The gendered nature of language has come under some scrutiny recently, primarily in relation to the rise of trans activism which has sought to repurpose traditionally gendered language used to describe sex specific reproductive functioning in more gender neutral ways. This approach has come under fire from some sections of the feminist community, where there has been outrage in some quarters at the suggestion that sex-specific functioning should be de-gendered. This insistence on the conflation of sex and gender and the consequent gender imposition on female people, especially at vulnerable times in their lives is damaging to the cause of feminism.
Although the debate has been bubbling under the surface for a while, one of the first prominent strikes across the bow was a tweet from Planned Parenthood back in September 2016. The tweet that caused the controversy, was highlighting a campaign against the Tampon Tax in the USA, noting that people who were directly affected by the imposition of a sales tax on menstrual products were celebrating successful action to opposing it.
— Planned Parenthood (@PPact) September 2, 2016
In an article entitled “Are we women or are we menstruators”, Megan Murphy of Feminist Current took strong objection to the term “menstruators”, insisting that the appropriate term to use was women, conflating – as a substantial subset of feminists often do – a female sex and a gender role of woman. The theme was eagerly taken up on social media with Planned Parenthood being condemned from a variety of quarters. However, ignoring the trans issue for a moment, even the raddest of radfems who insist that “woman” is nothing but a synonym for “adult human female” , a view to which I do not subscribe, must appreciate two critical aspects.
Not all adult human females menstruate.
Human females only menstruate up until the age of around 50, while the US life expectancy of females in the US is around 81 and pre-menopausal adult human females frequently do not menstruate for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, breastfeeding, hysterectomy, anorexia, cancer or impaired reproductive functioning. In fact probably as many adult human females do not menstruate as do.
Not all people who menstruate are adult human females
The average age of menarche in the US is approximately 12. A twelve year old is patently not an adult, and very few would refer to a 12 year old female as a woman in common discourse.
Insisting that it is women who are protesting rather than menstruators, has more to do with imposing an ideological view of women, a view which insists that adult human females must identity with the gender role of woman and which not only narrows the definition of woman to female people only, but indeed to fertile female people, than to fighting the actual issue at hand: an issue which affects exclusively female people, regardless gender identity or whether they have attained adulthood. By insisting that it is women, rather than menstuators taking action against the tampon tax, it erases action taken by youth activists, and dilutes the power of the action to a generalised campaign rather than a specific campaign by those who are directly affected by the tax.
The latest controversy has come in the area of maternity services, with the BMA issuing guidelines that suggest that the term “expectant mother” should be consigned to history to be replaced with “pregnant person”. Predictably this advice has also come under fire from the same quarters, who see their ideological adherence to the conflation of sex and gender being challenged. The objections are two-fold. Firstly that the term “pregnant person” is an erasure of women, and secondly that “expectant mother” is a perfectly good term in its own right.
The objection to the term “pregnant person” and the insistence on “pregnant woman” instead is another ideological imposition, insisting that because only females become pregnant, anyone who becomes pregnant must be a woman, as per the conflation of sex and gender, and that consequently terming someone who is pregnant as a “person” is inappropriate.
The question of women are people has a long history. A hundred years ago, the suffragette Alice Duer Millar published a controversial pamphlet entitled “Women are People!”. But by 1960, the case still has to be made when Betty Friedan published an article entitled “Women are People Too!”, (special shout out to the addition of “too”, cos we mustn’t forget about the menz) describing “the problem that had no name”, where women were expected to live vicariously through their husbands and children rather than pursue their own ambitions. By 2012, the debate is still going on, with Time introducing a pertinent subject for debate “Are Women People?” where a feminist concludes that actually…no, not really. Salon also picks up there theme in a similarly titled article in 2016; the conclusion Amanda Marcotte comes to is in the affirmative even if her article doesn’t really make a terribly good case for it.
Being pregnant imposes a vulnerability, suddenly you are bombarded with unsolicited and often unwanted advice on what you must or must not do and in many parts of the world can be imprisoned should you fail to gestate the foetus to survival. Giving birth is one of vulnerable experiences anyone can have, in severe pain and in a compromised and humiliating position. For those who have eschewed the gender identity of woman in the interests of becoming a person instead, to have it reimposed forcibly at a time when you are in most need of medical care and reliant on dedicated services is a denial of the rights of females to survive on their own terms.
Moreover, the term “expectant mother” goes beyond merely the denial of the right of females to determine their own gender identity, but erases them completely. Not a person in your own right, you are relegated to being defined by the caring role that it is expected that you will assume in the future. For people who wish not to continue a pregnancy; whose pregnancies are non-viable; who are preparing for an adoption or who are involved in the surrogacy industry, this expectation that they will become a mother is erroneous; to continually remind them of the social expectation that a pregnant person will become a mother is quite cruel.
Women’s …subordination has not arisen because some members of our species choose to identify with an inferior social role…. It has emerged as a means by which males can dominate that half of the species that is capable of gestating children, and exploit their sexual and reproductive labour.
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about Sex and Gender, Part 4
The half of the species that is capable of gestating children is the female half. That female half of the population has the gender identity of woman imposed on them as soon as they attain adulthood, and are primed for the role from birth. Some females reject it on reaching adolescence or in adulthood (and increasingly females are rejecting its preparation pre-adolescence), and decide that their best way out of that role is to reject the label of “woman” and adopt an alternative gender identity instead….and who are feminists to deny female people the opportunity of opting out of the social role that we collectively acknowledge as harmful.
By insisting that all users of maternity services and menstrual products are women, we are doing the patriarchy’s work for them – insisting that all people who are capable of menstruation or gestation must be identified with the inferior social role that the patriarchy imposes on females. Decoupling sex from gender at its apex – reproductive functioning – is critical to revising the position of females and by extension the position of women.