The amazing disappearing ‘women’

September began with some good news: Purvi Patel, the woman sentenced to 20 years for ‘feticide’ by an Indiana court, was finally released from prison after her conviction was overturned. But the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood warned that the fight wasn’t over. ‘People’, it said, ‘are still being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’. The organisation had already commented on another welcome development, New York State’s decision to stop levying sales tax on sanitary products. Once again, though, there was a hitch: not all drugstores had implemented the change, and some ‘menstruators’ were still being charged.

Planned Parenthood is not alone in its careful avoidance of the word ‘women’. Last year the Midwives’ Alliance of North America rewrote its core competencies document using ‘inclusive’ terms like ‘pregnant individuals’, to acknowledge that some of the individuals in question do not identify as women. And let’s not forget the UK Green Party’s brilliant solution to the same problem—putting women, trans and non-binary people into a single category of ‘non-men’.

Expressions like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘non-men’ are controversial among feminists, not only because the political issue they relate to is controversial, but also because the terms themselves are still relatively new. With vocabulary it’s novelty that breeds contempt, while familiarity promotes acceptance: the more frequently we encounter a term, the less we stop to think about its implications.This makes it easy to overlook what isn’t new about expressions like ‘pregnant people’. These particular terms are of recent origin, but they exemplify two tendencies with a much longer history: the tendency to prefer inclusive to gender-specific language, and the tendency to avoid the word ‘women’.

Back in the 1970s, when feminists began campaigning for institutions like publishing houses, universities and local councils to adopt non-sexist language policies, one argument that was often used against them was that their proposals would just replace one form of bias (against women) with another (against men). In English-speaking communities, this concern about avoiding bias against either sex often led to a preference for gender ‘neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ terms which could, in theory, apply equally to both.  For instance, one set of 1980s guidelines proposed replacing ‘maternal instinct’ with ‘parental instinct’, on the basis that it was sexist to suggest that men had no natural urge to nurture their children. ‘Parental instinct’ didn’t catch on (perhaps because it misses the point about why ‘maternal instinct’ is sexist), but other expressions using the inclusive ‘parent’–notably ‘parenting’–have now become so normalised, it’s strange to think that they were once regarded as awkward ‘PC’ neologisms.

Some of the inclusive terms that were introduced between the 1970s and the 1990s are less familiar to the average English-speaker because they belong to a more technical or bureaucratic register. An example is the term ‘gender-based violence’, which is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organisations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella-term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’.

If the two phrases are just synonyms, though, why prefer the gender-inclusive formulation to the more specific wording?  One organisation which attempts to explain this is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The relevant section of its website says:

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms that are often used interchangeably as most gender-based violence is inflicted by men on women and girls. However, it is important to retain the ‘gender-based’ aspect of the concept as this highlights the fact that violence against women is an expression of power inequalities between women and men.

But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?)  Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being.

That’s also how it seems to be interpreted in some of the more recent official definitions. For instance, the guidelines published in 2005 by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an international co-ordinating body for humanitarian groups) say that

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.

I don’t think most people reading this definition would conclude that ‘gender-based violence’ means the same as ‘violence against women’.

You might think this is all just semantic hair-splitting: what difference does it make if the terms are specific or inclusive? One common answer to this question is that inclusive terms are problematic because they misrepresent the facts. Arguments about this become wars of statistics, with each side challenging the other’s claims about how many ‘pregnant people’ do not identify as women, or what proportion of ‘gender-based violence’ is perpetrated by women against men. But for the purpose of choosing linguistic labels, I don’t think the numbers are the point. Terms like ‘violence against women’/‘gender-based violence’ are not just labels for statistical trends we observe in the world, they’re conceptual categories we use to understand the world. From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual.

Feminists conceptualise male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women—including those who will never experience an actual assault—have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis.

As one feminist remarked on Twitter, there’s a parallel here with the self-serving faux-inclusiveness of ‘All Lives Matter’, a slogan adopted by some white people in response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The substitution of ‘all’ for ‘Black’ is an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s focus on institutional racism by presenting it as narrow and exclusionary. ‘Why do you only care about Black lives?  Shouldn’t we affirm the value of every human life?’  It’s neutralising the political challenge by reframing a specific problem as a universal one. ‘All lives matter’. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We don’t need feminism, we need humanism’. The effect is to make a problem of structural inequality–racism or class privilege or male dominance–disappear.

When feminist organisations adopt inclusive terms, their motives are different: they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control—and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behaviour of women. Inclusive language obscures that: as Katha Pollitt has argued,

Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.”

The proliferation of inclusive alternatives to ‘women’ has the cumulative effect of making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. If I can’t get an abortion I’m being oppressed as a ‘pregnant person’; if I don’t get a job because the employer knows I have young children I’m being discriminated against as a ‘parent’; if I’m paying tax on tampons the state is profiting from my status as a ‘menstruator’. Maybe we’ll soon be urged to refer to women who earn less than men with the same qualifications as ‘underpaid people’. Lots of people are underpaid, after all: why would we only care about some of them? Let’s not be so vulgar, so unreconstructedly essentialist, as to point out that certain forms of unjust treatment don’t randomly happen to ‘people’, and they certainly don’t happen to men: they happen to women, because they are women.

Why is it so difficult to say ‘women’? The objections I’ve focused on so far are political ones, to do with the exclusionary and essentialising nature of ‘women’ as a category label. But I can’t help wondering if those objections are the whole story, or if the avoidance of ‘women’ might also be connected to something much older, and less ‘politically correct’.

The first post I ever published on this blog was about the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. I recalled learning as a child that ‘lady’ was the ‘polite’ word, whereas ‘woman’ was disrespectful: it implied low social status, a lack of respectability and a failure to display proper femininity. Analysis of the contexts in which ‘lady’ and ‘women’ are most likely to appear reveals another reason for the impoliteness of ‘woman’: its association with the gross and unmentionable functions of the female body.

What this implies is that ‘polite’ substitutes for ‘women’ (like ‘ladies’, or ‘the fair sex’) function as euphemisms: like ‘elderly’ and ‘plus-size’ (aka ‘old’ and ‘fat’), they enable speakers to acknowledge the sensitivity of a taboo subject or concept by avoiding the word that refers to it most directly. That’s why an earlier generation of feminists were so insistent on being referred to as ‘women’. It wasn’t just that they disliked the alternatives: what they really disliked was the assumption that alternatives were necessary. They saw the avoidance of the plain word ‘women’ as expressing a kind of squeamish distaste for femaleness, and they saw that distaste as one expression of a more general cultural misogyny. To them it seemed important to challenge this attitude, even if people thought they were being petty when they snapped ‘I’m a woman, not a lady’ at someone who was only trying to be polite.

Yet today it’s feminists themselves who are treating ‘women’ as a taboo word. Katha Pollitt suggests this may reflect women’s ‘long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt [others’] feelings’. ‘We are raised’, she observes, ‘to put ourselves second’. But that doesn’t entirely explain the historical U-turn. It is not a small demand to make of a political movement that it should renounce the term which, more than any other, has defined its constituency and its purpose throughout its history. Is feminism not, by definition, a women’s movement, a movement that fights for the rights or the liberation of women?

Some feminists today would answer that question in the negative. Feminists like Laurie Penny, who complained last year that ‘feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary’. Once upon a time, complaining that feminism focused on women would have seemed as odd as complaining that a baker’s shop sold bread. But what’s behind it is the belief that the old feminist goal–liberating women from the oppressive structures of patriarchy–has become outdated and politically reactionary. What feminism should be about in the 21st century is freeing individuals from the oppressive constraints of binary gender.

To people who think ‘feminism’s focus on women’ has no relevance to the politics of the 21st century, I say: try telling that to the Pope. Or to Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate, who was responsible, as Governor of Indiana, for the law that was used to persecute Purvi Patel. Those guys don’t care how you identify, but they do still believe in women; they also believe in using their considerable power to ensure women are kept in their subordinate place. A feminism that can’t talk about that has nothing to say to most of the world’s oppressed people. It is living in a bubble, and talking to itself.