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Nobody is trying to ban the word "woman."
The onslaught of articles whining about this nonsense can't even stick to the truth.
Alright, I know that I’ve written a lot about trans issues lately, and I know that it’s cost me at least one paid subscriber (yes, I read the unsubscribe notes and really do appreciate all feedback). Unfortunately, media attacks on trans people continue, so I’m going to have at least a few more trans-related pieces coming out. However, I will be making a point of not letting it dominate all of my work, so please bear with me.
On Sunday, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Pamela Paul, a recently-hired (she had been the editor of the Times book review for years, but her move to opinion is recent) conservative columnist at the paper.
“The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don’t Count,” read the headline. *sigh*
As you may have guessed (if you haven’t already actually read the piece), Paul’s column makes the argument that while the right has “aggressively dedicated itself to stripping women of fundamental rights for decades,” the “fringe left” has “its own perhaps unintentionally but effectively misogynist agenda” of working “to deny women their humanity, reducing them to a mix of body parts and gender stereotypes.”
“As reported by my colleague Michael Powell, even the word ‘women’ has become verboten,” writes Paul. “Previously a commonly understood term for half the world’s population, the word had a specific meaning tied to genetics, biology, history, politics and culture. No longer. In its place are unwieldy terms like ‘pregnant people,’ ‘menstruators’ and ‘bodies with vaginas.’”
Now, let’s be clear: this opinion piece, like the “reported” piece from Times’ moral panic correspondent Michael Powell, is BS. I want to walk through this topic because it’s been getting on my nerves lately.
Contrary to what Paul and Powell write, the word “women” has not “become verboten.” That’s just flat-out false, and I’m sick of liars saying otherwise.
The argument being made by Powell, Paul, and a host of others, is that terms like “pregnant women” are being replaced by “pregnant people,” “breastfeeding” has been replaced by “chestfeeding,” and the very concept of “women” has been purged in favor of “people with uteruses.”
But none of that is true. Let’s walk through this.
Let’s start with the basics: who is “inclusive language” meant to actually include?
Yes, some organizations and people will occasionally use broader language when speaking about broader populations. That means that sometimes you’ll hear words like “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women,” for instance. The reason people will say this is (again, this is something that some people will say on occasion) that not every person who gets pregnant (or can get pregnant) is a woman.
Trans men, which is to say people who were female at birth1 but transitioned to live as men, fall into the category of people who can potentially get pregnant, but aren’t women.
The same goes for people who identify themselves as non-binary, or those living outside the traditional gender binary. Those who were female at birth, but identify themselves as not being either a woman or man, can potentially get pregnant. Even so, they aren’t women.
This has nothing to do with trans women (or anyone else who was male at birth). At all. This seems to be another common misperception: again, nothing. to. do. with. trans. women. There’s a tweet I keep coming back to about how these conversations always end with people angrily yelling at trans women for something we have nothing to do with.
(“transmasc” refers to transmasculine people, or people who were female at birth but identify and/or physically transition to being more masculine; “transfemme” refers to trans women and non-binary people who were male at birth).
Are organizations really eliminating the use of the word “women?” No! Really! No!
Both Powell and Paul cite the ACLU as an organization that has made the words “woman” and “women” “verboten.” Okay, well, let’s check that.
On June 24, the ACLU published a piece titled, “ACLU Comment on Supreme Court’s Decision to Overturn Roe v. Wade: Half the States are Expected to Ban Abortion, Affecting 36 Million Women.”
Ah! It’s right there! In the sub-headline! “Affecting 36 Million Women!” And that’s not all. The word “women” appears 16 times in that article! 16 times! That’s a lot, given that, you know, the word was supposedly “banned.” When you actually look at the text of the piece, it becomes clear that the “problem” with language (to the extent that there is one) is that the ACLU occasionally added words like “and other people who can become pregnant” in addition to the word “women.” This is the opposite of “erasing” anything.
Here’s a sample (emphasis mine, throughout):
This decision is an unprecedented attack on women’s rights and reproductive freedom, and the effects will be immediate and far reaching. Half the states in the country are expected to ban abortion, denying the 36 million women and other people who can become pregnant in those states the fundamental right to decide for themselves whether and when to become a parent. Forcing women and other people to carry a pregnancy against their will has life-altering consequences, including enduring serious health risks from continued pregnancy and childbirth, making it harder to escape poverty, derailing their education, career and life plans, and making it more difficult to leave an abusive partner.
And another section:
Second-class status for women has once again become the law because of today’s decision. We can wave away any pretense that this is the United States of America when it comes to the fundamental right to decide when and if to become a parent. Today’s decision will be remembered for the suffering it will impose on millions of people. The court’s ruling is a brazen assault on the fundamental rights of women — allowing politicians to ban abortion, criminalize people seeking medical care, and put doctors in jail for providing essential health care. Half the states are expected to ban abortion, forever changing the course of countless lives and condemning women and other pregnant people to a future they never envisioned or wanted for themselves.
And another section:
Banning abortion will have an immediate and devastating impact on women, taking from them a right that has been central to their ability to plan their lives, families, and careers. The burdens will disproportionately fall on women of color, those struggling to make ends meet, young people, rural residents, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ communities. Today’s ruling will also have deadly consequences, with the harm falling hardest on Black women and other people of color who already face a severe maternal mortality crisis that is the worst in the same states that are determined to ban abortion. In fact, Black women are three times more likely than white women to die during childbirth, or shortly after. If abortion is banned nationwide, pregnancy-related deaths are estimated to increase by 21 percent nationwide, and 33 percent among Black women.
Seems that “women” hasn’t been “erased” by the ACLU. Occasionally, the group uses broad, inclusive language. And other times it uses the words “woman” and “women.” Often, as was the case in that article, the group used both. The same goes for The Lancet, which was criticized for supposedly “erasing” women because it used the phrase “people with vaginas” at one point, even though the article itself uses the word “woman” and “women” repeatedly!
Rebecca McCray, a senior editor at the ACLU, tweeted a response to Paul’s opinion piece:
I work at one of those civil liberties orgs being accused by the NYT of forbidding the use of the word “woman,” thereby contributing to the rollback of long-held rights. Not only is this a harmful lie, this fallacy is grounded in hate. For one, no one is telling you not to say “woman.” Feel free to ask someone in our women’s rights project. If your view of women’s rights is so threatened by language that includes and centers the most marginalized, you aren’t the advocate you think you are.
Are you pissed about Roe and the countless other ways our rights are being eroded? Cool, me too. Try directing your ire at the institutions and powerful entities that oppress people, rather than the people who bear the brunt of those systems and those who seek to defend them. If you have the clout and connections to land your masturbatory think piece in the NYT, I suspect you’re smart enough to know you’re full of shit when you draw lines between the fight for trans lives/rights and the end of Roe.
You’re also, by definition, not being erased. Using Roe’s fall as a vehicle for your hatred in the paper of record is a pretty good indication that your ideas have an attuned audience. So miss me with the idea that you’re being silenced. Pamela Paul is right about one thing: misogyny is everywhere, left right and center. Transmisogyny is part of that. Misogynoir is part of that. Combatting any of it requires pushing back against all of it. Full stop.
Is inclusive language a bit clunky? Absolutely.
Nobody (and I mean nobody) will argue against the claim that women are the people primarily (overwhelmingly) affected by bans on abortion. Nobody. And when anti-abortion laws are proposed, they’re for the specific purpose of criminalizing and controlling the actions of women. Misogyny is absolutely at the core of the anti-abortion movement.
I think that, generally speaking, politicians and government organizations should absolutely be sure to center women in statements about abortion rights. Yes, that is who is primarily affected by things like the Roe v. Wade rollback, and yes, people should say as much. That’s why I am in favor of what groups like the ACLU actually do in their communications (versus what the ACLU supposedly does according to poorly-reported NYT articles): “…denying the 36 million women and other people who can become pregnant.” See? No one is “erased.” The fact that this is what the ACLU does and people still insist on writing these “OMG, the word ‘woman’ has become forbidden!!!” pieces proves that it’s not about “erasure” at all, but an active hostility to trans men and non-binary people existing and being acknowledged as valid individuals with valid identities.
There’s a reason that every single one of these, “Women can’t even call themselves ‘women’ anymore!!!” stories don’t actually cite examples of women no longer being “allowed” to refer to themselves as “women.” Simply put: Examples of this simply do not exist since this is a thing that does not happen. If you’re a woman and you say, “I’m a woman,” nobody is going to run over to you and go, “You’re not a woman, you’re a ‘birthing person!’” (And, if that were ever to happen to you, I heartily support you telling that person to screw off!)
Sure, every once in a while, a politician will say something using inclusive-sounding language that comes off as a bit odd, but isn’t actually an issue. Last year, Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) tweeted a video of herself testifying before the House Oversight Committee. She wrote, “Every day, Black birthing people and our babies die because our doctors don’t believe our pain. My children almost became a statistic. I almost became a statistic.”
Bush was discussing the alarming racial disparities in maternal mortality rates. Black women are three times as likely as white women to die as a result of childbirth complications. Additionally, they face higher rates of pregnancy complications, miscarriages, and infant death. This is a serious issue that doesn’t get talked about anywhere near enough.
But few people seemed to care about the actual issue at hand. Instead, people lasered in on her use of the words “birthing people.” Now, let’s set something straight: Bush was telling her own story, and she can use whatever words she wants to describe her own story.
You would be hard-pressed to find a group of people more pro-choice/pro-do-whatever-you-want-with-your-body/pro-everyone-deserves-healthcare than trans people. That’s why the attacks — some going so far as to blame trans people for anti-abortion policies — hurt so much. Had Bush tweeted, “Every day, Black women and our babies…” there wouldn’t have been some gigantic pushback from trans people demanding that she use “birthing people,” instead. Maybe one or two people might tweet something to that effect, but it wouldn’t have become a thing, the way that her decision to tweet “Every day, Black birthing people…” did. Why? Because trans people get it. Because trans people do care about these issues and understand that the underlying point of what was being discussed (racial disparities in the maternal mortality rate, etc.) is the important part here.
Does “birthing people” sound bizarre to me? Yes. Is that the type of language I’d use? Almost certainly not. But I’m not going to derail a congresswoman’s story about how she almost died to “correct” her in one way or another? Absolutely not. Personally, I think that “women” works here in the context of a tweet, but “women and others who can become pregnant” would also be fine. Still, however Bush wanted to tell her story was up to her, and that’s fine!
The “they’re trying to banish the word ‘woman!’” nonsense isn’t new, nor is the feigned ignorance that causes people spouting that position to lie about places that have supposedly “erased” women.
Take, for example, British transphobe J.K. Rowling, who in 2020 saw a Devex article with the headline, “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate,” concluded that this was some sort of sinister attempt to “erase” women, and tweeted out some ignorant nonsense about it. I wrote about that a little while back, and rather than repeating myself, here’s a copy/paste:
The point she was making (which I’ll get to in a minute) is that the headline would have been better if it read, “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for women.” Okay, sure. But… it wouldn’t have been better, and here’s why: the article was specifically about menstruation. Using “people who menstruate” in that headline makes sense. I imagine that had the headline read “women who menstruate,” Rowling’s criticism would have been that adding “who menstruate” to the end of it was some sort of attempt to acknowledge trans women or something of the sort.
But here’s what the text of the article actually says:
Importantly, advocates are calling attention to the many gendered aspects of the pandemic, including increased vulnerabilities to gender-based violence during lockdowns, and the risks faced by primary caretakers — particularly women in the household and health care workers, approximately 75% of which are women.
An estimated 1.8 billion girls, women, and gender non-binary persons menstruate, and this has not stopped because of the pandemic. They still require menstrual materials, safe access to toilets, soap, water, and private spaces in the face of lockdown living conditions that have eliminated privacy for many populations.
Of equal concern, progress already made or underway around important gender issues is now halted or reversing. Menstruation serves as a proxy for this observation. 2020 started out as a year of progress, with a groundswell of interest and potential for improved investment to address the menstrual health and hygiene needs of girls, women, and all people who menstruate.
Investment is urgently needed, as a recent report estimates that over 500 million women worldwide do not have what they need to manage their menstruation. The inability to manage menstruation with safety, dignity, and comfort may negatively impact the physical and mental health of those who menstruate around the world.
The word “girls” is mentioned six times in the article. “Women” is mentioned 10 times. If your complaint is that a 900-word article that only uses the words “girls” and “women” 16 times is somehow “erasing” anyone or making it impossible to say the word “women,” then I’m just going to guess that you didn’t bother to look at the article itself.
It’s dangerous that these lies get published by NYT as “reporting” and then amplified again as “opinion.”
And it leads people to say supremely cringy stuff like this, from Bette Midler:
The problem isn’t with Midler’s opinion here, but with the fact that her opinion is based on a made-up moral panic being pushed by conservatives. It’s the same exact lie that the right pushed back in January 2021 when the House of representatives streamlined language in its rules.2 Republicans immediately started falsely claiming that Nancy Pelosi “won’t let you say ‘gendered’ words like ‘father’ and ‘mother,’” as Republican leader Kevin McCarthy lied.
Evan Urquhart is a trans man. He tried to explain why calling him a “woman” hurts him (and other trans men and non-binary people).
Sadly, the responses to Urquhart proved what’s at the core of this: transphobia.
See how it all eventually comes down to these people being angry that trans people *gasp* exist! and *gasp* don’t want to be misgendered! Shocking, right? See? That’s what this is about. They are upset because Evan Urquhart, a man (he’s got a beard and everything, just look at his profile picture), doesn’t want to be called “woman” because he is not a woman. That’s what it’s about. That’s why my suggestion of “Hey, just say women and…” is ultimately probably pointless. Because this isn’t about words being “eliminated” or “banned” or whatever. This is about transphobes getting very angry that trans people exist.
Urquhart explained it in a separate Twitter thread:
So many people, once they finally hear the trans side of the conversations, will well-meaningly propose suggestions. Suggestions such as "How about, instead of pregnant people, we say women and others who can get pregnant"?
My reaction to those is generally to say, yeah, absolutely sounds great. Bc it does- 99% of the time the proposed "compromise" is completely fine with trans people. But what I don't say, bc it takes too long and they won't believe me anyway, is that transphobes won't accept it.
There is no accommodation or compromise that the transphobic side will accept, unless it explicitly singles out, punishes, and/or reduces the number of trans people. You can't just tell ppl that, though, bc this well meaning person will decide you sound crazy and paranoid.
As a trans person you're in a constant credibility deficit. I'm always mindful of this, and do my best to work around it. The truth, cis folks? You want the truth? You can't handle the truth. /jack nickolson
This is precisely why these outlets always pretend that the word “woman” is under attack or at risk of being abolished. Because the actual issue is transphobes who oppose any attempt to recognize trans people as legitimate. The challenge for them is that if they were to frame these stories honestly, you wouldn’t get, say, Bette Midler rushing out to amplify the propaganda. So instead, they keep lying about people supposedly being banned from referring to themselves however they’d like.
And, as I’ve pointed out before, the only group of people who regularly get told that they’re not “allowed” to call themselves “women” are trans women! The irony of it all!
I’m just explaining it this way because there are a lot of anti-trans people who don’t know/don’t care that the words “trans men” refer to people who were assigned female at birth (they tend to get upset with the word “assigned,” so whatever, I omitted it in the main text) but transition to living as men.
From a USA Today fact-check:
The change only applies to the language in Clause 8(c)(3) of Rule XXIII, which is the Code of Official Conduct for the House. The rule states that "a member, delegate, or resident commissioner may not retain the relative of such individual in a paid position." That clause is listed at the bottom of the Fox News graphic.
Clause 8(c)(3) specifies what individuals the rule includes in the term "relative."
Previously, the clause defined "relative" as "father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, half sister, grandson, or granddaughter."
Now, the clause will define "relative" as "parent, child, sibling, parent’s sibling, first cousin, sibling’s child, spouse, parent-in-law, child-in-law, sibling-in-law, stepparent, stepchild, stepsibling, half-sibling, or grandchild."
Other changes to the text of the Rules of the 117th Congress include switching the term "seamen" to "seafarers," the word "Chairman" to "Chair," and the phrase "himself or herself" to "themself."
It's false to suggest that any of these words have been widely banned; they have simply been switched in the text of one document, the Rules of the House of Representatives.
"Its consequences were limited to that document alone, and would have no bearing on the continued ability of House members to use gender-specific language in drafting legislation and resolutions, making speeches, or conducting a debate," reads a fact-check by Snopes.