It was easy to miss because even at the best of times the House of Lords doesn’t grab public attention. But this week, something remarkable happened in parliament.
In narrow legislative terms, peers have forced the government to accept amendments to the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill. The Bill will make it possible for a minister who is pregnant — such as Suella Braverman, the Attorney General — to take leave from work without resigning ministerial office.
That should be uncontroversial, but the language of the Bill left something to be desired. The Bill passed the Commons earlier this month using phrases such as ‘the person is pregnant’ and ‘the person has given birth to a child’.
Such language set alarm bells ringing for several people familiar with the debate about sex and gender. They saw the phrasing of the Bill as the latest example of officialdom — perhaps unwittingly — erasing the category of women as biologically female.
Examples of such erasure abound: womxn; pregnant people; people with a uterus; chestfeeders. All these graceless neologisms and more have been used by public and private organisations in recent years, often in the benign hope of being more inclusive to transgender people who too often face discrimination and unkindness.
Yet such linguistic contortions and their impact capture an essential fact of the debate about sex and gender. By seeking to do better for trans people, some organisations ignore and erode the interests, rights and desire of at least some women who are not transgender. For instance, the desire to be referred to as ‘women’ and have the biological reality of being born into and living in the female sex recognised in language.
I think that desire is more than reasonable, and I think it appalling — and telling — that so many organisations are so indifferent to the wishes of women who hold that view.