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Reviews | Can the women’s movement be as effective without the word “women”?

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If you were brought up on 1970s feminism, as I was, the linguistic shift to phrases like “people who give birth” and “having wombs” was a bit shocking. We grew up with “women’s liberation”, “women’s issues” and “women’s rights”; now, suddenly, these questions and these rights seem to belong to selected pieces of our anatomy.

The incongruity between the old language and the new became particularly visible this week, after Politico published a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe vs. Wade.

In 1987, the National Women’s Law Center called Robert H. Bork’s Supreme Court nomination a “particular threat to women” because of his lack of respect for precedents such as deer. Today with deer really in danger, the organization warns that any judge who signs the leaked opinion “fuels the evil and violence that will befall people who become pregnant in this country.”

Nor is she alone in blurring the old focus on women; an official from Planned Parenthood in California, as well as Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, were among those that focused on “people” rather than “women.” It’s hard to criticize more inclusive language, of course, but it’s also impossible not to wonder if “people who get pregnant” are the same kind of effective political coalition as “women.”

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Historically, the “women’s movement” has mobilized around what sociologists call a “thick” identity. Womanhood has influenced almost every aspect of your life, from the biology of menstruation and childbirth, to the way you dress and act, to your social roles: daughter, sister, mother, girlfriend and wife. To speak of being a woman was to speak of all these things at the same time, and of many others which I have not mentioned. Although, of course, many women missed out on one or more of these foundational experiences, all of them had enough of them to forge a powerful common bond, which translated into quite powerful political impacts.

Take Medical Research: Breast Cancer Kills approximately 42,000 American women every year, while prostate cancer kills approximately 31,000 men. But the National Cancer Institute spends more than double both breast cancer and prostate cancer. In fact, he spends more money on breast cancer than on lung, pancreatic or colorectal cancer, each of which takes more lives each year than breast cancer.

The relative thickness of female identity explains this, as well as many of the political advances women have made over the past 50 years. There is no political identity organized around a colon because everyone has one; it’s not special to a group. But breasts belonged to women, and women were already organized to defend their interests.

Today, however, the women’s movement seems to be unraveling this identity. What used to be called “women’s health” is now for “people with a cervix”, the media (including this one) write about the threat hanging over deer and “pregnant women”, modern midwives speak of “give birth to people” and “feeding with milkand “female swimming” can now cover both people born with a male body who identify as female and those who born with female bodies that identify as male.

This shift has been controversial on the right, but appears to have generated little discussion on the left about how it might affect future political organizing and other efforts once closely tied to femininity. This seems to be a particularly pressing issue at the dawn of deerwhen abortion-rights supporters hope to sway the outcomes — or at worst, sway state legislatures that will craft new abortion laws — by mobilizing a strong political response.

I wonder, for example, if it will not be more difficult to bring “people with a cervix” for a Pap test than to bring them to a “women’s health examination”. I also suspect that rallying these cervixes for funding and resources will be more difficult than rallying women for “women’s health”…or for breast cancer research…or for the right to abortion.

The hardcore activists will, of course, endure; if you’ve dedicated your life to a cause, you don’t stop because of a change in terminology. But any political coalition must increase its dedicated core with a much larger number of weaker adherents. This is why thick identities such as “woman” are so valuable; you don’t need to get people to think of themselves in terms of their cervix. Suffice it to say that some issues put women at a particular disadvantage.

So, by reducing women to their constituent parts of the body, or to discrete activities such as childbirth, we can also reduce their political power to something closer to that of “people with colons”. Dignity and inclusion can be worth that sacrifice. But such a momentous decision probably shouldn’t be made without a thorough debate and a full understanding of what we’re giving up when we choose to exclude women from the discussion.