At the time of writing (July 2021), there is a huge debate in the pregnancy and birthing world regarding the issues of inclusivity and language surrounding sex and gender.
This has been an ongoing topic for debate for a few years, but an article published by the birth author and activist Milli Hill entitled I Will Not Be Silenced, in which she shares her experiences of harassment and bullying after questioning the use of the phrase “birthing people” instead of “women”, has added fuel to the fire.
I will leave you to read and make conclusions on Hill’s article for yourself, but I want to set out my own position regarding these issues for anyone for whom this debate is important.
Being an unknown in the birthing world, nobody has particularly asked me to set out my position, but it’s only a matter of time before I get an email questioning why I refer to “mothers” rather than “parents” or “pregnant women” rather than “birthing people”.
As my blog grows in popularity it is inevitable that I will need to make a statement on it at this point and, although admittedly it feels scary to do so, I want to be open and transparent from the start in order that my readership can choose whether or not to follow my work.
Sex, gender & language
My position on sex, gender and the language we use to describe people is as follows:
- Sex and gender are two different things
- ‘Sex‘ refers to the biological reality of not just humans but all animals, as well as plant life. It determines the reproductive function of humans, other animals and plants who reproduce themselves through sexual reproduction.
- The English words that have historically been used to define the differences between sex characteristics are ‘male’ and ‘female’.
- A ‘male’ human body is a body that (prior to surgical or hormonal intervention, or complications arising from disease or genetic anomalies) produces sperm, bears a penis, scrotum and testicles, and displays the primary and secondary sex characteristics and reproductive functions associated with testosterone production.
- A ‘female’ human body is a body that (prior to surgical or hormonal intervention, or complications arising from disease or genetic anomalies) produces ova, bears a uterus and displays the primary and secondary sex characteristics and reproductive functions associated with oestrogen production.
- A small number of people are intersex and are born with an ambiguous set of sex characteristics that cannot easily be identified as either male or female. The percentage of babies born intersex has been identified as somewhere between 0.02% to 0.05%.
- ‘Gender‘ refers to a set of socially-constructed characteristics and sociocultural roles that manifest in areas including (but not limited to) outward appearance, clothing, hairstyle, body language, social roles, stereotypes, speech patterns and communication styles. The social conventions surrounding gender vary from culture to culture.
- The English words that have historically been used to define the differences between gender characteristics are ‘man’ and ‘woman’.
- In recent years, a small number of people have started to use the phrase ‘non-binary’ to indicate that they feel they do not fit either (or perhaps fit both) of the most basic interpretations of the socially-prescribed roles of ‘man’ or ‘woman’.
Sex & gender in the context of pregnancy & birth
When it comes to navigating the above theory within a pregnancy and birth context, things get difficult. While I’m perfectly on board with, say, a transwoman being a woman, their experience of womanhood simply is not the same as that of a woman with female body parts. That’s just biological fact.
It’s not to say that a female woman’s experience of womanhood is “better”, more “natural” or otherwise superior to a male woman’s. It’s just different because a female woman has been through a female experience of puberty and has a different relationship to sexual reproduction than a male woman does.
In theory, I’m on board with the idea that biology does not create destiny. However, biology does impact our experience of reality and it would quite frankly be anti-science to claim otherwise. Hormones and reproductive functions play a significant part in any person’s day-to-day life and experience of the world. There is nothing to get antsy or political about there: it’s a neutral and indisputable fact.
One of those significant experiences is a female’s (theoretical) capacity to grow a new human in her uterus (bar fertility issues of course – and then that itself is highly likely to some kind of impact on her reality) as opposed to a male’s capacity to ejaculate sperm. The female potential for giving birth (whether or not they choose to and whether or not their bodies turn out to be capable of it) is one biological reality that makes us different from a male.
With me so far? Are we cool?!
All human beings who give birth are female and the vast majority of them (but not all) are women. In the UK in 2019, there were 712,680 live births.
Given that there are 33.75 million women in the UK, 712,680 births a year represents approximately 2% of the UK’s population of female women giving birth. Government figures tentatively estimate the trans population at between 200,000 and 500,000. If we assume the latter, 2% of the birthing trans community would equal 10,000.
However, while there is no formal record of how many births are to trans-men or non-binary people, it is claimed that Freddy McConnell was the very first trans-man to give birth in 2020. Given that trans people are usually navigating issues of body dysphoria, it is perhaps of little surprise that the number of birthing female men is not as high as that of female women.
Simply put, pregnancy and birth is very much an issue that overwhelmingly impacts female women more than anyone else. I recognise that it can and does impact trans-men and non-binary females.
As above, I have not been able to find UK statistics to enlighten me as to how many, but would be very pleased to receive them from anyone who has access and would like to get in touch. However, it is my personal position that all those who give birth are of the female sex whether or not they identify their gender as “woman”. To say otherwise is to question biological reality itself and head off into the realms of arguing that a uterus is a social construct, in which case all I can do is slowly back into a hedge like Homer Simpson.
Mothering vs parenting
Why all this matter is that there is a huge debate raging right now over the language we use in the pregnancy, birthing and childrearing community.
There is a growing movement that is strongly arguing changes such as the following:
- Mother > Parent
- Pregnant woman > Pregnant person
- Woman > Person with a cervix
- Birthing mother > Birthing person
- Breastfeeding > Chestfeeding
- Breastmilk > Chestmilk/human milk
- Maternal > Parental
When I started this blog back in late 2019, I had come from the world of feminist blogging and online liberal feminism and I anticipated this debate becoming an issue. At the beginning I thought long and hard about whether to embed language such as the above into my blog posts and general blogging ethos. After much consideration, I decided not to for two reasons:
- I realised that my motives for considering using phrases such as “birthing person” instead of “mother” were absolutely, entirely 100% to do with fear of what other people (i.e. the more shouty of the vocal feminists and trans activists who are pushing for changes like this) would think of me. I was scared of receiving angry emails telling me I was transphobic for using the word “breastfeeding” and was already feeling like I had to adjust and modify my writing voice for the sake of other people’s values. Which leads me to my second reason…
- What I really wanted to do was write and speak to mothers. Very specifically, mothers. This was my entire motivation for starting this blog in the first place. My own experience of becoming a mother had been an extraordinarily intense baptism of fire. It was lonely and catapulted me into this strange new world of sleep regressions and breastfeeding coffee mornings and baby sensory classes that I didn’t understand and I wasn’t prepared for. I also felt like a complete outsider in all the parents’ (let’s face it, mostly mothers’) and baby groups as I was the only attachment-focused mother. I started this blog because I wanted to talk to, connect with and support other mothers like me.
For these reasons I actively choose and am unashamed to use words like ‘mother’, ‘pregnant woman/women’ and ‘breastfeeding’. This is my little corner of the internet that I pay good money to own and I choose to use it speak to mothers.
It may be unfortunate that this decision means I am not using language inclusive of trans people, but then my language is also not especially inclusive of male fathers, adoptive parents of any sex/gender, pregnant surrogates or mothers who used a surrogate.
This is where we reach the thorny issue of “inclusivity” and the current drive by some feminists to force a shift in pregnancy, birth and baby-related language in order to be “inclusive”. My unpopular opinion and position is as follows:
Not all spaces have to be inclusive to all people.
I know. I told you.
I understand that I will enrage some people with this statement but it is my opinion and I’m allowed to have it. You are also allowed to disagree with it, that’s fine by me.
My opinion here is based on this premise: if I were to go to an orthodox mosque as an anti-organised religion agnostic feminist, I would not expect the community there to be “inclusive” of me by mixing the men and women together and removing all references to Allah from their liturgy.
If I went to the Conservative Party Conference as a left-leaning liberal, I wouldn’t expect them to be “inclusive” of me by changing their political conversations to be less right-wing. And if I went to a barbeque hosted by an omnivore and asked the hosts to get rid of all meat and other animal products in order to me inclusive of me as a vegan, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get invited to a barbeque again…
Like I said, not all spaces need to include all people.
In terms of the birthing space, midwife-led care, antenatal classes, pregnancy yoga classes and all the other pregnancy and birth-related environments traditionally filled solely with women, of course a trans-man or non-binary person should be welcomed into those spaces when pregnant. They should obviously be given basic human respect, dignity and honouring of birth choices that the rest of us expect, because to do anything else makes you an asshole. I’d be very surprised if you could find a single healthcare professional or birth worker who would disagree with that or argue that trans folks should be actively excluded from pregnancy and birth spaces.
What we must remember, however, is that female women have a long history of being oppressed, dominated, treated as personal and public possessions, and generally having our human rights violated specifically because we are women with female bodies. It is our potential for birthing that has led to multiple inequalities over the centuries. This is why pregnancy and birthing spaces are highly charged and have historically been (and sadly often still are) sites of major violations of our bodily autonomy. This is slowly changing, thank goodness, but with the emphasis on slowly.
Our vulnerability when we become mothers and our relatively lower levels of body strength when compared to males has allowed things like sexual violence to exist. The cultural constructs that exist around female women are constantly used against us in birthing spaces, mothering spaces, work environments and far beyond. Our dehumanisation and reduction to our biological functions is also a cause of great oppression, and this is where it becomes highly problematic for trans activists and their allies to attempt to alter the language of birth by employing phrases such as “person with a cervix”. Female women have had quite enough of being treated in particular ways on account of our biology and many of us take issue with this well-meaning but brutally reductionist language.
Meanwhile, despite it being an effort at inclusivity, it also ends up excluding those for whom English is not their first language. “Woman” and “mother” are fairly basic words for someone still learning English, but refer to them as a “person with a cervix” and a basic level of understanding between different cultures gets lost.
At the very least, all this requires an open and respectful dialogue to take place involving all those whom for changes in language led by “inclusivity” has an impact. However, that is not what is happening. Highly-knowledgeable and pioneering voices in the birthing world, who have made great strides in helping women have empowered birthing experiences, are being shouted down, abused, accused of transphobia and hate speech, being deplatformed and having their hard-earned careers placed under threat. All because they hold an opinion that female women are important in the birthing space.
This is not acceptable. All people impacted by significant changes to the language used in the pregnancy and birth world have the right to an informed opinion about those changes. They also have the right to express those opinions without fear of abuse, death threats, calls for their books to be burned and so on. An awful lot of midwives were targeted in the original Witch Hunts. What is happening at the moment to people who express an opinion contrary to that of the “inclusivity-first” approach is looking suspiciously like a virtual version of that misogynist genocide. Ironically, this is very much a non-inclusive approach: you can’t be “inclusive of everybody, unless they have a different opinion to us, in which case BURN THE WITCH”. Or hey, maybe you can. Like I said, not all spaces need to include all people…
I don’t know the answer to how we move forward from here. But what I do know is that I should not have to be afraid of choosing to address my readership as “women” and “mothers”. I actively WANT to talk to women and mothers. Non-women and non-mothers are welcome to be here too, but I’m not going to change my language in order to address them too. Mothers have more than earned the right to a space to call our own and I am proud to have created one over here that is specifically for mothers who do things differently from the mainstream. Anyone who is not one of those can be here on not be here, but I won’t apologise for not trying to be all things to all people.
I’d like to finish with a quote from life coach Brooke Castillo, which I heard in an excellent podcast episode she did on how to disagree with people:
Why do we have such a hard time disagreeing with other people? Why do we feel like we need to either make the person agree with us OR eliminate the person?”Brooke Castillo, The Life Coach School Podcast (Episode 319, 7th May 2020)
You are perfectly entitled to disagree with absolutely everything I’ve said in this statement. That is just fine by me. But you don’t need to either try and change my mind or get me eliminated.
If you feel strongly about it, you can get get in touch with me if you like but I would ask that a) you listen to the Castillo podcast episode first so that you can disagree with me in a reasonable fashion, and b) recognise that I am a busy working mother who doesn’t owe you an immediate in-depth response.
Otherwise, if you are offended by the position I have laid out above you are free to go elsewhere for your ecofeminist pregnancy and birth-related content. If you are happy with me holding my opinion and would like to hang around with me though, I’m delighted to have you here.
Wishing you all the best on your journey, wherever it leads you.