by Moti Gorin
The Luddites weren’t a complacent group of workers. They worried about the loss of their jobs as a result of the introduction of new technologies, and so they went about destroying the textile machines that were rendering human laborers obsolete. The word ‘Luddite’ has since become a pejorative, applied to those who refuse to use or at least resist using technologies that most people are happy to use or, more generally, to those who oppose whatever material change the person employing the pejorative favors. As it turns out, the Luddites were correct, at least as far as their jobs were concerned, and it is fair to say their worries about automation under capitalist relations have not been assuaged since the 19th century. We continue to contend with the unilateral imposition of new technologies by those who have most to gain, or who believe they do, even celebrating such figures while paying far less attention to those who bear the costs.
I, along with many others including, implicitly, well-known feminists who know something about sexist language, recently was accused of exhibiting some “resistance to linguistic correction.” This was partly in response to my sarcastic expression, on Twitter, of puzzlement over humanity’s failure to come up with a word to refer to the kind of people who can get pregnant. I don’t have my own blog and I don’t plan to write an academic article on this topic, but in the essay in which she elaborates on her linguistic corrections at greater length, Kate Manne linked to a brief exchange we had on Twitter and characterized my comments there as transphobic (of course) and so I asked Dan if he’d be open to posting my response to Manne’s essay here. He kindly agreed.
Manne is correct that I’m resistant to the linguistic change under discussion, though I wouldn’t characterize it as resistance to “correction” any more than I would characterize the Luddites’ concerns about the new machinery as resistance to a “correction” in the production of textiles. I think there are good reasons for us to be linguistic Luddites with respect to the word “woman” and I want to raise some objections to Manne’s claim that “impregnable people” is more accurate, more kind, and more inclusive than “woman” in the context of reproductive rights in general and in our new era (in the United States, at least) of forced abortions in particular.
(It is important to note that nothing I say here will be original. It’s all been said over the years by feminists who are more learned, smarter, and more articulate than I am, to say nothing of the fact that these problems are quite literally visceral to them in a way they can never be for me, because I’m male and therefore necessarily, and not merely contingently, lacking the ability to get pregnant.)
On Twitter, I said that when I try to conceive of my wife and daughter not as a woman and a girl but as “impregnable” or “impregnable people” it feels degrading and sexist. Now, I am not a woman or a girl. Perhaps some or all women and girls would be fine being conceived of or referred to by men, or by their spouses or fathers in particular, not as women or girls but as “impregnable people.” I doubt many would, at least not when they aren’t under the gaze of the Kind and Inclusive (e.g., Human Resource officers, social media enforcers, etc.), but I suppose it’s possible. In any case I’m not a woman and so what I think about the kindness or unkindness of conceiving of women in this way will be derivative of what women think. All I can do is report that I feel I am doing something sexist and degrading when I conceive of my wife and daughter, or any other woman or girl, as “impregnable people” rather than as a woman and a girl.
Manne assures me I shouldn’t worry. This isn’t a problem, she explains, because I can continue to conceive of my wife and daughter as a woman and a girl. There is no need for me to conceive of them as impregnable people. Indeed, she points out that she refers to “such people” as women and girls in her work.
Manne then clarifies that in this context—when I’m thinking of my wife and daughter—by “such people” she meant daughters and wives. That is, I can without objection from Manne continue to conceive of my wife and my daughter as a woman and as a girl. That’s fine by me, of course, as this is how I conceive of them in the first place, at least sometimes, and I’m not the one arguing that in the context of abortion we should replace those words with “impregnable.”
But problems remain. First, although Manne is correct that nothing she’s ever written commits me to conceiving of my wife and daughter as “impregnables,” nothing she’s written suggests that I have any reason not to do so. So why shouldn’t I? If “impregnables” or “impregnable people” is inclusive and kind and accurate, it should be acceptable to refer not only to transmen, transboys, some nonbinary people, etc. with these terms, but also to any woman or girl who currently can get pregnant. After all, the latter are included in the “class of all and only those who can currently get pregnant.” Why should we reserve “impregnables” for only non-women who can get pregnant? What work, on Manne’s view, is ‘woman’ or ‘girl’ doing in the context of reproductive rights that “impregnable” and “non-impregnable” wouldn’t do? If inclusion is of such paramount importance, then distinguishing between fertile women and girls, on the one hand, and impregnables, on the other, is less inclusive than simply carving the world into two classes: impregnables and non-impregnables. We can, when discussing reproductive rights, increase inclusiveness without losing any accuracy in the process by doing away with ‘women’ and ‘girls’ entirely, since on Manne’s view ‘women’ and ‘girls’ are conceptually independent of the question of abortion rights—being a woman or a girl is neither necessary nor sufficient for being able to get pregnant. What matters is whether one can currently get pregnant and ‘impregnable’ is the word for that. Continuing to use ‘women’ or ‘girls’ to refer to fertile women and girls is a less accurate and inclusive way to refer to the relevant class of people because so many women and girls cannot get pregnant. (And what about style? Manne is a good writer who has found success with a wide audience. Clearly, she cares about style and linguistic economy is one stylistic virtue. Surely, ‘impregnable’ and ‘impregnable people’ is stylistically preferable to ‘women and girls and other people capable of pregnancy’.)
Manne’s view on the semantics of these terms along with her commitment to inclusion and kindness will almost certainly, further down the logical line, require that we do away with “woman” and “girl” in the context of reproductive rights. For by allowing ourselves to refer to fertile women and girls as “women” and “girls” do we not risk some unkindness to transmen, some non-binary people, etc. who will be reminded that the category into which Manne places them—impregnable people—is shared by others she’s happy to call “women” and “girls”? After all, the reason they fall into the same category is because they share bodies of the same type—the type that can gestate a baby—which renders them vulnerable to anti-abortion laws. Does Manne really want to risk harming transmen and boys, some nonbinary people, etc., by lumping them in the same category with people she calls “women” and “girls”? What about the dysphoria?
It’s only a matter of time until someone who is even more inclusive and more kind than Manne will offer a linguistic correction of their own by casually noting that it is “transphobic” to unnecessarily say or do anything that might remind transmen, some nonbinary people, etc., that they share with women and girls(and not merely other “impregnables,” which is gender identity neutral) the kind of bodies that anti-abortion laws seek to control. Far less cisheteronormative, and therefore also probably less white supremacist, fat-phobic, ableist, classist (just kidding, no one cares about class) to leave “woman” and “girl” behind as linguistically unnecessary appendages while discussing reproductive rights. The most accurate, inclusive, and kind thing to do when discussing reproductive rights is to reserve “women” and “girls” to refer only to the class of people who identify as women and girls (whether female or male) but who cannot get pregnant. This avoids harming transmen by lumping them in with women and also, as an ethical bonus, avoids harming transwomen by lumping them in with women whose bodies are when gestating a baby a constant reminder of the fundamental, insurmountable difference between “being assigned female at birth” and “being assigned male at birth.” When it comes to reproductive rights, “impregnable” is the linguistic baby, “women” and “girls” is the bathwater. Of course, I reject this line of thinking, but that’s because I reject the starting point. Those who accept the starting point will have difficulty resisting the slide, especially when it’s presented in terms of greater acceptance, social progress, and kindness, and when any effort to resist the slide will be cast as transphobia, bigotry, fascism, and so on.
Second, by making ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ co-extensive with ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’ in the context of my conceiving of my family members, Manne must assume that my wife and daughter are not trans (a safe assumption, given demographics, but one that risks correction by someone kinder than I). This is because if they were trans, i.e., male, it would be inaccurate, not sexist or demeaning, to conceive of them as “impregnable.” If she thought my wife and daughter might be trans, it wouldn’t make any sense for Manne to tell me I can simply conceive of them as a “woman” and a “girl” and thereby avoid the term I find sexist and demeaning. It was conceiving of them as “impregnable” that I was objecting to, and Manne knows this, and so Manne must know that my wife and daughter are not trans, i.e., that they are female persons. But if Manne knows this just on the basis of my objection to “impregnables,” she must have some idea why I would find it objectionable to conceive of a woman and a girl not as “woman” and “girl” but as “impregnable.” And as she emphasized, Manne uses “women” and “girl” in her own work when discussing reproductive rights, despite those terms being, on her view, less accurate, less kind, and less inclusive than “impregnable.” It’s therefore a bit puzzling why she’s convinced that the unkindness of using “woman” or “girl” exclusively when discussing reproductive rights is of greater moral concern than the unkindness of using “impregnable.” It seems to me that if either option is unkind then both are unkind, and the difficult question is how to navigate the tradeoffs involved in the distribution of unkindness. That there are tradeoffs in how benefits and burdens—including psychological benefits and burdens—are distributed has of course been one of the foundational points gender critical feminists have been making from day one. The only people who continue to deny the inevitability of tradeoffs seem to be those who have yet to find their own views in need of correction by someone a bit more inclusive, a degree or two kinder, than they are. But there are always such people and as we all know by now, though arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.
Now a more general question: Is it true that “impregnable” is more inclusive than “woman” or “girl”? Discussions of sex, gender, and language recently have taken on even more urgency following the US Supreme Court’s striking down Roe v Wade, which in 1973 established a (limited) constitutional right to abortion in the United States. The Roe decision makes no mention of those people Manne is worried about excluding: transmen, some nonbinary people, people with Differences/Disorders of Sexual Development (DSDs), etc. The justices limited themselves in that decision to women, mothers, and, in one place, girls. It would be astonishing if in 1973 the justices who decided Roe were thinking of transmen, transboys, nonbinary people, or people with DSDs when they considered the legal question of abortion. And yet does anyone think that “woman,” “mother,” or “girl” did not include trans or nonbinary people, or those with DSDs? Before the 2022 Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe, anyone who could get pregnant had a (limited) constitutional right to an abortion, because anyone who could get pregnant was covered under—was included as—a “woman,” “mother,” or “girl.” Unless someone wants to argue that trans men, nonbinary people, etc., were excluded in the Roe decision (and subsequent relevant decisions), it’s hard to see why fighting for reproductive rights requires more or different words than those used in a legal case that everyone on the pro-choice side of the debate agrees greatly advanced the health and liberty interests of anyone who can get pregnant. It’s just false that ‘women’ and ‘girls’ excludes transmen because everyone knows that in the context of reproductive rights the words ‘women’ and ‘girls’ refer to female persons, the only kind of people who can get pregnant.
Here are some examples of exclusive language: “Whites Only,” “Jews Need Not Apply,” “No TERFS.” Language like that is exclusive because it seeks to deny some people access to some part of the world, or some good, or whatever. What part of the world, what good, service, or advantage, does the word ‘women’ deny transmen? Certainly not access to abortion. But words can be exclusive in other ways, too. Racial slurs exclude by expressing contempt for and seeking to deny the targets of the slur equal moral consideration, equal standing. Calling a Jew a “kike” expresses contempt for Jews qua Jews and seeks to degrade the target of the slur. But ‘woman’ and ‘girl’ are not slurs, though they can be used in slur-like ways. For example, telling an emotionally sensitive boy that he’s “acting like a girl” seeks to degrade him by expressing to him that he’s failed to live up to some (sexist) standard to which boys are expected to conform. ‘Women’ and ‘girl’ don’t function like this, either, in the context of reproductive rights. There, the words simply refer to female persons, the only kind of persons who can get pregnant. Everyone understands this and always has, including the transmen who got abortions under Roe and those who will be unable to do so now that Roe has been overturned.
I’m not going to comment on other ways in which “women” might be thought to be exclusive, since that would go beyond the narrower question of whether we need linguistic corrections to our current vocabulary when we discuss reproductive rights.
Earlier I said how it’s not obvious that there are no important differences between how abortion laws affect (or don’t affect) different groups of people who cannot get pregnant. Manne’s distinction between impregnables and non-impregnables is, for her, the distinction between those who are affected by anti-abortion laws and those who are not. Now, I’m not going to trot out the familiar point that men (in the sense of “adult males”) are affected by abortion laws, too, since we play a crucial role in pregnancy, often in child-rearing, and so on. Rather, I want to suggest, from my admittedly distanced vantage point, that infertile women are affected by anti-abortion laws in ways that males, including transwomen, are not, and that this gives us good reason, in reproductive rights contexts, to preserve our sex-based understandings of the words ‘women’ and ‘girls’. When the state says, “In this land your control over your reproductive capacities is not a fundamental right,” it expresses a particular moral view about the kind of being you are in virtue of the kind of body you have. And as many people have pointed out over the decades, the conservative push to ban abortion is not only about the desire to protect the right to life of the fetus. It is also about the desire of men to control the bodies of women and, in particular, to control their bodies in matters of sex—reproduction, sexual intercourse, desire, pleasure, and so on. Now, if this is right (and it seems clearly right to me), then there is just a fundamental difference between a female person’s relation to society, as that relation is mediated and constructed by reproductive rights law, and a male’s relation to that same society.
A girl who cannot yet get pregnant but who one day might, a woman who had an abortion years ago but who is now past childbearing age, a woman who was born without a uterus, and a woman who is infertile but could gestate a baby via IVF if only she could afford the treatments, are not impregnable. Yet each of them, it seems to me, is intimately affected by anti-abortion laws in a way that male people are not and never could be. If it’s true that anti-abortion laws are about more than abortion and that they express hostility towards the sexual autonomy of women qua female persons, then it makes good sense to preserve a category for female persons, i.e., those people whose autonomy is broadly targeted by these laws. But when we carve the reproductive rights-relevant world into two crude categories—impregnable and not impregnable—we threaten our ability to recognize the various distinctive interests that only and all female people have, especially in a sexist society. Transwomen have their own, distinctive forms of oppression to contend with, but this oppression has nothing to do with a denial of the right to bodily autonomy motivated by men’s desire to control the sex lives of female persons. When Roe was overturned, this was a slap in the face not only to impregnables, but also to an 80 year old woman born without a uterus, because she knows what the majority of the US Supreme Court justices, and the people who put them in power, think of her and of who gets a say over how she uses her sexed body, and she knows the only reason she isn’t currently being denied reproductive autonomy is because of the contingencies of age and medical condition. Putting her into the same category of other non-impregnables like transwomen, or me, whose moral standing, whose full dignity as autonomous persons, remains untouched by anti-abortion laws, seems to me to be inaccurate and unkind, eliding distinctions of significant moral importance.
No doubt some who read this essay (assuming anyone reads it) will conclude that I’m transphobic. Unfortunately for trans people, who need a word to refer to the distinctive form of oppression they face, the word ‘transphobic’ has lost much of the moral and rhetorical force that makes it useful as a tool of liberation. These days, being called “transphobic” is like being called “anti-Semitic” by the Israeli right—its main function is for silencing people and not for pointing out genuine bigotry. I am concerned, though, that I’ve been “mansplaining,” wading as I have into a topic that does not—indeed cannot—affect me directly as a man but which so profoundly affects women. To make matters worse, I have been doing so in response to the writings of a woman and a feminist. If I’m guilty of mansplaining (it’s not always easy to tell), then I genuinely apologize to women, whether they are impregnable or not.
Moti Gorin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University.