“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” - J.K. Rowling, 2020
With less than 280 characters, Harry Potter’s author drew the world into a debate that academic and medical fields have been facing for years: should gender-neutral language be used to discuss fertility, menstruation, and pregnancy? Terms like “pregnant people” and “birthing person” have drawn sharp backlash when used by notable figures like AOC and Cori Bush, with many claiming that the generalization of terms traditionally assigned to womanhood erases women from societal narratives. Others believe that inclusive language is imperative to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their identity, have access to the health resources, services and welcoming rhetoric they need. In a world following the repeal of Roe v. Wade, this debate has been brought to the forefront of conversations in the media and in the public.
Before I say anything else, I want to emphasize that many of the arguments against employing gender-neutral language to discuss fertility and pregnancy are initiated by people focused more on erasing transgender, non-binary, and other non-gender-conforming individuals from mainstream narratives than defending women. I recognize that many of these covert attacks against non-gender conforming individuals have critically insidious consequences. However, I cannot speak to these specific consequences as someone who identifies as cisgender.
What I can do is speak to my perspective as a woman who can’t menstruate.
My journey with fertility has only become more complicated and disheartening over time. If I’m being honest, I can’t remember the last time I had more than five periods in a year. Despite getting my first period at nine years old, I quickly lost my regularity once my eating disorder developed in middle school. And since then, I’ve never quite recovered. My body now stops my cycle at the slightest disturbance—from a restrictive diet to abnormally high stress. As someone used to tuck her baby dolls in every night dreaming about imagining my future self as a mother, living through my amenorrhea (that is, my inability to menstruate) has been like wading through an indelible nightmare. Compounded with the doctor’s visits, feminine hygiene marketing, and casual conversations that remind me of my abnormality, I’m left with the desire to ardently defend the employment of gender-neutral language.
While feminist fears regarding the erasure of women from conversations about female bodily processes are valid given how the repeal of Roe v. Wade severely diminished the bodily autonomy of women, these fears are not applicable to the utterance of the word “pregnant person.” In fact, such language actually upholds the principal tenets of feminism. Rather than excluding women from the narrative, gender-neutral terms related to fertility and pregnancy seek to include every woman. By separating gender from fertility and menstruation terminology, society can define a woman’s role beyond the scope of motherhood and religious purity. They can establish that women are more than just their biological capacities—especially given how varying those capacities might be.
Women in menopause, women suffering from PCOS, transgender women, and many others are excluded when we equate pregnant people and people who menstruate to the female identity. Why is this pertinent to Duke? Because this exclusion is tremendously pertinent to college students. I’m not the only one on campus afflicted by amenorrhea or other menstrual disorders. Look no further than our athletic teams: statistics suggest that more than half of female athletes have experienced amenorrhea. Look at the restrictive diets, the overbearing exercise, and the burdening stress that shadow most Duke students; studies point to these factors as the reasons why menstrual disorders may afflict as many 14.6% of college students.
No one at Duke should be made to feel less like a woman because of their menstrual capabilities—not me, not a roommate, not a teacher, not a peer. No one at Duke should be excluded from having a seat at a table that directly affects them because they’re one of the millions of people who don’t align with the strict correlation between women and fertility.
It may seem like small potatoes, but gender-neutral terms like “pregnant people” and “people who menstruate” are incredibly powerful tools in the fight for a sense of belonging on campus, in the fight to redefine gender norms and patriarchal attributes, and especially in the fight to preserve abortive and reproductive health access in this country. The repeal of Roe v. Wade has left millions of people vulnerable. It’s going to take millions of people to advocate for solutions to that vulnerability. It is crucial that we include every woman in this fight, regardless of their ability to menstruate or get pregnant, and that we include every person in this fight, regardless of whether their gender identity aligns with societal expectations for menstruation and pregnancy. Inclusivity and representation in our language and our actions are foundational parts to the long road we have ahead.
Viktoria Wulff-Anderson is a Trinity sophomore. Her column typically runs on alternate Thursdays.
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Viktoria Wulff-Andersen is a Trinity junior and the opinion editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.