Among the most important American poets of the 20th century, E.E. Cummings once wrote:
if there are any heavens my mother will
(all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of blackred roses …
& the whole garden will bow
My husband and I recently started watching the Japanese series “Old Enough” on Netflix. It’s a charming public-access documentary show about toddlers and preschool-age children running their first “errand” (taking dad’s work uniform to the dry cleaner down the street, picking up some curry from the corner store, etc.) on their own, somewhat of a Japanese rite of passage. The show doesn’t have English dubs; non-Japanese speakers have to follow along with subtitles. But there’s one word, probably the most frequently uttered word by the children, that is recognizable by speakers of almost any language—mama.
The word for mother, or a diminutive form of it such as mama, is almost universally recognizable in every language. This is likely due to the developmental order of sounds babies make—they start with the ahh sound, then will intermittently close their mouths, making an mmmm, hence, mama. Just as mama, or mother, is a nearly universally recognizable word, so it is a universally powerful one.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we refer to our primordial mother as Eve, or Chavah, meaning life. In a letter to the church membership in 1942, the first presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke of motherhood as “the highest, holiest service … assumed by mankind.” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelves Apostles taught that “no love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.” President Sheri Dew, formerly of the General Relief Society Presidency, taught that motherhood is “the essence of who we are as women. It defines our very identity, our divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave us.” While there are relatively few accounts of specific women in ancient scripture, most of the references are to stories of brave, faithful mothers —Hannah, Mary, Sariah, the mothers of the stripling warriors, and so on.
Some have complicated feelings about the word “mother.” Some mothers leave their children and some are taken from them. Some mothers, because of mental or physical illness, poverty, or other circumstances, do not or cannot provide a stable, loving childhood for the children they bear. Some mothers do all they can for their children and yet those children stray, and some mothers look back on their child-rearing years with regret of all they could have done. Some women desperately want to be mothers and cannot, and some women bear the cross of mothering children whose own parents abused and abandoned them. Some mothers feel stifled by motherhood, and in our fast-paced, self-centered world, many mothers don’t have the community support they deserve. But regardless of one’s association with the word mother, it is undeniably an important, tender word.
Because of the power and importance of the word mother, it has then been surprising and deeply troubling for many of us to see the secular society beginning to replace the word mother with “pregnant person,” “birthing person,” and the word “women” with “menstruators” and other similar language. Other words relating to the experience of womanhood, such as breastfeeding, have received a similar degendering makeover. This, we are told, is to include people who do not identify as women, such as transgender men and non-binary people, but who still have physically female reproductive systems. It is interesting to note that similar language has not been adopted for men—I can find few non-satirical examples of men being referred to as “testicle havers” or “inseminators” in the name of inclusion. The gospel of Jesus Christ is welcome and accepting of all who will accept Him.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is welcome and accepting of all who will accept Him.
Occasionally, gendered language is more acceptable in progressive discourse. We see in the abortion debate, for instance, frequent talk about women’s specific experiences and common references to a “woman’s right to her reproductive health.” Unfortunately, when it is not used to further a socially liberal cause, female language seems far less acceptable.
In particular, using inclusive language, including referring to individuals in a way which they prefer, has become an important virtue in progressive society. I do think on its face this is mostly a positive endeavor, regardless of one’s personal beliefs. I do not believe that trans women are literally the same as biological women, but I do believe they are beloved children of God and deserving of kindness and dignity. Out of a sense of courtesy and respect, I am happy to refer to them with the names and pronouns that they prefer. I was inspired during our own worldwide gathering of the Church of Jesus Christ by the many messages of peacemaking, particularly when Elder Neil L. Anderson stated, “We genuinely love and care for all our neighbors, whether or not they believe as we do.”
However, I do not think it is unreasonable to hope this courtesy could be returned. I, like I think most women, do not identify as a cisgender woman, nor a “birthing person,” or a “uterus haver” or a “menstruator.”
The potential effects of erasing female language go beyond hurt feelings. We risk not having a clear language to communicate the social problems primarily facing women (which is probably why female language is still especially prevalent in the progressive abortion discourse). While women’s rights in the United States have progressed immensely in the past century and women are well represented—even over-represented—in education and many professional fields, there are many problems still primarily or exclusively faced by women. For example, 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women. Mothers make up about 80 percent of single parents. And the maternal mortality rate in the United States is abysmal—by far worse than any other developed nation.
Plain, direct language that most Americans understand is important to researching and alleviating these and other social problems. And while “birthing bodies” might be encouraged and favored among highly-educated liberals, these neologisms tend not to be part of most people’s identities and vocabularies. Take, for example, the term Latinx—while most institutions of higher learning and news media have adopted this term, a recent Pew Research Center Poll found that less than one in four U.S. Hispanics surveyed had heard of the term, and only 3 percent use it.
While each side of this linguistic issue would likely favor the other to use only their preferred language, compromise is possible—we can use language that is both inclusive and clear to all, including women who identify simply as women. Rather than adopting exclusively gender-neutral language, particularly language that comes across as dehumanizing (with awkward emphasis on the body), we can use language that emphasizes the person and includes both gendered and non-gendered terms, such as “women, trans men, and others who need gynecological care.” As the cultural gaps widen between conservatives and progressives, these types of compromises will be necessary to be able to communicate and work together effectively.
President Howard W. Hunter once taught, “The world in which we live would benefit greatly if men and women everywhere would exercise the pure love of Christ, which is kind, meek, and lowly … It refuses to condone ridicule, vulgarity, abuse, or ostracism. It encourages diverse people to live together in Christian love regardless of religious belief, race, nationality, financial standing, education, or culture.” As we navigate these difficult cultural differences, we need not concede our core divine identities we relish as believers—sons and daughters of God, male and female, in the express image of our Heavenly Parents. The gospel of Jesus Christ is welcome and accepting of all who will accept Him. Whatever our differences, we can remember as Latter-day saints that inclusivity is an important aspect of discipleship.
And we can do this without forgetting eternal and beautiful differences. I am a woman and a mother. These identities hold deep meaning and purpose for me and many women like me. And intimidating women like me into giving up our historic and visceral identifying language to be inclusive to others is at best inconsistent.
At worst, we are obscuring something essential about ourselves—something that we cannot allow to be lost.