What’s in a Word?

Feminists have always quite rightly paid a lot of attention to language. Sheila Rowbottom said over forty years ago “language conveys a certain power. It is one of the instruments of domination”. I am old enough to remember how hard it was to get Ms acknowledged as a title so that women did not have to be categorised as married or single on every form. It was considered an extreme demand by feminists at the beginning and many women themselves would say, well I don’t mind, it isn’t that important etc. But it was important because for centuries, all of history to be exact, women have had no power to name themselves. As Mary Daly said ‘Women have had the power of naming taken from them’. Insisting on the inclusion of Ms in titles was a reflection of women finding their voice and making it heard. Lots of people didn’t like it.

Women are relative newcomers to the public sphere, and public discourse has been developed over the years by men and for men. Disrupting it and adding the ‘feminine’ or even changing words has proved extremely hard and meets with resistance. Minority groups have had similar struggles naming themselves instead of being named… so until thirty years ago people with cerebral palsy were known as spastics, people with disability were known as handicapped etc. etc.

Women in the business world still have to speak in a business language full of sports, wars and sex metaphors. They may jar but if you do not used them you will not communicate what you need to say. Many nouns that derive from verbs have ‘man’ at the end and even today many dislike adding woman instead e.g. salesman/saleswoman saying it sounds odd and artificial… more like an add-on than a different word. There has been a huge resistance to changing familiar words, rather like Anglicans wanting the King James version of the Bible to remain in church services and not the NIV. But listen to the radio or watch television and you will hear many more additions of woman to nouns as women’s role in public life is acknowledged more. Women’s ability to name themselves and their activities is still in its infancy.

Minorities and by minority I mean either numerically or those with fewer resources than the dominant group (like women) do not determine the dominant discourse. Feminists and male supporters of feminism may influence it, and this is what has been happening. So it is fairly extraordinary that a numerically tiny minority have been able to secure the erasure of female words with the majority of powerful dominant group standing by and allowing this without comment. Two things are going on here. One, the group is tiny numerically but powerful with regard to resources. On their side they also wear the badge of ‘most discriminated group’ which gives ‘liberals’ or those wanting to appear liberal permission to champion and accommodate their demands despite these being in tension with women’s rights including women’s rights to define themselves. Secondly and perhaps more disappointedly one wonders whether the male dominated establishment including liberal males are permitting this erasure as part of a backlash against women’s rights without it appearing to be so.

This is the context in which we need to regard the concern women are having about the removal of the word woman from public discourse. In order to appease a tiny but vocal and active group, organisations, including the government, are replacing the word woman without any consideration over the impact this may have on half the population. The word men and man seems to have been retained.

It is worth watching this video of the conversation that Julia Hartley-Brewer has with activist Laura Coryton on YouTube as these exchanges do not happen very often. You realise quickly why they don’t because the activist’s insistence that biological men are women and biological women are men and therefore men can have periods sounds so ridiculous. Better to fend off any debate with cries of ‘transphobia’ which is why there has been no debate. The activists and increasingly our organisations are no longer using the word woman and man to mean biological sex but indeed some ill-defined identity. Women’s ability to define themselves has been hijacked.

The word women has been replaced in certain medical notices and replaced with obscure descriptive nouns like menstruaters, and cervix holders so that ‘trans men’ can be included. This is biologically confusing and incorrect. The British Medical Association sent out guidance suggesting that practitioners do not use the word expectant mothers as it might offend trans people. A group of lesbians with teeshirts with ‘lesbians are women’ were refused service at the National Theatre last year as they were deemed offensive. Organisations are now making up new words like Womxn( the most recent being Oxfam) in a bid to be inclusive, whilst excluding women.

The feminist project is based on a common understanding of the word ‘woman’. Woman is a biological sex category and their rights are given to them on that understanding. Trans people are just that, trans, and may well live their life socially as women or men. Some activists’ insistence on re defining woman as a social identity is offensive to women as is the insistence that women are themselves a sub category of women, cis women. Surely it is not too much to ask that women retain the right to define themselves. Language is not fixed and can change by use therefore it is imperative that we continue to use the word woman as we, women, want to use it.

Jean Bethke Elshtain ‘Feminist Discourse and Its Discontents: Language, Power, and Meaning’ in
Signs Vol. 7, No. 3, Feminist Theory (Spring, 1982), pp. 603-621
Dale Spender 1981 Man Made Language. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Made-Language-Dale-Spender/dp/0863584012