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The Word is Woman #1
Documenting the erasure of women from language and life.
Welcome to a new section of The Mule, The Word is Woman, where I document examples of the erasure of women from both language and public life. For the past two years, ever since I spoke out about language changes in maternity such as ‘birthing people’, I have been sent hundreds of examples of convolutions of language in which the word woman is erased and replaced in the name of so-called ‘inclusivity’. Uterus owners, menstruators, non-men, bleeders, birthers, and even bodies with vaginas…the list of names we have been called and continue to be called is a seemingly endless catalogue of offence.
At the same time, we are seeing male people taking the place of women on sporting podiums and in public roles, and also being applauded as the ‘first woman’ to achieve a certain award or accomplishment, or the ‘best female’ or ‘woman of the year’ in their field.
For now, The Word is Woman will be sent out weekly, and I’ll review this as we go. If you’d rather not receive these emails, but want to stay subscribed to The Mule, you can adjust your settings at substack.com/settings. Any problems as we get this started, just let me know. And if you spot examples of erasure that you’d like to see highlighted, you can send them to me via email (either by replying to one of my substacks or at email@example.com), with the subject line, The Word is Woman.
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So here is this week’s The Word is Woman for the week ending 25th August 2023.
We have to start with Emily Bridges taking up a place on Vogue’s list of 25 ‘Powerhouse Women defining - and redefining - Britain in 2023’. ‘Power lists’ and other women’s shortlists were created to address the power imbalance for women in society. Including people on such lists who were born male defeats the objects of such lists, and simultaneously takes the opportunity to be listed away from a woman. Bridges also uses his platform in the Vogue issue to complain he has been ‘banned from competitive cycling’. As the twitter ‘reader added’ context points out, he has not been banned, he has simply been told that he may not compete in the women’s category.
Next up, this July 2023 article in the British Medical Journal on menstrual science, which opens with the sentence:
Menstruation is a universal human experience from menarche to menopause. It is estimated that approximately 26% of the global population menstruates, with approximately 800million individuals menstruating each day.
Also in the July 2023 BMJ, this article opens with:
Heavy menstrual bleeding affects up to one third of menstruating individuals and has a negative impact on quality of life.
Another constantly observed trend is to change ‘breastfeeding women’ or ‘pregnant women’ to ‘breastfeeding families / lactating families’ or ‘pregnant families’. In this next example, it is not ‘women’ who make informed choices, but ‘families’. Those of us who have been fighting for women’s reproductive autonomy for some time will realise the danger of this. It is women, and women alone, who are the decision makers in pregnancy and childbirth.
This article on ‘the impact of trauma and menstruation’ manages to talk about how sexual abuse can affect women’s experience of periods without mentioning ‘women’ once. As a writer the mind boggles as I contemplate the effort it must take to create a piece like this without naming the people who are affected by this double-whammy of women’s issues. And how can we address such injustice if we erase sex from the dialogue?
And finally, I can’t finish The Word is Woman this week without a mention for the uterus transplant story.
We could discuss at length the merits and ethics of uterus transplants for women who cannot conceive - in this case a woman with a condition - MRKH - which some consider to be ‘intersex’ or a DSD (difference of sexual development). As someone who has worked extensively with children in foster care I find it hard to fathom going to such lengths to conceive a biological child - but then I also speak from the privileged position of having found this easy and had 3 children of my own. But what’s interesting from the point of view of the erasure of women is how, less than 24 hours after the story broke, the entire focus shifted to the possibility of pregnancy in males.
In the above piece, and elsewhere, the lead surgeon Professor Richard Smith is quoted as saying, “We’re very aware that 2010 Gender Equality Act mandates equal treatment for cisgender and transgender women.” Well there is no Gender Equality Act, Richard, it’s called the Equality Act, and it says nothing of the sort. It protects people from discrimination on the basis of either sex, or gender reassignment, but it absolutely does not mandate a male person’s right to a womb transplant.
Even if it did, there’s an assumption baked in that pregnancy and motherhood are simply an act in which a human body becomes a container for the baby and then it is extracted. This is an arrogant, patriarchal idea with deep roots - all the way back to early ideas about conception that placed all the credit and glory on the man for depositing a fully formed foetus into the woman via his magical sperm.
(Image drawn by Nicolaas Hartsoeker in 1695)
Biology tells us that the female body is much much cleverer and more complex than this, and we women know it too. We feel it and know it in every cell.
Until next time, thanks for reading The Word is Woman.
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