The Republican assault on abortion and broader campaign against bodily autonomy has led to a rhetorical conflation of two major constituencies affected by both—cis women and trans men—into a singular “people with the capacity for pregnancy.”
Most people who are trans understand the fundamental connection between their own struggle for self-determination and women’s lack of it. Likewise, plenty of pro-abortion-rights cis women support trans rights and appreciate the need to build solidarity around a shared humanity. This makes total sense. But there’s been an entirely unnecessary by-product of this rhetorical expansion: the subtraction of the word “women” from the abortion discourse. That’s unfortunate, since it gives fuel to the misplaced fear, recently (and infamously) voiced by New York Times columnist Pamela Paul, that women are being “erased,” while unnecessarily alienating those who correctly see themselves as the intended and primary targets of abortion bans. The debate played out on a recent episode of WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show between Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne, the author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, and a caller.
Joan in Brooklyn: “These attacks are about furthering the subjugation of women, and it’s really important for people to understand that…. I think the same forces that are going after abortion rights—there’s a whole campaign against trans people that has to be fought. But at the same time the attacks on abortion rights are not aimed at trans men; they’re aimed at forcing women to be enslaved to patriarchal moral authority.”
Manne: “I agree with you that the abortion bans that we’re seeing are targeting women. But I think we can recognize that they also affect and victimize trans boys and men, intersex people, nonbinary people who can get pregnant, and of course cis-girls. So I see no conflict between recognizing that anti-abortion activism has always been about misogyny, has always been about policing and controlling women, but it affects a broader class of persons.”
The segment ended with Manne reiterating that she didn’t think it was that hard to use more inclusive language. Yet most evidence (and common sense) suggests that condescending to women of a certain age—who know from hard—about new language that removes any mention of them from their lifelong struggle isn’t working. It also risks shifting the conversation unproductively onto trans-exclusionary radical feminist terrain, hijacking an argument about patriarchal control and diverting it into a bad-faith referendum on who is “really” a woman. So why die on this hill? The obvious compromise would seem to be to simply say “women and anyone else who can get pregnant,” or to recite the full list of affected parties. Instead, a lot of very online activists, progressive organizations, and academics are insisting on awkward language that sounds like a convoluted work-around to avoid using the word “women.”
Additive language for the sake of inclusivity is generally more successful than umbrella language, which is inherently reductive. The LGBTQIA+ community figured this out a long time ago, adding distinct identities to an acronym and ending it fittingly with a plus sign. Umbrella language often fails. The gender-neutral term “Latinx” is rejected by the vast majority of people in America who identify as either Latino or Hispanic, with three-quarters reporting that they haven’t even heard of the term, and only 4 percent at most listing it as a preferred label. It’s provided effective messaging for Republicans, though, who’ve weaponized it to paint Democrats as patronizing, out-of-touch elites. In a 2021 Newsweek op-ed, the writer Angel Eduardo explained that “Latinx” is not an expansion of the demographic category but rather “almost exclusively a way to indicate a particular ideological leaning.” Words then become the site of conflict, driven by an urgency to correct people rather than to reach them.
It was never going to be possible for UC Berkeley law professor Khiara Bridges to reach Missouri Senator Josh Hawley when he called her out in a hearing for using the phrase “people with the capacity for pregnancy.” And although she managed to win a particular corner of the Internet by taking the author of Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs to task, Hawley notched his own victory by getting to look like a women’s rights advocate, rather than the protofascist ghoul he is. Bridges was right, of course, that it’s possible to “recognize that this [abortion ban] impacts women while also recognizing that it impacts other groups. Those things are not mutually exclusive.” Indeed, that’s the whole point. So why not specifically mention the other groups?
Umbrella terms by definition sacrifice specificity for a broader and technically accurate generalization. But there’s a real loss of imagery and experience that’s not being factored into the equation. For instance, when we use “people with the capacity for pregnancy” so as not to exclude children who’ve been raped (children falling outside the category of “women”), we obscure the particular horror of their experience for a dull, impersonal one. So too when we remove the unique experiences of “women” from a discourse that Manne and others agree they’re at the center of.
Meera Deo, a professor at Southwestern Law School, argued something similar in her Virginia Law Review article “Why BIPOC Fails,” about the foregrounding and privileging of the Black and Indigenous experience within the spectrum of people of color: “While concentrating on these two groups may make sense in particular contexts, it cannot be true that every example of race and racism should center Black and Indigenous voices or experiences.” Deo goes on to push for more specificity in the name of accuracy: e.g., “Black” when talking about police brutality; “Asian” for Covid-related hate crimes; “anti-Arab” or “anti-Muslim” in reference to post-9/11 profiling, etc. As she says, “This will mean aggregating groups at times and naming them separately at others; whether finding community through unity or standing separately to highlight distinctions, either of these options is better than BIPOC.” The whole point is to add granularity to be more inclusive of different identities.
All language is limited. There is no perfect phrasing, and it always involves compromises. In this case, it’s just an ampersand.