The ways of talking about the “war on women” that leave people out

There’s been a lot of talk lately on the feminist internets – everywhere, really – about the Republican “war on women.” The bevy of anti-choice legislation is absolutely that – Republicans intend to go after women. But I’m finding much of the feminist response hurtful in its conflation of “women” and “people who can make babies.”

There are plenty of women who don’t have what you call a uterus or vagina (though they might use those terms). There are plenty of women who can’t get pregnant or deliver a baby, for tons of reasons. Including cisgender women, intersex women, and transgender women. Being able to make a baby and being a woman are not the same thing.

There are also plenty of people who are not women and who do have what you call a uterus or vagina. There are plenty of people who are not women who can get pregnant and give birth. Lori and I have talked about this topic a good deal on this blog.

I am fucking pissed about the anti-choice attacks. I am personally offended as a woman and as a person with a body that has a relationship to reproduction. At all. Cause we all do. So we should all be pissed. But every time I read an article that conflates “woman” and “person with a uterus” it gives me pause. Every kick ass, funny, or moving International Women’s Day post that conflated “woman” and “person with a vagina” was something that gave me a sour taste in my mouth. An otherwise great piece I just couldn’t post on Facebook or tweet.

I feel similarly to how Tobi Hill-Meyer describes hearing the word “tranny” in queer space. It’s not that I’m so offended by inaccurate terminology around gender and reproductive organs that I crumple into a little ball. Trust me, I’m used to living in a world that’s constantly trying to erase my existence. I can hold my own. And it’s not that I want to silence anyone. It’s just that I know the space where “woman” and “uterus-haver” are considered the same thing is a space that’s not really for me.

Feminist writers and activists have the best of intentions. I’m sure of that. It’s just that if you talk like this you erase whole groups of people who are on your side. Who are personally impacted. Who are actively engaged in this fight. But who feel just a little bit more unwanted, a little bit more pushed out every time we hear language that suggests we don’t exist.

The anti-choicers are absolutely deploying gender essentialism. We don’t have to respond on their terms, though. (unless we, like, really really want to lose. Cause that’s what happens if we let our opponents determine the terms of the debate.)

There are ways to get it right. Did you see that Personhood Amendment for women and other people with uteri that Shakesville posted? That’s pretty awesome, and it’s inclusive. And also, you know, accurate about how gender and bodies work. Keep Your Boehner Out of My Uterus consistently uses inclusive language. It’s not super hard.

When I read language that erases me written by people who I want to be allied with I feel a little less fire for the fight. Lately, a lot of my activist energy has gone to thinking about ways my community is being kept out of reproductive justice work. I don’t want my focus to be on issues of exclusion in reproductive rights organizing. I want to be going after the antis, not thinking about whether I can function in a movement that talks like I don’t exist.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/marlene/ Marlene

    Thanks, sis.

  • http://feministing.com/members/girljanitor/ Moohoo MacMoohoo

    Totally agree here. I’m a person who teeters at several intersections, and I’ve found myself shouted down, invalidated, and accused of being “the enemy” in some ostensibly feminist spaces recently. As a disabled woman, I have a huge problem with reproductive rights conversations being framed around the support of eugenics. I like to think we’ve come a long way since Margaret Sanger, but maybe not.
    I just wanted to express my solidarity with having been hurt by both sides in this matter, too.

  • http://feministing.com/members/boadie/ Boadie

    I am so angry at this. The fact is that 80 percent of American women have children at some point in their lives, not counting those of us, like myself, who have had abortions (or miscarriages) but no children. Counting that, I don’t know what the percentage would be. But the fact is that the vast majority of women do get pregnant at some point in their lives. This is absolutely a women’s issue and an issue of discrimination against biological women. To say otherwise to completely misogynistic. Shame on Feministing!

  • http://feministing.com/members/kirahyphenlynn/ Kira-Lynn

    I think this post – and others like it that I have seen – are misguided.

    Women that are responding to attacks on birth control and abortion are correct to respond to those attacks in clear ways which reflect the concerns of women who need access to contraception and birth control. They are being discriminated against as women, and in ways that affect their access to these things.

    That doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of ways for us to include all kinds of women in all kinds of feminist conversation, but I feel like individuals talking about feeling “unwanted” and having hurt feelings are really derailing.

    The Right has attacked an area of health care, and our response will be about women who need access to that area of health care.
    Just like in fighting for access to SRS or any other trans-specific health care it’s not necessary to address every non-trans issue.

    The Right is using this one means (health access) as a way to attack women, but they are not doing it because they hate birth control, they are doing it because they hate WOMEN. It is better for all women and all people’s justice if we respond to their misogyny. In this case I think it is okay to do it in a specific and relevant way.

    This is the time for women who don’t need access to abortion or birth control to act as allies to the women whose vital access is being attacked. And being a good ally means realizing that not everything is going to be about you or your feelings.

  • http://feministing.com/members/feministj/ J

    I was thinking about this yesterday in relation to my favorite man and the son he birthed. <3 Thanks for posting.

  • http://feministing.com/members/sabrah/ Sabrah

    Thank you so much for this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/suzann/ Suzann Kase

    But in any ‘war’ the aggressor defines the target. Thus the question is not how woman is defined here – on this site – but how the term is defined in terms of the ‘war action’.

    Of course, that gets us to which persons and which actions make up an undefined war and so gets us unto other areas of ‘who decides’ – but it does not change the function. It is entirely possible to declare a “war on grapefruit” which seemingly ignores oranges – even if in fact all citrus is negatively impacted. (I make a crazy example just to defuse emotion, trusting that readers can work out the meaning.)

    • http://feministing.com/members/jgar6/ jessica

      ^^^Agreed. It doesnt say war on ALL women but a war on women, which isnt to say women who are unable to have children are not women. The fact is the majority of women can get pregnant and deliver babies. I dont see how its necessary to preface every time we talk about the war on womens bodies which women we are talking about.

      • http://feministing.com/members/amck/ AMM

        I think that the war is, indeed, on all women, not just those who are currently able to get pregnant. The current campaign is focussing on those people who are able to get pregnant, probably because the misogynists see them as the easier targets, but it’s pretty clear that they plan to enslaveg the rest of womankind soon enough.

        In fact, I would say that the war is on anyone who shows any taint of unmasculinity, which is why they’ve been going after gay men, too. I haven’t heard of any specific campaigns against trans women (or trans men), but I think they’ll be happy to oppress them, too. These guys seem quite “inclusive” in defining the groups they hate.

        (It reminds me of my father-in-law’s situation after Hitler came to power: he was not Jewish by Jewish law, since his mother’s side were all gentiles, but Hitler & Co. had a more inclusive definition. Fortunately, he got out in the early 1930’s.)

      • http://feministing.com/members/girljanitor/ Moohoo MacMoohoo

        It’s necessary because transmen aren’t women.

    • http://feministing.com/members/lilithe/ Lilithe

      Suzann – the very problem with this argument, is that you are letting “the aggressor” define the terms of the discussion, therefore giving them the power. In this case, a big part of the problem is that intersex and transgender people tend to be completely erased as it is by them, why on earth would we want to couple that erasure with our own ignorance? We redefine and empower the conversation by responding back with our own definitions and terminology. We become aware of the natural inclusiveness of transgender and intersex in our feminist midst, and retain allies instead of ostracizing them. It seemed to me that it was pretty clear in the article about that.

      • http://feministing.com/members/suzann/ Suzann Kase

        But that is the reality. The aggressor defines the target.

        Think about it outside of the current context.

        Could you say to a burglar “You may take the radio but not the TV?” and be obeyed? No, of course not. The thief defines the list of ‘things to be stolen’. Could you say to a mugger “No, I don’t think you should hit my left arm, only my right” and have any influence on the beating? Again, ridiculous. The mugger defines the attack. In a military war – say WWII – would the German air force have heeded a request to only bomb the north side of London, or allowed the British to draw the ‘borders’ of the attack? Hardly. Nor, for that matter, could the British have demanded – and enforced – ‘equal bombing’ on Manchester and Leeds?

        So yes, I repeat, the aggressor defines the target. That is a function of aggression. And in stating that I am not – to use your term – “giving them the power”. They *have* the power. That is what makes it possible for them to *be* aggressors.

        Now one could discuss what situations and events and assumptions allow an aggressor to *retain* power to aggress – and what other conditions might make them unable to do so effectively – and what counter measures might construct a worthy defense. These would all be very valid topics and very profitable in terms of – and again I quote you – “developing and sustaining allies”. I encourage such discussion.

        But! Not at the expense of an understanding of the ‘terms of engagement’.

        When mounting a defense, the first rule of conflict is ‘figure out where you are being hit – and why’. Ignore the movements and targets of the opposition, spread your defense, and you can find yourself ( to use a technical term) “defeated in detail”.

        • http://feministing.com/members/lilithe/ Lilithe

          Suzann, I have to disagree again. Your comparison is a little more direct action based, where fighting patriarchal paradigms is very word based – which then translates into action. I will not fight a defensive – I will fight the offensive, and take their words and rewrite them to best fight their inherent bigotry. I will not let the aggressor define the target – that is too much victim living for my taste, thank you. The do not have the power – that is the illusion of it all. Until things get so bad that there is actual assault on my being – and not just an assault of words that try to take away my rights, I refuse to believe that they have that much power. And I sure as hell am not going to give it to them.

          Developing and sustaining allies is integral to the engagement. To think otherwise IS giving the aggressors the power.

  • http://feministing.com/members/eeeeeeve/ Eve

    I think it is appropriate to call legislation and policy that affects abortion and birth control options a war on women because I believe the main motive is not only to control reproductive choices, but the sexual behavior of anyone who identifies as female. Note that there is no call for controlling the reproductive choices of men. There is no call for insurance companies to not cover viagra. Legislation and policy related to reproductive choices are a reaction to women having power in society and power over their bodies. I see your point, Jos, that some men and trans people do have uteruses and should be included. However, I do see this “war” as an attempt to stigmatize and control sexually active women. I also see your point that we should not use their language to describe the war. However, I do think this is more than a war on “people with uteruses”, but a war to increase control over women in general. Even women without uteruses. I would call it a “war against women and people with uteruses”.

  • http://feministing.com/members/mattw/ Matthew

    Thank you for posting this. The overall mainstream conversation so rarely steps outside of the patriarchal gender binary that, while I recognize some people are being left out, I’m not always sure how to go about preventing that from happening.

    I do a lot of activism and advocacy for eating disorders, and as a cis male who is recovered from anorexia, most of the resources I found in recovery used predominantly or exclusively feminine pronouns. It made recovery significantly more difficult since eating disorders are wrongly considered a ‘woman’s disease’ and the perceived threat to one’s masculinity can make it that much harder to seek help. A lot of the work I do focuses on trying to make the conversation ‘gender inclusive’ but I’m starting to realize that that needs to be even more inclusive than I’ve already considered.

    So, thanks again. I’ve been reading posts on this site for awhile, but decided to register so I could comment on this particular article.

  • http://feministing.com/members/brigs/ Brigitta

    what language would you recommend i use so that i can be inclusive to everyone? (i don’t mean this at all in a passive aggressive way, btw) should i ask what people’s preferred pronouns are or is there a general set that i can use to be inclusive? would using an acronym like PWU (people with uteri) or something work?