Gender-Neutral Language is Feminist


It’s only two weeks since my piece on the language of cervixes and already we have another anti-trans article complaining about “the word ‘woman’ being banned” (it isn’t), this time by Rosie DiManno in The Toronto Star and, inexplicably, despite it being obvious nonsense, being shared on Twitter by Margaret Atwood.

Something I didn’t mention in that last post, but that is a large problem for any attempt to argue against inclusive language under any kind of feminist auspice, is that inclusive, gender-neutral language is a feminist project to begin with. Especially throughout the 1970s, feminists campaigned against sexist language that assumed a ‘genericness’ of male-coded terms.

The victory of that feminist campaign is why we now say “police officer” instead of ‘policeman’, ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’, and why we now, instead of using a generic ‘he’, use “he or she” or even the dreaded singular ‘they’. Which gained some acceptance for a while, but was then challenged again when it turned out to help trans people — funny that! It’s almost as if it’s not the term itself that’s objectionable, but simply the fact that trans people benefit from it, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And, of course, such campaigns faced a misogynist backlash with an array of counterarguments. Maija S. Blaubergs, in a paper in Women’s Studies International Quarterly in 1980, classified these counterarguments into 8 categories.

  1. “cross-cultural” arguments
  2. “language is a trivial concern” arguments
  3. “freedom of speech/unjustified coercion” arguments
  4. “sexist language is not sexist” arguments
  5. “word-etymology” arguments
  6. “appeal to authority” arguments
  7. “change is too difficult, inconvenient, impractical or whatever” arguments
  8. “it would destroy historical authenticity and literary works” arguments

While the trans objection to ‘woman’ is quite obviously not to a male-coded term, it remains exactly the same feminist objection to an exclusionary presumption of genericness. As I pointed out in my previous post, the word ‘woman’ is not being banned; what is being challenged is its use for describing people who are not women.

So I thought it would be fun to compare these anti-feminist arguments from 40-50 years ago with TERF arguments today. Surely TERFs, being totally definitely real feminists, wouldn’t be acting exactly like the anti-feminists of yesteryear, right? …Right?

“Cross-cultural” Arguments

The cross-cultural arguments identified by Blaubergs are of the type that point out that languages that are pervaded by less sexist language do not necessarily belong to cultures that are themselves less sexist.

An example of this argument is that the Turkish third-person pronoun o is gender-neutral, but, as a letter to the New York Times Magazine cited by Blaubergs claims, “Yet what does this tell us about the place of women in Turkish society? Nothing, really.”

One claim Blaubergs brings up is that other oppressed groups are not oppressed by language in the way women are. To the letter, this is almost true: Trans people are the only people other than women oppressed specifically by the presumed genericness of certain gendered terms. Which makes sense, because the point is that they are gendered. But if the claim is more generally that other oppressed groups are not oppressed by language, it is entirely and obviously false. It’s hard to think of an oppressed group that hasn’t challenged harmful language and offered a “politically correct” alternative.

Blaubergs talks a bit about “linguistic relativity” — the idea that social attitudes are conditioned by the language in which they’re expressed — but ultimately argues that this is beside the point. The point isn’t whether sexist language causes sexism through some Whorfian means or sexist language is merely a reflection of pre-existing sexism, but more directly that sexist language is sexism.

I was thinking about this when Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos made his since-walked-back claim that transphobic content doesn’t lead to real-world harm. He argued that, in the same way “first party [sic] shooters” don’t turn people into murderers, so transphobic “jokes” on comedy specials don’t lead to real-world harm against trans people. While others — quite rightly — pointed out that if transphobia on the service can’t be harmful, Netflix then can’t also claim that trans representation on the service is empowering, I was thinking along different lines. I was thinking that the point isn’t the relationship between content and harm, but rather that the content is the harm. That it’s a relatively minor harm in and of itself is small comfort when it is a part of and contributor to a much larger system of harm, but perhaps an in-depth discussion of the cumulativeness of microaggressions is for another post.

TERFs do use cherry-picked and misleading cross-cultural arguments in general (they’re particularly fond of bringing up Iran), but rarely, that I’ve seen, specifically in relation to language. I think the closest I’ve seen to that is the “English as a Second Language” concerns I covered in my previous post.

“Language is a trivial concern” Arguments

This is perhaps a unique form of argument in that it was advanced not only by sexists, but even by some feminists themselves. It is a form of whataboutism: “why are you focusing on language when there are more important issues?” Blaubergs identifies two components to this form of argument:-

(1) including language among the other aspects of sexism will detract from the perceived seriousness of the other injustices, and (2) that the limited energies of feminists could be better spent in addressing other forms of sexism.

Surprisingly, the best response to these kinds of arguments I’ve ever heard comes not from the sphere of feminism, but from the sphere of videogames. A common complaint among The Gamers™ when a developer announces new content for a game is, “Why are you making new content when there are still bugs to fix?” The answer is often that new content for an existing game relies mainly on artists and writers, less so on programmers, and you do not want artists trying to fix problems with code. The point is that, ideally, people focus on issues to which their skills are suited.

It may speak to a dismissiveness of feminism, and of activism more generally, to assume that it is unskilled work that anyone can do. If some feminists choose to focus on language, it may be because that is where their individual skills lie. And if other feminists are already focused on violence against women and girls, or legal standing, or economics, or any of the other myriad topics that comprise feminism because those are the areas where their skills apply, then perhaps it’s more effective to focus on issues that they’re not covering. The argument that there are particular topics feminists should focus on to the exclusion of others thus begins with an objectifying assumption that feminists are interchangeable.

There’s also the issue that perhaps there is such a focus on language not because that’s what feminists have decided is important, but because that’s where feminists (much like trans people 40 years later) have received so much pushback. Blaubergs makes the concise observation: “If sexist language is such a trivial issue, it is puzzling why changing it should be so vigorously and vehemently opposed.”

The TERF form of this argument is somewhat different. The sexist form of the argument at least conceded that there are other concerns that are important for feminists. I haven’t seen much in the way of TERFs arguing that trans people have more important concerns, presumably because that would involve admitting that trans people have any important concerns.

Rather, the TERF form of this argument is a double standard that is neatly rebutted by Blaubergs’ response: that language is important when we’re talking about cis people (hence changing it being “vigorously and vehemently opposed”), but is a petty issue when we’re talking about trans people, dismissively reduced to the level of “hurt feelings”.

“Freedom of speech/unjustified coercion” Arguments

Sigh. Do I have to? Precisely because this form of argument is so obviously used by TERFs in the same way it was used by anti-feminists 40-50 years ago, engaging with it once again is particularly tiresome. Ok, here goes…

The first example of this argument Blaubergs gives is this sarcastic diatribe by Calvin Brown (1973):-

[W]e men had better play it safe and respect the ladies’ persondate to reform the language for their own purposes. […] [W]e are sure to be personhandled by some wopersons if we don’t.

DiManno’s article (2021) begins with similarly sarcastic paraphrasing of lines from famous songs.

“You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Person with a Vagina!”

“Man! I Feel Like a Person who Menstruates!”

“Oh, Pretty Person with a Cervix!”

Plus ça fucking change…

Blaubergs quotes, among others Alfred Friendly’s 1978 Washington Post article Language and the wopersons’ movement:-

[I]t seems that a multitude of terrorized individuals and institutions (including state legislatures) have set about mangling perfectly neuter and valid words like foreman and motorman. […] The principal counterfeiters — let us be frank about it at the outset — are the less sensible activists of the women’s rights movement; the users are those who are cravenly intimidated by them.

And Albert Kingston and Terry Lovelace’s 1977 paper Guidelines for authors: a new form of censorship? :-

[P]ublishers and professional societies seem to have succumbed to the pressures of those who allege that traditional educational texts and basal readers are sexist in nature. […] Censorship is an ugly word. Whether or not those who subscribe to these principles realize it, these guidelines constitute a form of censorship!

When TERFs talk of “institutional capture by the powerful trans lobby”, how can it not be read as an echo of anti-feminist sentiments such as these?

Blaubergs notes that Kingston and Lovelace’s comments can be equally read as an indictment of style manuals altogether, but for some reason (we know precisely what reason), they only intend it to apply to the nonsexist guidelines. In exactly the same way, TERFs do not oppose language guidelines altogether, but make the absurd claim that language guidelines for the benefit of trans people are somehow uniquely censorious.

“Sexist language is not sexist” Arguments

The argument that sexist language is “not sexist” is, to Blaubergs, twofold. Firstly, there is the argument that there is no sexist intent behind the use of such language, and secondly, there is the argument that the sexist interpretation of such language is on the part of the interpreter rather than the speaker.

To the first part, it is today widely accepted in feminism that “intent is not magic”. Whether a sexist utterance is conscious or unconscious, the effect is the same. This may initially seem to contradict my previous post about the difference between semantics and pragmatics, so I should clarify. My claim then was that prejudiced intent leads to prejudiced outcomes. My claim now is that lack of prejudiced intent does not guarantee lack of prejudiced outcomes. These are not in contradiction.

It is right that we should be less severe in our reproach to the person who is unconsciously sexist (or transphobic) than to the person who is consciously so, but that should not extend to pretending that the person impacted by the act is impacted any differently.

By way of analogy, criminal law makes a distinction between mens rea and actus reus, which can very loosely be interpreted as ‘intent’ and ‘fact’ respectively. In most cases, a person cannot be culpable for a crime unless they intended to commit that crime (though there are exceptions that fall under things like criminal negligence or reckless endangerment), but this is only relevant to the question of whether the perpetrator should or should not be punished; it is not at all relevant to the question of whether or not the victim has suffered harm.

And so, when applied to sexism (or to prejudice more generally), the idea that intent matters is based on an assumption that sexism is about the sexist, rather than about the sufferer of that sexism. People who retreat to intent are, in so many words, making it all about themselves.

And even this is perhaps overly generous, because it assumes that somebody is telling the truth when they claim their intent is not prejudiced. It’s no secret by this point that it’s very easy for a bigot to simply deny that they are bigoted.

To the second part, Blaubergs counters that this argument:-

…indicates either ignorance of, misunderstanding of, or denial of the validity of the detailed explanations by linguists, psychologists, sociologists, and others of the sexism inherent in the use of masculine terms as alleged generics.

It is, essentially, the familiar frustration of “we’ve explained why this is sexist, but you weren’t listening”.

This form of argument is very transparently present in TERF rhetoric if you simply replace the word ‘sexist’ with ‘transphobic’. TERFs keep insisting that the things they say are “not transphobic”, ignoring numerous explanations for why they are. When a trans person says “we are harmed by this”, and a TERF says “no you’re not”, that is the D in DARVO.

“Word-etymology” Arguments

The etymology argument against challenges to sexist language is that ‘man’ meant ‘person’ long before it meant a male person. In Old English, it is supposed, man meant ‘person’ while wer meant ‘man’ (extant in words like ‘werewolf’) and wif meant ‘woman’ (in fact, the word ‘woman’ is derived from the compound wifman, literally “woman-person”) The word ‘wife’ is derived from here, but the sense of ‘woman’ survives e.g. in ‘midwife’ and in Scots and Northern English dialect ‘wifie’, meaning a (particularly older) woman, whether married or not. This has parallels in Latin, where in Literary Latin homo meant ‘person’ and vir meant ‘man’, while in Vulgar Latin homo meant ‘man’ (whence e.g. French homme).

(Incidentally, this etymological explanation accounts for the lexical similarity between ‘woman’ and ‘man’ only. By contrast, the similarity between ‘female’ and ‘male’ is… basically a coincidence, as ‘female’ comes from Old French femelle and ‘male’ from Old French masle.)

Blaubergs responds that what words once meant is not necessarily what they mean today, noting, among other examples, that ‘girl’ once referred to a child of either sex. And it’s absolutely true that etymology is not meaning. The Latin etymology of ‘manufactured’ literally means “hand-made” despite its modern meaning being quite the opposite — while we took to calling ‘manufactories’ simply ‘factories’ in recognition that the ‘manu-‘ part isn’t particularly relevant post-industrialisation, a similar lexical change has not affected the process of ‘manufacturing’.

At one point in ancient history (before English came along), performing fellatio was considered a ‘lesbian’ act. This was not, unfortunately, history being surprisingly trans-inclusive, but simply that the word ‘lesbian’ once had a different meaning (actually, more than one different meaning) than the meaning it acquired in English at the turn of the 20th century, meaning instead any woman’s ‘shameless’ sexual behaviour, the Lesbians — meaning the people from Lesbos — being notoriously horny in the Ancient Greek world. Ironically, another meaning it had came from the “lesbian rule”, a pliable device used for measuring curves (particularly, supposedly, on Lesbos, hence the name) in a similar way a ruler is used for measuring straight lines, so in a very real sense, ‘lesbian’ meant “not straight” long before ‘straight’ meant “not gay”!

More than that, the etymology argument again hits the same opposition the cross-cultural argument did, which is that the order of cause and effect between sexism and sexist language is kind of beside the point.

TERFs use etymological arguments in a way, but not generally directly. The language to talk about trans people has changed a lot over the past hundred or so years. This is partly due to political correctness, and partly due to an increased understanding of what being trans means. TERFs, eager to dismiss trans campaigning as the actions of an overexcited fringe while shielding themselves from accusations of transphobia, create an artificial distinction between “genuine transsexuals” (who are good) and “transgender activists” (who are bad), ‘transsexual’ being the older, more established term and ‘transgender’ being the relatively newer term. ‘Relatively’ being the operative term: the first use of ‘transsexual’ in English was in fact only seventeen years before the first use of ‘transgender’.

(This is not to say there is no distinction between transsexual and transgender, but it is certainly not the distinction TERFs imagine it to be.)

More generally, the etymology argument (and the argument of “generic male” language as a whole) is an argument that ‘man’ is an unmarked form while ‘woman’ is a marked form. In other words, women are ‘other’ while men are not. Which… isn’t how otherness works, because otherness is a symmetric relation — if A is other to B, then B is other to A. Pretending otherwise happens, but it’s a manifestation of power imbalance, where the group that has the power claims that they can’t be ‘other’ because they have the power and therefore their subjective position (in which they are obviously not ‘other’) is the position that matters.

The only way ‘man’ can truly be an unmarked form is if there is another term to refer to adult male humans — in Old English, as we’ve seen, man could be an unmarked form because wer was the male marked form, but in Modern English, the unmarked form is ‘person’ and the male marked form is ‘man’. Likewise, when TERFs try to claim that “cis is a slur”, they are equally wrongly claiming that ‘trans’ is marked but cis need not be marked because, by some logical impossibility, only one of these is ‘other’.

“Appeal to authority” Arguments

The appeal to authority when it comes to language necessarily is an appeal to authorities on language, especially the dictionary.

The specific problem with this appeal to authority (aside from the general fallacy that appeal to authority is) is that in the English language, and indeed in most languages (with limited exceptions like the French that is spoken specifically in France), the ‘authority’ is not so much an authority as it purports to be a passive observer. ‘Authorities’ on English language collate data from usage, and if the usage changes, then the authority changes. The authority is, in principle, descriptivist, not prescriptivist — it says how the language is used, not how it should be used.

At least, dictionaries are. Style manuals are, by their very nature, prescriptivist, but style is style, and the choices made in a particular style reflect a particular set of attitudes that is only authoritative insofar as one is producing written work for an organisation that prefers a particular style. (Incidentally, the Oxford style manual itself says that the so-called Oxford comma should only be used when it has “clarifying value”, so suck it.)

But more importantly, if the usage doesn’t change, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. The distinction between descriptivist and prescriptivist approaches to language is related to David Hume’s is-ought problem.

Blaubergs notes that authorities are not always as descriptive as they should be. Quoting Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1927):-

This article is intended as a counter-protest. The authoress, poetess, & paintress, & sometimes the patroness & the inspectress, take exception to the indication of sex in these designations. They regard the distinction as derogatory to them & as implying inequality between the sexes […] These ladies neither are nor pretend to be making their objection in the interests of the language or of people in general; they object in their own interests only […] [W]ith the coming extension of women’s vocations, feminines for vocation-words are a special need of the future; everyone knows the inconvenience of being uncertain whether a doctor is a man or a woman; hesitation in establishing the word doctress is amazing.

What’s amazing to me is the “what if you wanted a doctor of a particular sex” argument being used by anti-feminists in the 1920s, but we’re not quite ready to get to the TERF part yet. I don’t want to get too off-track here.

Blaubergs’ comments about dictionaries sharing opinions rather than fact notwithstanding (the reference she chose was already over 50 years old when she was writing, after all, and I would like to believe dictionaries are more sensitive to this issue now, if not in 1980), I think the larger problem is the false assumption about the objectivity of data. If dictionaries and linguists collate their data from usage, and usage is motivated by attitudes, then that data is necessarily going to be a reflection of those attitudes.

In our technologically “advanced” time, we are seeing the same problem play out with artificial intelligence. AI, we have seen time and time again over the past few years, inherits the bias of the data it is trained on. We have quite present examples to challenge the presumption that data is objective, such as Microsoft’s Tay very quickly becoming a Nazi, or Twitter’s image-cropping algorithm being racist. With machine translation, the cross-cultural argument even comes into play again. In 2017, it was noticed that Google Translate translated the Turkish gender-neutral pronoun o as ‘he’ or ‘she’ depending on whether it’s paired with stereotypically male or female occupations. This is a direct result of Google’s algorithm being corpus-based, i.e. trained on actual usage.

Blaubergs says, “To appeal to the traditional authorities on language usage appears to overlook the fact that it is the traditional authorities that proponents of changing sexist language are challenging.” The appeal to authority, already a fallacy, in this way is also a different kind of fallacy. It’s a naturalistic fallacy: If society is sexist/transphobic, and authorities on language record society being sexist/transphobic, then appealing to those authorities is an argument that reduces to “society should be sexist/transphobic because society is sexist/transphobic”.

TERFs absolutely use this same kind of appeal to authority, and I touched on this in my previous post, although I admittedly somewhat glossed over it, which I hope I’ve rectified here. I noted that the dictionary definition of woman is “adult female human”, and not “adult human female”, so TERFs are even misrepresenting the authority they’re appealing to (as they do), but today it is more concerning that they are appealing to such an authority in the first place, given the history of doing exactly that to oppose feminism.

Specifically on the matter of using ‘women’ to refer to trans men and nonbinary people, TERFs use this misdefinition to claim, “but they are women!”

“Change is too difficult, inconvenient, impractical, or whatever” Arguments

This is the “but what can you do?” argument. These arguments, according to Blaubergs, “acknowledge to some extent the sexist aspects of language, but […] consider sexist language to be a necessary (or at least unavoidable) evil.”

She quotes Robin Lakoff (1975):-

[C]ertain aspects of the language are […] too common, too thoroughly mixed throughout the language, for the speaker to be aware each time he [ahem -CF] uses them. […] My feeling is that this area of pronominal neutralization is both less in need of changing and less open to change than many of the other disparities.

But, like, have you even tried? I have the benefit of living in 2021, to be sure, but I was acutely aware of the ‘he’ in that quote. I realise that, in many respects, it’s easy for me to fight a battle that’s already been won, but that’s rather the point. It’s easy for me to use nonsexist language because people before me actually tried it instead of opining about it.

I covered this to some extent in my previous post, where I criticised ‘concerns’ about the practicality of inclusive practices. Those concerns always somehow seem to be assumed to have a transphobic solution. But perhaps more tellingly, opposition to this kind of language change is referring to changes that have already been made. One cannot very well claim it is too hard to change language when one’s precise objection is that people are already doing it. Blaubergs also notes this, pointing to Cathryn Adamsky’s students, who were instructed to try to use ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ generically and, well, didn’t find it that hard.

A common thread in TERF rhetoric is to raise concerns about hypothetical outcomes to actual situations, by pretending those situations are themselves hypothetical (see also: bathroom panic). “If this were to happen, then…” It already does happen, regardless of your choice to use the subjunctive conditional, and the outcomes you predict don’t happen.

“It would destroy historical authenticity and literary works” Arguments

The final set of arguments against changing sexist language to be presented here are those that allege that changing sexist language would involve the rewriting of literary works, the idioms of language, and even historical documents. Such rewriting would, according to the proponents of these arguments, destroy the value, authenticity, purity, elegance, precision, etc. of written works.

In essence, this is the argument expressed by the opening of DiManno’s article, but that argument was based on the false premise that the word ‘woman’ was banned.

If I quote Oscar Wilde, “Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” there are six opportunities there to change “generic male” language into more inclusive language, but I don’t think anybody’s really asking for that? We know something of the history of the time Wilde lived in, and we know that that kind of language was appropriate then.

Calvin Brown, on the other hand, had, according to Blaubergs, a bee in his bonnet about retranslating the Bible to be more inclusive. The crucial difference there is that the Bible is already a translation. Not one word of the Bible was originally in English! More than that, multiple translations, with varying degrees of modernisation, already coexist — the idea that an inclusive retranslation would somehow consign all the others to the dustbin of history when no other retranslation ever has seems, on the face of it, to be a bit absurd.

Kanfer provided a list of idioms that would supposedly have to be changed, but the first example Blaubergs gives is “put up his duchesses”, which is a problem because the slang term ‘dukes’ to mean ‘hands’ is probably unrelated to the male title of ‘duke’ (possibly of Romany origin instead).

Blaubergs brings up an example of an appeal to felicity from Jill McCurley: “with a view to precision of language, and most of all to avoid the infelicity of a ‘chairperson'”. To this, it is easy to respond, what kind of ‘felicity’ is there to describing someone as “a woman policeman”? I mean… Hm. I have to admit, it has a bit of a groove to it, where the ‘wo-‘ emulates a kick and the ‘-ice-‘ emulates a snare on the beats of a 6/8 rhythm, but we ain’t beatboxing here. In prose, it is awkward.

Blaubergs quotes Julia Stanley:-

In general, feminist suggestions have been put down and categorized as illicit tampering with the language, as fads or as grotesque errors in a class with ain’t and double negatives, depending upon the degree to which the writer identifies himself as the last bastion in defense of the “purity” of the English language.

[Here Blaubergs’ quotation ends, but I’d like to continue it.]

One writer has called feminist remodeling of language “the new Sispeak” (Kanier, p. 79), while L.B. Sissman, in his article Plastic English, says that such tampering is as threatening as the American Communist Party, and he accuses feminists of “distort(ing) and corrupt(ing) further the language already savaged by Establishment politicians when they conspire to eliminate the innocuous, and correct, locution, ‘Everyone knows he has to decide for himself,’ and to substitute the odious Newspeakism ‘chairperson’…” (Sissman, 1972: 37)

And how could that not sound familiar to people who deal with transphobes? Aside from the fact that it turns out failure to understand Orwell was also a thing in 1972 (its rigidity and resistance to change was precisely the point of Newspeak — even calling it ‘Newspeak’ was itself a kind of “War is Peace” doublethink where progress was supposedly achieved through stasis, seriously, how do you not get this?), we also have comparison to Communists (the 1970s American equivalent of oh, let’s say, comparing a modern movement to the Taliban, Julie Bindel?)

This is the last of the argument categories Blaubergs identified, but I’d like to add just one more.

“Tiny minority” Arguments

This argument was not directly used particularly frequently in response to challenges to sexist language (and as such isn’t even classified as a category of argument by Blaubergs), because it turns out women are not a minority, tiny or otherwise, but the examples Blaubergs offers are replete with dismissive claims that concern about sexist language is the preserve of a minority. More than one example uses the term “lunatic fringe”. While it was not the core of the argument, it came across in tone.

For TERFs, that has evolved into a full-blown argument. The difference between sexism and transphobia, even I have to agree, is that sexism affects slightly more than half the population, while transphobia affects maybe 1% if even that.

But it’s almost an argument that doesn’t need rebuttal. If your argument is “minorities don’t matter”, you’re not doing your claim that you’re definitely not bigots any favours.

In 2003, when repeal of the notorious Section 28 was being debated in the British Parliament, the Tories wanted to put the matter to a referendum. Ed Davey, now leader of the Liberal Democrats, then the MP who introduced the repeal bill, said: “In a liberal democracy, the need to protect minorities properly sometimes means that protection cannot be achieved through the ballot box and that some things are not appropriate for a vote.”

Protect minorities from whom? The unspoken answer is: from the majority. What Davey said, to my mind, speaks to the core of what distinguishes democracy from mob rule. To allow the fate of minorities to be subject to the whims of the majority is not only letting the fox in the henhouse; it is putting the fox in charge of henhouse design.

Being a tiny minority, except along very specific axes like wealth, implies being disempowered. The disempowerment of being a minority is entirely at odds with TERF claims elsewhere that we have any kind of power. Umberto Eco’s observation that to fascists, “by a constant shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak,” comes to mind.

There’s also the question of how large a minority has to be before it matters — what does ‘tiny’ mean? We don’t have concrete numbers for how many trans people there are in the UK (although forthcoming census data might give us a better picture) but government estimates suggest there might well be as many or more trans people (200,000 – 500,000) in the UK as/than Jewish people (around 300,000). I’m not eager to delve into the thorny issue of comparing trans people and Jewish people in any other way (though I will note John Stoltenberg, lifelong partner of Andrea Dworkin (herself Jewish), making such comparisons), but the TERF argument here seems to be focused on the size of the minority, and if trans people aren’t a big enough minority to be worthy of consideration, that has troubling implications for smaller minorities.

TERFs try to hedge this by insisting they’re talking about “trans activists” and not trans people in general, evoking those same “lunatic fringe” comments Blaubergs identified from misogynists. There is also a hypocrisy to this, where TERFs insist that “trans activists” are a tiny minority while also asserting, despite copious demonstrable evidence to the contrary, that they speak for all women.


In her conclusion, Blaubergs notes that, “Those who argue against change often overlay their arguments with ridicule and hostility towards feminists.” This is something trans people can easily sympathise with.

But she ends on a (slightly) more optimistic note: “However, consistent with the processes of language change that have been reported historically, nonsexist language forms and usage patterns now coexist with earlier forms and resistance to the new usage will continue on the part of some individuals.” For trans people, the good news is that, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth of transphobes, trans-inclusive language is already here. It won’t replace exclusionary language overnight, and for a time the two forms will coexist.

For my own conclusion, I’d just reiterate that inclusive language is fully consistent with feminist principles from 40 years ago, and that the TERF opposition to it now rather closely mirrors the sexist opposition then.