We live in a brave new world. A world in which we may only refer to “pregnant people,” and where maternity outfits have become “parenthood pieces.” A world in which the words of feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg have become fodder for ellipses and brackets because they are not sufficiently inclusive. A world described even by a New York Times opinion columnist as a bit “Orwellian.” And ultimately, a world in which efforts to provide opportunities for women to become doctors, professors, and mothers have been transformed into the erasure of women from society.
Take the ACLU’s egregious misquote of the late Justice Ginsburg. During her confirmation statement, Ginsburg noted that “the decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity.” Yet that statement was not sufficiently inclusive for the ACLU, which replaced “woman” with “person,” and also omitted the pronouns “her” and “she” to make the quote gender-neutral. “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a [person’s] life, to [their] well-being and dignity. When the government controls that decision for [people], [they are] being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for [their] own choices,” the ACLU posted.
Similarly, in its amicus brief in Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health, the Mississippi abortion case pending before the Supreme Court, the ACLU goes through Cirque du Soleil contortions to, in a case concerning pregnancy and abortion, avoid referring to “women.” The organization that once led the charge on women’s rights even asserts that it “recognizes that people of all gender identities … may also become pregnant and seek abortion services.”
Meanwhile, the leading British medical journal, the Lancet, provoked outrage with its September 25th cover that referred to women as “bodies with vaginas.” In an X-rated medical post, Healthline recently entitled an article, “Everything you need to know about HPV in vulva owners.” The CDC—part of the federal government—recently recommended the COVID-19 vaccine for “pregnant people.” And the term “mother” was recently axed from the Scottish government’s maternity policies.
The debate is not merely one of words (though of course words matter) but also has significant real-world consequences for women. In early January, for instance, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that requires schools to allow male athletes to play on women’s teams. When women are forced to compete with and against male-bodied athletes, they lose out on the opportunities for fair play once guaranteed by Title IX, which was enacted to prohibit discrimination against female students and athletes.
The erasure of women has prompted push-back from both sides of the aisle. In response to an ABC headline noting the risks the delta variant poses to “pregnant people,” for example, former Democratic congresswoman and one-time presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard expressed outrage: “Some hate women so much that they literally want to erase even the word ‘woman’ from our vocabulary.” New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg disagreed with the ACLU’s rewriting of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, writing “[i]t’s somewhat Orwellian to rewrite historical utterances to conform to modern sensitivities.” Sen. Ted Cruz recently noted the irony that the word woman is now “verboten.” Similarly, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy took the House leadership to task for passing a resolution to remove gender-specific terms from a document outlining House rules.
Ultimately, the Lancet and the ACLU were forced to issue half-hearted apologies. The Lancet’s editor-in-chief apologized “to readers who were offended.” The ACLU director Anthony Romero noted that he regretted the alteration of Justice Ginsburg’s words and that the organization would refrain from drastically altering quotes in the future. Nevertheless, Romero explained his view that the Ginsburg would have agreed with their red-lining of her words. The ACLU did not delete the altered tweet. These weak apologies highlight that the erasure of the term woman from common parlance is part of a deliberate campaign to minimize the unique female experience.
At the end of the day, when it is no longer a woman’s province to be female, the push for progress has been turned on its head – and lost so very much. Not only does this erasure ignore biological fact, but it also strips women of their humanity, designating people as mere bodies with specific parts. That is not progress.