There was a time, in human history, when we did not make images of ourselves or the world around us, or wonder how the world was created. We were not always artists or philosophers. We lived as other animals do, more or less in the moment (although that is not to say that we did not experience emotion or conscious thought).
It is currently impossible to pinpoint the exact millennium in which this shifted, and we became what we are now. Anthropologists and archaeologists make new discoveries about our early origins all the time. We do know that at some point in our past, our ancestors began to question the world and where we fit within it.
What a world to come to a new consciousness in – surely it must have seemed so vast as to be infinite, and so beautiful and full of life as to be powered by some great force or combination of gods. How to express this, and our new questions – why? How? To what purpose? What happens after?
We began to remember, to impart our knowledge to our children, to seek meaning and understanding, and to leave records of ourselves and the things we thought about. We described the animals we saw and the plants we knew, the observations of the skies, the oceans, and our knowledge of ourselves. We saw that there were male and female in every living thing, and that women bleed with the moon, and that we carry our children inside ourselves, bringing them forth from our bodies in a great and sometimes fatal struggle, to feed and nurture from our breasts. Could the world itself have been born of male and female deities, in a similar great battle?
Every unique extant culture, including Western culture, has its own origin story; a mythology that accompanies our ties to land and to each other, and each of them speak of a darkness into which a light was cast. It is possible that these origin stories of our different cultures represent this ancient moment, in which an intellectual and spiritual shift in the human species took place. Perhaps they represent our birth, but also sometimes a painful separation from what we were before.
All known peoples who left studiable evidence of their time here have recognised our male and female biology. Their artwork, writings, clothing, evidence of social practices, surviving stories or innovations demonstrate this. All modern languages have a word for mother, and a word for baby. All cultures recognise and describe menarche, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding as exclusively female activities. The consistency with which this has happened tells us that this recognition is a human universal; an understanding of the world that is shared by every human culture that has been, or is now.
Linguists have differing opinions about the accuracy of reconstructing proto-language families, but in 2013, Reading University researchers included ‘mother’ on a list of twenty-three words they believe to have survived largely unchanged for fifteen thousand years; remnants of the oldest posited common language ancestor of over 700 different languages still spoken today.1 Certainly, we can trace the etymology of ‘mother’ back to the Latin ‘mater’; a language spoken as far back as 3,000 years ago, and the names we call our mothers in the Indo-European language family are almost the same, from Urdu to Gaelic2.
In 2004, forty thousand people in non-English speaking countries voted ‘mother’ as the most beautiful word in English. The director of the language centre at King’s College, London, who was surprised at the result, commented that “It is often, it is said, the word people shout on their deathbed, when they sense the end is near”3.
The concept of ‘Mother’ is associated with origins, nature, fertility, protection, comfort, safety, nurture. We describe our planet as ‘Mother Earth’, the source of all life. We speak of lessons we learn at our mother’s knees; her language becomes our own – literally and metaphorically our ‘mother tongue’. Women and mothers are also deeply involved in social and spiritual practices and artistic expression around death, loss, and grieving, nearly everywhere in the world. Both Life and Death have been represented as our domain, in many places and belief systems.
Dystopian novels notwithstanding, it seems impossible to contemplate that our role as mothers could ever really be usurped.
And yet, proving true the adage that life is stranger than fiction, over the last decade in New Zealand we have entered an odd and confusing new era in which all the words relating to girls, women and mothers have come to be considered controversial, if not offensive.
We are being advised that we will instead be described by ’neutral’ and ‘inclusive’ terms in our literature, public policy, institutions, and common language.
Here are some examples:
- birthing parent
How can we women, who make up over half of the world’s population and are the mothers of everyone ever, possibly be reclassified this way?
In short, we are witnessing the impact of postmodernist academic ideas that have escaped the confines of the philosophy lecture hall over the last forty years, and spread outward into society with every graduating class.
Postmodernism4 is a philosophical theory which rejects Enlightenment5 thinking, logic and reason. It holds that there is no such thing as objective reality; that logic and reason are no more or less valuable than any other mode of inquiry, and that truth is subjective. Therefore, what one believes to be reality, or one’s ‘own truth’ is equally as valid as what the rest of the world believes – to wit; “I am a woman if I say I am one”.
In this theory, there is no such thing as the human condition, only social constructs that can (and should) be ‘deconstructed’ and changed (for the betterment of all, naturally). Language itself and the meaning of words cannot be defined in any concrete way, so meaning can be changed to suit the speaker’s purpose at any moment. Postmodernists also believe that their philosophy is more egalitarian; more ‘inclusive’ overall, because Enlightenment thinking (according to them) derives from the discourses of the powerful, and is inherently suspect on that basis.
Within a philosophy class, these ideas are fine. They’re just ideas, and discussion leads to new questions and insights. That is the purpose of a philosophy class. But it is a very bad idea to forcibly underpin society and governance with a theory that says there is no such thing as objective reality.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, postmodern critiques of Western society gathered followers in academia, especially in the arts and social sciences. Among these critiques and theories was ‘Queer Theory’, a branch of postmodernism influenced by feminist academic Judith Butler and primarily concerned with ‘deconstructing’ sexuality, sex and gender. 6
Thanks to Butler and others, Women’s Studies was one of the subjects particularly affected by this. Classes about women’s roles around the world, our social position and life outcomes, girls’ education, maternal health, violence and sexual abuse toward women and children – nearly all of these disappeared.
The study of our material lives was subsumed by classes on ‘gender fluidity’, feminine and masculine sexuality, power and oppression within women’s right’s movements, ‘intersectional feminism’, deconstruction of gender norms, ‘heteronormativity’, queer identity,’ and so on.7
Driven this way into the public arena by influential academics and their graduates throughout the last four decades, Queer Theory has become ‘gender ideology’; one part of the overall authoritarian mindset we have seen take hold. We know it is authoritarian, because openly dissenting is punished, in one way or another.
According to the gender ideologues, simply being a heterosexual mother of a newborn is to have power and privilege over anyone who isn’t, and objecting to being called a menstruating uterus-haver is to exercise it.
This is where these new names for women and mothers come from. It is why women can be accused of oppressing men when we say they can’t breastfeed babies, and why women who want to be seen as men, but also wish to be pregnant, are saying that having ‘unnecessary femininity’ and the word ‘mother’ at the maternity clinic is ‘triggering’, and should be made to stop.8 It is why the Maternity Council of New Zealand removed all of the words for mother, baby and woman in both English and Te Reo Māori in their 2022 ‘Scope of Practice’ guidelines, and replaced them with ‘whanau’.9 (Pushback to this was fierce from all quarters; the Midwifery Council quietly went away to ‘reflect on the feedback’ and have not yet re-released the guidelines).
Queer Theory is the means by which the baby’s sex is now called the baby’s ‘gender’, even though these two terms mean two totally different things and gender has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with ‘identity’.
Whom does this all benefit?
For some people, in a troubled and changing world, it is providing an illusion of progress where in fact regression and stagnation exists; a kind of momentary comfort for the individual and the ideologues. E.g., “A kinder, more equitable and inclusive society is coming, and I am a good person who is making it happen”. For the predatory among us, it is opening up a whole range of exploitative opportunities. Millions of dollars of public money have been spent, and more is being offered and asked for. Others who seek to violate common norms of decency are taking advantage of public confusion.
Obviously, these are not really ‘benefits’. They are actually harms, especially to women and children. Our new classifications that have resulted from these theories are not merely undignified. They injure more than just our pride, and when women and children are harmed, so are our societies and our species.
In the context of maternal health, pregnancy and childbirth is still dangerous or even fatal to both mother and baby. Approximately ten women and 650 infants die every year in New Zealand during pregnancy or shortly after birth – a number that has not changed in fifteen years.10
ACC estimates that up to 85% of all women will suffer an injury during birth; while most are relatively minor and short-term, some are severe and debilitating for many years, if not life.11
As recently as 2009, despite decades long efforts by women’s organisations to move away from formula feeding and return to breastfeeding, there were only two lactation consultants on the ADHB payroll, to help establish breastfeeding for six hundred babies and mothers every month. Now even the word ‘breastfeeding’ is considered oppressive and we are to use ‘chestfeeding’ instead – an absurd and dangerous situation for women and infant health.
Women need and deserve the language used to describe us to be accurate, based in reality, and ours, that we choose and that we inherited.
In a wider context, the role of women and mothers in socialising human beings cannot be overestimated. We are uniquely designed for human reproduction and socialisation, connected to birth and newborns in ways men will never be. Our daughters are born with all the eggs she will ever have, meaning that when we are expecting a girl, we carry our future grandchildren with us as well. We nourish our infants with a complete food we produce just for them, and our heartbeats align with our babies’ both in utero and after birth.
Our brains also change in remarkable ways both during and after pregnancy. In a 2016 study at Leiden University, brain scans of pregnant women showed clear changes in grey matter in areas related to social processing and ‘theory of mind’ – the ability to ascribe a mental or emotional state to someone else – as well as areas related to self-reflection and empathy. Facial recognition is more acute during pregnancy, suggesting a heightened sensitivity to interpersonal communication and relationship-building. The same research in Leiden showed that women who experienced the most changes in grey matter reported the strongest bonding experiences and the fewest instances of postpartum depression. This was valuable research that has benefitted new mothers and their babies since.12
Do we really want to continue on with an ideology that renders women and mothers invisible in language and negates the need for research into one of the most fundamental relationships a human being can have? Do we want a world filled with adults with no mothers? Is the best use of our knowledge and science and advancement through the millenia really research into how to remove a uterus from a living woman and put it in a man so he can experience a simulacrum of pregnancy for his identity validation?13
It is unfortunately too late to close Pandora’s box. Although the number of true believers is comparatively small, their reach has been long, and out here in objective reality (where the vast majority of us live) we are only just starting to realise that something weird is going on. As we look harder, we can see ‘applied postmodernism’ nearly everywhere, in every academic institution, charity, small business policy and ministry of government.
For those of us who are watching with unease and alarm as these sweeping changes are ushered in, there is some good news. New Zealand women and thousands more overseas are coming together in international opposition to gender ideology, especially where it impacts children, and the pressure from these groups is beginning to have an impact on politicians. That said, the gender lobby is very powerful, and nothing is certain.
For those who are not able to speak openly, there are still ways to resist. We can be privately clear with our midwives and obstetricians that we do not want to be called ‘birthing parents’, or any of these other terms. We can tell the Ministry for Women that we object to public funds being used for any more research into ‘inclusive language’ related to gender, and that they should fund research into women and infants’ health instead.
We can tell our new Members of Parliament that we don’t like these ideas, and advise the Midwifery Council we want to be known as our baby’s mothers or the māmā of our pēpī, thank you very much. Critically, we can find and support our local and national groups who are organising and speaking out, even anonymously, in any way we can.
No bright future can be achieved by a society that rejects the rights of women and mothers and infants. There is no society without us. Defending ourselves and our children isn’t hate, or bigotry. It’s part of our role, bequeathed to us by all the millions and millions of mothers who have brought us all this far, and what we undertake for all our daughters and granddaughters, who will carry us forward.
2. Visual of ‘mother’ in various languages
3. ‘Mother voted most beautiful word’ https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/mother-is-the-most-beautiful-word-in-the-english-language-according-to-a-survey-of-40-000-people-worldwide-534512.html
6. ‘Queer Theory https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-queer-theory/
7. Gender Studies at Auckland University today https://www.auckland.ac.nz/en/study/study-options/find-a-study-option/gender-studies.html
8. ‘Frankie’ trans non-binary man (woman) who wishes to be pregnant unhappy with the word ‘mother’ at the maternity clinic https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/the-quiet-shift-to-more-inclusive-pregnancy-language-and-the-long-road-toward-systemic-change/VH3OIWB7NQ5LLA24N5XIQVTKRY/
9. Midwifery Council Guidelines https://manawahinekorero.substack.com/p/from-mana-wahine-korero-to-the-midwifery
10. Maternal and infant fatality https://www.hqsc.govt.nz/assets/Our-work/Mortality-review-committee/PMMRC/Publications-resources/15thPMMRC-report-final.pdf
11. New cover for maternal birth injuries, ACC https://docs.google.com/document/d/1wZmACP9e7DAxCZ3Jwb8gIdtPVMoQiWo4/edit