know about Margaret Atwood shouldn’t amplify transphobic rhetoric
Later this week, Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” is coming to campus. For my penultimate column, I don’t want to write a blockbuster article, but rather a genuine critique of some of the mixed messages Atwood has given in the past to the trans and queer community.
My main gripe is with an article Atwood shared last year on Twitter, giving Toronto Star opinion writer Rosie DiManno huge exposure to Atwood’s 2 million followers. This column, titled “Why Can’t We Say ‘Woman’ Anymore?” states that “language radicals” pursue the “erasure of women”. This “mob” silences defenseless dissidents like DiManno herself. Or, as I prefer to frame her, well-known columnists from major newspapers who can deliver her message to hundreds of thousands.
I won’t go into the facts discussed in this article, but just want to focus on the faulty logic and reactionary tendencies that DiManno exhibits in his writing and why Atwood was quite irresponsible in giving this nonsense a megaphone.
The article argues that we should not use terms like “pregnant people” or “people with cervixes” under any circumstances, and instead use gendered terms like “women.” Why is this not inclusive? Because trans men, intersex and non-binary people may, for example, become pregnant or have a cervix, and may not identify as female. It really is that simple. Think of it this way: If you’re concerned about someone’s risk of ovarian cancer, it’s not whether that person is a woman that matters. What matters is whether they have ovaries, among other physical risk factors. Just because most people with ovaries identify as female doesn’t mean we should ignore, exclude, or stigmatize everyone who doesn’t fit into that category. Thus, gender-inclusive language prevents marginalized groups that DiManno tries to conveniently gloss over from being eliminated.
I want to spend more time on that point because it is a point of reference for many trans-exclusive feminists. They claim that this inclusive language erases the representation of women, but I disagree. To me, feminism means challenging the social construction of gender and helping all people, including men, women and non-binary people, to pursue the life they want, free from these social restrictions. What does that gibberish mean? It means embracing an intersectional lens of feminism where we all need to stand in solidarity with people who are oppressed, including men, who are also oppressed because of their gender. If you care about women’s health, it’s not just about reproductive rights. This is gender-affirming care for trans women. It’s about the mental health of overworked, low-income women. It’s about protecting women of color from police abuse. If you care about women’s health, it doesn’t start or end in the womb.
But beyond reasoned philosophical discussion, I found DiManno’s comment distasteful, as it falls into the very common transexclusive feminist pattern of weaponizing transphobia under the guise of protecting women. I find it very enriching that someone who claims to be fighting against erasure then says: “Women abort. Or, I guess, in trace amounts, people born with female genitalia that identify as male or fluid can terminate a pregnancy.” No, Rose. People who can get pregnant have abortions. It’s not hard, it’s just biology.
Why do I spend so much time at DiManno? Because Atwood gave him a massive audience when he shared this article with his 2 million followers, apparently in support of DiManno’s premises at the very least. Public figures need to be held to a higher standard as they are not just average citizens, but people who command an army online. And spreading reactionary content with a layer of transphobia is not what I would call the pinnacle of feminist praxis.
I’ll give credit where it’s due, and I really don’t think Atwood is a raging transphobe. Atwood has, on numerous occasions, positively affirmed the existence of trans people, acknowledged gender and sex difference, and rejected strict gender binaries. In his own words: “It is not true that there are no trans people.” But at the same time, this is why sharing a blatant article targeting the trans community is even more objectionable and disappointing.
We all need to be careful about sharing sensational and misleading stories online, often without realizing it. Public figures should be held to a higher standard, not a lower one. In other contexts, Atwood has made it clear that he is not with the hate and that he is with all queer people. If that’s the real Margaret Atwood, great! But I will not be so naive as to think that any of us is holy or above reproach.
Eleanor Gully is a senior triple majoring in French, Economics and Philosophy, Politics, and Law.