“Not About You,” or the Politics of Universalizing

Recently, one of the feminist pages I follow on Facebook posted a link to an article about the post-partum body. The article itself brings up an important issue that needs to be discussed, and is both thought provoking and non-problematic. The moderator’s framing as they shared the link, however, was inherently essentialist, actually stating that the one thing that separated women from men was the ability to carry a child. Of course, this was problematic, because not all women are able to carry children and not all people who carry children are women. When I and another commenter brought this up, making explicitly clear that the object was with how the moderator framed the article, not the article itself, we were told it wasn’t about us. We were told we were erasing and silencing mothers. We were told we were inserting ourselves into a discussion that wasn’t about us.

I’ve heard mothers complain that they can’t talk about motherhood in feminist circles without someone saying “what about women who don’t want/can’t have children?” I generally give the benefit of the doubt, because the reverse happens when I talk about not being able to have and not wanting children. Some people just have a case of the “What-about-me’s” and it’s incurable. However, there is a phenomena I have observed that explains why I have, on occasion, brought women who can’t have or don’t want children into feminist discussions of motherhood, and that is when statements are made universal, much like the statement that spurred me to comment on the link discussed above. When the statements made imply that all women can have children, or all women want children, or motherhood is inevitable for all women, or the greatest joy for all women, I have to speak up. Because I am a woman, and if they are talking about all women, as a woman, it actually is about me. And when you pair a universal statement with “It’s not about you!” you are erasing the experiences of the people who don’t fit your mold. And it’s an easy fix: avoid universal language unless the statement is something like “All people are mortal,” or “All humans need air to survive,” or, more to the point, just be extremely careful when you make a universalizing statement, and should someone tell you the universal statement is problematic, don’t tell them it isn’t about them. This, of course, applies to any conversation that someone has universalized too quickly, not just discussion about motherhood (that was just the most convenient example because it was what got me thinking about the danger of universalizing).

I mostly brought up the problems with the language because it is cissexist. While statements like the one that prompted me to write this post frustrate me as a woman who can’t have children, I’ve never been told I’m not a woman because I can’t have children (I’ve been called a defective woman, but never told I was not a woman), but statements like the one to which I objective have more damaging potential for trans women who have been told they are not women, as well as for trans men, and genderqueer and non-binary uterus-havers who carry children.

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