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Is Maximally Generic Maximally Neutral?
Your thoughts on balancing maximum inclusivity (people) versus solidarity in specificity (women)
This week, I’m sharing excerpts from your discussion of the push to use “pregnant people” and other forms of inclusive language that avoid explicit reference to women. Next week, I’ll curate highlights from our conversation about whether “healthy shame” is a contradiction in terms.
I was impressed as I read through your 60+ comments on the tension between using maximally inclusive language vs. losing specific calls to solidarity as women. There was plenty of strong disagreement, but you all struck the difficult balance of treating both the stakes of the argument and the person you were arguing with seriously. The comment thread felt like a shared work.
I’d like to start by spotlighting two commenters who did a good job distilling why it’s hard to find tenable compromises, even among people willing to talk to each other.
The primary reason I object to gender neutral language around pregnancy and birth is that it says something about the world which I believe to be wrong. I absolutely think that if a specific person wants to use gender neutral language around their experience of birth, that preference should be respected. But I don't believe that pregnancy and birth are inherently gender neutral experiences, or that there is nothing particularly feminine about them.
This isn’t just a dispute about language and politeness, it is a disagreement about what is true about something very intimate to identity. That makes it hard to simply tolerate each other—there will always be friction if two people have different beliefs about gender and self-identity and simply wish to have a conversation without either of them feeling like they’re lying or being lied to. No one wants to merely be indulged, we want to be believed.
Deeper in the replies to Magdalen’s comment, Martha laid out the stakes as she sees them:
We're at a crossroads right now. And given polarization and our political climate, the choices are between a path of increasing violence against trans folks, both state based and not, or a choice to head down a path of inclusion and gender fluidity. The latter could lead to all sorts of interesting futures, some fantastic, some definitively not.
And there I’m caught a little, because I’ve just said in response to Magdalen that it’s hard to find a compromise when people genuinely disagree about what’s true, and it’s a truth that comes up constantly in daily life, unlike the Riemann Hypothesis.
But I still think that Martha is posing too severe a dilemma, where the only options are violence or a major retreat from the idea of gender describing something real and relevant about the world. The middle is murky, but that’s the space I want to explore.
A few commenters said the present emphasis on self-examination to discover whether you were really a woman would have been harmful to them. Claire said she was helped by the way that her womanhood was taken as a settled fact.
“Feeling like a woman” suggests that there’s a normative way women should feel and that those who don’t conform (me with my blue shirt at electronics camp) might not really be girls. I’m glad this wasn’t around when I was a girl venturing into all or mostly male spaces (electronics camp, nature camp, military history class) because I think I am a woman because I have XX chromosomes and female reproductive organs—not because of what I like or wear.
Several commenters said that they saw something suspicious about the way this debate is centered on words about women. I haven’t heard “people with prostates” very often. As Alice put it:
Women have spent the past century or so fighting for inclusion within “male” terms, precisely because they are often seen to confer more authority, prestige, etc. (e.g. women requesting to be referred to as “actors” rather than “actresses,” because the former is seen as a more serious occupation than the former). And so, I think we need to be really wary when we see women-specific language being erased for gender-neutral language, without a move of similar magnitude from male-specific to gender-neutral language. We ought to ask ourselves—is the desire underlying this entirely that of inclusivity, or is there also a lurking misogyny in men not wanting to be referred to using “female” language (such as that of motherhood), while women are happier to adopt “male” language?
The Lancet hit this double standard when they styled the cover for their story on period shame as mostly whitespace with this single quote:
"Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas has been neglected."
A few days prior, they had tweeted “About 10 million men are currently living with a diagnosis of prostate cancer—making it a major health issue.”
Kathryn had another example of a suspicious shift to “neutrality”:
The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) recently took “women” out of their name and rebranded as the Premier Hockey Federation. Not every player in the former NWHL identifies as a woman, so some people were celebrating this as a gesture of inclusivity, and the league itself was encouraging this perception. But given the heavily misogynistic nature of hockey as a sport, many people (including myself) were suspicious that this had more to do with the difficulties around marketing women’s hockey and the distaste that many male fans have for the women’s version of the game […] By taking “women” out of the league name, they could try to appeal to people who don’t like “women’s hockey.”
I’m skeptical that you could pull this off as a trick for very long! Eventually, people would notice there were women on the ice. But I’ve seen this kind of marketing pressure applied to female actors who drop their names for initials and where POC protagonists of novels are whitewashed in the cover art.
Having the space for this conversation allowed me to clarify some of my own thoughts. Here’s one comment from me, raised up from the depths of replies.
Adopting neutral language (especially when people are corrected for using the usual words) makes it feel like bringing attention to being a woman, being connected to being a woman is offensive or off-putting.
It's a reaction I'm more used to in other contexts where women are expected to euphemise our experience and our bodies. Pregnancy is often a vibrantly female space, a place where women's bodies literally take up space, and where we push to have our experiences and agency afforded space, too.
Being able (at least in theory) to have a baby is also a big part of how I understand who I am as a woman. When we claim these parts are neutral, or that linking them to womanhood is factually or morally wrong, it feels like we're stripping out the positive capacities of womanhood and reducing it to the negative experience of being affected by sexism.
That last isn’t a bad summary of what brought me to Other Feminisms. I want to fight sexism, but I also want to better articulate what it means to be a woman beyond “someone subject to sexism.” I don’t want to be only valued as a human generically, but particularly as a woman.