Margaret Atwood, prize-winning author of the Handmaid’s Tale, has received backlash online accusing her of being transphobic after she shared an article on Twitter titled ‘Why can’t we say “woman” anymore?’.
The article was written by Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno, and contributed to the debate around the use of gender-neutral terms and the erasure of women. It referenced recent instances of the term “women” being eliminated like in the Lancet Medical Journal, which we wrote about recently.
“‘Woman’ is in danger of becoming a dirty word…struck from the lexicon of officialdom, eradicated from medical vocabulary and expunged from conversation,” wrote DiManno. “It shouldn’t leave well-meaning people tongue-tied, lest they be attacked as transphobic or otherwise insensitive to the increasingly complex constructs of gender.”
She added: “There’s more than a whiff of misogyny to it. Why ‘woman’ the no-speak word and not ‘man’? Why not ‘persons who urinate standing up’ or ‘people who eject semen’? Certainly there are words — they are slurs mostly — that are no longer acceptable. ‘Woman’ shouldn’t be one of them.”
Some compared Atwood to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has similarly come under fire for sharing her views on transgender issues, including calling out the erasure of the word ‘woman’.
‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) June 6, 2020
Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate https://t.co/cVpZxG7gaA
In response to outraged fans, Atwood encouraged them to read the piece before commenting, saying that DiManno was not a “TERF”. The acronym stands for ‘Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist’, and is used as a pejorative term to refer to those who reject the assertion that transwomen are the same as biological women and who raise concerns about how eroding the category of ‘woman’ threatens women’s sex-based rights.
Responding to Atwood’s qualification, UK writer Mary Harrington writes:
“‘[T]erfs’ are simply women who have been paying closer attention than the author of The Handmaid’s Tale to the implications of an ideology that redefines female humans as ‘birthing people’, ‘chestfeeders’, ‘non-prostate owners’, ‘individuals with a cervix’ ‘bodies with vaginas’ or even simply ‘non-men’. In other words, an ideology that reduces female humans to a cluster of biological traits, in the name of ‘inclusion’.”
The erasure of women in language and policies is something we have spoken and written about a lot recently, as unfortunately there are constantly troubling new developments which give us reason to do so.
It is therefore encouraging to see someone of Atwood’s stature – a feminist and literary icon whose most popular work denounces the reducing of women to our reproductive capacities – weigh in on what is arguably one of the most fundamental issues affecting women in our culture today.
We hope that like Rowling, she maintains her position (despite the even greater pushback and attacks she will likely receive as a result), and inspires others to come forward to call out the profound harm done to women by language that erases and redefines them.