Returning the cause to the people for whom it was created is the only way to save it, and to stop the many discriminations that girls and women still face….First, we have to honor the actual meaning of words, like “woman.” We have to insist that those meanings are important. We have to go back, again, to first principles. That is the only way forward.
“Pregnant people at much higher risk of breakthrough Covid,” The Washington Post recently declared. This was in keeping with the newspaper’s official new language policy: “If we say pregnant women, we exclude those who are transgender and nonbinary.”
“I’m not a biologist,” Ketanji Brown Jackson, the next Supreme Court justice and a formerly pregnant person herself, told her Senate inquisitors while trying to explain why she couldn’t define “woman.”
“It’s a very contested space at the moment,” explained Australian Health Secretary Brendan Murphy—a nephrologist, a doctor of medicine—when he was asked the same question at a hearing in Melbourne. “We’re happy to provide our working definition.”
The meaning of “woman,” the Labor Party’s Anneliese Dodds, in Britain, observed, “depended on context.” (Never mind that Dodds oversees the party’s women’s agenda.)
“I think people get themselves down rabbit holes on this one,” Labor’s Yvette Cooper added the next day, March 8, International Women’s Day. She declined to follow suit.
What were normal people—those who did not have any trouble defining woman, those who found talk of “pregnant people” and “contested spaces” and “rabbit holes” baffling—to make of this obvious discomfort with “women”?
Jackson, Dodds and Cooper—and, no doubt, every individual formerly or currently capable of becoming pregnant on the masthead at The Washington Post—would call themselves feminists. Champions of women’s rights. (So, too, one imagines, would Dr. Murphy.) Once upon a time, it was women like them who proudly declared, I am woman, hear me roar. It was women like them who stood up for women and womanhood.
But now these exemplars of female empowerment—educated, sophisticated, wielding enormous influence—seemed to have forgotten what “woman” meant. Or whether it was okay to say “woman.” Or whether “woman” was a dirty word.
It wasn’t simply about language. It was about how we think about and treat women. For nearly 2,500 years—from Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” to Seneca Falls to Anita Hill to #MeToo—women had been fighting, clawing their way out of an ancient, deeply repressive, often violent misogyny. But now that they were finally on the cusp of the Promised Land, they were turning their backs on all that progress. They were erasing themselves.
How we got from there to here is the story of an unbelievable hijacking. Two, actually.
It was only five decades ago, in the 1970s, that women—mostly white, middle-class and from places like New York, Boston and north London, and fed up with being sidelined by their comrades on the left—forged a new movement. They called it Women’s Liberation.
At the start, Women’s Liberation was seen as the domain of women with money—like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and, in the United Kingdom, Germaine Greer and Rosie Boycott. But soon it became the movement of everyday mothers, daughters, wives, working women, poor women, and women regularly beaten up by their boyfriends and husbands.
They embodied a politics of action: protesting, writing, lobbying, setting up shelters. They formed sprawling, nationwide organizations like the National Organization of Women, the National Abortion Campaign and the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
And at the center of their politics was an awareness of their physicality, a keen understanding that the challenges women faced were bound up with the bodies they had been born into. Exploitation at home and at work, the threat of sexual violence, unequal pay—all that was a function of their sex.
Nothing better summed up the ethos of Women’s Liberation than “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” which was published in 1973 by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. Every feminist had a copy or had read one. It sold something like four million copies. It was a bible. That’s because “Our Bodies, Ourselves” rejected the old, Puritan discomforts with female sexuality that, feminists argued, had prevented women from realizing themselves, and empowered women by educating them about their own bodies.
By the 1980s, women had won several key victories. Equal pay was the law (if not always the reality). No-fault divorce was widespread. Abortion was safe and legal. Women were now going to college, getting mortgages, playing competitive sports and having casual sex. In the United States, they were running for president, and they were getting elected to the House and Senate in record numbers. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
In the wake of all these breakthroughs, the movement began to lose steam. It contracted, then it splintered, and a vacuum opened up. Academics took over—hijacked—the cause.
There was an obvious irony: It was women’s liberationists who had successfully made women a topic worthy of academic scholarship. But now that the feminist professoriat had the luxury of not worrying about the very concrete issues the older feminists had fought for, feminist professors spent their days reflecting on their feminism—exploring, reimagining and rejecting old orthodoxies.