained in Sexual Politics, growing into womanhood is an induction into masochism We learn to put everyone ahead of ourselves and it becomes so natural one might as well try to point out water to a fish. Consequently, it has been women who’ve held open the door to men intent on colonizing our spaces and bodies.


“Men often react to women's words—speaking and writing—as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women's words with violence.”

- Andrea Dworkin


The phrase ‘literal violence’ has become something of a joke to many of those embroiled in the online fight against transgenderism. Fart in the vaguest vicinity of a trans activist and it’ll be labeled a targeted gas attack. But whilst there is something darkly comic about this hyperbole, the overarching aim of framing words as violence is a manipulative attempt to gag women.

Men have a freedom to express themselves that is not afforded to women. The standard we are measured against is exacting, and women who dare to tell the truth without dressing it up are chided by the vicious ‘be kind’ brigade. For example, when British politician Rosie Duffield MP asked: “I’m a transphobe for knowing that women have a cervix?” she was bombarded with threats (some of which were so serious she was advised by the police not to attend her own party’s conference). And as each porn-soaked threat makes it clear: it is women, not just the opinions we hold, who provoke male rage.


“Laughter is the one true hope, for as long as it is audible there is evidence that someone is seeing through the Dirty Joke.”  

- Mary Daly


When, earlier this month, a photo emerged of a group of feminists having a laugh together, transactivists went wild. Like swivel-eyed Taliban leaders, they were affronted by the idea that women might enjoy each others’ company, crucially without being chaperoned by men. What could be more transgressive?

Let’s be honest, transgenderism is ripe for comedy; inflated egos, dodgy wigs and insane claims. Laughter between women is the perfect way to tear away the aura of reverence and sanctity in which this new, dangerous form of misogyny cloaks itself.


In 2022, the battles for space, representation, and respect we naively thought won by our foremothers must be fought again. And it is galling that we are wasting time explaining what a woman is when the trade-in women’s bodies for surrogacy and prostitution is booming like never before. But there’s also an opportunity; the emerging threat of transgenderism has inspired a new mass movement and interest in feminism. If we apply the lessons of those who went before us perhaps there’s a chance that in another half a century we won’t be looking back wondering why the words of so many wise women were discarded.


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Josephine Bartosch

Jo Bartosch is a widely commissioned journalist and feminist campaigner.