In September, the storied medical journal The Lancet ran the following quote on its cover: “Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected.”
This came on the heels of a tweet by the American Civil Liberties Union, featuring a well-known quote by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where the word “woman” was replaced by “person.”
Both institutions were predictably panned for leaving out the word “women.” The Lancet’s response pointed to the need to be inclusive of trans persons, especially trans men and non-binary persons who have vaginas, menstruate and can bear children. Conservative and right-wing media around the world were only too happy to seize on these examples to claim that the left demeans and wants to abolish women.
So what should famous feminists think?! Can we still use the word “women,” even as we seek to be inclusive? I believe we can and should.
I write this, even as I am painfully aware of the well-funded anti-gender forces who claim that women’s inherent social roles should be defined by their reproductive capacity, and who are also eager to deny trans persons the right to determine their gender identity and to obtain gender reassignment surgery, not to mention the use of bathrooms that correspond to their identity.
I do aspire to a world where people are recognized as human beings first and foremost, and not limited and discriminated against by sex, gender or capacity to bear children. But that is not our current reality. We need to be able to speak of the fact that identifying as a woman or being perceived as a woman still results in discrimination, violence and abuse. At the same time, many or most people who identify as women celebrate that identity; that also needs to be given due concern. I especially liked this thoughtful piece by Dr. Sarah Dalen, on whether we still need the word ‘woman’ in healthcare. As she writes:
“ When introducing their rationale for gender-neutral language, Ross and Solinger noted: ‘the danger that excising the word woman in order to include transgender persons in our reproductive justice analysis can have the effect of effacing the particular lived experiences of women’.2 Indeed, it seems difficult to justify routine omission of the word woman, if some women object to being described by various alternative phrases. Logically, the same arguments that support gender-inclusive language for transgender people apply equally to women who may feel erased or dehumanized by terminology labelled neutral. If the aim is to maximize respect for every person’s sense of self, it must follow that female patients who simply understand themselves as women cannot either be expected to ‘go along silently with language in which they do not exist.’” 2
Another piece by Helen Lewis in the Atlantic makes similar points. She writes:
“Given all the effort feminists have invested in making language more equitable, you might expect that they would welcome use of the term pregnant people. But some, including me, are concerned that it obscures the social dynamics at work in laws surrounding contraception, abortion, and maternal health. The argument for the second wave’s language changes was that women fought fires in the exact same way as men, so one word should cover both sexes. That’s a different decision from whether we should keep gendered language to reflect heavily gendered experiences. Earlier this month, the British Pregnancy Advice Service announced that it would continue to use pregnant women—while also stressing that it run trans-inclusive services—because ‘from choice in childbirth to access to emergency contraception, our reproductive rights are undermined precisely because these are issues that affect women.’”
Lewis draws a thought-provoking comparison with campaigns for racial justice:
“Perhaps a comparison will help. The same progressives who push for pregnant people have no problem saying ‘Black Lives Matter’—and in fact decry the right-wing rejoinder that ‘all lives matter.’ Yet, hopefully, all lives do matter—and about half of the people shot by U.S. police are white. So why insist on Black? Because the phrase is designed to highlight police racism, as well as the disproportionate killing of Black men in particular. Making the slogan more ‘inclusive’ also makes it useless for political campaigning.”
Given that trans persons face significant violence, abuse and discrimination precisely because they are trans, and that persons who identify as women (including trans women) and/or who society considers to be women also face significant violence, abuse and discrimination precisely because they are women, we must make sure that laws, policies and programs address these violations. And that requires naming the violations and the identities of the people concerned.
The reason that, as the Lancet writes, “historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected,” is because these bodies are those of women; the sexism and misogyny that still reign in medical research and practice are the cause of this neglect. And we know that abortion restrictions are about controlling women’s lives specifically, and especially the lives of marginalized and racialized women. If we don’t speak about women, this misogyny and control will not be addressed. And the goddesses know, we are far from anything like equality, as this photo from heads of government meeting at COP26 in Glasgow makes all too clear:
True inclusion requires constant thought and care. In my writing, I want to make sure I address all those who face discrimination, abuse and neglect in healthcare, whether pregnant persons, trans men, women, or Black men, and all the ways this discrimination, abuse and neglect operate. But I have a particular focus on the billions of people who consider themselves women or girls, so I will write about them. In this respect, I was impressed by the way the judges on the Supreme Court of Mexico, in their recent decision decriminalizing abortion, used “pregnant persons” and “persons capable of pregnancy” alongside “women” at various points in their judgment. That made sense to me.
Meanwhile, let’s agree not to edit Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
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We can’t address misogyny and sexism if we don’t speak about women.