On October 19, famous writer and political activist Margaret Atwood created a Tweeter which quickly became his most controversial to date. In the tweet, she posted the link to an article published by The Toronto Star, a publication that claims to be Canada’s largest online newspaper. In it, star columnist Rosie DiManno denounces gender-neutral wording, arguing that while ‘the inclusive goal is worth it, erasure of women is not’ and that erasure occurs when “activism trans goes wild ”.
Expanding the language to include gender-neutral wording causes the word woman to be erased, according to DiManno. At the beginning of her article, she denigrates the use of the gender neutral term, people, where traditionally the word woman would be present. Most of his examples of apparent erasure have a medical context, as they refer to medical processes such as menstruation that can be experienced by women, men, and non-binary people. DiManno features the militant movement for trans languages against women, a common tactic used by transphobic feminist groups.
Many influencers and Twitter users have referred to DiManno, then Atwood, as trans-exclusionist radical feminists. Atwood is an impressive writer and someone with an impressive and progressive mastery of the English language. I read all of his work, even studied it as part of my major in English here at the university. Hence my surprise and disappointment at Atwood’s obvious lack of understanding of the vernacular of our time. While Atwood has yet to fully reach the transphobic ranks of other writers like JK Rowling, his irresponsibility in sharing language and media is detrimental to trans causes.
As a transgender male and avid student of the English language, I feel compelled to clarify and defend the gender inclusive language examined by DiManno. The gradual changes made to the English language do not serve to erase women, but to clarify conversations relating to groups it may affect.
It should come as no surprise that the English language has changed dramatically since its inception. From the Norman Conquest to the invention of the Internet, the vernacular language used in the English language has evolved at breakneck speed. Recently our vernacular has made another shift to a more gender inclusive language. Yet DiManno calls supporters of these inclusive gender changes “linguistic radicals” in his article.
This gender-instilling language recognizes that gender identity and biological sex are two different categories and adjusts accordingly – for example, a person who is menstruating. Traditionally, this person would be identified as a woman. However, due to the prevalence of transgender males and non-binary people who possess these same biological functions, the term female is just not accurate to say.
According to the new features of our modern vernacular, it is inaccurate to use language that hooks gender terms to biological processes. DiManno’s play refers to this change in language as the erasure of the term woman, but in reality the word woman is changing. Socially, the term woman still has a meaning in our language. For example, if someone were to say that because of systemic sexism, cisgender and transgender women are discriminated against, they would be right to use the term woman. The term woman still holds a vital place in our vernacular, but in a different way than before.
Trans activists are not asking English-speaking societies to reverse their conception of language, and they certainly are not advocating for the erasure of women. In contrast to this, trans activists are asking for language that makes sense in a world of gender diversity. Limiting femininity to biology, rather than extending the social aspects of femininity common to all peoples identifying with the feminine, is the only action which here constitutes erasure.
So, time and time again, well-meaning feminists originally come across the line of perceiving transgender individuals and activists as enemies of their cause. Transgender people have unique perspectives that move along the gender spectrum and often contribute through their experiences to advancing feminist causes. I hope that in the future Atwood will broaden his perspective and avoid promoting content that highlights transphobic concepts in language.
Oliver Lesher is a perspective writer for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at [email protected]
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Cavalier Daily. The columns represent the views of the authors alone.