Former Margaret Atwood Fan Talks Inclusive Language and Blowing Dog Whistles Through a Megaphone

by Kaitlyn Crow (they/them)

I encountered Margaret Atwood for the first time like many do: in a classroom. In my Gender & Bodies class, we read and dissected The Handmaid’s Tale. I found myself immersed in June’s story; indignant at the ideas centered around the patriarchy, gender discrimination, and reproduction; and wondering where I might find myself in Gilead.

The semester I took Gender & Bodies was well over a year before I came out to the world (and myself) as nonbinary, and my reading of the text has grown more complicated since. Still, this past summer I sat down with my partner to binge-watch the Hulu adaptation. Despite differences between the text and the show, I still came to the same conclusion: Atwood had written an insightful narrative about the perils of a society going to extraordinary lengths to tie biology and gender.

So, imagine my dismay this week when a tweet from Atwood made its way to my feed, captioned “Why can’t we say ‘woman’ anymore?” The article shared in the tweet, by the same title as Atwood’s caption, laments the use of inclusive language such as “person with a vagina,” and posits that “woman” is being erased from the societal lexicon.

The linked article, published by the Toronto Star and written by a columnist named Rosie DiManno, hides behind a paywall. However, for the purposes of this column and because I believe that everyone should be able to read background on things before casting a judgement, you can view screenshots of the story here

and here.

In her opinion piece, DiManno pits inclusivity against womanhood and the feminist movement, stating that removing the word “woman” from conversations about abortion, birth control, menstruation, and pregnancy reduces womanhood to “purely anatomical parts.” 

Shouldn’t conversations about these issues include everyone affected by them?

I am not a woman. Language such as “person with a uterus” includes me and others like me in conversations that pertain to our bodies regardless of gender identity. The argument that society is forcing women out of these conversations is a fallacy in itself: No one is banning the word “woman.” No one seeking inclusive language is asking women to stop being proud to be women, nor are they asking women to stop advocating for reproductive rights, better health care, and equal treatment.

Rather, medical publications, human rights organizations, and others are choosing more precise – and, quite frankly, accurate – language when talking about things that have to do with biology – such as the possibility of menstruation, pregnancy, etc. – rather than gender. We just want to be included; to be considered in these discussions. And it really should not be hard to do.

There is a deep, dark sense of irony in Atwood sharing and then doubling down on the transphobic views discussed in the opinion piece, which emphasize that gender equals biology and there’s no room in language for anything else. Has she read her own work?

DiManno claims to not be discussing of gender identity – her words read, “Surely we’re well past that.” But, in that same sentence, DiManno acknowledges that the argument she makes “ends up aligning uncomfortably with reactionaries and regressives…” To that point, I’m just going to paraphrase one of my favorite fictional characters. If I’m in a park, and there’s a loose bear in it, I’m not going in that park. I think those mulling over their controversial opinions should take the same approach, and really dig deep on who you’re aligning with.

Seeing as DiManno later cites and defends J.K. Rowling in her article, it’s clear that she is perfectly happy hanging out with whichever transphobic bear happens to be in the park.

Which brings me back to Margaret Atwood. Obviously, I’m disappointed that an author I’ve loved shared transphobic content and then doubled down in support of it. Already, other commenters are taking up arms to defend Atwood from “cancel culture” and the mob effect. To those who might have stumbled onto this column with these concerns, no worries. There will be no “cancelling” of Margaret Atwood, a woman with two million Twitter followers, and more accolades than I have dollars in my bank account. This isn’t about that.

Rather, this is about the harm done to the trans community when high-profile individuals amplify transphobic messages that serve as dog whistles for anti-trans legislation, harassment, and interpersonal harm. This opinion piece could have gone in silence (had anyone ever heard of Rosie DiManno before this?), but Atwood chose to give it light. At the time of this writing, her tweet featuring the article has been interacted with over fifteen thousand times. A dog whistle blown through a megaphone.


You can read more details about the institutional and interpersonal dangers of passive transphobia in David Oliver’s piece for the USA Today.

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