There used to be a word for us…
As JK Rowling famously remarked there used to be a word for female people.
From CNN, to Proctor and Gamble to the Labour Party, to charities including the stillbirth charity Sands, and Friends of the Earth the rush to erase the word women when talking about female people has only accelerated since she said this.
Its not inclusive you see.
What is happening that has made the words woman and mother unsayable in contexts where we are talking about female biology, and what are the consequences?
I decided to draw some pictures.
First: the two sexes….Small gametes, big gametes; sperm and eggs to you and me.
Sex is not just a label ‘assigned at birth’ it is a material reality. Women have the type of body that ovulates. Women (and girls, starting from puberty) are the sexual targets of heterosexual men. Women risk pregnancy and giving birth. Women become mothers. Not all of them, but only them.
These ‘facts of life’ have major impacts on our lives and the way that society treats us (whether we undertake these roles or not).
Gender is a word used to describe how society treats people on the basis of sex. Feminism is concerned with the way that society treats women.
Feminist political organising, combined with (and enabled by) material progress — electricity, washing machines, contraception etc… has enabled greater equality for women
While society as a whole gains from greater equality, men sometimes lose out (sometimes rights are a pie….)
The people holding the decision making levers in society are still disproportionately men, and so of course there is resistance whenever resources and autonomy that were previously reserved for men are opened up to women.
So far, so simple. A few years ago I would not have taken 5 slides to spell out the bleeding obvious. But this has become controversial and difficult to talk about.
A small proportion of people, for a variety of reasons don’t want to be referred to by their sex. (A larger group of men enjoy dressing up in women’s clothing as a sexual fetish)
In recent years it has been demanded that we accommodate these people not just by being kind and considerate (or at the very least neutral and disinterested)about gender non-conformity, but by fundamentally changing our language about sex.
We are asked to say that some male people are women: “trans women are women”
And some female people are men: “trans men are men”
And some people of either sex are non-binary. And non-binary people are valid, or non-binary, or… no one is quite sure, but not men or women or male or female anyway.
This new language is fiercely enforced
The consequences of refusing to go along with this can be losing work, being hounded out of industries, communities and friendship groups.
So people and organisations are frightened and go along with it. Some are doing it to be kind. And some are doing it because it gives them power.
This is why Tampax looks for an alternative word to women, and Sands looks for an alternative to Mother.
But the thing is, if you cannot talk about men and women clearly, this destroys the underpinnings of progress for women’s rights. Not being able to talk clearly about sex and the sexes also destroys the basis of safeguarding, sex education, and consent.
At this point I think we have to question whether this corrosion of the foundations that hold up women’s rights and safeguarding are an unfortunate side effect of the new ‘kind, inclusive’ language that is so strictly enforced: or is it the whole point?
Is the driver for all of this policing of language really to benefit the tiny group who feel extreme discomfort about their sex?
Or could it be that it it is the benefits of power to the much larger group of men with a sexual fetish for wearing women’s clothing? And, more broadly men who would prefer not to give up power, resources and autonomy to women as an organised political force?
Redefining “women” to be inclusive of males means the only words for female people are dehumanising and depoliticised. We cannot talk about or organise around an understanding of women’s lives when we can only talk about being female in terms of atomised body parts and functions.
Nor can we talk clearly about men, the role that male sexual desires play in society, male violence and the relationship between women and men.
Interestingly the part of the slideshow that raised the most outraged comments when I shared it on twitter was this bit:
So on the principle that you should notice the things you are not supposed to talk about I made a whole slide of it:
Almost none of the organisations that you think might be curious about what is going, who might have an analysis based on the power between the sexes, and who might stand up for women’s rights are saying much of anything (at least not publicly).
(because if you want to continue to attract resources its not a good idea to defy those that hold the power and resources in society )
Thousands of ordinary women have seen what we have to lose and are fighting back. Sex matters and we should be able to talk about it.