James Kirkup James Kirkup

The word ‘woman’ is under attack

A confession: when I set off on my journey down the rabbit hole of gender issues, I was a bit sceptical and possibly even dismissive of some of the fears raised by some of the more animated feminist participants in the debate. When I heard women talking about “erasure” and the removal of women as a distinct category of people from public conversation and policy, I had my doubts.

I mean, the concept of “woman” is pretty robust, isn’t it? Just because a number of male-born people start describing themselves as “women”, the fundamental concept of “woman” will surely remain as the vast majority of people understand it to mean: “adult human female,” in the phrase of the Oxford English Dictionary. But honestly, eight months on from first writing about this topic, I’m starting to wonder.

Take that definition I just used. I’m not one for treating dictionaries as holy texts, but I suspect that if you asked most people on the proverbial Clapham Omnibus to define “woman”, they’d offer you something similar to that, and regard their definition as pretty mundane.

In fact, defining “woman” as “adult human female” is actually offensive, apparently because it excludes those women who are not, in fact, biologically female. That seems to have been the argument that led Primesight, a billboard company, to take down a poster in Liverpool bearing that same definition.

In other cases, organisations have gone to some lengths to simply avoid using the word ‘woman’. See, for instance, Cancer Research UK’s decision to advertise cervical screening to ‘everyone with a cervix’, because not everyone with a cervix identifies themselves as a woman.

Today, I learned a new word: ‘womxn’. That came from the Wellcome Collection, a London museum that will this month stage an exhibition called ‘Daylighting’ to ‘explore the interconnections of art, activism, performance, politics, health and print’.

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