[This post is the third of four speeches by SEEN members from our launch event in October.]
The Loss of the Word Woman
I want to speak about language – primarily the loss of the word ‘woman’ to describe an adult human female - and its emotional impact on me. Language matters and the loss of our words hurt.
We’ve seen a quiet dismantling over the past few years across our public institutions (including the Civil Service) of sex-based language. By ‘quiet’ I mean that it’s happened without any consultation with the group it primarily impacts – women. It starts by replacing the word ‘sex’ (the material fact of being male or female) with the word ‘gender’ (the social roles and stereotypes associated with either sex) and ends with the word ‘woman’ being routinely separated from our female bodies or reproductive functions, and suddenly we find ourselves referred to as cervix-havers, menstruators, birthing parents, lactators, bodies with vaginas, pregnant people or ‘people experiencing the menopause’. These examples aren’t one-offs - they are now seen regularly in NHS information campaigns, women’s health charities, corporate advertising, Civil Service policies, networks and newsletters, and mainstream media news reports.
The phenomenon isn’t restricted to the UK. Women’s Declaration International1, which reaffirms women and girls’ sex-based rights as set out in CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) recognises that in relation to protecting women’s sex based rights including reproductive rights, protection from male violence against women, participation in sports and the need for single-sex spaces, we are unable to safeguard women’s rights effectively while at the same time, twisting our language to include men.2
The words ‘gender neutral’ and ‘inclusive’ might sound positive and well-intentioned and may be intended as a way to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, but in considering the feelings of one group - those who find sexed language problematic - we give real pain to another group. When women say that erasing the words we use to describe ourselves and our reality is painful, (and we do say this) why are we not listened to?
Let me tell you about my feelings. When I see or hear any of these female body-part or reproductive function terms such as ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘pregnant women’, or ‘anyone with a cervix aged 25-64 ’ instead of ‘women aged 25-64’ I experience distress and rage, my heart rate speeds up, my chest tightens, and I feel nauseous. I consciously calm myself before I decide whether to ignore it or to challenge with a ‘We are women. Call us women.’ There’s a real emotional cost either way – ignore it and I lose self-respect and feel I lack courage; challenge it and I know I will either be ignored, or receive a dismissive ‘this organisation uses inclusive language’ response, which implies it’s my reaction that’s out of kilter, or that my concern is not valid or that my views are fringe. Challenging in a public space can sometimes mean being called unkind, hateful, out-of-touch, or even fascist. Such accusations might be made out of a misguided desire to be kind and accommodating to others but they are often intended to ostracise, alienate and instil fear. They prevent reasonable discourse and aim instead to silence, to shame and to control. And it works – I know many women who say nothing out of fear. And all this just for believing that adult females should be called women.
So where does my anger at this language, which has surprised me by its strength, come from and why does it matter?
I was brought up to be a feminist by a single mother. She would say the personal is political. My emotion doesn’t come out of nowhere. I was a child in the 60s and 70s and learned from a young age that women have had to fight to achieve social and political equality with men, that our biological reproductive role, and vulnerability to male violence, mean that we sometimes require additional legal protections and safe spaces to achieve equality and that one of the reasons girls and women have struggled to achieve parity with men is that men control language. ‘Man’ in the Bible includes ‘Woman’ or does it? The ‘Rights of Man’ – to vote, to speak, to own property, to organise politically could include women but it often did not. Whether we were included or excluded was sometimes hard to discern and out of our control. Women were invisible, subsumed by the male default, and separately defined only in relation to men. Our names belonged to our fathers, then our husbands and our history became harder to trace. We began to understand this and for a few short decades that coincide with my life, we started to reclaim female language, history and experience.
Now, in a sudden reversal of progress, that I and many others did not foresee, the word ‘woman’ is routinely used to mean – not an adult human who is female, as understood by humanity for thousands of years and as defined in the Equality Act 2010 - but to mean anyone of either sex who says they’re a woman. So women as a separately defined sex class are, if not invisible, then blurred and ill-defined. This hurts because the words woman along with girl, mother, daughter and sister are precious. I remember the charity SANDS - which supports anyone affected by the death of a baby - putting out a communication on social media which did not use the word ‘mother’ once, instead saying ‘parent’ or ‘birthing parent’. This was done in the name of ‘inclusion’. The number of responses from bereaved women anguished at not being called ‘mothers’ was heart-breaking and led SANDS to back down and apologise to those women. Such ability to listen to the strength of this emotion and reflect seems sadly to be rare. Women now have to lobby and complain to each individual organisation, employer and charity just to persuade them to use the word ‘women’ and even then it usually falls on deaf ears which teaches us a lesson. It teaches us that the opinions and feelings of women matter very little to institutions.
Our mothers and grandmothers achieved so much, and social and political parity appeared to be within sight by the 1980s. And now this. We are at risk of losing the language which describes our sex as based in material reality. If that happens, we will have no collective means to describe our female experience or to combat inequality. I despair when I hear the fight to retain abortion rights in the US framed as the ‘rights of people capable of becoming pregnant’. Imagine if the suffragettes had been hamstrung by language that was so inclusive that instead of “Votes For Women!” they’d felt obliged to say ‘Votes for people with a cervix!’ A battle cannot be won without clear and ringing language - ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Woman’!3 We find ourselves now having to fight just to protect and define the word ‘woman’.
If you are tempted to think that language has changed simply to reflect a more inclusive and equal society, ask yourself why you rarely, if ever, see men referred to either by the NHS or the Civil Service as ‘prostate owners’ or ‘sperm providers.’ They are just called men! Why? In one recent newsletter in my own civil service department I saw that one staff event referred to ‘people going through the menopause’, and another event on the same page referred to ‘men’s mental health.’ Particularly ironic when mental health issues are experienced by both men and women and the menopause exclusively by women. We are experiencing a new and insidious form of sexism and exclusion that comes disguised as inclusion and kindness.
I see invisibility shrouding women one short generation after the battle for sex equality seemed to be all over bar the shouting. I say sex equality, never gender equality. I, like millions of women, have experienced girlhood, female puberty, womanhood, pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood, breastfeeding and menopause. These are all experiences exclusive to the female sex. I attended the traumatic and frightening birth of one grandson. My daughter and I knew what being a woman meant during that night and day. It is real. It is not an identity, a feeling or a costume.
Calling women birthing parents, menstruators and ‘people going through the menopause’, is not only dehumanising and insulting but it has the catastrophic psychological effect of dividing women from each other. What does a menstruator have in common with a ‘person experiencing the menopause’ or with a 70-year-old cervix-haver or with a birthing parent? Unless we can say without any qualification that ‘of course they are all women’, the effect is that they have nothing in common other than their humanity which we share with boys and men, and we have broken the cherished link that all girls and women, young and old, mothers or childless, and with or without various reproductive experiences, have in common with each other as we pass from childhood to old age and which we do not share with any boy or man.
I want SEEN to be a place in the Civil Service where women can say all of this without fear of censure and to remind every HR department and policy maker to think carefully about whether reducing women and girls to a multiplicity of body parts and functions is kind or inclusive at all.
Cover image: “Thinking woman” by pacogaitero is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.
Wollstonecraft, Mary, 1759-1797. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London :Printed for J. Johnson, 1792. ↩