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I Was Fired for Supporting Women’s Sex-Based Rights. Now I’m Suing.
If we cannot name ourselves we lose our ability to fight for and protect our sex-based rights.
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As a woman who has advocated for the right to abortion several years before Roe and the many decades since, the Dobbs decision last year reversing a half a century of precedent and turning back the clock on women’s rights came as a shock. But shaking me even more to the bone is that in some so-called “progressive” quarters it is no longer possible to refer to the sex of women, members of the female half of humanity and the only group that can get pregnant and have their freedom curtailed by anti-abortion laws, without being labelled a “bigot” and a “hater.”
Women have become dehumanized and defined by disembodied body parts—a “person with a uterus,” a “cervix haver;” or reduced to a bodily function—“pregnant person,” “birthing body”, a “menstruator” or “chest feeder.” We are forbidden to describe ourselves as whole persons of the female sex. But how can we possibly fight for our rights if we’re robbed of the ability to name ourselves as a coherent group? We have become the sex that dares not speak its name.
Last May I was fired from my job of 20 years as a civil rights attorney for Disability Rights California (DRC), a large liberal non-profit, despite my strong work record, only a few days after I asserted that abortion bans harm women as a sex. I had responded to our executive director initiating a discussion on the staff listserv regarding the imminent reversal of Roe and welcoming staff feedback. DRC had issued a public statement supporting abortion rights which included a laundry list of those who could be negatively impacted by abortion, yet somehow did not mention women or females.
So glad DRC came up with a statement in defense of Roe! Thank you! Access to safe, legal abortion is a life and death necessity for women as a biological sex across the board, regardless of race, economic class, gender identity, sexual orientation (even lesbians can be raped) or anything else and an absolute prerequisite for equal female participation in our society.
Of course, the most vulnerable females, especially poor women, women of color, women with disabilities, young girls, unhoused women and girls, women and girls in prison, etc. will suffer the most under draconian anti-abortion laws. Wealthy white women have often managed to get abortions even before Roe.
As a veteran of the feminist struggle for abortion rights that preceded Roe, I never thought it would come to this. Yet, it is good to remember that women won this right primarily through grassroots organizing and peaceful mass protests in the streets, and that is the way we going to protect it.
Thanks again, DRC, for taking a stand!
I am not naïve. I was quite aware at that time that an extremist version of transgender politics that denies the very existence of biological sex had become increasingly promoted by DRC management in the name of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” A couple of years earlier I had been called “transphobic” during a diversity training for stating that my lesbianism was based on same sex, rather than same gender, attraction. When “female” becomes a bad word not to be uttered in polite company, “lesbian” becomes a doubly bad word. At that time, HR assured me that my sex and sexual orientation were still protected categories at DRC.
Since that time, diversity trainings had become more heavily ideological with staff expected to fall into line. At the last training before my firing, we were told that sex was a spectrum and the idea that there are two biological sexes was an invention of white colonialism. I was becoming less confident that sex and sexual orientation would be protected, or that DRC would continue to tolerate diversity of opinion among staff. It seemed like we were all expected to think in lockstep or at least pretend that we did. How was that even sustainable in a group of smart independent-minded lawyers, advocates, and support staff fighting for justice for our clients?
But the response I received to my politely worded statement was still the last thing I expected.
I was called a “hate monger” and a “TERF”—a misogynist slur. “She argues that trans people are not who we say we are. This is a dangerous, deceitful lie, and results in serious violence and stigma towards trans people…Trans men and non-binary people also need abortions…”
Of course, I never said they didn’t; I explained that I was talking about sex, not gender, and that only biological females can get pregnant. That should be a “no brainer” to anyone with a basic understanding of biology. We are mammals after all and part of the natural world though we may try to convince ourselves otherwise. My statements certainly had nothing to do with hate.
The next workday, the pile-on got more intense. I was condemned by my Civil Rights team as having opinions against the values of the group. I responded by accusing DRC of sexism, homophobia, and harassment. Two days later I was fired.
I had broken the taboo—I had mentioned the sex that dare not speak its name. Before Stonewall, it was homosexual love that dared not speak its name. Now it is the female sex itself.
Why do I say the female sex? Logically, sex denialism negatively impacts both sexes, and gay men as well as lesbians may be harmed, but like in the witch-hunts in colonial New England, the primary victims are women. Does anyone seriously hear males referred to as “people with penises” or “ejaculators?” Given the pervasiveness of misogyny and the reality of sex differences in average size and strength, women and girls are more vulnerable targets of male physical and sexual violence. This means women and girls have the most to lose if we cannot name ourselves and as a result lose our ability to fight for and protect our sex-based rights.
The erasure of female humanity is nothing new. Until the First Wave of Feminism won property rights for married women, the rules of coverture meant wives had no independent existence, no right to their own earnings or custody of their children, no legal identity of their own. Even prior to the Second Wave, women could not get credit in their own name or get access to birth control without their husband’s permission. Wives in the 1950s were referred to as “Mrs. John Smith”—even their first names were buried—making clear their role as an appendage of their husbands.
And the attempt to do something similar in the 21st century only gives aid and comfort to many on the religious Right who intend to further erode the rights we have won over centuries of struggle.
Because of this, I am fighting back against my former employer. I refuse to be silenced or intimated. I have filed suit in San Diego Superior Court for wrongful termination alleging sex and sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation. This is the first suit of its kind in the U.S. challenging the attacks on our jobs and livelihoods for breaking the taboo. You can sign up in solidarity here.
We are women. We are female humans. We are whole people. We are entitled to basic human rights. We will not be erased.
In the words of Suffragist Christabel Pankhurst: “Remember the dignity of your womanhood, do not appeal, do not beg, do not grovel. Take courage, join hands, stand beside us, fight with us.”
Ann E. Menasche is a civil rights attorney, homeless advocate, lesbian, feminist, socialist, Green, and grassroots activist. She is a founding member and co-coordinator of Feminists in Struggle, and a co-chair of the Green Alliance for Sex Based Rights.