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LESHER: The Word Woman

How radical feminists use language to undermine trans-activism

Time and time again, originally well meaning feminists fall down the line of perceiving transgender individuals and activists as enemies to their cause.
Time and time again, originally well meaning feminists fall down the line of perceiving transgender individuals and activists as enemies to their cause.

On Oct. 19, famous writer and political activist Margaret Atwood created a tweet that quickly became her most controversial yet. In the tweet, she posted the link to an article published by The Toronto Star, a publication that proclaims itself as Canada’s largest online newspaper. In said article, Star Columnist Rosie DiManno denounces gender neutral phrasing, saying that while “the inclusive objective is worth it, the erasure of women is not,” and that this erasure occurs when “trans activism runs amok.”

According to DiManno, the expansion of language to include gender neutral phrasing is causing the erasure of the word woman. At the onset of her article, she disparages the use of the gender neutral term, people, where traditionally the word woman would be present. Most of her examples of apparent erasure hold a medical context, as they refer to medical processes like menstruation which can be experienced by women, men and nonbinary people. DiManno further stages the trans language activist movement as against women, a common tactic used by transphobic feminist groups. 

Many twitter influencers and users have labeled DiManno, and subsequently Atwood, as trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Atwood is an awe-inspiring writer, and someone who holds an impressively progressive mastery of the English language. I’ve read all of her works, even studied them as a part of my English major here at the University. Hence my surprise and disappointment at Atwood’s obvious misunderstanding of the vernacular of our times. While Atwood has yet to fully reach the transphobic ranks of other writers like J.K. Rowling, her irresponsibility in language and media sharing is harmful to trans causes.  

As a transgender man and an avid student of the English language, I feel obliged to clarify and defend the gender inclusive language being scrutinized by DiManno. The progressive changes made to the English language serve not to erase women, but to specify conversations pertaining to groups it may concern. 

It should come to no one’s imminent surprise that the English language has changed dramatically since its origins. From the Norman conquest to the invention of the internet, the vernacular used within the English language has shifted at breakneck speeds. Recently, our vernacular took another change to more gender inclusive language. Yet, DiManno calls the proponents of these gender inclusive changes “language radicals” in her article. 

This gender inculsive language recognizes that gender identity and biological sex are two different categories, and adjusts accordingly — for example, a person who menstruates. Traditionally, this person would be identified as a woman. However, because of the prevalence of transgender men and nonbinary people who possess these same biological functions, the term woman just isn’t accurate to say.

Per the new hallmarks of our modern vernacular, it’s inaccurate to use language that staples gendered terms onto biological processes. DiManno’s piece refers to this shift in language as erasure of the term woman, but in reality, the word woman is shifting. Socially, the term woman still possesses meaning in our language. For example, if someone said that due to systemic sexism, both cisgender and transgender women face discrimination, they would be accurate in using woman as a term. The term woman still possesses a vital place in our vernacular, but in a different way than it did before. 

Trans activists aren’t asking English speaking societies to turn their concept of language on its head, and they certainly aren’t advocating for the erasure of women. Opposite of this actually, trans activists are petitioning for language that makes sense in a world of gender diversity. To restrict womanhood to biology, rather than expanding on the social aspects of womanhood common to all feminine identifying peoples, is the only action that constitutes erasure here. 

Thus, time and time again, originally well meaning feminists fall down the line of perceiving transgender indiviuals and activists as enemies to their cause. Transgender individuals possess unique perspectives moving along the gender spectrum, and often contribute their experiences to promote feminist causes. I hope that in the future, Atwood will broaden her perspective and avoid promoting content that puts forth transphobic concepts in language. 

Oliver Lesher is a Viewpoint Writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.

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