The Power of Inclusive Language: On the Open Letter to MANA


The language we use is important. They aren’t “just words,” they have the power to shape society.


Almost every time that open letter to MANA pops up on my news feed I find myself extremely disappointed that yet another person close to me is posting in favor of it. In case you missed it, it is a letter regarding the recent changes the association has made to the language of their Core Competencies in an attempt to be more inclusive. An example is that they changed the term pregnant woman to pregnant individual in some places. Here is the open letter if you would like to read it before continuing.

I seriously cannot wrap my head around this. Why would this change in language offend anyone? It’s not like it further excludes anyone?

We all want to feel included in spaces where we feel like we belong. The words “pregnant individual” perfectly describes every person who is seeing a midwife during pregnancy. It leaves no one out. It is clear. It doesn’t take away anyone’s identity as a women. It doesn’t erase biology. It is inclusive. We are all individuals.

So, what could anyone possibly have against changing ‘woman’ to ‘individual’?

“The very few gender-identified males that have given birth or accessed an abortion have only done so because they are female-bodied people, and that scientific fact cannot be erased. We are allowing gender identity to be the primary way that we refer to one another, even for a biological process like birth.”

What struck me as odd about these sentences is how they tiptoe around calling “gender-identified males” who are “female-bodied”—yes, I’m putting female-bodied in scare quotes—‘women’ even though that is exactly what this open letter is fighting for. They aren’t fooling anyone in their attempt to sound respectful to the idenitities of others.

This argument that “gender-identified males” who have the biological capability to become pregnant should be labeled women because “biology” isn’t compelling. The open letter mentions “harmful implications” but doesn’t do much to specify what those implications are. The real problem with the argument is that it is based the idea that we cannot talk about biology without using the words ‘woman’ and ‘man,’ or ‘male’ and ‘female.’

But how does saying ‘pregnant individual’ instead of ‘pregnant woman’ erase the biological aspect of pregnancy and childbirth? If an individual is pregnant then we know they have the biological capacity to be. We know their bodies are going to include the parts necessary for pregnancy. How does using the term “pregnant woman” tell us any more than the term “pregnant individual”? What does using individual instead of woman really take away?

It reminds me of the way conservatives fought to keep marriage narrowly defined as being between one man and one woman, as if someone else’s union being labeled the same as theirs would taint what they had. They wanted to hold on to a narrow definition of the word ‘marriage’ because they wanted it all to themselves. They knew that language is one of the most powerful tools in society. And they wanted to have control over that tool. That’s why many conservatives were all right with civil unions, but not same-sex marriages.

But the thing about language is that it is a social construct that belongs to everyone.  Words don’t hold inherent static definitions; we define them, and change their definitions as needed. As our society changes, our ways of speaking change to reflect our new world and our thoughts about it. The people with power can try to hold on to “traditional” usage and meanings, but eventually language will shift whether or not they are comfortable with it. It evolves with us.

Language doesn’t only shift to reflect society but has the power to change it. How we and others think about the world, what we focus on, and what we disregard are all in part influenced by the language we all use. We evolve with it.

The language we use can become a habit. It doesn’t always reflect the views we hold—using the wrong pronoun by mistake doesn’t necessarily mean you are transphobic. As society shifts to become more inclusive, people are struggling to change the way they talk about issues, but it is in these moments that it is most important we become aware of the words we use. It is in these moments that our word choice has the most power. We can either use our words to send a message of inclusion, or we can use them uphold the status quo.

I understand how hard it can be to change lifelong language habits. I am human just like everyone else and sometimes use a term or pronoun that makes some people feel like they aren’t included. And when I do so, it would be easy to claim it’s just a habit of language use. But the habit is beyond that. If I am honest I have to admit that I wasn’t thinking of people who identify differently from the so-called “norm” at all. And this is despite the fact that I don’t feel I completely identify with that norm. I sometimes even exclude parts of myself from my language, thoughts, and considerations.

When we habitually use exclusionary language, we perpetuate a system of erasure. We perpetuate our blindness to minority groups. Keeping people in your blindspot is the ultimate form of disrespect; it’s a way to tell someone they are invisible to you. On a personal level, it simply makes someone a bigot, but systematically it’s extremely harmful.

I find it odd that some feminists signed this open letter. Or that any feminists support the exclusion of trans people.

It wasn’t that long ago when feminists were fighting for gender inclusive language in books, magazines, and journals. ’S/he’, ‘they’, ‘a person’ ‘people’ etc. soon replaced the more familiar (at the time) ‘he’ ‘a man’ ‘men’.

I remember reading arguments claiming that using nonsexist language was too difficult. Or that using ‘men’ sounded better. Or that we knew what they meant anyway. Or “men means humankind… screw all this pc bullshit!”

Most feminists understand the power of language. They understand the need for inclusion as an equal. They understand what it means to be othered—to be just outside the default. Yet, some of us stand and fight to keep a different group of people in that position. To understand how oppressive forces work, and then use them against others is nothing less than hateful.

So, I ask again: What does using ‘individual’ instead of ‘woman’ really take away?

Aside from hatefulness, that is. Hatefulness like this:

“Before uncritically supporting gender transitioning, MANA should be calling for evidence precautionary to its long-term effects, especially in light of the younger and younger ages at which it is occurring.”

I think what the change in language gives—like, respect, consideration, and inclusiveness—is much better for our society. What about you?


NAVARRE OVERTON

Navarre Overton is the founder of Raising Revolution. She is a stay-at-home mom, feminist, freelance writer, and student. You can reach her on Twitter, or email her at navarre@raisingrevolution.com.


Leave a Reply. (please note: Disagreement is Ok, Debate is Ok, Disrespect is not.)