Brendan O’Neill

The word ‘woman’ is being erased from public life

The word 'woman' is being erased from public life
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If someone had told you 10 years ago that it would soon become tantamount to a speechcrime to say ‘Men cannot get pregnant’, you would have thought them mad. That would be like punishing someone for saying, ‘Humans need oxygen to survive’. And yet here we are, in 2017, where PC has spun so violently out of control, and the cult of gender-neutrality has become so unwieldy, that one of the most controversial things you can say these days is: ‘Only women can get pregnant.’ Apparently that’s offensive to transmen (women who identify as men). ‘Men can get pregnant, too’, trans activists cry. Which strikes me as a real-life version of ‘2 + 2 = 5’.

It isn’t only the usual suspects who want us to stop treating pregnancy as a woman thing. Yesterday the Sunday Times reported that in its submission on proposed amendments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Foreign Office suggested the term ‘pregnant women’ might be offensive to ‘transgender people who have given birth’. The covenant, a UN treaty, says society must protect ‘pregnant women’ and never subject them to the death penalty. The Foreign Office wondered if ‘pregnant people’ might be a preferable term, to avoid offending the infinitesimally small number of women who identify as men who have given birth.

It is disturbing that now even stuffy mandarins at the FO promote reality-defying newspeak like ‘pregnant people’. Mortified at the media stink over its ‘pregnant people’ stance, the government has today come out to say it doesn’t actually have a problem with the phrase ‘pregnant women’. A spokesperson for Theresa May has clarified that ‘pregnant women’ is an ‘acceptable term’. Sorry, but when the seat of power must make clear to the populace that it is okay to say ‘pregnant women’, you know the plot has been lost; you know common sense, the very tool of language itself, is in crisis.

Here’s the thing, possibly the uncomfortable thing, but the thing nonetheless: if you are pregnant, you are a woman. Biologically, physically, factually. Your pregnancy is proof of your womanhood. (Of course women do not need to get pregnant to prove they are women.) You can identify as a man, of course. People should have the right to identify as anything they like. But in reality, in the world of flesh and hormones and common understanding, you are a woman. Men cannot get pregnant. The spat over ‘pregnant people’ cuts to the heart of a discussion very few people want to have: about how self-identification is all well and good but it does not, and cannot, override physical and cultural reality.

So feverish is the obsession with avoiding giving offence to trans people that society is now happy to lie to itself. Frontpage headlines declare, ‘MAN HAS BABY’ and ‘Baby joy of first British man to give birth’. Media outlets inform us that ‘Statistics reveal men have given birth to 54 babies in Australia’ and ‘Pregnant British man gives birth to daughter’. We know all of this is untrue. Don’t we? We know that no man, anywhere, has ever given birth. We know that’s impossible. What they really mean is that women who identify as men gave birth. But if you say that — if you say, ‘They must be women, because they gave birth’ — you will be branded transphobic. It is a hate crime to say men cannot get pregnant.

We are living through a collapse of the most basic moral and biological categories of speech and understanding. Avoiding offence is now prized more highly than physical reality and truth. And one of the worst consequences of this rush to institute trans terminology — above the heads of a mostly bamboozled populace — is the erasure of womanhood. The very term ‘women’ is in serious danger.

Officials hand-wring over the phrase ‘pregnant women’ and think we should stop using it. The British Medical Association says doctors should stop saying ‘mothers-to-be’ and instead say ‘pregnant people’. The headmistress of an all-girls school says she no longer calls the pupils ‘girls’ in case she offends trans pupils. Women’s colleges rarely say ‘women’ these days. Murray Edwards College at Cambridge says it is now open to anyone who has ‘taken steps to live in the female gender’. This means, if we are being brutally honest, that it is now open to men. Women’s colleges will soon disappear.

And if the government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act are successful — so that anyone could legally identify as any gender they like, without having to undergo any kind of procedure — women’s spaces will effectively be obliterated. Women-only shortlists in politics, women’s institutions, women’s sports teams — all could potentially be intruded upon by men who identify as woman but who are, to most of us, transwomen, not women. There is a difference. Isn't there?

The idea of womanhood, the terminology of womanhood, is being erased from public life. We are effectively saying there is nothing special or distinctive about being a woman. Anyone can be a woman, simply by declaring it. We can dress this up as much as we like in the language of tolerance and open-mindedness but it strikes me as plain old misogyny to treat womanhood as such a casual, easily achieved thing. In the name of PC, we risk downgrading the status of women, and women themselves.