I Truly Could Not Be More Over Margaret Atwood

It’s not surprising that the literary icon is amplifying TERF-adjacent opinions; to understand why, we just have to look at her past behaviour.


Stacy Lee Kong

Oct 22 2021

12 mins read


Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: this newsletter contains mentions of transphobia and violence against trans people.

Unlike a lot of feminists, I didn’t feel betrayed by Margaret Atwood this week.

Part of that is because she doesn’t mean to me what I know she means to a lot of people. I’ve read her books—though I will belatedly admit that I don’t remember a thing about Alias Grace because I borrowed it from my big sister’s bookshelf when I was in elementary school (without permission obviously) and every theme and metaphor went right over my head. I was excited when I ran into her at The Ballroom, a Toronto bowling alley/sports bar that didn’t really seem to be her vibe or mine, back in 2011, and when I got to hear her talk about her work at a Chapters event in 2013. And I definitely believed all the feminist media I’ve been reading since high school when they held her up as a progressive icon. But she wasn’t a personal hero in the way that she was for some of my friends and peers.

Honestly, though? The bigger reason is that this isn’t the first time she’s abandoned her feminist values, so really I was just prepared. 

What did Margaret Atwood do now?

On Tuesday, Atwood tweeted out a link to a recent Rosie DiManno column about a troubling trend she’d observed in recent months: the erasure of women. Or rather, the word “woman,” which DiManno claims, “is in danger of becoming a dirty word… struck from the lexicon of officialdom, eradicated from medical vocabulary and expunged from conversation.” There are just two ~minor~ problems with the piece, and by extension Atwood’s co-sign.

First, it’s bullshit. DiManno lists a slew of institutions and politicians who are ‘forbidding’ the use of the word “women,” including a British hospital that “now instructs staff on its maternity ward to use ‘birthing people,’ instead of pregnant women.” Here’s the thing though: that didn’t happen. What did happen is Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust announced in February that it would be adding new trans-friendly terms including “birthing people” and “chestfeeding” to its existing vocabulary as a way to become more inclusive. The hospital was careful to note that it would only be using gender-neutral language in its internal communications and meetings, and that staff would use patients’ correct pronouns while caring for them. Later in her column, DiManno also claims there’s “more than a whiff of misogyny to it. Why ‘woman’ the no-speak word and not ‘man?’ Why not ‘persons who urinate standing up’ or ‘people who eject semen?’” she asks. But “people with penises” is being used in much the same ways as “people with vaginas” or “birthing people.”

Meanwhile, DiManno’s other examples—the Lancet using “bodies with vaginas” on a recent cover, U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposed budget using the words “birth people” instead of mothers (something Cori Bush has also done), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez using the term “menstruating people”—aren’t about “people being disallowed from saying ‘woman,’” as transfeminine jurist and bioethicist Florence Ashley points out in their response to the column. “How exactly is [Bush and Ocasio-Cortez’s] decision to use more inclusive terminology preventing you from saying you are a mother or a woman?” they ask. “Nor do their words imply that they would never use the word ‘woman’ where they believe it more accurate.”

But are we going to Rosie DiManno for facts? We are not. So, here’s the more troubling problem: the entire column is TERF shit—linguistic acrobatics intended to dehumanize trans people disguised as concern for cisgender women. If you’re new to the term, TERF stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist, and it is used to describe feminists who don’t support trans women or see them as women. (Vox has a good breakdown of the ideology.) And if you don’t spend a lot of time in feminist spaces, online or IRL, it’s entirely possible you may have missed this context, but the reason DiManno even heard about Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust is because the story went viral, thanks in large part to insidious transphobia in the U.K., and especially in its feminist movements and media. According to a 2019 New York Times op-ed by feminist theorist and geographer Sophie Lewis, “if, in the United States, the mainstream media has been alarmingly ready to hear ‘both sides’ on the question of trans people’s right to exist, in Britain, TERFs have effectively succeeded in framing the question of trans rights entirely around their own concerns: that is, how these rights for others could contribute to ‘female erasure.’ Many prominent figures in British journalism and politics have been TERFs; British TV has made a sport of endlessly hosting their lurid rudeness and styling it as courage; British newspapers seemingly never tire of broadsides against the menace of ‘gender ideology.’”

What DiManno is really doing with her column is normalizing and legitimizing transphobia, which makes Atwood’s decision to amplify it to her 2 million Twitter followers so troubling.

This is part of a pattern of behaviour for Atwood—much like it is for J.K. Rowling

But Atwood doesn’t care that she’s hurting people.

As soon as she posted that tweet, she was flooded with critiques and unsurprisingly, she mostly chose to engage by arguing with people who disagreed with her, claiming in quote-tweets that DiManno isn’t a TERF, and encouraging people to read the column as if it would somehow include a different argument than what’s very clearly articulated right there in the headline. (Trust me, I read the entire thing multiple times and I promise that if your first reaction was “ugh not you too,” you were absolutely correct.)

This is… not unusual. Back in 2018, Maggie A. wrote a Globe and Mail op-ed gleefully explaining why she’s a “bad” feminist. This was, in her mind, an intellectually superior position to the “Good Feminists” who criticized her for vociferously supporting Stephen Galloway, the novelist and then-professor at UBC who had been accused of sexual assault, assault and sexual harassment by a student. At the time, I wrote a reaction to that piece that spelled out why Atwood had lost her feminist lustre for me, starting with her refusal to consider how “her decision to sign an open letter supporting a man accused of predatory behaviour could hurt survivors of sexual violence and deter other young women from coming forward.” But what I found almost worse was her reaction to criticism. Then, as now, Atwood would prefer to (unsuccessfully) dunk on the people who disagree with her rather than actually engaging with their opinions, no matter how thoughtfully or respectfully they speak up.

And if that sounds like another wealthy white author *coughJ.K.Rowlingcough*, well that’s probably not a coincidence, is it?

Our understanding of gender has evolved. That’s a good thing

As Harper’s Bazaar features director and author Kaitlyn Greenidge wrote this week, there is a version of feminism—which she doesn’t explicitly name as White Feminism, but I will—where “womanhood is a prize to be held up and valuable because of who it excludes. It’s wound as outerwear—womanhood is akin to a grievance, but a grievance only certain kinds of women are allowed to express directly. And it’s believed that the grievances of upper-class womanhood stand in for the grievances of all womanhood. So that a symbolic, but ultimately immaterial question like whether or not to take your husband’s last name becomes philosophically linked to women experiencing female genital mutilation. A woman being spoken over in a meeting somehow becomes the great feminist cause to devote endless thinking to, instead of the women being forced to work long hours on a factory floor. When ‘woman’ means ‘wound,’ there is no scale of pain—it’s all the same, isn’t it? That woman’s pain over there, that could be alleviated by systemic changes, is actually better served as symbolism for the women on top—curlicues for arguments to get what the woman on top wishes, instead of actual change for everyone.”

Think about J.K. Rowling’s insistence that her transphobia is acceptable because of her lasting trauma from being sexual assaulted and abused. I obviously don’t want to invalidate her pain (though she has zero qualms about invalidating other people’s) but I see this take as a natural extension of Greenidge’s argument, particularly the part about “womanhood [being] a grievance only certain kinds of women are allowed to express directly.” Because when we talk about trans rights, yes, ultimately, we’re trying to build a world where everyone is accepted and able to live their truth, but first, we’re literally trying to protect trans women from assault, abuse and death, which they are at a significantly higher risk for than cis women, especially if they are Black. According to a recent study by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA’s school of law, “transgender people are over four times more likely than cisgender people to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.” In 2020, a record number of trans people, mostly trans women of colour, were violently killed, and it looks like 2021 will be even worse. Pretty fucking traumatic, I’d say. So, why doesn’t that factor into Rowling, or Atwood’s, or DiManno’s, or hell, let’s throw in Dave Chappelle’s, thinking then?

Writer (and my friend) Niko Stratis explained it perfectly in Broadview this week: “Atwood, like many other cisgender feminists before her, [doesn’t] see questioning the validity of transness or the language around it as invalidating, and one has to wonder if that stems from a lack of engagement with trans people as a whole. None of the trans women in her mentions warranted so much as a second thought. She has supported the idea of supporting trans women in the past, but a glance at her feed sees little to no instance of her uplifting, supporting or even listening to trans people. Women like Atwood don’t see trans people as people, despite posts to the contrary. We are objects, pieces on a chess board moved around when the narrative suits your own desire for media attention.”

Atwood and her pals aren’t standing up for woman. They’re selfishly trying to maintain their own power

What Stratis is describing is not feminism; it is selfishness and callousness, and that is the most maddening part of this, I think.

Feminists in the 70s understood—and researchers have since demonstrated—that “use of gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he [as the default pronoun]), is experienced as ostracism at the group level by women.” According to three studies analyzed by University of Massachusetts, Amherst social psychologist Nilanjana Dasgupta, “subtle linguistic cues that may seem trivial at face value can signal group-based ostracism and lead members of the ostracized group to self-select out of important professional environments.” That’s why we no longer use “he” and “him” when we talk about people generally, and we use the gender inclusive versions of occupations, like firefighters instead of firemen. Our language shows that we no longer think of maleness as the norm, and I guarantee that no one who’s moaning about the erasure of “women” have any concerns about that linguistic evolution. So, how is advocating for gender-neutral language any different? Aside from the fact that today’s language battles don’t directly benefit women like Atwood and her buds, of course.

But again, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Atwood was being callous when she wrote that Globe op-ed doubling down on her problematic behaviour, just as she was a year prior, when she wrote a similar piece for the Walrus. Her callousness was also, I’m sorry to say, on display when she wrote an entire novel based on the way Black women were subjugated and abused during slavery—but didn’t actually include any Black characters. As Angelica Jade Bastién wrote in Vulture in 2017 about the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, “the strictures that shape the lives of the handmaids, like the protagonist, June (an excellent Elisabeth Moss)… are the same methods that have been used to control Black people during and after slavery. In Atwood’s novel, Black people are mentioned in only a few sentences to alert readers that they’ve been rounded up and sent to some colony in the Midwest, in a move that resembles South Africa’s apartheid. This decision feels like the mark of a writer unable to reckon with how race would compound the horrors of a hyper-Evangelical-ruled culture.”

And frankly, this is classic. The defining characteristic of White Feminism is the denial of privilege. This strain of feminist believes the problems that affect white, able-bodied, cisgender women are paramount. Attempts to dismantle the systems that benefit them are always met with pushback, but sneakily phrased so that they become the oppressed group. When people with less privilege ask for their needs to be considered, these feminists react as if they’re being replaced or, in this case, erased. By the same token, they believe that because they face oppression in some ways, they cannot oppress others, an opinion that is laughably wrong.  

So… you know that famous Maya Angelou quote, when someone shows you who they are, believe them? It really could not apply more here.

And Did You Hear About…

This really smart article on passing as a storytelling trope, and the connections between author Nella Larsen, the upcoming adaptation of her book, Passing, and Mariah Carey.

The exclusionary appeal of private social media apps like Raya.

Politico’s think piece on the contradiction between courtship rituals portrayed on dating shows like The Bachelor and how singles actually interact these days. 

The TikTokers who expose social media’s fakeness—using their own photos.

Rebecca Traister’s thoughtful profile of Katie Couric ahead of the pub date for her brutally honest (or maybe just brutal?) memoir, Going There.

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Margaret Atwood
Rosie DiManno