Feminists, I have a pet peeve that I really want to talk about. Namely, this business about women being half the population.
Have you heard this before? An activist is explaining why focusing on women’s rights is so necessary, and as they passionately make their case, they tack onto the end of their speech, “After all, women make up half the world’s population!”
And of course, there’s agreement all around – we can’t perpetuate an injustice against half of the world. That simply won’t do!
I’m not a woman, but I understand the impulse to advocate for women by pointing out just how many women there are. No doubt, it’s compelling to talk about the sheer number of people being denied their autonomy and human rights.
The more people suffering, the greater the injustice, right?
Here’s the thing: I don’t see this “women are half the world” thing as being intersectional, nor do I see it as being correct.
And perhaps most importantly, I don’t see it as a step in the right direction: It marginalizes other people in a heck of a lot of ways, trying to uplift women at the expense of others – specifically people of marginalized gender and sex.
When I was a wee baby feminist – name-dropping bell hooks in conversation and proudly displaying my new nose ring – I didn’t realize how ineffective and harmful it was to hinge my arguments about women’s rights on a percentage.
It didn’t occur to me until I began my gender transition, identifying now as genderqueer, that the phrase started to rub me the wrong way – because it erased transgender people like me, for starters.
That’s why I’m writing this article.
If we want to make a case for women’s equality around the world, we need to do it in a way that doesn’t erase or harm people of other genders and identities. We need to be bringing in a more intersectional approach.
It’s time we did away with this talking point once and for all. Because as you’ll see, it’s not doing women – or anyone else, for that matter – any favors.
Here are five things to consider the next time you’re thinking of spouting off the “women are half the world” argument.
1. It’s Ridiculously Cisnormative
Let’s be real: This phrase isn’t logically correct. When we’re saying that women are half the world, what we’re actually saying is that roughly half the world is assigned female at birth.
We aren’t talking about gender (and therefore, women) at all. We’re talking about sex, and assuming that everyone assigned female at birth must identify as a woman.
This is totally cisnormative – reinforcing the assumption that being cisgender is the default, and centering the experiences of cisgender people, effectively erasing transgender people – and makes this phrase really problematic.
Think about it: This “statistic,” focusing on birth assignment, technically includes me – someone who doesn’t identify as a woman, but was assigned female at birth.
And more importantly, it doesn’t include trans women. Since this is a percentage that relies on assignment at birth, we’re inherently excluding transgender women – who have a different birth assignment – in favor of propping up cisgender women.
In doing so, we are replicating the kind of cisnormativity that not only assumes everyone is cisgender, but actually privileges cisgender people over transgender people – with transfeminine people in particular getting the worst of it, as per usual.
Why are cisgender women the only women that count in this statistic?
This phrase ultimately fails us as feminists because when it confuses sex and gender, it’s only really speaking to and about cisgender people. And while trans women may not be a huge percentage of the population, your movement is not for women if it doesn’t explicitly and intentionally include all women.
Which leads me to my next point…
2. It Upholds the Gender Binary and Erases Non-Binary People
Let’s see here. Women are half the world. So men must make up the other half of the world. That’s 100%. So presumably, this includes everyone! Right?
No, it really doesn’t.
Gender exists on a spectrum, and thus, there’s no concrete way to measure just how many genders there really are. What we do know for sure is that there are more than two – but this so-called “statistic” relies on the idea that this isn’t true, and that everyone fits into this binary of men and women.
Anytime we normalize a phrase that says there are only two genders, we’re erasing anyone and everyone who identifies differently.
As non-binary myself, when I hear the saying “women are half the world’s population,” I not only feel erased, but I feel misgendered. The saying upholds a binary that has never quite fit. And I know it’s really talking about sex assignment – so by extension, I’m being labeled a cis woman.
Honestly, when I identified as a cisgender woman, I didn’t notice these issues, and the phrase felt empowering – it felt radical to claim our collective power as women!
But when I started my gender transition, I immediately saw the ways in which it reinforced my own oppression as a non-binary trans person and pushed me further to the margins – just because I didn’t fit the binary, and because I didn’t identify with the gender I was assigned.
Cis privilege can make us oblivious to the harm present in the things we may otherwise find empowering. And that’s why it’s important for cis folks to tune in when transgender and non-binary people are naming their pain.
I’m naming mine now.
There are better ways for women to advocate for their rights – ways that do not further oppress people outside of the gender binary.
3. It Erases Intersex People, Too
Yes, the phrase “women are half the population” focuses on sex. And so what, right? Sex is a 50/50 deal, so it’s not totally inaccurate.
This mentality – that we are born female or male and there’s no in-between – is actually the source of a great deal of oppression and pain for intersex people.
The reality is that biological sex also exists on a spectrum. But those who don’t “acceptably” fit the binary we’ve created are violently forced to conform through invasive and non-consensual surgery.
We need to stop buying into this man/woman, male/female binary. Just like it hurts transgender and non-binary people, it harms intersex people, too. It doesn’t allow for any human diversity. And when we create these rigid rules, we’re harming everyone who doesn’t conform.
When we divide the world into halves, what we’re saying is that there are only two ways to be. Two ways to do gender, two ways to do sex.
If this “women are half the world” thing is meant to advocate for gender equality, why is it upholding both the gendered and sex-based oppression of entire marginalized populations?
Intersex folks are some of the most badass people that I know. They may not be half the world, but they count. Their lives are important. Their struggles matter.
And any kind of “empowerment” mantra that further erases them is not pursuing social justice – it is selfishly pursuing its own interests at the expense of others.
And I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in throwing intersex people under the bus under the banner of “women’s rights.”
4. It Assumes That Women Are a Monolith
When I talked to women about this article, a complaint that we talked about most often was that the phrase “women are half the world’s population” was problematic simply because it lumped all women together – as if their issues were universal, and their experiences largely the same.
This is where intersectionality comes into play again.
Even if it were true that half the world identified as women, that doesn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to advocating for their rights.
Factors like race, disability, size, class, sexuality, gender identity, citizenship, nationality, and more all intersect to shape a woman’s experience of power, privilege, and oppression.
While the sentiment behind the phrase is powerful – look how many women there are, you can’t deny our power and our dignity! – it may, in fact, be oversimplified. A universal experience of womanhood, many would argue, just doesn’t exist.
And when we advocate for gender justice, the conversation needs nuance and intention so that those most marginalized are empowered.
Motherhood, for example, is often assumed to be a universal desire among women – but we actually know that many women choose not to have children, cannot have children, or do not consider parenting to be a significant part of their identity.
Menstruation is often held up as a rite of passage for women, and yet transgender women do not have this experience, numerous transgender men and non-binary people do, and plenty of cisgender women do not have a menstrual cycle (or have an atypical cycle) for various reasons.
You could easily argue that women are more diverse than they are similar – but that doesn’t mean they can’t unite to fight patriarchy together.
Womanhood – and a/gender as a whole – is so much more than a singular identity that everyone understands and relates to in the same way. Different aspects of our identities will shape how we move through the world as a/gendered people.
One shared category is not a guarantee that our experiences are uniform or even similar, and awareness of these differences is important.
When we talk about advocating for women (or any marginalized group), we definitely have to acknowledge everyone’s unique situations – because if the movement isn’t intersectional, it’s bullshit.
And if the language we use to uplift women isn’t intersectional, I suspect it’s bullshit, too.
5. Because Equality Shouldn’t Be a Numbers Game in the First Place
Here’s one of the reasons I hate this phrase the most: The dignity, autonomy, and rights of a marginalized group should have nothing to do with how large or how small that group is.
Social justice is not a popularity contest, and shouldn’t be treated like one.
Women don’t deserve their rights because they are a large percentage of the population. They deserve their rights because they are human beings. Full stop.
As far as transgender people go, I recognize that we make up a much smaller percentage of the population. I recognize that there are many people in this country that have never met someone like me. I recognize that my own parents still struggle to understand me. I recognize that when I move through the world, I am an oddity to most.
I am not half of the world’s population. In many places, I am barely a small sliver of a big pie. But that doesn’t make me less worthy or less entitled to my rights. That doesn’t make me less important. That doesn’t make my struggle less real.
I really despise the underlying message of “women are half the population” because it implicitly communicates to me that because my community isn’t as large, the fight for transgender rights is somehow less of a priority or less significant.
Every marginalized community is important, no matter how many people occupy those spaces.
And I think if we are using language that suggests otherwise, we need to reevaluate our concepts of “justice” and our own sense of entitlement. We can do better than this. And we need to.
Here’s the thing: It’s important that when we build our movements, we create language that reflects our values. And if you take anything away from this article, it’s that we must be intentional about our words – because our words mean something.
As genderqueer, people like me are not “half” of this world. But I’d like to think that, however small a percentage we occupy, our experiences are still important.
So many women in my life are my fiercest advocates, and I try to show up just the same – when our movements work together, I know that we’re stronger.
But our language has to reflect this kind of commitment to each other, to being anti-oppression across the board.
If we want to tackle systemic oppression, we can’t uphold one kind of harm while trying to address another.
That’s why I think examining our language is so important – it says something about who we are and what justice means to us. And in my opinion, “women are half the world’s population” reflects a kind of movement that I don’t think feminists want to be a part of.
We can do better than a lousy 50/50 percentage that lacks nuance. We can do better than a so-called “statistic” that erases people of marginalized gender and sex. And we can definitely do better than a phrase that upholds oppressive binaries.
It not only hurts women, but it hurts people of many genders – and this kind of harm is not what feminism is about.
If we’re going to make a case for women’s rights, let’s start with dignity. Not with erasure.
This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.
ETA: I no longer identify as a trans guy — this piece was mistakenly published by an editor before the correction was made.