Mar 16, 2018

What's in a word? Why I don't care and neither should you

Last night I attended an excellent panel discussion organised by the redoubtable Woman’s Place UK, on the subject of the proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow for legal sex changes to be certified by the state on the basis of self-certification or, also known as self-declaration. Self-certification is being demanded by (some) transgender rights organisations as a replacement for the current system of medical diagnosis and social transition followed by approval by a special government panel. I oppose these changes, but will not rehash my objections to them here. The WAPOW submission to the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee Transgender Inquiry is still a relevant and useful resource to understand some of these objections.

The atmosphere in Birmingham last night was collegiate, inclusive, and for the most part optimistic, which made me really happy. There was, however, disagreement, not among the panel funnily enough, but between the panel and the audience, about a point made by the first speaker, Dr. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, about the importance – or as you shall see, lack thereof – of the focus on the term “woman” and the question of who is and is not a “real” woman. This is a question that exercises both feminists and trans thinkers, and views range from the patently circular “a woman is anyone who says they are a woman, therefore anyone who says they are a woman is a real woman” to the more intuitively compelling but nevertheless unsatisfactory “a woman is an adult human female and an adult human female only”. I understand from reports on social media and from friends who attended that a feminist event held the previous night in Parliament to discuss similar issues took the latter claim very seriously, and that strong points were made in support of the position that we must never relinquish our identity to activists seeking to colonise the language of womanhood. It’s a very live topic, in other words.

I was one of what seemed like a minority in the room to agree with Rebecca that the preoccupation with this issue of terminology is a tactical mistake; furthermore I believe that is a political irrelevance. Given that this is such an important issue for many of my sisters, I thought I ought to set out my arguments in support of this view. To wit, my conviction rests on two pillars:


The critical underlying contention of anti-feminist and anti-woman thinking is not that women aren’t really female or biology is not a thing or that penis can be non-male: it is that women do not have a coherent existence as a political class. This contention is age old and absolutely not an innovation of the trans debate. As Gerda Lerner points out in her seminal The Creation of Patriarchy, one of the main deprivations inflicted upon women by patriarchy is the denial of history: not only is the telling of human history monopolised by men and the cast of characters largely male, but women are seen as not having any intergenerational continuity that could be woven together into a history in the first place. We are cast as material, fleshy, and of the here and now. The illusion of the “naturalness” of the reproductive function to which women have been forcibly limited is maintained, among other things, by the insistence on the fact that there is no shared womanity that is intergenerational, heritable, collective and narrative.

A group without a shared history has no shared identity, and no ability to organise as a class. The denial of history serves a deprivation of politics: it shrinks women’s concerns to the personal, the domestic and the individual. There is a reason why two concepts were keystones of the 1960’s women liberation movement: “the personal is political” and “women are a sex class”. Those women understood extremely well that the first and most important obstacle to overcome when fighting for our rights and liberation is the one that says there is no “we” and therefore no “our”. What had been cast as the narrow personal concerns of atomised individuals is in fact a large scale political injustice against a recognisable class. The fact that this insight was both contested and incompletely inherited by future generations of activists is substantially responsible for the parlous state we now find ourselves in, whereby self-styled "feminist" men see our rights and recognition of our humanity as personal favours they can bestow upon individual women rather than a legitimate political demand of a class that makes up half the human race.

Even before the most recent bout of contestation of language and definition we were, I believe, distracted from the critical project of revitalising and strengthening the legitimacy of women as a political constituency with diverse but interlinked demands and needs: safety, dignity, personhood. Now that we are taking this already-diminished momentum into contestation of language, we have fewer resources still to spend on policy-driven demands such as universal childcare, proper operation of the justice system, recognition and support of unpaid labour, the abolition of the sex trade, equal participation in reproductive effort as far as possible by men and so forth. When we are fighting about what we are called, or about what another group is allowed to call itself, our eyes are off the ball and we risk missing (and I think have been overlooking) the danger of having not the descriptive term, but the legitimacy of that critical starting point, the “we”, kicked out from under us. It doesn't matter what anyone calls us; what matters is that we don't lose sight of the fact that there is an "us".


On every step on the ladder of escalating demands from people purporting to represent all trans individuals, there has been an intense contestation about language. It is almost 5 years since I first wrote something against using the term “cis”, and though I still believe it is a degrading and victim blaming insult to women, I think that I was blind at the time to the fact that objecting to it is a distraction activity from the broader threat. “Cis” is now completely mainstream; it’s made it into the style guides of the Guardian and the New Yorker, into government guidelines and court judgements, into handbooks for clinicians and educators. The ship has sailed. But the armada didn’t go home: the next battleground that opened up was about the legitimacy of the word “female” (I am aware that there were additional skirmishes along the way, but do not intend a full history of the language wars here).

Almost none of us had encountered the argument “binary biology is outdated” or “humans have more than one sex, deal with it” before about 2015. It just wasn’t a widespread thing. But when the battle over “cis” was won, from the point of view of certain people whose priority is to encroach upon the political cohesion and sense of solidarity of women, the war continued. Us radfems tried every trick in the book to avoid falling into the holes dug for us when describing women’s bodies: we used “natal women”, then “females”, then “biological females”. Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum usage shifted from “cis women” to “non-men” to “uterus-bearers” and “lactators”. The quicksand of allowable terminology never seemed to have a bottom.

Well, I’m calling it: there is no end game to this arms race. The point of it is not to correct or perfect the English language into some recognised ideal of inclusivity and intersectionality, the point of it is to waste our time and energies on an ever-escalating one-up tournament in which every time we think we’ve found a new word that, will, at last, get us left alone, we get attacked again and have to start over. Some feminists responded to this insight by planting their flag on the word “woman” and not budging: simply refusing to acknowledge any changes in what is considered socially legitimate language, and insisting on the objective truth of the language we used in earlier decades.

I completely understand this approach, and am very sympathetic to it. It is natural to think that, regardless of where one is in a campaign, the original frontier is the one we should never, ever have retreated from. But there’s a practical problem in trying to live by this dictum, because if the enemy is outside the walls of your city, it’s pretty tricky to somehow sneak out and go back to defending the border of your province or country; it’s just not where the war is, and you’ll be fighting shadows. 

More importantly to me, however, is the fact that this particularly idiotic war is not of our choosing. I see us being like WWI soldiers, dying in the trenches for the sake of a few yards of muddy flatland neither side is going to gain anything by possessing. I say (and this of course is where the land war analogy breaks down irreparably, and a good thing too): let them have the bloody Somme. Let’s just walk away from this battlefield we didn’t chose and go back to working on what we need to be working on: thinking and writing about women, our social and medical needs, our subjective experience, our history; lobbying governments, cities, schools, universities and hospitals to institute and enforce policies that are needed to make the material conditions of our lives better; and being in sisterhood with each other across our differences and disagreements. This war was designed from the start to be unwinnable by either side, because its ultimate purpose is not to gain ground but to bog women down in one place to prevent them from attacking more strategic positions.

You will notice, I hope, that such a tactical retreat would by no means impede or slow down the fight against, to pick a current example, the inclusion of self-declaration in any reform of the GRA or against the removal of the single-sex services exemption in the 2010 Equality Act. The vital work of protecting legislation which, as Debbie Hayton convincingly argued last night, is also important for the safety and acceptance of trans people, does not depend on us all agreeing on the terminology we like best, or on policing other people’s use of terminology to describe themselves, however silly or even offensive we find those uses to be.


“Language creates reality” is the natural terrain of postmodernists (#NotAllPostmodernists), queer theorists and dilettantes too idle to reform anything other than what words other people get to use on Twitter. It’s not where radical feminist should be making some desperate last stand. It would make me very sad to see us not manage to move past this business of “who is and isn’t a real woman whatever the hell that even means” to continue our work of creating a world in which the patently real, objectively wonderful, commonsensically recognisable political class Women can flourish and thrive.


  1. So, if we cede territorial rights to the word woman, if we say "fine, call us lactaters, call us uterus bearers", how are we supposed to protect ourselves, when not all women have a uterus, and not all women can lactate? Do we resist "front hole mutilation"?. Do we splinter off into groups to lobby for individual protections for individual concerns, one group for uterus bearers, one group for front hole protection, one group for chest feeders? I suppose in a way that's what we already essentially have, different groups of women working for their particular interest in realities that affect some women, but I'm genuinely interested in how you see us moving forward without a language to at least semi accurately describe ourselves? I mean, I get some of what you are saying, not losing the forest for the trees and all, but I'm not sure i see how what you argue for here pans out in the world in which laws are written with words, and courts uphold verdicts based on verbage...
    How do we have sports teams for only uterus bearers? How do we have locker rooms at the gym for only lactaters? If someone wants to seek out female authors (in the now archaic meaning of female) do they seek out instead uterus and or original vaginal canal and clitori owners section? What are your suggestions?

  2. There isn't anything you can do about it, except work where there is meaning and promise. Meritocracy. That's how you filter out people from the process and the spotlight where they're being inflammatory and drawing away from true social change. If there is hope in anything, there is hope in reason and logic.

    It's not enough to simply gather together under a personal identity to demand change. This isn't working fast enough. We need true social change, the complete overhaul of modern governing systems and with it the patriarchy; we need smart empathic women to run society; and only a rational government made of the most talented would implement that. Studies have shown male stock traders' testosterone causes dangerously risky behaviour in the financial world. Psychopathic politicians seem to have autistically low regard for human life. But only changing the entire system (by first uniting all rational people) would actually achieve grand things in the first place.

    Realistically it's about what individuals can contribute. If your complaint is that a trans person isn't defending the cause enough from a historical context then you have a valid meritocratic complaint; anyone who could do better would be promoted higher under a truly meritocratic political system. Once the world is about true meritocracy, and not an entrenched system of elites/oligarchs and their media tools (The BBC: social progress can be made. Liberation from the megawealthy and their cultural templates (anti-union, pro-corporate values, anti-women, white supremacist) is most important, and any "solution" within that system won't solve all the other global problems either like the environment or healthcare.

    So, the only serious and comprehensive system is meritocracy and social capitalism, with a strong state able to chase rich taxpayers and able to design social improvements using psychology and the scientific method. Meritocrats trust in reason and logic and talent, so they would promote the best among themselves to the top positions. Nothing is more important than getting the system of government right, and it starts with making this clear to as many rational people as possible. Only a serious committed movement for a strong cause would be successful. You can't afford to focus on identity only.

  3. There are actually religious conceptions about the menstrual blood, as a line of creation which has been passed down always from one mother to her daughter(s). In some ancient cultures and movements, women took the lead and never listened to men. Small matriarchal societies still exist today around the world.

    Women aren't weaker, they have different qualities from men and that's natural and it's important society recognizes the benefits, particularly raising a child is a very important job; much more than running a company for profit is. Young men and women need to go through a proper education on respectful behaviour / healthy egos; what healthy relationships should feel and seem like; how casual sex is okay too but to be upfront about it and not use someone. The patriarchal conservative mindset wants to restrain and control women, but that's something which can change as it isn't embedded in masculinity itself or people themselves. The thing about how women tend to take time off from work, too (inequal distribution of time at work) - to care for a family relative or to raise a child - this is systemic anti-maternal bias. (And companies should only be allowed to downrank women on CV websites if it's a highly high-performance job role where it's the nature of the job that they can't get a new hire quickly). Men should babysit too, even as a friend of the couple, but all this is impossible without somehow fundamentally changing society. Society is conflicted; the systems of power are entrenched and it's confusing to look everywhere but find only more issues.