Feminist Writing. Fourth Wave. For Women.

The Move to Erase Women from Periods, Pregnancy, and Parenting

How gender-neutral language is masking global sexualized violence and discrimination against women and girls

The Move to Erase Women from Periods, Pregnancy, and Parenting

A few months ago, I was sitting in a meeting with staff members of Women’s Way, a Philadelphia non-profit that sprung up in the 70s to help fund abortions. At the time, when abortion had just barely become legal, the United Way and other major area funders refused to touch such a controversial topic, so women (as per usual) had to take matters into their own hands.

As we were discussing the future of the organization in a changing world, one young staff member said, “I mean, should we even be called ‘Women’s Way’ anymore? After all, it’s not just women who deal with these issues. We want to be inclusive.” The table was silent, and the conversation eventually moved on.

A few weeks later, I was interviewing a young board member of the Women’s Medical Fund, another Philadelphia organization that helps fund abortions, for a piece on the disparate impact of abortion restriction laws on women of color. Through our entire conversation, the board member never once used the word “women.” I was shocked that she could be so unaware of the inherently gendered nature of the debate.

To be clear, these organizations do amazing work for women and, no matter what language they use, they still provide important services that, without exaggeration, save women’s lives. I still fully support them. In fact, I would encourage everyone to donate to them if you happen to be able.

Yet we should also be clear about something else: if reproductive health was a gender-neutral issue, it wouldn’t be up for debate. Men would never tolerate such state control over their bodily autonomy. Forced birth is sexualized violence against women and girls — and the most vulnerable among us, like poor women and women of color, suffer the most.

”Watching women’s organizations cave to this bullying is heartbreaking, a reminder that our 'freedom' only comes at the will of men.”

So why are non-profits that should be aware of this fact erasing the reality of violence against women?

A new battlefield to control women’s language and behavior has emerged in the past few years: the attempt to erase women entirely from any aspect of the female reproductive cycle. This push for “gender-neutral language” started in extreme activist communities, was forced onto non-profits with lifesaving funds withheld as blackmail, and has eventually moved into the corporate world. The new language policing includes areas such as periods, pregnancy, and motherhood — all exclusively female experiences.

The stated goal of activists who push for “gender-neutral language” when discussing female reproduction is to be inclusive of “nonbinary” or trans-identifying females. Yet, it is clear this is just a continuation of Men’s Rights Activism to erode the rights of women and girls and hide the sexualized violence that we face because of our biology. Watching women’s organizations cave to this bullying is heartbreaking, a reminder that our “freedom” only comes at the will of men.

The Executive Director of one women’s non-profit, which I won’t name for their protection, privately shared with me that she was concerned about this growing trend. However, she admitted, she was too afraid to say anything publicly. “We would lose all our funding,” she said. In a world where the lives of women and girls are actually on the line, important non-profits like these can’t take the financial hit, so they are forced to cave to threats when women’s safety is held hostage.

This is part of a larger war on women, and if non-profits are not safe to speak about it — I will. It’s time to recognize the danger in female erasure.

1. Periods

Periods are an exclusively female experience. While, sure, not all women will ever get a period (like those with specific intersex conditions)— every human who does get a period is female. This is a biological fact.

Across the world, women and girls face threats to their most basic human rights due to inadequate menstruation conditions. According to Human Rights Watch:

Pads and other supplies may be unavailable or unaffordable, they may lack access to safe toilet facilities with clean water where they can clean themselves in privacy, and they face discriminatory cultural norms or practices that make it difficult to maintain good menstrual hygiene. Together, these challenges may result in women and girls being denied basic human rights.

Women and girls have been denied access to education, missed work, and even been banished from their homes for having their periods. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that girls miss about 20% of the school year due to menstruation.

According to the United Nations:

“In some countries, said the experts, menstruating women continue to be viewed as ‘contaminated and impure’, often restricted and forbidden to engage in activities like touching water or cooking, attending religious and cultural ceremonies or other community activities.”

In some areas of India, women are still sent to spend their period in Gaokors, huts specifically for menstruating women and girls which often lack basic sanitation. Since women are not allowed to cook, there is no kitchen in the hut, and women rely on family to bring them food. It doesn’t always come. Women have died in these huts due to wildlife attacks and exposure. 23% of Indian girls drop out of school when they start menstruating because they are not able to take their exams.

”It’s simple: women and girls have human rights, and they have periods.”

Period poverty is not just an issue in developing countries. In the United States, about one in five teens have struggled to afford menstrual products and have missed school because of menstruation. Women in prisons and police custody have been forced into humiliating and unsanitary situations when they get their period. Despite the fact that Viagra is not taxed, tampons and menstrual hygiene supplies in 35 states are still taxed as a “luxury item.”

“It’s simple: women and girls have human rights, and they have periods,” said Hannah Neumeyer, head of human rights at WASH United.

Yet, in privileged Western countries, middle-class young people who have never experienced period poverty are fighting to hide the reality of the discrimination that women and girls face when they menstruate. The changes are subtle, but they matter.

Always, a brand which creates pads and tampons, recently announced that they are caving to pressure to remove the “female” Venus symbol from their packaging. This move was widely criticized by feminists, who saw it rightly for what it was: female erasure.

NBC claimed that criticism of this move was “rooted in the misconception that transgender and nonbinary people cannot experience menstruation.” This is simply untrue, though. All feminists know that females, regardless of how they identify, are able to menstruate. To imply that some females are no longer biologically female because of their gender identity is deeply misogynistic since it falsely implies that women and girls can simply opt-out of biology and therefore the discrimination, sexism, and violence that comes with this biology.

Screenshot by author from Aunt Flow’s mission page

Other companies have gotten in on the trend. Thinx, Lunette Cup, and Aunt Flow have all made efforts to erase women from their marketing. Aunt Flow, who has claimed they are, “actively changing our language to create a gender-inclusive community,” has taken to calling women, specifically women and girls living in poverty “menstruators” — a deeply dehumanizing term.

The tagline of Thinx, which creates absorbent period underwear, is: “For people with periods.”

The denial of the simple reality that these people who menstruate are women is an insult to all women and girls who have had to deal with discrimination for their periods.

In her 1986 article, “If Men Could Menstruate,” feminist icon Gloria Steinem imagines what a world with menstruating men would look like:

“Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:
Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood…
The truth is that, if men could menstruate, the power justifications would go on and on.”

Honestly, you should read the whole thing. Steinem is absolutely right. It’s exactly because periods are an exclusively female event, and we live in patriarchy, that “menstruators” suffer. Attempts to erase women from menstruation won’t stop patriarchy from enacting its violence and discrimination against female bodies — it will only hide the reality of this misogyny. Women can’t afford to give up this ground.

2. Pregnancy and Abortion

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

This quote is largely attributed to Florynce Kennedy, a black feminist, activist, and lawyer. In one short, sweet, statement, Kennedy has described the reality of pregnancy — if this were a gender-neutral issue equally affecting men and women, the violence associated with pregnancy, forced birth, or punishments for abortion would simply not exist.

The violence women experience in relation to their ability to get pregnant can not be understated.

According to the World Health Organization, 23,000 women die of unsafe abortions each year. Some estimate it may actually be as high as 30,000 women, accounting for 8–10% of all maternal deaths. Tens of thousands more experience significant health complications from unsafe abortions.

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

In El Salvador, women with cancer may be refused treatment for fear that it could harm a fetus. Doctors may refuse to treat ectopic pregnancies, resulting in the explosion of a woman’s fallopian tube. Teenage girls are killing themselves in droves rather than choose between forced birth or an illegal abortion — accounting for nearly half of maternal deaths in the country. Over 100 women were charged with illegal abortions, some whom actually had genuine miscarriages, a crime that can carry a 30-year sentence.

In Brazil, 250,000 women are hospitalized annually from complications related to illegal abortions. About 200 of those women will die from the complications.

In Northern Ireland, women can face 14 years in prison for an illegal abortion and are forced to travel to other countries to obtain one. In reality, this just means abortion is restricted for poor women while wealthy women are able to flee. These laws were recently found to be in violation of the UK Human Rights commitments by the high court in Belfast.

For women who go on to carry to term — the results aren’t necessarily better.

Every day, 810 women die from preventable causes related to childbirth and pregnancy. That’s nearly 300,000 per year.

In the United States, black women have a maternal death rate three to four times higher than that of white women and women of other races.

According to The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, pregnancy can often be a trigger for domestic violence. One in six women who experiences abuse reports the abuse first occurred pregnancy — totaling more than 320,00 women annually experiencing DV during pregnancy (just in the US).

In the United States, homicide is a leading cause of maternal death, taking more lives than many obstetric complications such as hemorrhage and preeclampsia. Half of these murders are committed by the woman’s former or current intimate partner.

“Every day, 810 women die from preventable causes related to childbirth and pregnancy.”

Women experience abuse and violence during childbirth, including procedures or examinations occurring without consent as well as verbal abuse.

Women are sterilized against their consent during childbirth, or are sold like commodities.

The ways in which women experience violence, abuse, criminalization, and discrimination for their ability to get pregnant and give birth are so numerous that there is no way I could give a fully comprehensive overview.

Under patriarchy, our very system of pregnancy and birthing could be considered violence against women. In fact, the United Nations defines “violence against women” as:

“Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Given the hundreds of thousands of women (and girls) who suffer and die due to pregnancy, being told that pregnancy is “not a women’s issue” is a slap in the face.

While a tiny handful of female people wish to argue that they are not women, denying the reality of this deeply-gendered violence to satisfy a powerful and abusive minority is misogyny.

Everything from Planned Parenthood to pregnancy apps are being called on to erase women from their language. Jezebel and Buzzfeed reported that a refusal to erase women from the language of abortion and pregnancy was one of the (many) reasons behind the early ousting of Planned Parenthood’s short-lived president, Dr. Leana Wen. The fact that a doctor of medicine is able to recognize that female people (aka “women”) become pregnant should shock no one.

Some have even claimed that the highly controversial term “women” should be replaced with the much more straightforward, “Individuals with childbearing reproductive organs.”

One article in Allure falsely claimed, “the only reason ‘people’ doesn’t work in place of ‘women’ when you’re talking about abortions is if you don’t think cis women are people.” This disingenuous reporting is absurd to anyone who knows and works with the feminist campaigners who have been fighting to protect women for decades — it is precisely because we see women as fully human that we refuse to take part in the erasure of violence against women.

A 2015 article in New Statesman America more accurately recognized the impact of these changes:

If one looks at how gender functions, not as a means of self-definition, but as a class system, the gender-neutral pregnancy starts to feel akin to John Major’s “classless society.” It’s a way of using language to create the illusion of dismantling a hierarchy when what you really end up doing is ignoring it. Pregnancy is a gendered experience, not because pregnant individuals necessarily feel like women, but because the pregnant body is externally managed within the context of its subordinate sex class status.

When we acknowledge that all female people, regardless of their gender identity or feelings, are at risk for this sex-based violence, we are being inclusive. More importantly, we are not prioritizing the feelings of a privileged few over the actual lives of the disenfranchised many.

3. Parenting and Motherhood

The move to erase women’s biological role in reproduction, and the discrimination and violence we face because of it, does not end once the child exits the birth canal. For some, it is just beginning.

Mothers still face discrimination across society, specifically in the workforce, that simply does not exist for fathers. According to a 2010 report in Gender & Society, mothers face a penalty at work for the very same behaviors for which fathers are rewarded:

“Mothers were offered a salary that was , on average, $7000 less than the salary offered to childless women. On the contrary, fathers were offered a salary that was, on average, $6,000 higher than the recommended compensation for men without children.”

Discrimination against breastfeeding mothers is incredibly widespread. According to Pregnant @ Work, 27.6 million women of childbearing age across the United States still lack basic protection for breastfeeding at work. Two-thirds of women who point out discrimination related to breastfeeding are ultimately fired. Women in male-dominated fields make up 46% of these claims.

“Two-thirds of women who point out discrimination related to breastfeeding are ultimately fired.”

Parenting itself is often a deeply gendered experience, with mothers putting in more time and labor into childrearing even as fathers have recently increased their marginal input. Fathers spend an average of seven hours per week on parenting, with mothers spending double that at fourteen. When you consider the extra housework involved, the birth of a child increases a man’s total workload by 12.5 hours, compared to a woman’s 21 hours.

Source: Pregnant @ Work

Now, even motherhood itself is being erased in favor of “gender-neutral” parenting. Of course, there’s nothing gender-neutral about it. Female people will still be doing the majority of the work (and be punished for it, anyway) while male people are rewarded for having simply provided some sperm.

A new push to eliminate breastfeeding in favor of “chestfeeding” has arisen, with real consequences for women. In 2015 the Supreme Court found in favor of Nationwide Insurance, who had fired Angela Ames for giving birth and looking to breastfeed at work. The ACLU reported that the court upheld the decision, claiming that breastfeeding is not sex-discrimination since, according to the ACLU, “men can lactate under certain circumstances.”

In fact, males have started chemically altering their bodies in order to produce milk. At the time of publishing, there is no known research on the safety of this for the baby or the parent involved in using drugs off-label for this purpose. Some are even claiming that breastfeeding is not about the milk that is produced, but about the parent/child relationship — arguing in support of male parents “suckling” their infants on their nipples regardless of milk supply.

For the most part, though, the ACLU is referring to female people who identify as men. Everyone should be free to use whatever language they like to describe themselves, even when clearly false, however, the law should not be changed to reflect un-verifiable religious beliefs — no matter how strong of a lobby there is for it. Organizations like the ACLU have made it more difficult for females of any gender identity to seek help by arguing that men can breastfeed, too.

Is this what they mean by “inclusive”?

The Women’s Human Rights Campaign, which produced the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights, argues against this male-washing of motherhood:

“States should understand that the inclusion of men who claim a female ‘gender identity’ into the legal category of mother in law, policies and practice, and the corresponding inclusion of women who claim a male ‘gender identity’ into the category of father, constitute discrimination against women by seeking to eliminate women’s unique status and sex-based rights as mothers.”

WHRC is currently lobbying states as well as the United Nations to accept the Declaration and enshrine sex-based rights for women, one attempt to combat this rising trend fo female erasure.

This is just the beginning

Despite the length of this article, I have only grazed the surface of the ways in which female reproductive biology is being erased — and along with it the history and current reality of gender-based violence and discrimination against women and girls.

There are some topics that I barely even touched on, like the sale of female bodies to be used as reproductive machines (or ‘gestational carriers’).

I have barely mentioned the ways that these forces function in relation to sexual violence, including rape, and how under patriarchy gender-based violence compounds and spawns new forms of violence that stem from the old.

I have barely had space to describe the atrocities that face girls, literal children, in many parts of the world and the horrific sexualized violence that they experience — often with periods, pregnancy, and motherhood playing an important role in their subjugation, leading to intergenerational trauma.

While privileged white folx resting comfortably in the United States may be concerned about including people who are female anyway in female-centered language, feminists, activists, and aid workers across the world are struggling to even have women’s human rights acknowledged.

Until the day comes that women and girls don’t experience sex-based violence and discrimination due to periods, pregnancy, or motherhood, I refuse to hide their reality under sugar-coated language. While women’s organizations are in a precarious position right now, it’s time for the public to start speaking out in their defense and against female erasure.

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