By Megan McArdle
If you were raised on 1970s feminism, as I was, the linguistic shift toward phrases such as “birthing people” and “uterus havers” has been a bit jarring. We grew up on “women’s liberation,” “women’s issues” and “women’s rights”; now, suddenly, those issues and rights seem to belong to select bits of our anatomy.
The incongruity between old language and new became particularly noticeable this week, after Politico published a leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that would overturn Roe v. Wade.
In 1987, the National Women’s Law Center called the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court “a particular threat to women” because of his lack of deference to precedents such as Roe. Today, with Roe actually in danger, the organization warns that any justice who signs on to the leaked opinion “is fueling the harm and violence that will happen to people who become pregnant in this country.”
Nor is it alone in blurring the old focus on women; an official from Planned Parenthood in California, along with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, were among those who focused on “people” rather than “women.” It is hard to fault more inclusive language, of course — but it is also impossible not to wonder whether “people who become pregnant” constitutes the same kind of effective political coalition that “women” did.
Historically, the “women’s movement” was mobilized around what sociologists call a “thick” identity. Womanhood influenced almost every aspect of your life, from the biology of menstruation and childbirth, to how you dressed and acted, to your social roles: daughter, sister, mother, girlfriend and wife. To speak of being a woman was to speak of all those things at once, and many more I haven’t mentioned. Though, of course, many women missed one or more of those core experiences, all had gone through enough of them to forge a powerful common bond, which translated into some pretty powerful political impacts.
Take medical research: Breast cancer kills about 42,000 American women every year, while prostate cancer kills about 31,000 men. But the National Cancer Institute spends more than twice as much on breast cancer as on prostate cancer. In fact, it spends more money on breast cancer than on lung, pancreatic or colorectal cancer, each of which takes more lives each year than breast cancer.
The relative thickness of female identity explains this, as well as a lot of the political advances women have made over the past 50 years. There is no political identity organized around having a colon because everyone has one; it’s not special to any group. But breasts belonged to women, and women were already organized to fight for their interests.