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Erasing women

Why make such efforts to avoid using the word “women”?

Artillery Row

​​It’s spot-the-missing word time. “London stands together against hate directed at someone on our transport network because of race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity,” a poster announces at my local Underground station. Other people have seen it elsewhere on the Tube, where it’s evidently supposed to reassure passengers that everyone is welcome and cared for on our friendly, inclusive transport system.

Everyone except…what’s the word I want here? Those people who make up half the population but can’t be mentioned any more, except via euphemisms such as “menstruaters” or “non-men”. The poster goes on to urge anyone who experiences or witnesses a hate crime to report it to a member of staff, but what if it’s directed at trigger warning here a woman? If one of these unmentionable creatures were to report a torrent of abuse, would the Transport for London employee tell the victim it doesn’t count?

Technically that’s correct, in terms of recent legislation at least, which famously doesn’t treat misogyny as a hate crime. I’m not actually a fan of laws against hate, which seem to me to substitute a nebulous concept for actual harms. I’d rather see the police enforcing existing laws against rape, for example but that would require a great deal more work and resources. I’m also sure that feminists who believe in biological sex would be the main targets if misogyny were to become a hate crime, as some misguided MPs are urging. 

The CDC manages to erase women three times in a single sentence

But what are we to make of an ideology that is keener to protect “gender identity” than women? How are we even supposed to know what someone’s gender identity is, unless they have it tattooed on their forehead? Two-spirit? Agender? Neutrois? I was going to say we can all recognise a woman, but then I remembered that we’re now supposed to pretend we don’t have a clue until someone announces their pronouns. On a Zoom call earlier this week, I noticed that two of the participants had typed “she/her” after their names when joining the call. The joke, if I can call it that, was that we were all about to take part in a programme called, ahem, Woman’s Hour. 

The speed with which the category of “woman” is being dismantled is astonishing to behold. Earlier this year, peers had to organise a revolt against the government’s Maternity Bill in order to have the word “person” replaced with “mother” or “expectant mother”. It’s happening in the US as well, where reactionary gender ideology has made even further inroads into the language used by public bodies. Here is a brand new update from the Centers for Disease Control, one of the country’s most respected institutions: “Although the overall risk of severe illness is low, pregnant and recently pregnant people are at higher risk for severe illness from Covid-19 when compared to non-pregnant people.”

The CDC wins this week’s prize for erasing women, managing to do it three times in a single sentence. But I’ve heard something similar on Radio 4 medical programmes recently, including one where the presenter kept talking about people who are unable to breastfeed. Undoubtedly this is a problem for some mothers and there’s no reason for them to feel guilty about it, but why make such efforts to avoid using the word “women”?

Some organisations are so desperate to avoid it that they appear to have forgotten their purpose. The Labour MP Rosie Duffield has been relentlessly bullied for liking a tweet that queried the language of an American cancer charity which referred to women as “cervix-havers”, but she is absolutely right. Cancer prevention is about identifying a possibly fatal disease, not affirming someone’s gender identity. If a charity wants to add that women who identify as men should also get checks, that’s absolutely fine. But replacing “woman” with a clumsy neologism risks failing to reach natal females who aren’t familiar with their bodies and don’t know they have a cervix. Nor have I seen equivalent demands to erase the word “men” from medical advice. “Men, we are with you,” begins a message from Prostate Cancer UK. “Penis-havers”, surely?

Once the category of “women” has been demolished, everything is up for grabs

Now, to top it all, I discover I’ve been ejected from high-level discussions at City Hall about domestic and sexual violence. Eight years ago, I was asked to become Co-chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board, after a group of women’s organisations voted unanimously in my favour. Women wanted me there, to provide an expert independent voice, but now I’ve been sacked. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the scale of violence against women in London has reduced in the meantime. (Spoiler alert: it hasn’t.) Women’s organisations in London weren’t consulted before it happened.

The toxic meaning attached to “woman” is misogyny in its purest form. Dressed up as “progressive”, as though we have finally reached the stage of recognising an historic injustice, it is actually quite the opposite an attempt to shame women into accepting erasure from public discourse. This is something that centuries of patriarchy never quite achieved, perhaps because it didn’t feel the need as long as women were firmly in their place. But once the category of “women” has been demolished, everything is up for grabs and literally anyone can claim to be whatever they feel like. How can we fight for our rights if we’re not even allowed to name ourselves? 

Leaving women off a poster on the London Underground might seem trivial. But it’s evidence of how far gender ideology has penetrated, to use an apt verb. Women are at least as likely to be abused or attacked on public transport as the listed groups, but nobody noticed the omission or didn’t care about it. The kicker is that women in London are paying for it funding our own erasure, in other words. Thanks, TfL, but you owe us a grovelling apology.

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