While WDI is a relatively new organization, its roots run deep. Its foundations incorporate threads from the suffrage movements in the US and UK, which several of its members try to revive, colors and all; trans-exclusionary forms of radical feminism and lesbian separatism based on the writings of Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, among others; and anti-porn and anti-trafficking movements that position themselves against sex worker-led decriminalization movements. Each seed was planted over the course of decades, where they grew in strength and spread internationally through networking, translation, and collaboration between activists and academics.
Informed by history: Women’s suffrage
Historical references to the women’s suffrage movement have recently become commonplace in British anti-trans activism, particularly since 2018. This was when two major events hit in the UK: the 100-year mark since the passage of the Representation of the People Act, which granted UK citizens the right to vote, and the British government soliciting public feedback on reforms to legal gender marker changes for trans people. The centennial was met with a wealth of anniversary events and marches across the UK. The consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, meanwhile, attracted over 100,000 submissions in response to the UK government’s request for feedback, accompanied by a wave of misleading or downright hostile press coverage.
The use of British suffrage colors—an iconic purple, white, and green—have since become commonplace in anti-trans groups such as For Women Scotland. US-based anti-trans feminists have since carried over this imagery, though with the US suffrage colors instead of British. As in the UK, women-led anti-trans groups decorate banners or wear sashes of purple, white and gold–which, ironically, is also celebrated in LGBTQ circles as the colors of the nonbinary flag–that had become representative of the US National Women’s Party in the 1900s. Iconic black and white photos of marches for suffrage, meanwhile, are incorporated into anti-trans event advertisements and splash images.
Both UK and US anti-trans activists posit that women’s ability to vote is a “sex-based right”, and thus that they are following in the suffragists’ footsteps. However, history tells a different story, one based on race, nationality, and class. The British suffrage movement’s legacy has been criticized for uplifting the voices of imperialist feminists,i as well as putting enormous emphasis on wealthier suffragists when it was working class women facing the brunt of the consequences. The suffragists were also criticized for treating Indian woman—who were living under British rule—as projects to ‘civilize’. “The conviction that Indian women were a special ‘feminist burden’ was an expression of their ‘imperial feminism’[,]” writes historian lecturer Dr. Sumita Mukherjee in her book Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks. “Though these British feminists demonstrated interest in Indian women, they exhibited sympathy and protectiveness that offered little consideration for Indian women’s needs.”ii A pattern which would repeat itself as white WDI leaders extended their influence worldwide.
The US suffrage movement positioned itself against Black voters despite Black suffragists playing key roles. While the passage of the 19th Amendment gave women in the US the right to vote, Black women struggled to cast their votes due to racist policies implemented by white officials.iii To this day, gerrymandering is still rife in the South, severely impacting the ability for Black voters to have the needs of their communities heard and represented.iv The popularization of suffrage imagery in modern day, among a cisgender and predominantly-white anti-trans feminist movement, becomes a shining example of exclusionary feminist history repeating itself.
Another core component of WDI’s founding is the trans-exclusionary foundation stemming from the radical feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. The most famously known is Janice Raymond’s text The Transsexual Empire, a tome where she declared that “[a]ll transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.”v This text continues to inspire trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), in part because of its graphic language on the purported threats that trans women pose. Raymond suggests that “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence,”vi which she posits would be best done by legally restricting access to public spaces and to gender affirming care – the very kinds of strategies that WDI would go on to use.
By the mid-2010s, two key moments planted seeds for WDI’s ideological roots. First was tension between Deep Green Resistance (DGR)—a radical environmental activism group criticized for “emulating right-wing militia rhetoric”vii—and environmental activist scenes in 2012 and 2013. After DGR’s founders Lierre Keith and Derrick Jensen, gained a reputation for their prolific transphobia, resulting in their co-founder Aric McBay resigning, DGR was deplatformed from leftist events and spaces. The exclusion came to a head after the 4th annual Law and Disorder Conference in Portland, Oregon, when DGR began to get formally blacklisted by conference organizers for disruption and harassing trans staff. Soon radical environmental publications severed ties with the organization, followed swiftly by former DGR members. Keith and Jensen buckled down, however, releasing the organization’s commitment to trans-exclusionary radical feminism and gaining a letter of support from influential Second Wave feminists.
This series of deplatformings is what prompted the antisemitic and anti-trans theorycrafterviii and former DGR member Jennifer Bilek to research what she felt was the shadowy cabal responsible,ix giving rise to her later publications about the “trans lobby” and how it’s funded by George Soros that became increasingly popular. Keith founded the anti-trans legal group Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) based on the same principles. Over time, former members of WoLF founded the USA chapter of WDI.
Meanwhile, in 2014, Sheila Jeffreys, an anti-trans and anti-porn activist who eventually co-founded WDI, published her book Gender Hurts, which became a formative text in anti-trans feminist circles, receiving numerous reviews,x panels,xi and even translations that were distributed by lesbian activists worldwide.xii Some of these translations, such as ones distributed in South Korea by WDI South Korea country contact Hyejung Park,xiii were circulated by people who would later become WDI affiliates or country contacts.
Such ideologies spread throughout the US and UK, and subsequently France, Spain and across Latin America, as Colombian feminist magazine Volcánicas reported. According to Volcánicas, Google searches for the term “TERF” started to spike in Spain in 2017, Argentina and Colombia in 2018, and Mexico in 2019, demonstrating a revival of interest in anti-trans feminist activism among Spanish speakers. The consensus by those interviewed is that the spike in interest traces its roots to Spain, where anti-trans feminists had translated US and UK-based theories into Spanish.
Anti-Sex Work and Beijing 1995
Another central yet underanalyzed component of the rise of the Women’s Declaration International is activism opposing sex work decriminalization and pornography. Similar to trans-exclusionary activism, anti-sex-work activism dates back to the ‘70s and ‘80s, including a 1987 conference where over 800 feminists packed the halls of New York University Law School to listen to thirty eight Second Wave feminists discuss “The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism.”xiv The speakers, including eventual WDI founder Sheila Jeffreys alongside Janice Raymond and Phyliss Chesler who spoke at the 2022 WDI USA National Political Convention, presented panels on surrogacy, the conflict between sex-positive and anti-porn feminists, and bringing their fight against the sex industry to the United Nations. The next year several of the speakers—Raymond, Kathleen Barry, and Dorchen Leidholdt—founded the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW),xv whereas Jeffreys, and Chesler would go on to continue their own writings and activism. Some, like Jeffreys and Twiss Butler, would come into the CATW leadership ranks later on.
The growing disagreement among feminists came to a head during the 1995 Fourth World Women’s Conference, where thousands of participants from around the world gathered in Beijing to hash out a global agenda for gender equality. During the Conference two notable events occurred. The first was an attempt to differentiate between “sex work” and “sex trafficking,” with some feminists opting to define the latter as “forced prostitution” to signify coercion.
Janice Raymond, who had just recently become co-Executive Director of the anti-sex-work CATW International alongside Dorchen Leidholdt,xvi proclaimed that the disagreement itself was a result of “governmental stonewalling and NGO (non-governmental organization) complicity that began before Beijing.”xvii Organizations focused on the decriminalization rather than the abolition of sex work, Raymond argues, are ultimately an expansion of the sex industry (funding and all) that “[work] more for the rights of the customers and the industry”xviii than the workers themselves. Anti-sex-work feminists still make outrageous accusations that sex worker-led organizations are funded by George Soros and the “pimp lobby”—a stark contrast to the reality of pervasive underfunding of sex worker-led projects.
The second important moment during the Fourth World Women’s Conference was the attempts by religious regimes to strong-arm the consensus away from the use of the word “gender.” Feminist international human rights scholar Dianne Otto recalled how representatives from states such as Benin, Malta, the United States, Australia, Egypt, and Chile opposed any use of the term “gender” in the Conference’s draft platform.xix According to Otto, conservative state representatives argued that recognizing sex and gender as being socially constructed would open doors for human rights protections for LGBTQ people. When the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UN CSW) developed an informal contact group to come up with a working definition of gender,xx representatives of the Holy See, Brunei Darussalam, and Malaysia (among others) pushed back, submitting statements rejecting passages they believed promoted “sexual perversion” and affirming their definition of gender as based on biological sex.xxi
While the final Report from the Conference kept its references to gender despite pushback, the precedent was later used by WDI by citing the 1995 Beijing Conference as support for “sex-based rights”. The pushback against the Beijing Conference platform is an early example of how anti-trans and anti-sex work feminists are in lockstep with actors of the Christian Right, often working directly with the Right to further their shared vision.
Ultimately, this international coalition building had drastic consequences for sex work and trafficking survivor movements worldwide, particularly among trans workers in the Global South. Some of the most dire consequences are in Mexico, where efforts to oppose rights of sex workers invariably promote the criminalization of trans women because of the close relationship between anti-trans and anti-sex work ideologies.xxii With high rates of transfemicide—homicide that specifically targets trans women—Mexican trans women often find themselves in fear for their own lives or the lives of their sisters. Similarly, in Colombia, the laws most commonly used against trans people are the ones opposing sex work.xxiii Meanwhile various WDI country contacts throughout Latin Americaxxiv advocate for “abolishing prostitution”: aiming to eliminate sex work by criminalizing their client base. By focusing on the work from white, affluent academics like their founder Sheila Jeffreys, regional activists combine their anti-trans and anti-sex work beliefs into a new form of carceral feminism imported from the Global North instead of listening to the needs of their own communities. In doing so the narrative gets shifted away from the reality, where trans sex workers of color are often the ones bearing the brunt of violence due to criminalization and transphobia,xxv and thus collectively organize to support each other.
The link between the anti-pornography movement, trans-exclusionary activism, and what would become WDI was made explicit by none other than Sheila Jeffreys herself. During the 2019 panel Gender Hurts with the founders of the detransition group Pique Resilience Project, just hours before WDI’s launch event in the same location, Jeffreys described her ideas of where “the huge surge in transgenderism is coming from.”xxvi Claiming that trans women expressing themselves is a sexual fetish based on porn she found on Amazon, and that trans women are invading women’s bathrooms, she proclaimed that efforts for trans liberation are an act of violence by trans women to corrupt women’s spaces with fetishism.
Opposition to justice for trans people idea might seem bizarre to claim for a supposed feminist organization if not for its close, growing relationship with the Religious Right and imperialist, carceral state. Just like its predecessors, WDI has decided for the world what gender means and it will use every resource it can to enforce it.