On a recent KQED Forum episode, Mina Kim spoke with feminist thinkers Judith Butler and Roxane Gay about the opposition to using gender-neutral language.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
MINA KIM: So, Judith, let me start with you. Have either of you heard concern or apprehension or just pushback in feminist circles to terms like “pregnant people” or “birthing person” or more gender-inclusive terms like that?
JUDITH BUTLER: I’ve certainly heard that pushback. And maybe we need to distinguish between women or other people who have problems with gender-inclusive language because they fear that their hard work is being reversed and others who are perhaps more, well, frankly, hateful or phobic, who are worried about trans women being women.
And in the U.K., there have been some rather huge debates on this. And we now have a class of feminists who are calling for the exclusion of trans women from the category of women. They’ve responded with reactionary politics, sometimes sounding very much like the papacy.
And that’s disturbing to see that kind of alliance of a certain kind of feminism. Some people call them TERFs [trans-exclusionary radical feminist]. Sometimes they call themselves gender-critical with right-wing views on the immutability of sex itself.
But I do agree that there are many people, people my age or younger or older, who stumble and have reticence or are confused, maybe for political reasons, but maybe also because they’re used to using language a certain way. It’s become settled usage and they’re disturbed by the fact that language is a living thing and that sometimes we have to accept new usages.
So I think stumbling, erring and arriving is something that many of us have had to do. Taking a reactionary position, I think, is a separate kind of issue.
MINA KIM: Roxane Gay, I’m curious what you have been hearing or experiencing or seeing as well with regard to pushback around language that tries to be more gender-inclusive, doesn’t use “women” or “woman” as often when it’s trying to apply it to a broad range of different experiences.
ROXANE GAY: You know, I’ve seen much of what Judith referred to. People, especially feminists, are really afraid because in the past two years, since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen women’s rights being retracted. The overturn of Roe v. Wade, which is not shocking to anyone who’s worked on reproductive justice, still is shocking. And it feels like women are losing all of the ground that we’ve gained over the past 100 years.
And, of course, within the category of women, the more marginalized you are, the more ground you’ve lost. And so I understand this resistance to change and what might seem like erasure, but I think that it reveals a profound lack of imagination to assume that to say “pregnant people,” for example, is an erasure instead of an inclusion, because women are indeed people, as are trans men, as are nonbinary people.
And so I see part of this pushback from feminists who seem to have forgotten how hard we had to fight to push our chosen pronouns and to get people to accept them and then want to do that same sort of oppression to trans people.
It’s really disappointing, especially from some pretty high-profile feminists. I just think as leaders of a community that they would lead by example, that they would lead through learning. And there is a real reluctance and it’s a shame.
MINA KIM: I’m struck, Judith, by Roxane Gay saying a lack of imagination and this sort of positioning, which feels like using gender-neutral language or including trans women or trans men in the conversation related to reproductive rights almost comes at a cost to women. It’s almost like rights are a zero-sum game. I’m wondering if you think that part of that sense, even if it’s not accurate, is operating here?
JUDITH BUTLER: Well, I think when you’ve been able to presume for a long time that the category of women grounds reproductive rights and you realize that there are people who reproduce, they need health care, they need assistance, they need abortion rights, who are are not women who have either gone through sex reassignment or reassigned themselves in ordinary life. It’s just a question of adding a category. I say “women and pregnant people.”
But if you look at the opposition to gay marriage rights, people said, “But marriage is heterosexual. We can’t have gay marriage. Gay marriage is a violation of what marriage is.” Marriage has been in a certain way for some time, but it also is an historical category and it permits of change and adaptation. Perhaps we could use that as an analogy to think about pregnancy. “Women and pregnant people.” It shouldn’t be that hard to say.
MINA KIM: I wonder if there is a fear, especially among cis women, that if we start using “pregnant people” more often than we use “women,” that it will somehow obscure the fact that women are also the targets of these reversals or losses of abortion rights and other rights and then, by extension, obscure the pervasiveness and even what many see as the intensification of sexism and misogyny in society.
ROXANE GAY: I think anyone who believes that is willing to see women erased already. And the idea that women could be obscured from reproductive activism and from the real problems that we are facing right now when it comes to reproductive justice is simply absurd. How could we possibly be erased when it’s about us? Inclusive language is simply a reminder that we are not the only people who can get pregnant.
And so we cannot only talk about women. We have to talk about everyone who’s affected. And I will insist upon that as loudly as I can, wherever I can, because we are not going to be obscured. And I think that fear is misplaced. There are far greater things that we need to be afraid of.
MINA KIM: How would you characterize what is happening right now? We often say it’s a backlash against women’s rights, LGBTQIA rights, but I’ve heard you describe it as a restoration project. What do you mean by that?
JUDITH BUTLER: If you look at the speeches of Viktor Orbán, who apparently is being invited to address members of the Republican Party, it’s about restoring a prior order where at least for him in Hungary, where white people dominate, where interracial marriage is banned, where gender is no longer taught at the universities, where feminists are accused of attacking women or being bad for children.
I mean, the attack on reproductive rights is at least in the Christian right, which, as you know, now informs our Supreme Court on it, is linked with these other issues. So we would be foolish not to see those links and pursue them and build coalitions that are strong enough to respond.
MINA KIM: What would you say characterizes this moment for you or the moment that we’re in?
ROXANE GAY: I think what characterizes this moment is that we are seeing a lot of retraction across the board for anyone who’s marginalized, and we often like to imagine that this is the last gasp of the white hetero patriarchy. But I mean, my goodness, it’s a certainly powerful last gasp.
And I don’t know that it’s only people of a certain age because there are a lot of young people that are harboring a lot of bigotries, and it’s about control and power. And we really have to be vigilant and recognize that it’s not any one marginalized group that’s being affected. It’s all of us.
And we need to recognize that and recognize that we are not necessarily facing the same oppression, but we are all oppressed fairly equally, and we should work in concert instead of against one another in support of our own interests.