2018: the year of the war of the W-word

At the beginning of December I promised I’d be back at the end of the month with my traditional round-up of the year in language and feminism. But I missed that self-imposed deadline, and I’ve ended up writing something a bit different from my previous efforts–longer, less list-y, and noticeably shorter on jokes. That’s partly about the timing (the festive season being well and truly over), but it’s also a reflection of what went on during the year I’m looking back at.

With a few exceptions (like the vote to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland) it wasn’t a great year for feminism. If 2017 was a year of hope, a moment when women came together to expose injustice and express their collective rage, 2018 was a year of disappointment and frustration, when we were often made to feel that nothing we said or did made any difference. Men continued to behave badly, and often with the same impunity that #MeToo was meant to have put an end to.

In the US, Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he had sexually assaulted her in high school (I wrote about this in November, but unlike the many commentators who dissected Ford’s style of speaking and its impact on her credibility, I focused on the language of the men). In Canada, minutes after posting a message of support for ‘the Incel Rebellion’ on Facebook, Alek Minassian killed ten people and injured 14 more by driving a van into a crowd of pedestrians (I wrote about this event too, and the debate it sparked on whether mass killings inspired by misogyny should be discussed in the language of terrorism). ‘Incel’ was among the words Oxford Dictionaries put on its shortlist for the Word of the Year—though ultimately it lost to ‘toxic’, as in ‘toxic masculinity’.

Several of the other news stories I blogged about were variations on the theme of ‘men being pissy about women treading on their turf’. A trivial but telling example was the reaction of the football-watching public to the women who were allowed, for the first time in history, to commentate on the men’s FIFA World Cup. Did these women have the Right Stuff, or were their voices just too shrill? Earlier in the year there had been a brief flurry of concern about the ‘unattractiveness’ of women swearing; later there would be a row about the ‘immodesty’ of women with PhDs who wanted to be referred to with the title ‘Dr’. Forceful speech, authoritative speech and expert speech continue to be treated as male preserves, on which women trespass at their peril.

But the theme I returned to most often this year was was our current preoccupation with ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusionary’ language, a perennially contentious issue which was at its most divisive in arguments about the use or avoidance of ‘woman’. Conflict about the W-word isn’t new: it was already simmering when I started this blog nearly four years ago. But this was the year when it came to a rolling boil. Between June and November a series of well-publicized incidents dramatized a clash between two opposing tendencies: on one hand, increasing pressure to adopt altermatives to ‘woman’, and on the other, a growing resistance to that pressure.

In June, Cancer Research UK ran a campaign promoting cervical cancer screening for ‘everyone aged 25-64 who has a cervix’. This avoidance of the W-word was not without precedent in the field of reproductive health: ‘pregnant people’, for instance, has been widely adopted. But this time the complaints were louder, and less easily dismissed as just the usual reactionary grumbling about ‘political correctness’ or language change in general.  ‘Hi Cancer Research’, tweeted one critic: ‘people who have cervixes are called women. Please stop erasing us. Thanks’. Others accused the organization of caring more about virtue-signalling than about clear communication, pointing out that some people who have a cervix may not be familiar with the word ‘cervix’.

In July there was controversy about a commemorative plaque in York that described Anne Lister, a 19th century landowner most famous for the coded diary in which she detailed her romantic relationships with women, as a ‘gender nonconforming entrepreneur’. The main objection to this phraseology was that it failed to identify Lister as a lesbian, but some critics also suspected that the group responsible for it had wanted to avoid specifying her sex. This apparent projection of contemporary gender identity politics into the relatively distant past (Lister died in 1840) prompted so many complaints (and so much media interest), the York Civic Trust opened a public consultation on whether the plaque should be reworded.

In September, activists campaigning against a proposed change in the law (if enacted it will allow individuals to be legally recognized as men or women on the basis of self-identification) sponsored a billboard displaying a dictionary definition of the W-word: ‘Woman. Noun. Adult female human’. This was immediately reported as transphobic hate speech; the company that owned the billboard took it down, and the message was subsequently removed or pre-emptively banned from several other sites. While the campaigners’ response (‘how can it be offensive to quote the dictionary?’) was disingenuous—they must have known that what offended their critics was not the quotation but the political statement they were using it to make—to many onlookers it did seem extraordinary that feminists could be threatened with prosecution for expressing the belief that only female humans can be women. Offensive though others may find that belief, the idea that its expression should be prohibited or criminalized raises questions about what we mean by ‘hate speech’ (this isn’t the place for a full discussion, but the recent broadening of this term/concept is something I’ll return to at a later date).

In October the Guardian reported on a survey that had asked ‘menstruators’ about their experiences of period pain at work.  Many readers complained, and on investigation it turned out that the researchers whose work was being reported hadn’t used the offending word themselves: they had referred to the survey respondents as ‘women’, and someone at the newspaper had ‘corrected’ them. The report was duly amended, with a mealy-mouthed footnote explaining that this had been done ‘to more precisely link the language with the survey it describes’.

The menstruation debate continued in November, when Sheffield Hallam University hosted a workshop featuring Chella Quint, the founder of the #periodpositive project and creator of what she wittily describes as a ‘flow chart’ about the language of ‘queeriods’. The project does useful work (for instance, taking up the issue of period poverty and urging the makers of menstrual products to stop using shame as a marketing tool), and the linguistic dos and don’ts on the ‘queeriods’ chart are mostly, in my opinion, sensible. No feminist I know would disagree with Quint’s suggestion that we should stop talking about ‘feminine hygiene’ products and referring to menarche as ‘becoming a woman’. These expressions aren’t just trans exclusionary, they are twee, archaic, and recycle ancient sexist beliefs (e.g. that menstruating women are ‘unclean’). They should have been binned long ago. But does the W-word really have to go into the bin with them, to be replaced by alternatives like ‘menstruator’ (Quint’s recommendation) and ‘bleeder’?

As the responses to the Guardian article showed, a lot of women find these terms both peculiar and offensive. And in this it appears they may not be alone. One interesting contribution to a discussion of ‘queeriods’ on Twitter came from someone who works with young trans people, and who reported that the trans men in her group also hated ‘menstruator’: one had said it ‘sounds like a Victorian gynaecological torture device’. ‘They like to be included’, she continued, ‘but they don’t mind the word “woman” being used’.

And indeed, why should anyone mind the word ‘woman’ being used in discussions of menstruation and pregnancy? There is something deeply irrational about the insistence that inclusiveness requires nothing less than the total avoidance of the W-word. If the point is to include everyone who menstruates or gets pregnant, that could surely be achieved by using one of the simplest tools in the linguistic box, the word ‘and’. Just as people talking about the armed forces have learned to say ‘servicemen and women’, people discussing reproductive rights or providing reproductive health services could say ‘pregnant women and trans men’. Why is it necessary to treat ‘women’ as a taboo word, a threat that must be countered by substituting arcane neologisms or obscure circumlocutions?

November was also the month when the Wellcome Collection got an unwelcome response to its publicity for an event designed for ‘womxn’. For many people this was their first encounter with ‘womxn’, a form whose X-spelling is meant to signify that it refers not only to women, but also to trans, nonbinary and queer individuals. And for the most part they were not impressed. Caroline Criado-Perez spoke for many when she commented, bracingly,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man. Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

Taken aback by both the volume and the vehemence of the complaints, the organizers announced that they would revert to ‘women’.

All this might seem like a long-winded way of saying that nothing changed in 2018.  The familiar battle continued, and the familiar tropes were repeated. But however subtly, I think something did change. As the conflict escalated, both sides were forced to confront the reality that changes in the meanings and uses of words have to be negotiated: they can neither be imposed by fiat nor prevented by appealing to some higher authority. Nor can change be accomplished overnight: it takes time for new words to bed down, and for old ones to shed their historical baggage.

That last point was dramatically illustrated in December, when the W-word featured in a different kind of political controversy. During Prime Minister’s Question Time, as Theresa May addressed the House of Commons, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made an inaudible remark which may or may not have been ‘stupid woman’ (he maintained that it was ‘stupid people’, and we can’t be certain it wasn’t because speech-reading, which was the basis for the ‘woman’ claim, cannot distinguish related sounds (like the labial consonants p and m) with 100% reliability).

What followed—May’s supporters gleefully denouncing the Labour leader’s sexism, while his own colleagues accused them of manufacturing their outrage–was as unedifying as most of what has passed for Parliamentary debate during the past 12 months, but it did raise an interesting linguistic question. What makes the phrase ‘stupid woman’ sexist? ‘Stupid’ is obviously an insult, but it’s not specifically a sexist insult; and May is, after all, a woman. Why is calling a female politician a ‘stupid woman’ perceived as more pejorative than simply calling her ‘stupid’—or than calling a male politician a ‘stupid man’?

Pondering this, I was reminded of Ana Deumert’s account of a landmark judgment in the South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was fired from his job for using racially offensive language in a workplace dispute about parking. Finding he had insufficient space to park his own vehicle, he demanded the removal of an adjacent vehicle to which he referred as ‘that Black man’s car’. He didn’t dispute that he used those words, but he did dispute that they were racist, and sued his employer for unfair dismissal. Two lower courts accepted his claim that ‘that Black man’ was a purely descriptive phrase. But the Constitutional Court overturned their judgment, arguing that in a society with South Africa’s history of institutionalized racism, a white man’s reference to a Black colleague’s race could not be considered neutral: in context it was liable to be heard as an expression of contempt for an inferior Other. As Deumert explained,

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time. […] Words mean because they have meant before, and …wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

That women as a class are stupid is another proposition that has been endlessly repeated over time, and this has consequences for the way we react to verbal formulas like ‘stupid woman’. Whereas ‘stupid man’ will be heard only as an assertion that the individual in question is both stupid and a man, ‘stupid woman’ (especially when said by a man) can easily be taken to imply that the individual is stupid because she is a woman. Like the racism of ‘that Black man’, the sexism of ‘stupid woman’ isn’t in the words themselves, but in the cultural presuppositions we bring to bear on their interpretation, and which, as Deumert says, we inherit from history.

‘But hang on a minute’, a sceptic might interject, ‘I’m confused. First you said it was sexist for the Guardian or Cancer Research to avoid the W-word, now you’re saying it was sexist for Jeremy Corbyn to use it. Surely you can’t have it both ways!’

Actually, I can, because sexism in language is complicated. As I explained in another of last year’s posts, it manifests itself in two apparently contradictory ways. One is the exclusion/erasure of women, as with the pseudo-generic use of masculine forms like ‘he’ and ‘man(kind)’. The other, however, is the over-use of feminine gender-marking, gratuitously drawing attention to a woman’s sex in contexts where it’s irrelevant and where the effect is demeaning or derogatory (for instance, calling Jane Austen an ‘authoress’). These are different surface manifestations of sexism, but at a deeper level they reflect the same basic assumption–that men are the default humans.

This is one aspect of the traditional gender order that seems to have survived: we are seldom if ever exhorted to replace ‘man’ with terms like ‘mxn’, ‘ejaculator’ and ‘everyone who has a penis’. That’s another reason why some feminists resist analogous W-word substitutes like ‘womxn’ and ‘menstruator’. Whatever else it may be, a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.

I’d like to think that in 2019 both sides in this debate will turn the heat down, and put more energy into finding mutually acceptable solutions to practical linguistic problems. For some purposes I think we do need inclusive terms (as well as, not instead of, the W-word), but ideally they’d be less clunky, obscure and needlessly offputting than the ones we’ve been presented with so far. We can surely improve on words like ‘menstruator’, which no one seems to find satisfactory: why not follow the lead of the Twitter commentator mentioned earlier by asking trans men how they would prefer to talk about their periods? And before they dream up any more formulas like ‘everyone who has a cervix’, organizations like Cancer Research could try emulating the approach their scientists use when developing new treatments, by testing their proposals on a sample of the target audience.

But to make these suggestions is to treat the issue as a technical problem of language planning, when of course it is much more than that: like most verbal hygiene debates, this is an ideological and political conflict played out in the arena of language. So, I predict that the struggle over the W-word will continue, and that the conflict may become, at least in the short term, more rather than less intense.

That’s not, I acknowledge, the happiest note on which to end this review of 2018. Nevertheless (and with apologies for the lateness), I wish all readers of this blog a happy new year. Here’s to courage, strength, and hope for better times ahead.

The illustration shows part of Gillian Wearing’s statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of (some) women in Britain gaining the right to vote. The words ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’ come from a speech Fawcett made in 1913 following the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby. Davison had been a suffragette, a member of an organization whose tactics Fawcett criticised; but despite their political differences, she spoke of Davison in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect.  

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X marks the what?

Earlier this month there was controversy after the Wellcome Collection, a museum in London, used the word ‘womxn’ in its publicity for an upcoming event. ‘Womxn’ has been around for a while in activist circles: there are various Womxn’s Marches, the Olympia YWCA in Washington State runs a ‘Womxn of Achievement’ award, and the UK organisation Her Stories recently announced an art auction to benefit refugee and migrant womxn. Nevertheless, Wellcome got so many complaints that they eventually removed the contentious X. ‘We invite challenges to our thinking’, they tweeted, ‘and we listen to our audience’. But what were they thinking when they originally chose to write ‘womxn’? And why did that choice provoke resistance?

These questions take us back to something I’ve discussed in a couple of recent posts: the contested concept of ‘inclusive language’. The letter X in ‘womxn’, also found in ‘Latinx’, ‘folx’ and the title ‘Mx’, has become an orthographic symbol of gender-inclusiveness, signalling that the term it appears in addresses or refers to people of all gender identities (though ‘womxn’ is a partial exception to that rule, in that it does exclude people who identify as men). The Olympia YWCA’s ‘Womxn of Achievement’ awards, for instance, are open to ‘two-Spirit, gender non-binary and queer folks’ as well as women. That isn’t the only thing that makes it a sign of the times: it also reflects the primacy of digital media and the written word, and the transnational or global nature of contemporary political communication. But at the same time it’s part of a longer history of attempts to change the way gender is marked linguistically, and has a complicated relationship with earlier feminist interventions.

Re-spelling words to make a political point is not a new strategy. In the 1960s and 70s leftist counter-culture types sometimes wrote ‘Amerika’ or ‘Amerikkka’ to convey the idea that the US was a fascist and racist state. And in the 1970s and 80s some feminists adopted variant spellings of ‘woman’ and ‘women’—including ‘womon’, ‘womyn’, ‘wombyn’ and ‘wimmin’—that were designed to get rid of the ‘man/men’ part, and so convey the idea that women are not just extensions or appendages of men. Sometimes this move was justified with reference to the (inaccurate) folk-belief that the word ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’ in the same way the Biblical Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib.

The Wellcome Collection explained its use of ‘womxn’ by citing a definition from Urban Dictionary which repeats these old ideas, presenting ‘womxn’ as a direct successor to the earlier feminist re-spellings:

Womxn: A spelling of “women” that is a more inclusive, progressive term that not only sheds light on the prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but to also show that womxn are not the extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve) but their own free and separate entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans women and women of color.

I should probably point out here that Urban Dictionary is not a reliable source: since the people who post definitions on the site have neither the expertise nor the resources of professional lexicographers, what you get isn’t a systematically researched, evidence-based account of where words came from and how they’re used, it’s just one person’s understanding, sometimes embellished with theories they’ve come across in other, mostly equally unreliable, sources. It’s certainly not true that ‘womyn’ (let alone, as some readers inferred, ‘women’) excluded women of color; and it’s a myth that ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’. But whatever its relationship to the actual historical facts, there is evidently a widespread belief that ‘womxn’ combines the anti-sexism of older variants like ‘womyn’ with the inclusiveness of newer X-forms like ‘folx’.

The letter X had its own place in the liberation movements of the 20th century. In California in 1988 I met a feminist named Laura X, who was a central figure in the long campaign to make rape in marriage illegal in the US. In 1969 she had replaced her last name with ‘X’, following the example of Malcolm X, who repudiated his original surname, ‘Little’, when he joined the Nation of Islam in the 1940s. That name, he pointed out, was part of the legacy of enslavement: it had been imposed on his paternal ancestors by the white man who owned them. Some feminists saw a parallel with the situation of women, who were also named by and for their oppressors. Even married women who declined to take their husband’s name would in most cases be keeping their father’s. In the 1980s I knew many feminists who had swapped their patriarchal surname for their mother’s first name, or some other name of their own invention. But ‘X’ makes a different kind of statement: it isn’t so much an alternative name as a placeholder for the name (and lineage, and history) that slavery or patriarchy has denied you.

If you want a placeholder, X is an obvious choice, because of its history of being used to symbolise an unknown quantity–first in algebraic equations, and later in other contexts. ‘X-rays’, for instance, were given their name by Roentgen on the basis that he did not yet know what was causing the effects he observed. ‘Brand X’ was once a common formula in advertising, where it denoted the unidentified cereal or washing powder to which the advertised product was allegedly superior. These usages had nothing to do with gender, but it isn’t hard to see how gender-inclusive X-forms rework the same idea. If X can stand for anything or anybody, then nothing and nobody is excluded by it. Its use can convey a commitment, not only to the norm of being inclusive, but also to the norm that one should not make assumptions about the identities of others. Until these are ascertained by asking the individuals concerned, they remain an unknown quantity.

The second of these norms is relatively new, but the first was also the basis for earlier feminist proposals to reform conventional usage—the difference being that ‘inclusiveness’ was conceived in terms of a two- rather than a many-gender model. It was a strategy for countering sexism by using terms that included women as well as men. And it is these earlier gender-inclusive terms which are now, at least in some quarters, being superseded by the new X-forms.

‘Latinx’, for instance, is increasingly being preferred to the dual-gender forms that Spanish-speaking feminists adopted to make women visible in a language where any reference to a group of people not exclusively female is conventionally required to be grammatically masculine. The male bias of conventional usage was addressed by creating masculine-plus-feminine forms like ‘Latinos y Latinas’ or ‘Latinos/as’. In digital-era writing another possibility was to use @ (‘Latin@s’), which looks like a combination of masculine -o with feminine -a. The newer X-form continues the move away from conventional male-centred usage, but in addition it signals a rejection of the binary model of gender which earlier departures from convention assumed. That’s also, as I noted earlier, the main difference between ‘womxn’ and earlier feminist re-spellings like ‘womyn’ and ‘wimmin’. And it helps to explain why opposition to the new X-forms is coming from two very different directions.

One kind of opposition, now as in the past, comes from social conservatives who see any deviation from conventional usage as an attack on traditional gender roles and hierarchies. A dramatic example occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 2015* after a biology teacher at one of the city’s most prestigious high schools constructed a test for his students on which the space for them to write their names was marked with the word ‘Alunx’ (an X-form of the Portuguese word for student, ‘aluno/aluna’). News of this spread through social media, and soon it was being reported in the national press. In the ensuing debate, the school was accused of ‘succumbing to the dictatorship of gay groups and feminazis’ and using ‘newspeak’ in the service of ‘the gay Marxist agenda’.

But another kind of opposition, particularly to the English re-spelling ‘womxn’, is coming not from conservatives, but from feminists. And while these two sets of critics have sometimes been presented as saying the same thing for the same reason–essentially because they’re right-wing transphobic bigots–I don’t think that claim stands up to scrutiny. The feminist opposition is certainly political, but the logic it follows belongs to the left rather than the right.

Earlier this year the blogger Sister Outrider tweeted:

I have yet to see anyone who uses the spelling “womxn” for purposes of inclusivity also use “mxn”. Significant that women become the unspeakable Other while men remain a recognised category.

If people say they write ‘womxn’ to be inclusive, then why don’t they also write ‘mxn’? What does this asymmetry imply?

One possible answer takes us back to the Urban Dictionary entry quoted earlier. If, like the older feminist re-spellings, ‘womxn’ is intended to make the point that women are not appendages of men, then putting the X into ‘men’ would make no sense: it would just reinstate the idea that ‘men/mxn’ is the root from which ‘women/womxn’ is derived. But if the main reason for using the X-form is to communicate that you’re referring not only to the people traditionally labelled ‘women’, but also to people who claim other gender identities, then there is an argument for treating ‘men’ as a parallel case. If you only give the X-treatment to women, you’re essentially replicating the Green Party’s much-criticized opposition between ‘men’ and ‘non-men’. As Caroline Criado Perez commented during the recent row,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man.  Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

This reference to Simone de Beauvoir may answer a question I know some people asked: why would anyone get so worked up about a minor tweak to the spelling of a word? It’s not as if the X makes that word unrecognizable: it still looks more like ‘women’ than it does like anything else. For feminists influenced by Beauvoir, however, the imposition of the X-form has a deeper significance. In The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote that ‘man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being’. The replacement of ‘women’ with ‘womxn’, creating a taxonomy in which there are two classes–men, the default humans, and others, defined in relation to men–can be seen as a symbolic enactment of the same principle. Once again, women are being told they must accept others’ definitions and accommodate others’ needs. The argument about ‘womxn’, in short, is not just about competing theories of gender; it’s also about the basic political principle that every oppressed group has the right to define and name itself.

These are both issues on which feminists themselves are divided: they have different ideas about what and who feminism is for. While some remain committed to the traditional view of it as a movement for the rights, equality or liberation of women, others argue that it’s time to redefine it as a more inclusive social movement seeking justice for all oppressed people. This is not a new argument either. Since at least the 1920s, after women in Britain and the US won the right to vote, the whole history of feminism has been punctuated with cries of ‘surely we’re beyond all that essentialist stuff about women’ and ‘isn’t it time to move on?’ But as the historian Catherine Andrews observed earlier this year, these exhortations have always turned out to be premature, based on an over-optimistic assessment of women’s progress towards equality.

This latest call to ‘move on’ seems particularly ill-timed: in the past couple of years we’ve had a flood of depressing evidence that the old forms of patriarchal power have not withered away. Until they do, feminists will (still) need to talk about women and the specific ways in which they are oppressed. And the right word to use for that purpose will (still) be ‘women’. I’m not saying we don’t also need terms that address or refer to a wider constituency: for some purposes I think we do need them. But that doesn’t mean they should replace more specific terms in every context. As I said in my very first post on this blog, a movement for the liberation of women (and yes, I’m in the camp that still thinks that’s what feminism is) cannot go along with the treatment of ‘women’ as an outdated, irrelevant, unspeakable dirty word.

*My information on this case comes from the Brazilian linguist Rodrigo Borba: the English translations quoted are his, and I thank him for letting me reproduce them. (The opinions are mine and he should not be held responsible for them.)

The kids are alright

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.

The illusion of inclusion

My blog and I have been in the news this week. After the Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey complained about the use of ‘hi guys’ as a greeting for mixed-sex groups , a number of news outlets picked up the story, and several of them linked to this 2016 blog post in which I explained why I don’t think ‘hi guys’ excludes women.

This made me briefly very popular with bookers for talk radio, where language peeves of all kinds are the gift that keeps on giving, as is any public difference of opinion between two feminists. But other reactions were less positive. On Twitter I had people telling me to ‘stop invisibilising women’ and suggesting that instead of defending ‘guys’ I should be using my influence to promote other, more inclusive address terms.

Sadly (or maybe not), I don’t have that kind of influence. Changes in everyday usage are very much a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing: linguists can describe and try to explain what’s going on, but what they say will rarely if ever affect the overall direction of travel. What I was hoping to influence when I decided to start this blog was not the language itself so much as the way feminists think and talk about linguistic issues. And in that spirit, I want to revisit the issue at the centre of the argument about ‘guys’: inclusiveness.

Feminists (and other progressive types) talk a lot about ‘inclusive language’, and it’s generally assumed that we’re in favour of it. But what exactly is it? What makes a word or an expression ‘inclusive’? And are feminists’ purposes always best served by inclusive terms?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists criticising conventional usage rarely talked about ‘inclusive’ (or its antonym, ‘exclusionary’) language: we talked much more about ‘sexist’ and ‘non-sexist’ language. As the issue became more mainstream, other terms came into use which were seen as less overtly political and thus more palatable to people of moderate liberal opinions. Many included the word ‘gender’: it became common for institutions to formulate policies and guidelines about ‘gender equal’, ‘gender free’ or ‘gender fair’ language.

The concept of ‘inclusive language’ has become popular more recently, and it represents a further move away from the original feminist critique of sexism. ‘Inclusiveness’ is much more general concept: guidelines on ‘inclusive language’ may address concerns about the linguistic representation not only of women, but also of other marginalised groups like ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people. And while most feminists would probably see this broadening as a good thing in principle, some (myself included) might argue that in defining the problem as ‘inclusion versus exclusion’ we have both narrowed the scope of the earlier analysis of sexism and lost some of its more radical insights.

The non-inclusiveness (or as we used to say, ‘androcentrism’) of conventional ‘he/man’ language was a significant concern in early feminist analyses of sexist language, but it was by no means the only problem feminists drew attention to. Many forms of sexist language did not discriminate against women by excluding them or making them invisible, but rather by over-representing them in distinctive and demeaning ways (consider, for instance, how many words are available in English to objectify/infantilise women—‘chicks’, ‘babes’, ‘blondes’—or express sexualised contempt for them—‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’). Even when the issue did concern something we might now call ‘exclusionary’, such as the use of masculine generic pronouns, the older feminist analysis was (as I’ll explain later on) rather different from the one we tend to get now.

So, what is the current analysis? What do feminists mean when they say a word or expression is ‘not inclusive’? Typically, their objection is based on one or more of the following observations:

  1. That the word is formally masculine rather than gender-neutral/unmarked;
  2. That the word originated as a sex-specific term denoting or describing men;
  3. That standard dictionaries describe the word as referring exclusively or primarily to men.

In English (as opposed to languages that make more extensive use of grammatical gender distinctions), particular weight tends to be given to (1). ‘Inclusiveness’ is seen to require the use of ‘neutral’ terms, words which have no overt gender-marking. Jane Garvey, for instance, suggested ‘people’ as an inclusive substitute for ‘guys’. ‘People’ does not invite any of the objections listed above: it is formally unmarked for gender and its dictionary definition makes no reference to sex (according to the Oxford dictionary it denotes ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’). This lack of specificity has also made ‘people’ a popular choice in another context where the goal is to eliminate ‘exclusionary’ language–it’s a common replacement for ‘women’ in expressions which are intended to be trans-inclusive, like ‘pregnant people’.

In this new paradigm, the prevailing assumption could be summarised as ‘gender-neutral = inclusive = good’ and ‘gender-specific = exclusionary = bad’. But I’m going to argue that in practice it’s not that simple. If we turn our attention from the surface forms and dictionary definitions of words to the details of how they’re used in everyday life, it will soon become apparent that neutral terms are not always inclusive, and inclusive terms are not always neutral.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of formally gender-neutral terms being used in ways which are covertly gendered. Here’s a case in point, taken from a report in the Sunday Times:

The lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults around. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the women and the children.

The phrase ‘able-bodied young adults’ does logically exclude most of the groups  described as ‘left behind’: old people aren’t young, disabled people aren’t able-bodied, children aren’t adults. But what logic accounts for the presence of women on this list? The noun ‘adults’, like ‘people’, is formally unmarked for gender: in theory the category of ‘able-bodied young adults’ encompasses both male and female individuals. But in this context, clearly, the writer is using the neutral term ‘adults’ to convey the sex-specific meaning ‘male adults’.

A common variation on the same theme can be seen in these examples:

We cannot tolerate attacks on the wife of an American citizen

A 45-year old man has been charged with assaulting his next-door neighbour’s wife

Saxophone-playing vicar’s wife is the C of E’s first woman bishop

What we’re looking at here is a subcategory of sexism which featured prominently in early feminist critiques. In each example a woman is described as a ‘wife’, despite the fact that she herself is also a member of the category to which the speaker or writer assigns her husband. The woman in the first example was a US citizen, the second lived next door to her attacker, and the third was an Anglican priest–if she hadn’t been she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. The ‘wife’ references are thus superfluous from a purely informational standpoint; the work they do is ideological, reflecting and recycling the belief that women exist and must be seen primarily in relation to men rather than as individuals in their own right.

One by-product of this (still fairly common) pattern of representation is that the nouns denoting categories other than ‘wife’—in these examples, ‘citizen’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘vicar’—become covertly gendered (i.e., masculine). This has nothing to do with the characteristics of the words themselves: they are all formally unmarked for gender, and dictionary definitions would not restrict their reference to men. You might argue that ‘vicar’ is more likely to refer to a man because until recently only men were permitted to occupy that role; but that’s not an argument you could make about the other two. There would be nothing unusual or jarring about a sentence like ‘Sue has applied to become a British citizen’, or ‘my neighbour asked if I could feed her cat while she’s away’. On the criteria I listed earlier, these are perfectly inclusive terms. So, how do we explain the prevalence of patently non-inclusive uses like the ones in my examples?

The feminist writer and theorist Monique Wittig once observed that

…there are not two genders. There is only one, the feminine…For the masculine is not the masculine but the general.

One obvious example of this is the way formally masculine terms get used as generics (as with the use of ‘man’ to mean the human species). But Wittig’s point is also illustrated by the opposite phenomenon, the treatment of apparently generic, formally neutral terms as if they only referred to men. The examples I’ve reproduced—all cases where the writer or speaker’s own words make clear that the reference to ‘adults’ or ‘citizens’ is in fact a reference to male adults/citizens—are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when a writer or speaker does intend a formally neutral term to be inclusive, hearers and readers may still interpret it as sex-specific.

This is a manifestation of the ‘default male’ principle. It’s not that we don’t know that ‘adult’ and ‘neighbour’ might in theory refer to a person of either sex, but in practice, if the person’s sex is not specified, we are liable to default to a male reading. This tendency is most marked where formally gender-neutral words are strongly associated with maleness for historical and social reasons (e.g. ‘soldier’), but it is also apparent with words that have no such associations (e.g. ‘neighbour’). If nothing in the context suggests a female referent, we will tend to visualise a male one.

The evidence from actual usage, then, suggests that merely replacing gender-marked with gender-neutral terms does not guarantee inclusiveness. Conversely—and this takes us back to the argument about ‘guys’—the use of masculine terms does not guarantee that women will be, or feel, excluded. Just as neutral terms can be gendered, gender-marked terms can be de-gendered in use.

‘Guys’ is a case in point. It clearly originated as a sex-specific term: lexicographers agree that the original ‘guy’, who gave his name first to men of low and ragged appearance and later to men in general, was Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Gunpowder Plotter whose likeness is burned in effigy on English bonfires each November. But lexicographers also agree that ‘guy’ is no longer uniformly sex-specific. The plural form, ‘guys’, has become gender-inclusive in one subset of its functions—when it is used as a vocative, as in ‘hi guys’, or more broadly to address people in the second person, as in ‘what are you guys doing tonight?’

This de-gendering hasn’t (yet) spread to all the word’s forms and functions. Though some younger speakers might disagree, for me third-person references, both singular and plural (‘that guy over there’, ‘those guys we saw in the coffee shop’) can only be interpreted as masculine. But that doesn’t undermine the claim that ‘guys’ as a second-person address term is perceived by those who use it as gender-inclusive. Shifts in the meaning of a term very often affect some of its uses before others.

‘Guys’ isn’t the only English address term which is undergoing this shift. As I explained in my earlier post, ‘dude’ in the US is increasingly being used by and to women as well as men; in Australia, ‘mate’ (which, though not formally masculine, has historically had strongly male connotations) appears to be following a similar path; in Ireland, ‘lads’ is commonly used as a collective and gender-inclusive address term.

Research suggests that the key factor driving this trend is the uptake of the terms by young women, who are not just passively accepting them in mixed-sex talk, but actively using them in interactions with each other. In the case of ‘dude’, for instance, a study of college students in Pittsburgh found that its most frequent users were, as expected, men talking to other men, but the next-most frequent users were women talking to other women. Overall, I find the evidence quite compelling that these masculine address terms really have been de-gendered for younger speakers. If young women didn’t think they were being addressed when they heard ‘hi, guys’ or ‘listen, lads’, it’s possible they would put up with it from their male friends, but less likely they would adopt it enthusiastically in all-female interactions.

But what’s behind the enthusiasm? Some feminists see it as evidence of internalised sexism, a need to be accepted or approved of by men that leads young women to ‘talk male’, or at least accommodate to male linguistic preferences, in mixed peer-groups. To me this is unconvincing, not least because it overlooks the point that women aren’t just using the terms in mixed groups. It also discounts their own understanding of the terms: women under 30 consistently tell researchers that they regard ‘guys’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’ as inclusive terms, available equally to address both sexes.

The explanation I prefer (and which I laid out in more detail in my earlier post) can be related to Monique Wittig’s assertion that ‘the masculine is not the masculine but the general’. I would argue that women are appropriating ‘guys’ and its ilk, not to be seen as masculine, but to be included in the category of ‘the general’. They are adopting these address terms to express the same attitudes and feelings men have traditionally used them to express, like camaraderie, solidarity and ‘mateship’. The fact that these attitudes and feelings have historically been associated with men does not mean they are inherently male (any more than historically male-dominated endeavours like science and sport are inherently male). Rather they are part of the repertoire of human attitudes and feelings.

The desire of women to be included in the general category of humans, rather than confined to a subcategory of ‘feminine’ (aka Other and lesser) beings, has often led them to reject female-specific terms. In the case of occupational labels, for instance, they have rejected marked forms like ‘authoress’ and ‘lady doctor’ and demanded to be referred to instead with the unmarked forms ‘author’ and ‘doctor’. This has never prompted accusations of ‘aping men’ or ‘making women invisible’.

‘Of course not’, I hear you say: ‘the two cases are quite different. A woman who prefers “author” to “authoress” isn’t giving herself a male label like “guys”, she’s just swapping an unnecessary and demeaning gender-marked term for something neutral and inclusive’. But if you take the long view, that difference disappears.  .

Words like ‘author’ and ‘doctor’ may always have been (in English) formally unmarked,  but they were not always ‘neutral’ and ‘inclusive’. For much of their history they were sex-specific, applied to men and not to women. To the extent that they have now become inclusive, that’s a historical achievement; they were made inclusive by the efforts of the women who laid claim to them and used them and demanded that others should use them too. That is also what is happening now with address term like ‘guys’, ‘lads’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’. Women are laying claim to them and their meanings are changing as a result. It’s possible that in a hundred years’ time only language historians and etymology buffs will know that the ‘guys’ in ‘hi guys’ once meant ‘men’.

But I said ‘to the extent that they have now become inclusive’ because even today, as I’ve already pointed out, it can’t be assumed that generic references to ‘the author’ or ‘a doctor’ will automatically be interpreted as including women. In fact, there are no words which cannot be used or understood in a non-inclusive way: even ‘people’ can be covertly gendered (usually in line with the default male principle, though I did once overhear a woman saying she wouldn’t want a rattan coffee table because ‘people might snag their panty-hose’). Where the neutral/inclusive term is the same term that refers specifically to men (a common pattern in many languages, as Monique Wittig points out), there will always be room for doubt about whether women are really included. In that respect, ‘guys’ is no better and no worse than ‘adult’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘doctor’. None of these terms makes women visible as women, and all of them are liable to be interpreted as masculine by default.

The problem of sexism in language isn’t caused by a lack of inclusive terminology. It’s a structural problem, the product of assumptions and habits of thought which have seeped into our culture and our language over centuries, and which would colour the use of any set of terms we might come up with. If we want our language to produce more than the illusion of inclusion, what we really need to change is not our vocabulary, but our ingrained and largely unconscious habit of treating men as the prototypical humans.

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.