For my money, no one laid out the stakes on abortion rights better than Ruth Bader Ginsburg* did during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings prior to her confirmation to the Supreme Court. Reading RBG’s testimony today, I’m struck by how crabbed and degraded the confirmation process has become over the past 30 years, almost entirely thanks to Republican radicalism on abortion.
Anyhoo, here’s what Ginsburg said in 1993:
The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When Government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.
The Alito draft deliberately consigns us egg-bearers to the status of “less than a fully adult human.” That’s because putting women back in their place is one of the chief aims of the modern conservative movement, not just in the United States but around the world.
Women aren’t the only group under attack, of course. The possible fall of Roe is happening in a larger context where reactionary forces are also trying to stuff LGBTQ people back in the closet and subjugate racial, ethnic and religious minorities — from North America to Eastern Europe to India and elsewhere.
The Alito draft conversations this week raised questions I’m still pondering about inclusive language when discussing topics that have been described as “women’s issues” for decades. I don’t have any answers, but I think the conversation is worth having, and I’m interested in hearing y’all’s thoughts on it.
During one of this week’s discussions about the latest salvo in the “war on women,” someone suggested calling it the “war on people with uteruses” to include trans men and nonbinary people who can become pregnant. Some women said they felt erased by that language. I’m all for inclusivity, but I felt not only erased but reduced to an internal organ.
I don’t think anyone who was discussing this in good faith here wants to erase women or reduce them to reproductive organs on the one side — or exclude trans men and nonbinary people when we talk about the Republicans’ fundamental assault on bodily autonomy on the other. But some of us do see it as primarily an assault on women’s rights and denial of women’s full humanity.
I think there are two aspects to this — one that has to do with political/social realities, and the other a question of identity. The political/social part is ugly, but it’s real, so let’s start with that.
I think if we liberals start generally asking folks to replace the word “women” with “people with uteruses” and/or terms like “pregnant women” with “pregnant people,” etc., we’ll embody every dumb stereotype conservatives believe about liberals. It won’t be solely wingnuts and TERFs who see it that way because insisting on that language at all times is, quite literally, erasing women from the conversation. And that brings us to the identity issue.
Speaking for myself, being a woman is a core part of my identity. The word is significant to me, and it has evocative associations, including the generations-long and still ongoing struggle to be recognized as “a fully adult human.” At the same time “woman” doesn’t just include people who were born with female reproductive organs and the typical chromosome assortment.
As far as I am concerned, trans women are women. And while the number of people who do not identify as women but are subject to personal physical harm from laws designed to strip women of bodily autonomy is small, I do think it’s important to include them and acknowledge their presence in these conversations.
I think there’s got to be a way to speak of women’s issues without erasing women AND without excluding people who deserve the same protections women deserve, which is everyone who needs them. But how?
Newspaper articles that are giving factual information on reproductive health, etc., are starting to replace “pregnant women” with “pregnant people.” This recent Tampa Bay Times article on Florida’s new restrictions on abortion is an example. I confess I find it a bit jarring still, but I’m an old fart, and I will get over it. It’s factual information in the public interest, which argues for maximum inclusiveness.
What of other types of writing/speech that touch on what have long been considered “women’s issues,” such as newspaper columns, blog posts, tweets, comments, speeches, etc., that are meant to persuade, protest, excoriate, motivate, commiserate, rabble rouse, etc.? This form tends to touch on the identity aspects of “women’s issues,” so it’s imperative not to erase women from the conversation.
Writers I admire not only for their prose and insights but commitment to equality seem to be using a combination of gendered and non-gendered language in columns about the latest assault on women’s rights. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it because they’re mostly framing it the way I just did, i.e., as an assault on women’s rights.
But the use of nongendered language also implicitly acknowledges that the issues don’t affect only people who identify as women. Examples include Michelle Goldberg and Roxane Gay in recent NYT columns about the end of Roe (links here and here). Is that inclusive enough? I don’t know, but I’m going to try to follow their example.
Anyhoo, I am interested in what y’all think about this issue. I don’t think it’s trivial. I’m also pretty sure someone somewhere has already addressed it in a way that is miles more creative, compassionate and coherent than I just did. Maybe someone will link to that in comments.
*The day the Alito draft leaked, I tweeted a preemptive “go fuck yourself” to anyone who would pick that day to dunk on RBG for not retiring during Obama’s term. I’d like to extend that indefinitely. I mean, go ahead, knock yourself out if you want to piss on a beloved feminist icon’s grave, but please know that you’re not making an original point and that most of the people you hope to rile up with your comments even agree with you; we just think you’re being a dick about it.
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