My Gender-Neutral Language Experiment

As I have mentioned before, words and language are important to me.  I have deep respect for the power of words in our understanding of ourselves and each other.  I appreciate that language is fluid – that it is not meant to be static but evolving, reflecting shifts in culture and new understandings.

A few years ago, the birth community had a moment of deep divide around language.  When the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) revised their Core Competency document to reflect a growing desire for less gendered language in our culture in general, including birth, there were strong and varied responses.  There were rumors that that the words “woman” and “mother” were erased completely from the document.  In fact, the language was revised to be more balanced with woman or mother being used about half the time and a more gender neutral term (like pregnant person or parent) was used when possible.  As I understand it, the motivation and intention was to expand the language to achieve more balance.

But to some, it felt more like erasure than balance.  I participated in many discussions where folks worried that using gender neutral language would erase the feminine from birth.  That by not saying woman, we were going to change the experiences of the women we serve.  I heard a number of birthworkers say that if there was ever a place where gendered language was appropriate – perhaps even essential – it was birth.

This last point was especially tricky for me, as I personally found the gendered language and experience of being pregnant, mothering and breastfeeding very difficult.  I have struggled with both my sense of my own gender and my gender presentation for as long as I can remember.  I found it hard when my breasts blossomed and I didn’t look like the flat-chested human I pictured (and desired myself to be) in my head.  I had femme moments too, mostly when I was not expected to be.  I found I was attracted to people of all sexes and genders and enjoyed thinking of gender as a spectrum more than a binary.

And then I got pregnant just a few months after moving to a new town.  I didn’t have that many friends and the ones I had were not parents yet.  As my belly grew, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the gendered maternity clothes and the way I was supposed to be reveling in my womanhood.  I birthed at home with a midwife (in part to help me navigate the gendering of corporate healthcare) and my care was fantastic and empowering.  And very, very gendered.

To be quite honest, being pregnant really freaked me out.  It thrust me into a gendered world I had avoided for a long time.

Breastfeeding and mom’s groups weren’t much better. Especially since once the baby was earthside, everyone wanted to gender me AND my baby.  It is only in hindsight (and moving back into more genderfluid communities) that I have been able to reckon with the anxiety these issues produced in me during that period of my life.

So I was very curious about how birthing families might feel when they attend a presentation that uses a lot of gender neutral language. For the past 7 years, I have been working to use increasingly gender neutral pronouns in my work with birthing families, so it comes easily and naturally to me.   When working one-on-one, I always ask families what sorts of names and words and terms they use for themselves.  I try to make no assumptions in that context.  But in the context of group education, I didn’t know how folks felt about my language.  And I thought it was important to know given the strong reaction to MANA’s language change.

So of course, being a scientist, I decided to conduct an experiment.

 

The Experiment:  

Subject pool

I have been collecting data since October of 2015.  I have talked to 242 individual folks (N=242).

I had easy access to a population, as I work as an educator in a community birth center.  The data are divided about equally between people who took a class with me at 28-32 weeks of pregnancy and people coming to a birth center orientation to see if our model of care was a good fit for them.  The demographic is primarily white, 80% private health insurance and most folks have a high school education. 

The questions

I asked five questions with very little variation and I always consented folks before asking.  I assured them their data would be de-identified and requested their honesty. 

The questions were as follows:

·      Did you notice that I used a fair bit of gender neutral language?

·      Did it bother or distract you?

·      Did it change the way you feel about your own journey?

·      Did it detract from your experience?

·      I ended by asking if they had any other comments to share.

I also collected data on their apparent gender presentation (where I assigned male or female) and whether they were the partner or the pregnant person.  Anyone who was not the pregnant person went into the partner category; there were a few family members or other support people.  

It is very important that I note that these data are significantly limited by the fact that I decided not to ask people to identify their gender.  I made that difficult decision in an effort to center the questions above and keep conversations short.  I do understand and feel concerned about the inherent problems with this.  Especially that it has the potential to erase gender non-binary folks.   I hope to improve on this in future research.

Results

There were 129 apparent females and 103 apparent males.  I know of 5 self-identified lesbian couples.  The other females may have been partners or support community; I did not gather those data.

Of the 113 folks who noticed my gender neutral language, 72% (n=81) of them were apparent males.  Of the 32 apparent females who noticed, 10 were females in known lesbian relationships.

Interestingly, as the numbers indicate, it was not uncommon for apparent male partners of pregnant folks to notice the gender neutral language even when their partner did not.  A number of pregnant folks were in shock that their partner noticed and they did not.  One woman asked her husband, “Really?  Are you sure?  How did you notice something like that and I didn’t?”  She was not the only one who expressed this sentiment.

The apparent males who noticed my language shared a consistent experience of listening to me.  They were relieved by the shift from female-centered birth preparation into parent-centered preparation.  They reported that they felt more included in the pregnancy, birth and postpartum period. 

For example, I often talk about the non-breastfeeding parent and received feedback that it helped them feel more included and relieve the liability they felt about not having the breasts that everyone talked about so much.  One partner put it well when he said, “I have been wondering what role I would play with the baby since we talk so much about how much time the baby will spend breastfeeding.  Calling myself the non-breastfeeding parent helps me feel like I have a role.  That breastfeeding is probably going to be a big tool, but it is only a tool.  I just need to find the tools that are unique to me.”

My use of gender neutral language bothered 4 people.  Three of them were pregnant and the other was an apparent male partner.  The only person who felt it detracted from their experience was the male partner.  He expressed dismay that I undermined the essentialism of gender when talking about birth.  He asked me a number of questions about why I used such language and we chatted for a few minutes.  At the end he said he was particularly bothered by the term “pregnant person.”  He exclaimed, “I mean, if woman isn’t woman when it comes to birth – how do we ever know what woman is?”  I was not sure how I would reply, but it turned out I didn’t have to.  His pregnant partner said, “Come on, I’ll explain to you in the car.”

Some of the results of this small experiment surprised me.  The results do support the idea that the dominant culture (in this case, enjoying the femaleness of birth preparation) hears themselves in lots of language.  Because they don't hear themselves being represented (and therefore being seen) marginalized folks feel appreciative of language that intentionally includes them.

What surprised me most is that so many apparent male partners noticed and appreciated the language.  Even when their pregnant partner did not notice.  It suggests that male partners might feel more marginalized by the very gendered language of birth that I realized.  I can only speak to the midwifery model of care, but the language can be quite female- and woman- centered.  I think these data indicate that we need to query our male partners more often about what language suits them.

I’ll be honest here, I was also quite relieved that the vast majority of the apparent females who noticed the language shift were not bothered by it.  And none of them thought it detracted from their own journey and experience.  Phew!

Takeaways

I learned two elements from this experiment that I will use in my future practice.  One, gender neutral language allows some folks to feel seen in the birth preparation process, particularly male partners.  I had generally experienced this to be true one-on-one, but was delighted to find that this was true in group presentation-style education as well.  Two, the use of gender neutral language in group education did not negatively affect pregnant clients’ sense of their own journey.  These data allow me to continue to use gender neutral language with the sense that I am being more inclusive than offensive.  For me, that was great news!