War of words risks wiping women from our language Janice Turner in The Times 22.01.21
A fortnight before President Biden took office, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that “mother”, “father”, “daughter”, “brother” and other gendered words to describe familial relationships would be removed from House rules. Henceforth in official documents they would be replaced by the gender-neutral terms “parent”, “child” or “sibling”. The purpose of this was to “honour all gender identities”.
Then, within hours of his inauguration, the president’s first executive order decreed that his administration would fully apply the Supreme Court’s Bostock ruling that denying rights “‘because of … sex’ covers discrimination on the basis of gender identity” too. That this finally gives American trans people the same protections long enjoyed in Britain, for example from workplace discrimination, reversing President Trump’s disgraceful ban on trans military personnel, should be celebrated.
But this order has far wider consequences. In a stroke of the pen, with zero debate or legislative scrutiny, biological sex as a discrete political and legal concept has gone. US women’s prisons, publicly funded domestic violence refuges and college sporting contests can no longer deny entry to any male-born person who identifies as a woman.
Words matter. When words are removed, when their definitions are changed or conflated, concepts vanish. In George Orwell’s 1984 the Ministry of Truth wipes words from the state’s lexicon because “a heretical thought … should be literally unthinkable at least so far as thought is dependent upon words”. A raging debate over the definitions of “gender” and “sex” may sound dry, pedantic, obsessive or arcane. Yet in this war of words rests the very future of women’s rights.
Last month the Scottish parliament held an emotional debate over a six-word amendment to the Forensic Medical Services Bill. The draft legislation stated that a rape victim should be allowed to choose the “gender” of the medic performing their intimate, post-assault examination. When feminist MSPs argued that this was ambiguous and the word required here was “sex”, the Scottish government argued that since “sex” and “gender” are now used so interchangeably this didn’t matter.
In fact “sex” (whether someone is biologically male or female), unlike “gender” (here meaning an internal sense of self), is a protected characteristic under UK equality law and single-sex services are permitted as “a proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim” which should surely include protecting rape victims from further distress. “If members do not agree that women survivors of violence and rape should be able to ask for a woman examiner,” said Labour MSP Johann Lamont, “they should say so, and we can have that debate.” At this Nicola Sturgeon demurred and “for the word gender substitute sex” was added to the bill.
That these two words are constantly conflated is not an accidental linguistic slippage but part of a deliberate decades-long push by trans rights groups to erase biological sex from language and law. This gathered pace in 2007 when international human rights experts convening in Indonesia issued a document called the Yogyakarta Principles. Along with vital human rights protections for gay men and lesbians, it asserted there was no difference between “gender identity” and sex. This theory has trickled down via bodies like Amnesty or the United Nations into government departments, then with deliberate stealth — to avoid scrutiny of its myriad implications — into the legal framework of nations such as Canada, Malta and Ireland.
If sex and gender identity are the same, a male person does not just have the human right to live as a woman free from violence and discrimination, or be granted social and legal recognition as a woman. (Which most feminists wholeheartedly support.) What is now claimed is that such a male is biologically female. From this bizarre science-denial stem many absurdities: a penis is not necessarily a male organ, therefore a teenage male who identifies as a girl cannot be denied entry to female showers because, regardless of physical appearance, they are also “female”.
The problem for the world’s women is that biological sex is not some abstract idea or inner feeling. From menstruation to menopause, pregnancy to birth, abortion to rape, it is a vivid reality. That women’s oppression is “on the basis of sex” is why generations of feminists sought legislation for sex-based rights such as maternity leave and single-sex spaces such as rape crisis centres. In India, activists demand toilets for girls who are sexually assaulted while defecating in fields. Child brides in Afghanistan or female genital mutilation (FGM) victims in Somalia do not suffer because of a nebulous inner identity but the immutable sex of their bodies.
Yet now the concept of womanhood has been untethered from biology under gender-neutral edicts — as espoused by Pelosi — we are increasingly forbidden to describe the reality of our own lives. The very brands, charities or support groups created for women are tongue-tied. Tampon manufacturers now call customers “menstruators” or “bleeders”. Female cancer charities speak of “everyone with a cervix” even if such obscure usage might reduce already low take-up for lifesaving smears. The breastfeeding group La Leche League tweeted its support for “all human milk feeding families”. An NHS sexual health clinic writes of “people with vaginas”.
Most problematic of all, it seems, is the word “mother”. To delete it from usage, as under House rules, is not merely to erase a unique bond and specific female experience which “parent” comes nowhere near to describing, but how then can you address maternal health or maternal mortality? Yet a male NHS gynaecologist tweets about “labouring people”, as if he means toilers on building sites. A female health charity speaks of “black birthing bodies”, a term for BAME women so dehumanising it evokes the word “breeders” used of fertile female slaves. Even Sands, which supports those bereaved by stillbirth and neonatal death, referred to “birthing parents”: on top of losing a baby, women were denied even motherhood itself.
This “inclusive language” is necessary, we are told, because it includes trans men. No matter that it erases the beloved, even sacred words of 99 per cent of those to whom it applies. Even a compromise, perhaps referring to “women and trans men” rather than the insulting “menstruators” is usually rejected. Because in this context “women” does not include trans women, who do not have periods and are the chief driver of this linguistic erasure. Before the first Women’s March, which sprang from fears that President Trump would destroy US abortion rights, trans activist Munroe Bergdorf tweeted that to “centre reproductive systems” at the demonstration was “reductive and exclusionary”. Even feminism should not focus on female concerns.
This also explains why men’s charities and health bodies are under no equivalent pressure to refer to “testicle-havers” or “ejaculators”. Trans women have, understandably, no wish to be reminded of their male biology. So a recent Prostate Cancer UK billboard read: “Black man over 45? You have an increased risk of prostate cancer”, ending with the reassurance “Men, we are with you.” The first six paragraphs of NHS guidance on prostate screening uses “men/man” nine times; the first nine paragraphs on cervical screening uses “women” once with a caveat about trans men. Men are still men: women are now merely persons.
Terminology which erases women’s material reality is not only degrading but impairs our ability to protect existing rights. “A woman’s right to choose,” was a powerful 1970s slogan in the battle for legal abortion. Yet in October when Polish women marched against their government’s virtual banning of abortion, Amnesty International produced a baffling poster saying: “I stand with people in Poland.” But which people? The right-wing populist politicians? The Catholic clerics? Hog-tied by biological denial, Amnesty could not bring itself to utter the name of those who risk bleeding to death in the backstreet clinics of Gdansk: women. Moreover if reproductive rights are no longer women’s rights but “people’s rights”, “a woman’s right to choose” dissolves. It follows that “people” should determine the outcome of a pregnancy, including men.
Even campaigners against FGM are now accused of transphobia because under gender-neutral ideology the clitoris, which is sliced off little girls, cannot be categorised as an exclusively female organ. As the anti FGM-campaigner Nimco Ali tells me, “the idea womanhood doesn’t exist impacts the most vulnerable women in the world, and these happen to be women of colour”. Or as JK Rowling put it in a tweet which began her vilification across the globe: “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.”
Bleeder, labourer, ovary-haver, birthing parent … is the entity which performs these disparate functions even fully human? Already the globally expanding commercial surrogacy industry strives to erase the inconvenient existence of a sentient woman in the lucrative business of commodifying wombs to make babies. Instead of “pregnancy” its advocates speak of a “surrogacy journey”; “birth mother” is replaced by “gestational carrier”. When drawing up Britain’s ethical guidelines on surrogacy, the late Mary Warnock said empathy as a mother led her to insert safeguards for surrogates against exploitation. But does a “gestational carrier”, a mere vessel, have rights or even feelings?
Announcing the erasure of words like “mother”, Pelosi declared that gender-neutral language is “future focused”. Increasingly feminists are told that biological sex is boring, outdated and reductive while “gender identity” is modern and progressive. Except in her book Invisible Women Caroline Criado-Perez notes how much of the world is predicated upon a default male. From seatbelts designed for men’s larger bodies, making women more at risk in car accidents, to health guidance on heart attacks which underplays differing female symptoms, sex impacts on our lives. Gender-neutral speech doesn’t make biology go away: it just removes the analytical tools to understand and address it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in government data. Scotland’s chief statistician has declared that in most cases “data should be collected on the basis of gender identity rather than sex”. Protests from academics that this would render government data worthless have been wafted away as fussing about something statistically insignificant: only a small number of people would record a different gender identity to their sex.
This week it was announced that the number of women committing sexual crimes against children has almost doubled, from 1.5 to 3 per cent of total cases, between 2015 and 2019. Is this true? Are more child victims of female assaults coming forward? Have historic female offending patterns suddenly changed? In fact, we have no way of knowing because since around 2015 individual police forces, indeed individual officers, have in the absence of clear Home Office guidance decided to record sexual offenders by gender identity not sex. (Even when the crime is rape, which under English law always involves a penis.) Only through freedom of information requests do we know that around 38 per cent of women in prison for sexual offences are trans women. Could this explain changes to child-sex offending rates too?
Selina Soule, 17, says the inclusion of trans athletes in US high school sport is discriminatory and is taking her case to court
Thankfully in Britain the 2010 Equality Act protects people from discrimination both on the basis of “gender transition” and sex. (Although LGBT groups like Stonewall lobby corporations and even government departments to illegally disregard the latter.) It is a profound shame that President Biden did not also seek to enshrine both characteristics in US law rather than simply conflate gender identity with sex. There was no question that US trans people, indeed lesbians and gay men too, were profoundly vulnerable in ways now thankfully unimaginable here.
Obliterating biological sex will not help their cause. Already in US high schools female athletes are forced to compete against teenage males who identify as girls. In Connecticut, two trans athletes have dominated track events, breaking girls’ state records, denying female competitors qualification to higher contests. These include Selina Soule, 17, who plans to take her discrimination case to the Supreme Court. What do activists tell such girls? That they must try harder or just suck up their defeat.
Yet a cattle farmer in rural Montana or a New Jersey wrestling fan knows that males have physical advantages over females. No semantic shifts, no cancelling of words, can change what ordinary people see: to them activists who deny biology sound like flat-earthers, while trans women athletes look like cheats. The liberal insistence on placing every male criminal who identifies as a woman — including murderers, rapists and domestic abusers — in female jails looks cruel and even deranged. A backlash can only build.
There is no need for this rancorous divide between trans activists and feminists. Yet peace depends upon an agreement that sex exists, that in certain limited circumstances it overrides gender, and that language to describe biological reality is valid.
For trans people, navigating a society which often diminishes and misunderstands them, it is natural to have minted neologisms to describe their experiences, such as trans men who become parents referring to “chest feeding”. But gender-neutral terms should not replace the words women need to describe their own lives and uphold their rights in public discourse.
“People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances,” said the American writer James Baldwin, “or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. And if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.”