This year I bought a strange holiday gift for my kids: I gave them dictionaries. More specifically, I gave them dictionaries that were published before the word “woman” was redefined by some dictionary publishers.

This fall, Cambridge University Press redefined woman to include not only “an adult female human being,” but also “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth (example, ‘Mary is a woman who was assigned male at birth.’).”

Wits quickly supplied additional definitions Cambridge should consider, such as, “duck: a shark who lives and identifies as a duck though they may have been said to have a different species at birth (example, ‘Blue is a duck who was assigned shark at birth.’).”

If we were in the water and someone yelled, “Duck, duck!” we’d turn around to look because ducks are no threat. If someone yelled, “Shark, shark!” we’d get out of the water as fast as possible because sharks are very much a threat. Redefining “duck” to include “shark” would be a corruption of language because it would not allow us to communicate what we actually mean, and also would obscure the potential threat sharks pose. At best the redefinition makes us incoherent; at worst, it results in our harm or death.

“Duck, duck, the pectoral-fin-having kind of duck!”

For women, the conceptual erasure of their material reality has come swiftly, even as their actual material reality so often remains the justification for their abuse. While certain legal fictions have been long accepted in society — for example, it’s unremarkable to call the guardians of an adopted child their mother and father even though they are not biologically related — newer legal fictions are not as innocuous.

Perspective: He asked ‘What is a woman?’ Most people couldn’t answer chose ‘Woman’ as the word of the year. Here’s why

Since 2010 in Great Britain, an individual can, under certain circumstances, receive a Gender Recognition Certificate that allows them to change the sex on their government documents. This is “a legal fiction” because the person’s material bodily sex has not changed; only the sex marker on their government documents has.

We know this is a legal fiction even under British law because the older sister of a male heir of a noble peerage (the UK’s system of ranks and titles) cannot use a Gender Recognition Certificate to claim that she is now the true heir because the certificate says she is male. 

The material, biological reality of her sex has not disappeared in actuality. Likewise a male heir cannot lose his noble title if he obtains a certificate that states he is female; his favored male sex can never be taken from him. The government reasoned that “by stating that where a peerage is concerned a transsexual person is considered in his or her birth gender we avoid anomalies of succession.”  

But those are anomalies that would disfavor men, causing them to lose out to women. Unfortunately, the government appears less interested in anomalies that are created by this legal fiction that disfavor women, causing them to lose out to men.

The same week that Cambridge changed its definition, a U.K. judge ruled that the 2018 Gender Representation on Public Boards Act, which mandates certain percentages of women on public boards, included as women not only females but also individuals with Gender Recognition Certificates stating they are female. Thus a public board could be comprised of all biologically male-bodied persons and still fulfill its obligations under the act.

We see the same double standard at work in other recent rulings. Janice Turner of the Times points out, “The U.S. rowing federation has opened its female category to anyone who ‘identifies as a woman.’ (This, remember, is a sport with a huge male-female physical disparity.) But hey, look at new mixed rowing rules. ‘Boat entries in this category must include 50% athletes assigned as female at birth’ — i.e. no extra dudes in your team because it would be unfair to other dudes. How do you define ‘man’? Someone who never loses out.”

I would argue these legal fictions about sex are not just unfair and unsporting, but also in many cases harmful to women. First, how can you possibly organize for women’s rights when the category of women includes biological men? You are reduced to the inanity of our current discourse over “uterus-havers” and “menstruators,” when those neo-categories are wholly incapable of pointing to the human beings living in female bodies. In one fell swoop, you have made women incapable of articulating whose rights need protecting — even though everyone still knows whose rights are being lost. Didn’t we have an unambiguous word for those human beings? Well, we used to.

Worse, you prevent women from protecting themselves. Our foremothers bequeathed us a variety of ways of detecting, avoiding and mollifying threatening males. One of the major breakthroughs in women’s rights was the right to single-sex spaces, such as women’s restrooms. An extension of this right was the Geneva Convention’s upholding the right for women prisoners to be held in single-sex facilities. 

Now, however, we have women accosted by men in women’s restrooms, and women who dare say anything are too often vilified for calling them biologically male. Even worse, we have had the most vulnerable women — women prisoners — trapped in cells with biological males, which has already resulted in physical abuse and allegations of rape.

When the ducks cannot say “That’s a shark,” or women can’t say male, you have stripped from them the ability to even identify those who may harm them. That we have so corrupted our language to the favor of men, by asserting that biological males can be “women” and must be called “women” if that is what men want, is deeply wrong.

I, for one, will not bend the knee to this blatant misogyny, so I’m buying those uncorrupted dictionaries while they still exist. Just as the Amish have kept alive their own dialect of English, so dissenters from this conceptual mischief must do the same, and pass uncorrupted language on to those who follow them. For women and for men who value and respect women, the stakes are just too high for complacency. 

Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.