true since we were children and we were told by adults that "words will never hurt us." A good many of us would most likely have preferred the sticks and stones because physical injuries often heal far more quickly and far more effectively than psychological ones.
And yet, even as we must all acknowledge the basic principle that words can do real harm, many people continue to insist that sexist language is a trivial concern. This paper looks at the reasons why it is important to be careful about the language that we use. It is all too easy for opponents of care in language to toss off concerns about bias as "political correctness." But it is important that the rest of us insist that "political correctness" can be viewed another way: As basic courtesy and civility.
Because language is one of the most powerful forces that there is, anyone who is concerned with issues of equity in society must be concerned with issues of fairness in language:
One of the basic principles of feminism is that society has been constructed with a bias which favors males; one of the basic principles of feminists who are concerned with language is that this bias can be located in the language.
We may begin our examination of the topic of sexist language with an anecdote and an analogy.
The first comes from my high school, where one of the teachers - a man - would always scoff at requests by students that he not used biased language.
A never feel left out when people talk about 'men' as meaning all of humanity," he would say. I know that they're talking about the species as a whole, not just people with Y chromosomes.
He was, it should be noted, speaking without any apparent irony. He never seemed to be able to appreciate the fact that while he might not feel left out, women and girls would.
What is especially striking about the subject of sexist speech is that people do not tend to make the analogy to racist speech. No one would, in the 21st century, ever think that "white people" really meant all humans. And yet many people insist that "men" really means men and women.
The following argument summarizes this lack of sensitivity to the fact that while people have used "men" for many years as a blanket term for the species, this in and of itself does not mean that the usage is not sexist. "Men" was used as a generic for the species because women were not considered sufficiently important to be counted.
First of all, the theory of "sexist language" seems to say that words cannot have more than one meaning: if "man" and "he" in some usage mean males, then they cannot mean both males and females in other usage (i.e. nouns and pronouns can have both masculine and common gender). This view is absurd enough that there is usually a more subtle take on it: that the use of "man" or "he" to refer to males and to both males and females means that maleness is more fundamental than femaleness, "subordinating" femaleness to maleness, just as in the Book of Genesis the first woman, Eve, is created from Adam's rib for the purpose of being his companion.
Certainly it is true that words can have more than one meaning. And all of those meanings can be sexist.
The real tragedy that underscores the use of sexist terms and sexist ideas about speaking is that they not only harm women's chances, but they also limit the agency of men. No one in a society is left undamaged when the paths of our lives are determined not by our particular skills or predilections but rather but the amount of melanin that we have or whether or not we possess two X chromosomes.
While we began this paper by talking about particular linguistic uses - specifically the generic "man" to include all humans, the sexism in language in fact runs much deeper than vocabulary choices. If this were in fact the case, the language would be relatively easy to purge of sexism. But the bias against women in language - which also serves to cripple men by assigning them into traditional masculine roles whether they would like to occupy them or not - runs much deeper.
But sexist attitudes about women - and men, for sexism includes any attitude that assumes that a person's biological sex is more important than their individual talents and inclinations - lie far deeper. We will examine two deeper levels than simple exclusion of sexism in language.
The first of these - which we may rather metaphorically place one level under the kind of linguistic exclusion that claims that "men" means "people" - is a semantic level of language that assign a pejorative meaning to a term applied to women when its analogous term (that one applied to men) is neutral or complimentary:
To [Muriel] Schulz, it was not mere coincidence that there were more positive words for males in the language, nor was it an accident that there were so many negative words for females with no semantic equivalent for males. These manifestations of a patriarchal order were rule governed and the rule is that words which are marked for females, which are used in association with females, become "pejorated." Because, irrespective of origin, or intent, words which are marked female are marked negative, Schulz referred to the systematic, semantic derogation of women.
An example of the above phenomenon may help to make it clearer. A spinster, while in a legal sense, is the equivalent of a bachelor, the two are in no way considered from a cultural standpoint to be equivalent.
We all "know" that spinsters - or old maids - never got married because they are too ugly. Or are frigid. Or maybe are really lesbians. The word never carries the connotation of a woman who has chosen not to marry, a woman who has chosen to be single.
To this we must contrast the word "bachelor," which is almost necessarily proceeded by "swinging," even though that word is now nearly entirely passe. Bachelors, we all "know" are single by choice. They are probably attractive, probably financially well off. They are certainly getting more than enough sex - unlike the old maid who is probably a virgin still.
Such social stereotypes, embedded in and reinforced by language, do more damage to women than to men, but they do harm to both. Women who are single are scorned when they instead deserve our sympathy (if they wish to be with a partner and are not) or our admiration (for being able to buck social pressures and make their own way in the world).
Men who are single are celebrated when they instead deserve our sympathy (if they wish to be with a partner and are not) or our admiration (for being able to buck social pressures and make their own way in the world). In a situation in which men and women should be treated equally, our language shoves us into treating them very differently indeed.
We see the same kind of obfuscation - on a more dangerous level - about real relationships in the world when language is used to describe theoretically archaic but in fact still present ideas about women as male property.
A man who suffered head injuries when attacked by two men who broke into his home in Beckenham, Kent, early yesterday, was pinned down on the bed by intruders who took it in turns to rape his wife. (Daily Telegraph) terrified 19-stone husband was forced to lie next to his wife as two men raped her yesterday.
What it happening in these reports? My interpretation would be that the act of rape is being represented as a crime against a man rather than a woman. It is relevant to recall that rape was originally synonymous with theft; in our culture once, and in some cultures still, to rape a woman was to rob her father or husband of her value by rendering her unchaste.
We see in this example reflections of an older legal system - but of a social discourse that remains very much in the present. And again it should be clear to us that while the greater damage is being done to women, a substantial amount of harm is also being done to men. Women here are property to be bought and "had." Men are either their protectors or their assailants - and probably both at various times in their lives.
But what if men wish to be protected by women at times? And what if men do not want to be perceived as potential rapists? And what of women who do not want to be attacked? It would be far easier for men and women to trust each other if we could always see each other as individuals rather than as…