WASHINGTON — If you were raised on 1970s feminism, like me, the linguistic shift to phrases like “people giving birth” and “having wombs” has been a little shocking. We grew up on ‘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 released a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. 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 deference to precedents such as Roe. Today, with Roe at risk, the organization warns that any judge who signs the leaked notice is ‘fuelling 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; a Planned Parenthood official in California, along with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, were among those who 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 nearly every aspect of your life, from the biology of menstruation and childbirth, to how 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 one or more of these fundamental experiences, all had experienced enough of them to forge a powerful common bond, which translated into quite powerful political impacts.
Take medical research: Breast cancer kills about 42,000 American women every year, while prostate cancer kills about 31,000 men. But the National Cancer Institute spends more than twice as much on breast cancer as it does on prostate cancer. In fact, it spends more money on breast cancer than on lung, pancreatic or colorectal cancer, each of these cancers claiming 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 about ‘individuals with a cervix’, the media (including this one) write about the threat to Roe and ‘pregnant people’ , up-to-date midwives talk about “people giving birth” and “women’s breastfeeding” and “swimming” can now cover both people born with male bodies who identify as women and those 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 endeavors once closely tied to femininity. This seems to be an especially pressing issue on the eve of Roe’s possible demise, when abortion-rights proponents hope to sway the outcome — or at worst, sway state legislatures that will craft new abortion laws. abortion – by mobilizing a strong political force. answer.
I wonder, for example, if it will not be more difficult to bring in “people with a cervix” for a Pap test than to bring them in for a “women’s health examination”. I also suspect that it will be more difficult to rally these cervixes for funding and resources than it has been to rally women for “women’s health.” . . or for breast cancer research. . . or for the right to abortion.
The die-hard activists will endure, of course; 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.
Megan McArdle is a Washington Post columnist and author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success”.