Using Inclusive Language Doesn't Erase Women
There are not two sides to this issue
This is the mid-week issue of Men Yell at Me a newsletter about politics and personhood in the Midwest. Subscribing to this newsletter helps me do the work I do and supports independent media in the Midwest.
In 2019, while going through edits on my second book, Belabored, I had a call with the editor. In the call, we discussed changing the organization of the book and my use of the word “mother.”
“Let’s make this book more inclusive,” she urged me. “As you go through, make sure when you use a gendered term that it fits the content. And try to be more inclusive where you can be.”
As we went through the book, we did just that. This use of inclusive language is probably the thing I’m asked about the most at book events—both people questioning my choice to do it and others asking if I did it. And I always say, I did, because it’s a conversation we need to have. If I can crack a door open in a conversation and let another person in, why wouldn’t I? That said, it was an imperfect effort, and I wish I could do it all over again. Because the point of the book is that who and what a mother is is heavily policed. Incarcerated parents, Black parents, Indigenous parents, fat parents, queer parents, all parents at some point find themselves trapped by American cultural norms, laws, and institutions of heath care. A white mother letting her kids walk home alone is letting them practice independence. A Black mother letting her kids play alone at the park is negligent. A queer mother telling their children about their gender identity is a threat. A cis-gendered mother putting a “future heartbreaker” onesie on her son is being cute. Even the thin white moms on TikTok performing the cultural ideal of motherhood find themselves policed for being too thin, too vain, for naming their kid Hadley or showing midriff.
There is no performance of womanhood, no aspect of giving birth, that isn’t policed and that’s not an accident.
This week, the New York Times columnist Pamela Paul wrote an op-ed claiming that both the Republicans who oppose abortion and liberal activists who use gender inclusive language are erasing women. It was an idiotic both-sidesing of a conversation that doesn’t have both sides. Ending the right to an abortion will kill women. Using inclusive language just acknowledges that trans people exist. It’s a logistical leap to conclude that if it appears on the New York Times opinion page that this is a line of reasoning that people are actually considering.
But Paul, who has clearly never spoken to a liberal activist in her life, isn’t the only one making this argument. The New York Times has written about this manufactured war on women, high-profile celebrities like Bette Midler and J.K. Rowling have also made this argument. I even heard it repeated by an award-winning journalist when we went on a date back in March.
But it’s a fake controversy. A ginned-up outrage. There is no both sides to this. The only people easing women are the people legislating them out of existence. On the day the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, I went to a protest. At the protest, I said that the fight was about “women’s rights.” A person shouted “human rights.” I thanked them and corrected myself. The fight was about human rights. That was it. No one was mad. No one got hurt. At the end of the protest, I saw a man in a truck plow through protesters and injure two women. There is a fundamental difference between asking someone to say “human” and hitting people with a truck. The difference is that inclusive language brings people into the conversation and ending abortion condemns them to death.
In her newsletter, author Kate Manne pointed out that these arguments about inclusive language create a strawman to draw outrage.
Both the anti-choice and anti-trans movements then conjure up a convenient victim to explain their moral hostility to women in both camps. Both the aborted fetus and the cis woman imagined to be victimized by trans women in restrooms are convenient parties to defend, since they are both non-existent people—the fetus being non-sentient until at least the third trimester, and the imagined cis woman victim in question being a figment of the collective conservative imagination.
We only protect the fictional woman and the fictional child. The actual woman, the actual human, the actual child is discarded in the debate.
Contributing to the marginalization of other people will not make you more free, all it does is undermine the very foundations upon which our freedoms rest.
Let me be clear, the fight for bodily autonomy is intersectional. The right to exist as a woman, as a human, as a queer person in the way we wish to exist is all the same fight.
It’s no accident that attacks on trans people preceded the overturning of Roe. It’s no accident that the Dobbs decision mentioned overturning Obergefell v. Hodges. It’s no accident that the undermining of trans people to access life-saving surgery is being undermined while the right to an abortion is being revoked. These are all the same attack.
The thing women like Midler and Paul don’t understand is that no amount of heteronormativity will protect you from misogyny. They’re cutting off the very branch of the tree they are sitting on. You cannot be a good enough woman, a good enough mother, a good enough human to earn your equality. Contributing to the marginalization of other people will not make you more free, all it does is undermine the very foundations upon which our freedoms rest. As Audre Lorde said in 1981:
...if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.
If trans people are not free, cis-gendered women are not free.
Always read Parker Molloy.
Moira Donegan wrote about the *real* silencing of women.
Melissa Gira Grant also had a great essay on this same topic.
And she did this thread.
Michael Hobbes also had a good thread.
Mae Martin posted in their insta stories about being non-binary and the use of inclusive language, noting: “The use of inclusive language when talking about abortion rights meant that I – with all my shared experience and shared threat of pregnancy as I also sleep with cis men – can participate and be acknowledged in the conversation and fight alongside women.”