Nothing caused me greater culture shock when I moved from New York to London than the British media’s hysterical obsession with trans women.
I’d turn on the Today Programme, the BBC’s flagship morning news show, as I made my coffee and hear debates over whether trans women were actually just men who thought they were women. On the weekends, I’d read headlines in both the liberal Guardian and the conservative Daily Mail questioning whether trans women have the right to identify as women. Then there were the protests: women diving into men’s bathing pools wearing fake beards and “mankinis,” yelling “dykes not dicks” at Pride parades, wielding graphic post-surgery posters at LGBT youth conferences. I was confused to find that the protesters were often middle-aged, middle-class women, some of whom wore mysterious badges proclaiming they had been “Radicalised by Mumsnet.”
Of course, I’d witnessed virulent transphobia in the U.S. But there, it takes a different public form — its most vocal proponents are Republicans who want to ban bathroom access to trans people, or contrarians who might call themselves liberal but derive their credibility from criticizing oppressed groups seeking equality. TERFS, short for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, don’t get as much airplay. TERFs believe that women are defined by their biological differences from men. They want liberation from gender stereotypes, but don’t think it’s possible to be freed from biological sex, and argue the latter goal is not just naive but hurts efforts to combat sexual violence and discrimination. That was exactly the type of messaging I was regularly hearing in the U.K. media, which more frequently than not cast women’s rights and trans rights as diametrically opposed.
There are many theories as to why TERFism is more prevalent in the U.K. than in the U.S. Critics have cited everything from Britain’s imperialist history (the empire promoted laws criminalizing homosexuality and enforcing the gender binary) to the influence of the broader U.K. “skeptics” movement, which dogmatically opposes any claims based on faith or “anecdotal” evidence. Meanwhile, British TERFs wonder whether American feminists are so busy dealing with right wing attacks that they don’t have the time to wade in. Everyone agrees the issue heated up around the time I moved in 2018, when Theresa May’s Conservative government proposed measures to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (that the Tory government proposed these progressive reforms added to my culture shock).
The original GRA gave trans people the right to change their legal gender. The reforms would have allowed them to do so without a medical diagnosis, a step that “would have simply brought England into line with Argentina, Ireland and Portugal, among others,” journalist Juliet Jacques wrote at the time. Instead, “it became a rallying point for a minority of feminists strongly opposed to trans rights.”
I was baffled to learn these feminists were finding each other on Mumsnet, a collection of message boards I’d previously turned to for advice on how to descale my dishwasher and associated with smug, bougie mums comparing high-end strollers and complaining about the neighbor’s dog eating their begonias. How wrong I was to underestimate Mumsnet.
Mumsnet, which celebrated its twentieth birthday last year, claims to be the U.K.’s most popular online community “for parents,” but research shows, unsurprisingly, that nearly all Mumsnetters are women. More specifically, they are believed to be mostly white, middle-class, heterosexual women, and Mumsnet’s top trending discussions reflect that demographic’s interests: Recently they were concerned with whether a woman should deny her “DH” (Dear Husband) his “greatest wish” of getting a puppy, and how to successfully treat head lice.
The site’s massive user base — Mumsnet says it gets around 7 million unique visitors per month and clocks up around 100 million page views — is considered to be affluent and influential, and is a huge draw for both marketers and politicians. Mumsnet conducts its own product reviews, surveying mums on whole-meal breads and baby bottles. Once a product wins a “Mumsnet Best” award the brand can pay a licensing fee to use the badge in its marketing material. Prime ministerial candidates from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as Hillary Clinton, have hosted Q&A sessions there.
Most Mumsnetters identify as liberal, and the rest of the site reflects that bias, but when I first visited the “women’s_rights” forum I felt like I had clicked on a Fox News comments section. It’s a safe space for TERFs, who consider that term a slur and prefer to call themselves “gender critical.” TERFism has been around for decades — the term originated in 1970s radical feminist circles — but Mumsnet has enabled it to find a new and powerful audience. Leading British journalists have admitted that their views on this topic are directly influenced by the forum. And when the proposed GRA reforms were taken off the table in September, Mumsnetters rightfully took credit for what they saw as a “gender critical” victory.
Some TERFs insist that they support trans rights as long as the fight doesn’t overshadow what they consider real feminist initiatives. But scratch that surface and you’ll find that the core issue underlying every legitimate-sounding concern about trans rights outshining, say, domestic abuse or reproductive justice, is “simple animosity toward trans people’s very existence,” as American YouTuber Natalie Wynn put it in a nuanced video unpacking the subject.
Despite Mumsnet’s attempts to moderate threads about gender (neither side is happy with the administrators’ efforts) transphobia is out in the open there, too. The majority of posts on the woman’s rights forum are based on the fearful conviction that trans women — who many Mumsnetters insist on misgendering as men — are trying to infiltrate and destroy the women’s rights movement.
On a recent visit to the forum, I read about outrage over a gym that segregates changing rooms by gender identity instead of biological sex, women seeking feminist charities that haven’t replaced the word “women” with “people,” and criticism of the National Health Service for stating that the needs of trans patients should be attended to. At first, I was surprised to find in these threads the same paranoid and repeatedly debunked fears about trans women assaulting cis women in bathrooms and prisons that I associated primarily with right-wing U.S. senators. But as I did more research, I learned that such fanaticism had been present in the U.K. for some time. In 2017, when two members of parliament hosted a chat on Mumsnet to discuss the issue of women returning to the workplace, commenters were more interested in discussing whether the politicians believed trans women were women. The politicians tried in vain to focus on questions related to employment rights, but the posters argued that the issue couldn’t be discussed unless they could first agree upon a definition of “woman.”
I wanted to understand why so many Mumsnetters — women who had come to the site “for the babies” but “stayed for the feminism,” as one user wrote — were invigorated by an outdated and bigoted perspective on gender.
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; cast out of a society in which they had previously enjoyed power by virtue of their relative wealth and education. Through organizing around this “taboo” issue (we’ll get to that later) they were experiencing solidarity and a sense of purpose that had been missing in their postnatal lives.
“I’m not telling trans people they are wrong for being trans, I’m angry that women are being called transphobic for saying that their biological functions are their own,” one woman wrote in a June 2020 thread entitled “Pro Women, Not Anti Trans — Why Biology Is Important.” She went on: it “isn’t about gender, it’s about sex and anatomy and how they affect women every day, and how bloody unfair it is for others to deny our bodies, how they work or our own opinions as they’re not deemed ‘inclusive’ for those who can’t ever biologically be the same.”
“Being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding are the only time in my life that I felt a proper awareness that I am female,” another woman wrote recently. “I don’t mean in a gender identity sense, I mean in a ‘I have a female body and am doing something only a person with a female body can ever do’ kind of sense.”
“Carrying my child and birthing my child was not a fucking social construct,” another wrote.
Trans advocates and allies who don’t take TERFs seriously are not just sexist but anti-mother, many women concluded. Some wrote that the survival of the women’s rights forum was vital because losing the space would show a “disregard for mothers and our need to access support and information.”
But weren’t there more important “women’s rights” issues going on in the U.K., like the widespread failure to support survivors of sexual assault, or the fact that funding for public services, including domestic violence organizations and child care centers, had been slashed by the conservatives? Those issues did pop up on the forum, but in recent years they were often prompted, or derailed, by anti-trans sentiment.
“Try being a single parent of a disabled child who doesn’t have a school to go to!” one woman wrote on a thread dedicated to mocking a documentary about the lack of support for trans people.
“Can I join the documentary after being on a waiting list for 2 years to have my rectal prolapse fixed?” another asked. “Childbirth has a lot to answer for and some days it’s horrendous for quality of life, but yet I still wait on the waiting list.”
The Mumsnetters weren’t just griping. They were organizing.
“The ‘radicalised by mumsnet’ slogan ‘sums it up,’” one user wrote recently. “Mumsnet is such an important place to come to in order to be awakened to what is going on.” She said she had self-identified as a “trans ally” until she read “an enormous number” of Mumsnet threads with “increasing horror.”
“Mumsnet provides the open gateway,” she wrote. “What we do outside of mumsnet is so important — talking to friends, family, effecting changes at workplaces, schools, and councils, contacting MPs, supporting legal activity, correcting incorrect representations of the equality act, challenging every substitute of ‘gender’ for ‘sex’ in every half-baked survey etc … I have loved being part of this political movement.”
“Mumsnet is the think-tank, campaign hub and archive of thinking about why #sexmatters,” prominent U.K. TERF Maya Forstater recently tweeted in response to another woman who proclaimed there was “no state of invisibility more invisible” than being a stay-at-home parent or caregiver.
The more I learned about Mumsnet, the more the forum reminded me of my past reporting on the ways men are radicalized by the toxic online “manosphere,” where pick-up artists (PUAs) and men’s rights activists (MRAs) recruit followers by exploiting real fears (such as economic anxiety) and blaming marginalized outgroups (women, people of color, Jews) for societal failures. As people get drawn into these communities, they become obsessed with a misguided sense of victimization and start to focus single-mindedly on their newfound worldview.
It seemed to me that was exactly what was happening on Mumsnet: some of these newly “gender critical” Mumsnetters were relatively privileged women who had never felt marginalized until they gave birth and came to feel isolated in their nuclear households and (rightfully!) outraged at the lack of support for mothers in the U.K. They turned to Mumsnet for solidarity, and somehow became fixated on trans women in the process. It was so textbook that Mumsnetters even had their own vernacular, just like MRAs who famously use being “red pilled” as slang for choosing to see the ugly truth. In the forums, women use “Spartacus” as a dog whistle to reference a famous 2016 thread in which a user wrote “Men cannot become women, ever. Women cannot become men, ever,” with many commenting in agreement.
Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum didn’t just offer women a safe space to organize. By providing a platform that tolerated TERFism, it had also handed users a convenient scapegoat for all of their problems — not austerity, not misogyny, but the relatively tiny and extremely marginalized and oppressed trans population.
Of course, there are many differences between MRAs and Mumsnetters. MRAs are often stereotyped as losers hiding out in their mother’s basements; Mumsnetters are more likely to discuss the best wallpaper with which to complete their basement conversion. And MRA ideology has spilled into the real world in bloody, terrifying ways, while Mumsnet’s influence takes a different form: effective lobbying, time with politicians across the political spectrum, and increasingly cozy relationships with the mainstream media. But the two seemingly disparate groups have one key commonality: a sense of isolation that comes about during a vulnerable time in their lives.
They also insist on seeing themselves as victims. It’s true that the issues raised by Mumsnetters deserve attention, just as many of the issues MRAs mobilize around do, from higher suicide rates among men to sexual assault in prisons. But it’s hard to argue that these voices on trans issues are in the minority right now, when practically every U.K. newspaper reports or opines on their plight sympathetically and J.K. Rowling, the world’s most famous living author, is their patron saint. The Harry Potter creator regularly makes headlines on the subject, most recently calling, without apparent irony, for an end to the “climate of fear” around the trans rights debate.
In late 2020, I found someone even more obsessed with the politics of Mumsnet than I was: Sarah Pedersen, the author of a new book, The Politicization of Mumsnet. Pederson, a media studies professor in Scotland and avid Mumsnetter herself, has produced an unprecedented amount of data and analysis on the subject, so I was gratified when she confirmed my thesis from the book’s start.
“Faced with the pure physical reality of precisely how much the world has been built to suit men, pregnancy and maternity is often the time when women become radicalised,” Pedersen wrote. On Mumsnet, new mothers who may have previously assumed that “gender equality has arrived and that there is no longer any need for feminism or women-focused political action” are able to discuss the sudden judgment they faced over their mothering choices, from breastfeeding to returning to work, and can grapple with the cost of child care in the U.K., which is among the most expensive in Europe.
Many new mothers “find feminism more relevant to their lives than ever before” because of the changes in their own circumstances “in a society where motherhood still impacts negatively on a woman’s career and earning potential,” Pedersen wrote. “To put it in more explicitly feminist terms: women’s oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce.”
But while I was horrified by what I was seeing on the forums, Pedersen was excited.
Like many Mumsnetters, Pedersen finds the comparisons to MRAs preposterous. Her book acknowledged that in the past few years the women’s rights forum had focused on trans women above other issues. But she credited that to the proposed GRA reforms and the lack of other spaces where women felt able to discuss the matter. Newly formed advocacy groups concerned about the reforms became “symbiotic” with the Mumsnet feminism boards, she wrote.
Past Mumsnet campaigns had covered topics such as domestic violence and sexual assault, leading Pedersen to draw historical connections between the discussion of politics on Mumsnet to the suffragettes, 1970s consciousness raising groups, and U.K. housewives’ organizations that “campaigned on issues that were important to them, such as state support for mothers and better health services.”
When I talked to Pedersen last fall, she assumed that Mumsnetters would move onto other issues, as they had in the past, since the GRA reforms had been defeated.
But that clearly isn’t happening. Months later, the majority of posts on the “Women’s Rights” forum still focus on trans women. Recent posts included dismay over a U.S. Supreme Court decision not to hear a challenge to transgender access to toilets and locker rooms, and a helpful list of “gender critical” businesses and people to buy gifts from during the Christmas season to support “the fearless women (or men) who’ve stuck their heads above the parapet.”
If Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum is popular because it responds to the experience of being stuck at home without support or community, it’s done so in a way that leaves Mumsnetters in a political cul-de-sac. The community isolates its members in a bubble of transphobic thought that leaves them free to develop their bigotries without needing to encounter the human beings affected by them. It also inculcates members with a tragically narrow idea of feminism, one that rejects other people fighting for gender liberation. And finally, it puts followers at odds with the broader left, which has been fighting for a world without gender oppression, as well as for benefits Mumsnetters say they care about, such as free child care and well-funded health care.
Ironically, it has long been more inclusive feminists, and queer feminists especially, who have described the anxiety and marginalization that accompany traditional domestic life and labor. But much of the feminism that would offer Mumsnetters something more has been sidelined for several decades in the U.K., beaten back by conservatism alongside the rest of the Left. Margaret Thatcher declared that “there are individual men and women and there are families,” not a society. Even though intersectional socialist feminism has made significant advances in recent years, without a strong and inclusive mainstream feminist movement, Mumsnetters seem to have found privileged but uneasy refuge in the family.
If left unchecked, the consequences of Mumsnet’s politics will continue beyond the defeat of the GRA reforms.
The mums on Mumsnet’s women’s rights forum are constantly complaining about being belittled as “silly old women” and “daft housewives.” I agree with them: We underestimate them at our own peril. TERFs are unafraid to work with groups that hate women. In this sense, they’re part of the lineage of 1980s anti-pornography feminists who agreed to work alongside right-wing conservative groups. One “radical feminist” group is currently helping shape anti-trans legislation in the U.S.
Mainstream media in the U.K. will likely continue to take its cues from Mumsnet, and recent studies have linked this constant anti-trans coverage to depression, anxiety and psychological distress in trans people. In December, the U.K.’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) reported a “dramatic” rise in news coverage of trans people with an accompanying “increase in questioning tone.” The mainstream media treats “trans people as an ‘issue’ and trans people as a ‘problem,’” said jane fae, the chair of Trans Media Watch.
Radicalized groups become more emboldened in their bigotry when they’re left unmoderated, so it might be for the best if Mumsnet doesn’t kick TERFs off its platform, which it doesn’t seem likely to do anytime soon anyway. The Atlantic recently reported on a new forum for TERFs who were banned from Reddit called “Ovarit,” noting that “getting banned from a social-media platform and creating a knockoff of it is effectively a rite of passage for toxic groups at this point.”
Is there any hope for TERFs?
Natalie Wynn made a YouTube video about TERFs with the premise that there just might be. “It’s not just evil bigots who are attracted to the gender critical worldview,” Wynn explained in her video. Before filming, she posted an invitation on Twitter asking people who used to be “gender critical” feminists to share their stories. She received hundreds of responses, including many from women who had traumatic experiences with men and “at one time found comfort in a rigid view of gender where women and men are completely separate species, where women are safe and men are dangerous.” For a lot of these women, she said, “allowing trans people into their picture of the world at first challenged their sense of stability and comfort.” The same may go for new mothers who have found that mothering is an activity that British society neither supports nor values.
There are British women who have publicly abandoned the TERF perspective, such as Nora Mulready, who wrote last August about experiencing “a powerful and precious thing – a sincere change of mind” around the topic. After learning a family member was trans she read everything she could find that validated her instinct “that the increase in transgender identity was a millennial fad, mental health issue, trauma, social contagion, fashion, patriarchy, you name it, I clutched at it,” Mulready wrote. Finally, she realized she had fallen victim to the “same deep-rooted conservatism that has made human beings resistant to change throughout so much of our history.” How did she spit out the red pill?
She saw her family member thrive, Mulready wrote, and met with other trans people and listened to them share their experiences. “Seeing this issue unfold within my own family taught me a profound lesson: the importance of humility in the face of something you do not understand,” she wrote. She took “a step back from the freneticism of the ‘trans debate’,” she wrote, after which “the contradictions in the trans-sceptic arguments became more apparent to me.”
How do we convince more women to do what Mulready did — step out of isolation and into human connection; become not just better informed about the experience of being trans, but someone who sees trans acceptance as part of what feminism is all about?
My reporting on MRAs hasn’t found many solutions. In the long run, I hope that there will be an ever-growing movement for gender liberation that sweeps up mums in its embrace, leaving the toxic forums to wither. But the only individual solution that seems to work, anecdotally, is having long conversations with family members like Mulready did.
That isn’t going to be easy.
When one commenter posted that she was “at the end of my tether with my mother, who has become engulfed in the gender critical discourse mainly thanks to this website” this stated attempt at an “open discussion” garnered 1,000 comments. In the end, the original poster only responded to a few. Perhaps she was a troll, as some commenters surmised, or maybe she was overwhelmed by the Mumsnetters, who called her a “midnight misogynist” and told her to “listen to her mum.”
Katie J.M. Baker is a reporter based in London.