Update: since publishing this article a number of women have contacted me to say that they would love to ‘have the courage’ to share this article on their personal social media page, the birth and breastfeeding groups that they are in, or in their organisations – but that they feel unable or unwilling to do so due to the potential consequences. What a deep and hideous irony that publicly agreeing with what I have written here, might make what I have written here materialise! I completely understand the impossible position in which many women find themselves, and am so thankful for the courage of your critical thinking and independent thought.
Chestfeeder, menstruator, birthing body. Vulva people, cervix-havers, uterus-owners. By now we all know the drill: an organisation or company with services or products for women changes their woman-centred language to be Inclusive™, and
key stakeholders who weren’t consulted first women who wish to discuss this or raise objections are quickly pigeonholed as hateful hysterics who need a good dose of ‘shut the f**k up you TERF c**t’ to learn our place. (Do please note, apparently it’s not transphobic to know what a woman is in the context of choosing which body part to use as a slur against which people.)
This pattern, repeated over and over again with increasing frequency, was recently summarised by Janice Turner in a piece in The Times titled ‘War of words risks wiping women from our language’. Turner documents how the language describing women’s material existence as biologically female is being systemically dismantled. The result of this is that women are rendered unable to effectively describe our lives or the circumstances which shape them, – kneecapping our ability to challenge or change those circumstances. This point has been made by many feminist writers and academics in recent years, including Victoria Smith, Helen Joyce, Meghan Murphy, Janet Fraser, Dr Jane Clare Jones, Dr Kathleen Stock, Dr Emma Hilton, any number of brilliant minds on radical feminist twitter, and even my own humble self.
These linguistic changes, and the anti-woman ideology of gender which they prop up, are now becoming widespread enough that we are beginning to see some of the more depressing predictions about the impact of this language realised. Because this was never just about replacing one word with a better word, or “using more ink” and everyone happily dancing off into the sunset. The implications of erasing women from language goes beyond controlling women’s words into controlling women’s participation in politics and public discourse- beginning with the dismantling of our ability to effectively associate with each other and organise together.
Women’s groups which centre on issues relevant to women as females are different from many other political causes. Women’s rights activism does not centre on a shared idea but on the shared reality of our female bodies, and the various consequences specific to living in those bodies in a world engineered for the benefit of men. By its very nature feminism is already inclusive – you can’t get much more diverse than half the population of the planet! The range of groups and causes dedicate to women and the different strands of feminist thought reflect this. Women are not a monolith, but all women have in common the fact that we are female.
If you were trying to think of a way to white-ant feminist work, already deeply divided along liberal and radical feminist lines, almost nothing could be more effective than redefining what a woman is, and proceeding to use that new definition as a shibboleth to identify who gets to participate from now on and who must be shunned. Particularly insidious has been the coupling of this ideological purging with further purity tests of association, in which women who even dare to partner with another across a political or religious ‘aisle’ (or even like a tweet) are no longer viewed as strategic or collaborative but as lacking in integrity. Cooperation becomes treated as collusion, and interrogating a woman’s argument becomes less important than attacking her character.
Dr Jane Clare Jones describes the methods of the imposition of these ideological standards as ‘ontological totalitarianism’; Dr Em draws comparisons to authoritarian regimes. These are not hyperbole but rather a chillingly accurate analysis of the dynamics of power and control being exerted on women not only to act against our own interests and police other women until they do the same. It is certainly proving an effective strategy to first colonise feminist discourse with the claim that biological sex is a construct and gender is real, and then tasking women with the role of obscuring our own ability to identify and articulate our sex-based rights and oppressions.
For organisations dedicated to supporting and advocating for women in their role as mothers – currently grappling with claims that terms like ‘mother’ and ‘breastfeeding’ are hurtful and exclusionary – this context is crucial to understand. Mothering has long been a blind spot for all waves of feminism, tending to be oversimplified to narratives of ‘choice’ in which children are burdens from which women should be variously freed. One impact of this is that discourses of matricentric feminism have been largely ignored or treated with a vague suspicion that there is some kind of conservative motive at play to keep women valued in terms of our reproductive capacity. Another is that the normal female reproductive rhythms of uninterrupted pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding have been misunderstood not as a right to which all women should be entitled, but a niche option for women who ‘can’ or ‘want to’.
It’s entirely unsurprising in this context that many women in westernised economies are both unprepared and unprotected when we become mothers, and face for ourselves the realities of medical-industrial obstetric violence and normalised social neglect. This is further compounded by the fragmenting of intergenerational mother-to-mother knowledge and support, which largely been replaced by industrial marketing and professional experts on the basis that information shared by other mothers is untrustworthy or motivated by judgmentalism. Isolated, traumatised, and fearful of being perceived as unkind or self-superior lest we lose access to the company of other mothers- when the claim was made that being a woman or mother was just one more in a series of choices we mustn’t criticise, mothers were primed to show that we are good and kind and so very very sorry for hurting anyone’s feelings with our own existence.
And so mother-centred group after mother-centred group has been captured. Sometimes this has been a top-down imposition of female-erasing ‘inclusive language’, but more often what it has looked like is an insidious creep of language adjusted here and words added there over time until an organisation’s original mission and vision is slowly refocused onto something else entirely.
The impact of this on the women who see what is happening and attempt to resist it cannot be overestimated. These women are often Cassandras who have their concerns dismissed or are characterised as being self obsessed with their attachment to being perceived as a mother. These women may have their reputation smeared by insinuation that they are motivated by prejudice; they may be accused of making volunteers or mothers ‘unsafe’; they may lose life long friends; they may face internal complaints and disciplinary action; they may lose their position – something which should be understood to be just as serious for volunteer positions as for paid roles. Increasing numbers of women have been subjected to targeted harassment ranging from being ‘accidentally’ removed from chat groups through to the weaponisation of formal investigation and disciplinary processes.
This internecine conflict is a colossal waste of time and effort. As if we already weren’t losing hundreds of thousands of mothers and babies every year, we are now in the midst of a global pandemic. Pregnant women are attending antenatal appointments alone. Mothers are being denied the presence of their partner or a support person while birthing. Babies are being routinely removed from their mothers at birth and separated at enormous risk to the breastfeeding relationship and the health of both mother and baby. Mothers are dying of COVID related complications. Mothers are dying because their access to pregnancy and birth care is not a priority in swamped health facilities. Mothers aren’t being given accurate information on the safety of COVID vaccines in pregnancy or while breastfeeding because that information doesn’t even exist. Mothers. Not parents. Only mothers. Because mothers are the female parents.
Women who know what a mother is and dare to say so are frequently chastised that ‘rights aren’t pie… equal rights for others doesn’t mean less rights for you!’ or that ‘adding words to include more people doesn’t exclude you’. This is egregious DARVO-esque gaslighting which deliberately obscures the fact that two groups with competing claims cannot both have the same thing at the same time, while attempting to characterise smart and brave women as greedy little children whining about not getting enough dessert.
But the resources and spaces which women are fighting to be specifically allocated to mothers – not to parents – are limited, and the time and energy we have to dedicate to that fight are limited also. How can a woman maintain her focus on mother-to-mother support or describe what mothers need when she is constantly having to explain what a mother is at all? How can women work together when the only thing worse than being a TERF is associating with one? Who benefits when women burn down our own house before it’s even finished being built? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the uterus-havers.