‘Inclusive’ Language by ‘Progressives’ Undermines Fight for Women’s Rights
The Supreme Court appears on the verge of overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that established the federal right of women to choose abortion. Many states are poised to join Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma in criminalizing virtually all abortions. Millions see that these dangerous attacks are aimed at a woman’s right to control her own body. Yet some leading organizations that defend the right to choose abortion now explicitly decline to defend women’s rights.
For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently wrote: “Abortion bans disproportionately harm: Black Indigenous and other people of color. The L.G.B.T.Q. community. Immigrants. Young people. Those working to make ends meet. People with disabilities. Protecting abortion access is an urgent matter of racial and economic justice.”
In a front-page article in the June 8 New York Times, Michael Powell observed: “This tweet encompassed so much and so many and yet neglected to mention a relevant demographic: women.”
The ACLU did not “neglect” to mention women. It chose not to do so. It has in fact excluded women from those affected by the attacks on abortion rights. The ACLU is not alone in this utterly wrong — and absurd — approach.
“From Planned Parenthood to NARAL Pro-Choice America to the American Medical Association to city and state health departments and younger activists, the word ‘women’ has in a matter of a few years appeared far less in talk of abortion and pregnancy,” Powell wrote.
The article continued: “Progressive groups and medical organizations have adopted inclusive language, which has led to terms like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘chestfeeding’ ” [emphasis added].
Why? Powell explained: “Driven by allies and activists for transgender people, an array of medical, government and progressive organizations have adopted gender-neutral language that draws few distinctions between women and transgender men, as well as those who reject those identities altogether.”
‘This is about women and our rights’
This approach undermines and weakens the fight for the right to choose abortion and all women’s rights. It is impossible to mount the struggle needed to defend those rights and for women’s full emancipation if the very concept of “women” is now considered “politically incorrect” and thus abandoned.
Ti-Grace Atkinson, a leading figure in the rise of the feminist movement over 50 years ago, told Powell, “I want to see material change. Taking away our reproductive rights is going to sharpen the battle. This is about women and our rights; it’s not a language game.”
Powell also cited Dr. Sara Dahlen’s editorial in a British medical journal:
“If the aim is to maximize respect for every person’s sense of self, it must follow that female patients who simply understand themselves as women cannot either be expected to ‘go along silently with language in which they do not exist,’ ” Dahlen said. “Retaining scientific terminology specific to biological sex and human reproduction is vital: how else are we to speak of differences between females and males?” (The full editorial can be read here.)
Another influential figure in the early years of the women’s liberation movement was the Marxist scholar and Socialist Workers Party leader Evelyn Reed, author of the landmark work Woman’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. In a 1970 article Reed explained why women constitute an oppressed sex in society today. (Her article, Women: Caste, Class or Oppressed Sex, can be found here.)
In 1971 Reed published Is Biology Women’s Destiny? where she explained:
“It is obvious that females are biologically different from males in that only the female sex possesses the organs and functions of maternity [emphasis added]. But it is not true that nature is responsible for the oppression of women; such degradation is exclusively the result of manmade institutions and laws in class-divided patriarchal society. It did not exist in primitive classless society, and it does not exist in the animal world.”
The essential political concept that women today are an oppressed sex, and that the struggle to end that oppression is a crucial aspect of any meaningful perspective to change society, is lost if we no longer refer to the roughly 50% of humanity that is born biologically female: women. This is not progressive in any way. It is the opposite.
Reject exclusion of women in name of political correctness
This new approach by the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and others is a political choice that should be soundly rejected. The rights of those who identify as transgender or have other views on gender identity are not threatened by the acknowledgment that women exist and that the attack on abortion rights is fundamentally an attack on women’s right to control their own bodies.
Powell reports that Atkinson is “wearied by battles over gender and language, which she said are pushed by transgender activists and eager progressives and no less eagerly opposed by right-wing politicians. It is distant from the urgent needs of women, who make up 50.8 percent of the population.”
The attacks on abortion rights do hurt others who are not women. The restriction of any democratic right is a threat to all democratic rights. But it defies reality to refuse to recognize that women are the primary targets of the drive to restrict or deny abortion rights. Without the possibility to control their own bodies — a right men take for granted — women’s equality and emancipation are impossible.
In response to the argument that abortion is not mentioned in the U.S. constitution, many fighters for women’s rights have countered that women are not mentioned in the constitution. It is both ironic and deeply mistaken for “progressives” to make the same choice today, when women’s rights are under the sharpest attack in decades.
Women may not exist in the U.S. constitution. But women do exist in the real world. They make up roughly half of humanity. They constitute an oppressed sex. That oppression has been falsely rationalized on the basis of biology. But the facts of biology — which are also real — do not justify that oppression. Women’s rights supporters must be able to explain all of this clearly without being slandered, as many have been, as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and accused of bigotry towards those who choose to identify as other than their biological sex.
The struggle for women’s liberation is essential for humanity’s emancipation from the evils of class society and all forms of oppression in today’s world. We should embrace it, not mask it or deny it with obscure and demeaning terms.
Categories: Editorials, Women's Rights
Thanks for a much-needed contribution to the discussion; I have only one quibble with the headline… I think the use of the term “progressives” (even in quotations) is confusing and unnecessary. “‘Inclusive’ language undermines the fight for women’s rights” would have been sufficient. The term “progressive” is introduced in the NYT piece quoted above, so your use of the term later in making the point that this trend is not in the least bit progressive, and in fact is an obstacle to progress, makes it clear that the term is not of your own choosing.
Yvonne, thank you very much for your feedback!
The editing of the subhead you suggested, “‘Inclusive’ language undermines the fight for women’s rights”, would have been better because it makes the headline shorter and punchier, while the main political point remains.
Having said that, I’m not convinced the term “progressives” should not be used in quotes, even in a headline; it is used widely by many organizations as a self description — from the Democratic Socialists of America and others in the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party to a number of others on the US left.
The term is taken from the self description of these groups, which is repeated as a factual statement by the New York Times and other big-business media. The quotes around the word mean that World-Outlook does not share the view that the course of action of these groups, self-described as “progressive,” has any progressive meaning for the working class and its allies, as the editorial explains.
Given the “TERF-baiting” that is so widespread on the left today, putting “progressive” inside quotation marks makes sense. Because it is widely believed — again on the left but broadly speaking including the traditional organizations that have defended abortion rights — that unless one adapts to this language one is not progressive at all. The term “progressive” here should be understood in a more standard definition — as in the steady forward progress of humanity.
I do understand your point that a number of World-Outlook readers not schooled in copy-editing may miss the meaning of the quotation marks around the word “progressive” in a headline. Good copy editing catch. Perhaps you can lend us a hand in copy editing in the future!
Argiris Malapanis for the editors of World-Outlook