Woman. Has it become a dirty word? That’s the question that has been raised by Rosie DiMannio of the Toronto Star. Her strong worded opinion piece attempts to make the case that the word ‘woman’ is being erased for the sake of those not born into the gender.
I didn’t know who Rosie DiMannio was until a few short weeks ago, as I doubt did many others who were not regular readers and subscribers of the Toronto Star. But I know who Margret Atwood is, and so do many others. She’s a writer, a feminist, a social thinker and critic. Atwood is a celebrated feminist writer known for works such as The Handmaids Tale (1985), Alias Grace (1996) and The MaddAddam trilogy (2003-13). Until a few short weeks ago she was a woman whose readings had inspired me to see the womans’ view of the world and to think not of the future with lasers and hyperdrives but with dangerous technological strides.
Until a few short weeks ago I wouldn’t have thought Atwood to be a bigot. But now I have my doubts, and I feel I must wonder is the word ‘woman’ truly being erased? Maybe as a man it is not my place to answer, but I feel obligated to find out because this isn’t an attack against the more than blatant sexism and patriarchal rule that exists in our world. It’s an attack against Trans, non-binary, intersex, and gender queer individuals. An attack I feel to be unjust.
This attack began with an article Atwood shared on twitter on the nineteenth of October. The article written by Rosie DiMannio of The Toronto Star is titled ‘Why can’t we say “woman” anymore?’. The response on twitter has been…well, you know what Twitter ’s like, it’s not been a good response nor should it be. The language is suggestively transphobic.
Not a TERF
Attwood has come out in strong defence of DiMannio, insisting the columnist is ‘not a TERF’ and in the days and weeks following has seemingly tried to defend her position whilst maintaining her own identity as a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community. Atwood shared an article by Trans-writer Jessica Triff on the 25th of October, which argues that attacks on the likes of J.K Rowling and Atwood herself are unjust and, to paraphrase, ‘toxic activism’. On September the 1st in a Twitter thread she also re-posted an article by Scientific American on how some humans are ‘biological hybrids on the male-female continuum’ as well as a video which shines a negative light on Rowling’s controversial essay.
So, what does this all amount to? Well, a great deal of miscommunication and misinformation. It also ignites a worthy topic of discussion – is the word ‘woman’ becoming some sort of slur, erased unnecessarily for the appeasement of certain LGBTQ groups?
I don’t think so, but I also believe that DiMannio has constructed a piece that is compelling enough to have convinced the likes of Atwood to view her as a progressive individual. To be crystal clear, my opinion is that DiMannio has constructed a false narrative.
Before I can go into DiMannio’s piece I first have to make clear that I am defending those who identify into a different gender than the typical binary cis-male and female. I say gender specifically because…well, as the famous song lyrics go ‘let’s talk about sex’. What is sex at its very core? Sex as an activity is the act of two humans copulating in a process that can be both pleasurable and when involving cis gendered men and women can result in procreation.
But this isn’t the sex I am going to talk about. Sex, as I am referring to it here, is as it is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) – ‘the biological characteristics that define humans as female or male’. Gender is, as also defined by WHO, ‘the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. Gender identity refers to a person’s deeply felt, internal and individual experience of gender, which may or may not correspond to the person’s physiology or designated sex at birth.’
It’s a weird concept to those of us who grew up learning that there were boys and girls and that was it. But, in fairness, that was never entirely true. In fact, it’s an outright lie, but not one I feel born out of cruelty or malice. Take for example Hermaphrodites whose name derives from Greek myth, who was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite – Hermaphroditus.
Hermaphroditus (boy that’s a long name) was intersex and considered incredibly beautiful and attractive. Hermaphroditus was viewed differently back in good old ancient times – by the open minded Greeks he was worshipped and celebrated for his uniqueness, but by the Romans he was viewed as disorderly and openly mocked through artwork such as depictions of Satyr’s attempted rape of intersex individuals (Fry, 2018).
Depictions and opinions aside, intersexual individuals are evidence that our concept of gender has never been entirely black and white – nor should it be. After all, we now live in a world that encompasses more than just binary. We have individuals who are transgender and those who identify as non-binary, individuals who do not confirm to the notion that sex and gender are one and the same
And again these individuals have not just popped up out of the ground like stray seeds from some foreign forest captured by the winds. Transsexuality has been a subject of discussion since the late nineteenth century, and non-binarism goes as far back as 400 BCE. In India, the idea of a third gender has existed almost as long as the myth of Hermaphrodites known in Hinduism’s own mythology as ‘The Hijra’. Once seen more as representing of eunuchs with asexuality, they are now a symbol for trans and non-binary individuals.
This is proof that there has always been some idea that gender exists on a larger scale than we had, or had been willing, to see. Which is what brings us back to Margaret Atwood. It is fair to say that as much as Atwood writes science fiction, she also depicts science fact. The Handmaids Tale for example is not a true story but based on events that have their origin in modern culture. Similarly, her novels in the MaddAddam trilogy explore the uses of technology that may sound like sci-fi nonsense but are in actuality based in science fact and technologies that have been in the works for decades and becoming more possible with each passing one.
Atwood is not just a writer who looks backwards at the issues we’ve experienced in the past, and probably will experience again, but also to the future and the social-economic-technological issues that may be the doom of human civilisation.
And yet, she’s being labelled as a TERF – a Trans Exclusive Radical Feminist. For those unfamiliar with the term, TERF’s are feminists but not really. They only stick up for women who were born women, viewing those who are transgender as something other and not worthy of being under the same banner or deserving the same protection and support.
J.K Rowling and Dave Chappelle have both in recent years come out publicly as TERFS. Atwood, however, is a much stranger case given her very public history of supporting the trans community. Only last year she put her signature on an open letter of support to the trans communities of the US and Canada.
She’s also come out in defence of Rosie DiMannio’s piece. The article tries to make the case that the word ‘woman’ and other associated words are being forced into extinction for the sake of not offending those who are not cis-gendered women who share certain anatomy
I cannot outright dismiss this article, as there is certaintly some truth in what DiMannio is saying, at least in her argument that the word ‘woman’ has been replaced in government legislation and in the medical field by the word ‘person’.
That the language we use when talking about gender is changing is undoubtedly true. However it’s wrong to take quotes from such feminist icons as Ruth-Bater Ginsberg and replace ‘woman’ with ‘person’ (as that mis-represents history). Yet she stretches her argument at best when she demonises The Lancet for writing an article on the societal views of periods and only using the word woman ‘four times’. As if it wasn’t made clear who the article, written by a woman by the way, is about when it mentions numerous female idols.
DiMannio also alleges that the British Medical Association has asked staff to use ‘pregnant people’ instead of ‘pregnant women’, though reading the actual article she references this is advised in a piece on inclusive language and expresses its intention to use language to support diversity, equal rights and ‘creating an open and inclusive environment’.
The language should be different if the individual giving birth does not identify as a woman, and training doctors and nurses to identify with them for who they are is important. But it’s also only part of how our language has changed.
Let’s take the word ‘woman’ for example. According to Samantha Enslen the word women comes from old English, combining the word ‘wife’ and ‘man’, though she points out ‘that’s not necessarily as descrimatory as it sounds’. In fact, in Old English spoken around the 5th century C.E. the word for woman was ‘wif’ meaning adult female. The word woman actually combined this word with man, which originally just meant ‘a person’. Over time the spelling and pronunciation changed to ‘wimman’ or ‘wommon’ until it eventually became ‘woman’.
Perhaps in the not-so-distant future the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’ will be something along the lines of ‘adult who was born or identifies as female/male human being’. Something I’m sure DiMannio would protest against given her poor satirised opening of changing Aretha Franklin’s song (written by Carole King by the way) to ‘“You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Person with a Vagina.”
Though somehow, I doubt the song’s lyrics will ever be given this sort of edit since equality doesn’t come from changing song lyrics. Social change is inevitable, it’s also a great part of what makes humans human – our achievement of the perfect society is like the DFS sale, never quite done.
‘The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age, may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living, or the dead?’
DiMannio seems to think we can’t say ‘woman.’ But truth is we have to because woman and women who didn’t just say daring things but dared to defy the way of the world are the reason people like my mother were able to have an education, a vote, a shared bank account. Does DiMannio believe that because we now accept that there are those who aren’t women with vaginas and who give birth we will forget the brave heroines of the feminist movements past?
Does she think when equality laws set up to protect women also protect trans and gender-queer individuals we shall forget Emily Wilding Davidson? Does she think Ruth Bader Ginsberg will go down in history as misquoted in an attempt at unity? Does she believe Greta Thunberg will be called by future generations a ‘great person’ and not a ‘great woman’? If so who the hell cares?!
DiMannio, Atwood, Rowling, Chappelle – I do not believe they are bad people. They aren’t beyond redeeming themselves either if they start to realise that just because something makes them uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s out to take away their way of life. Maybe some of them meant well, and I’m sure some of them feel they’re right, but their words and actions have hurt others. An apology goes a long way, being willing to see things from the perspective of those they hurt goes further.
I have said at the beginning of this article that this particular instance with Atwood and DiMannio comes down to misinformation and I’m fairly certain I’ve shown that to be the case. Just because you can cite a source doesn’t mean that you’ve understood what you’re citing. For DiMannio, this was about only seeing red in the rainbow, for Atwood this was a lack of sight to see DiMannio’s words as dangerous – it also doesn’t help that DiMannio has previously been accused of bigotry by sixty former employees of the Toronto Star. Perhaps if Atwood had taken more time researching the writer of the article and less time blindly defending it she would still be a respected ally of the LGBTQ+ community. Like I said, an apology goes a long way.
While I will concede women have been overlooked, I will not concede that it is wrong to say the word woman. It is simply wrong to say it as if that only means one sort of person, a lesson DiMannio and others like her might care to learn.
World Health Organisation, 2021, Gender and Human Rights, World Health Organisation ,online access – https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/gender_rights/sexual_health/en/
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Clark, Connor, 2021, Margaret Atwood condemned for sharing “factually untrue” article on use of the word “woman”. Gay Times, online access – https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/life/margaret-atwood-condemned-for-sharing-factually-untrue-article-on-use-of-the-word-woman/
Flood, Alison, 2020, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Roxane Gay champion trans rights in open letter, The Guardian, online access – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/oct/09/stephen-king-margaret-atwood-roxane-gay-champion-trans-rights-open-letter-jk-rowling
Ensen, Samantha, 2020, The History of the word ‘woman’, Quick and Dirty Tips, online access – https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/the-history-of-the-word-womanKrishnan, Manisha, 2020, In The Midst of a Race Reckoning, Global News Laid Off Some of Its Most Vocal Internal Critics, Vice World News, online access – https://www.vice.com/en/article/jgx4ek/in-the-midst-of-a-race-reckoning-global-news-laid-off-some-of-its-most-vocal-internal-critics
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