The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can the women’s movement be as effective without the word ‘women’?

Abortion rights advocates demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington on May 4. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
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If you were raised on 1970s feminism, as I was, the linguistic shift toward phrases such as “birthing people” and “uterus havers” has been a bit jarring. We grew up on “women’s liberation,” “women’s issues” and “women’s rights”; now, suddenly, those issues and rights seem to belong to select bits of our anatomy.

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

In 1987, the National Women’s Law Center called the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court “a particular threat to women” because of his lack of deference to precedents such as Roe. Today, with Roe actually in danger, the organization warns that any justice who signs on to the leaked opinion “is fueling the harm and violence that will happen to people who become pregnant in this country.”

Nor is it alone in blurring the old focus on women; an official from Planned Parenthood 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 is hard to fault more inclusive language, of course — but it is also impossible not to wonder whether “people who become pregnant” constitutes the same kind of effective political coalition that “women” did.

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Historically, the “women’s movement” was mobilized around what sociologists call a “thick” identity. Womanhood influenced almost every aspect of your life, from the biology of menstruation and childbirth, to how you dressed and acted, to your social roles: daughter, sister, mother, girlfriend and wife. To speak of being a woman was to speak of all those things at once, and many more I haven’t mentioned. Though, of course, many women missed one or more of those core experiences, all had gone through enough of them to forge a powerful common bond, which translated into some pretty 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 on prostate cancer. In fact, it 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 a lot of the political advances women have made over the past 50 years. There is no political identity organized around having a colon because everyone has one; it’s not special to any group. But breasts belonged to women, and women were already organized to fight for their interests.

Now, however, the women’s movement seems to be unbraiding that identity. What used to be called “women’s health” is now for “individuals with a cervix,” media outlets (including this one) write about the threat to Roe and “pregnant individuals,” up-to-date midwives talk of “birthing people” and “chestfeeding,” and “women’s swimming” can now cover both those born with male bodies who identify as women and those born with female bodies who identify as men.

This shift has been controversial on the right, but seems to have engendered little discussion on the left about how it might affect future political organizing and other efforts once tightly tied to womanhood. This seems like a particularly pressing question on the cusp of Roe’s possible demise, when supporters of abortion rights are hoping to sway the results — or at worst, sway the state legislatures that will be crafting new abortion laws — by mobilizing a strong political response.

I wonder, for example, whether it won’t be harder to get “individuals with a cervix” to turn up for a Pap smear than it was to get them to turn out for a “women’s health exam.” I also suspect that it will be harder to rally those cervixes for funding and resources than it was to rally women for “women’s health” … or for breast cancer research … or for abortion rights.

The hardcore activists will endure, of course; if you’ve devoted your life to a cause, you don’t stop because of a change in terminology. But any political coalition must augment its dedicated core with a much larger number of weaker adherents. That’s why thick identities such as “woman” are so valuable; you don’t need to get people to think about themselves in terms of their cervixes. You just have to point out that some issue puts women at a singular disadvantage.

So in reducing women to their constituent body parts, or to discrete activities such as birthing, we may also reduce their political power to something closer to that of “people with colons.” Dignity and inclusion may be worth that sacrifice. But such a momentous decision should probably not be made without extensive debate, and a full understanding of what we’re giving up when we choose to write women out of the discussion.