issue 191 - January 1989
Kicking the habit
Women protest that the English language is loaded against them.
Words for women are often insulting. And many verbal conventions
assume the world is populated entirely by men. Ros
Coward surveys this linguistic battlefield.
A few weeks ago, the Sun, a Murdoch newspaper in the UK with a circulation of over four million, ran a story about new words for sex. 'Nobody "bonks" any more,' they reported, 'The phrase is "porking" or having a "pork". Younger girls who put it about a bit are called "piglets".'
It comes as no surprise to find a tabloid newspaper defining women by reference to their sexual behaviour and presenting sex as a sort of urgent male need, a bit like going to the toilet. But then I found in the same week in the relatively liberal UK magazine Time Out several references to women as 'chicks' and 'broads'.
It was as if feminism had never happened. Terms are used, like chicks, broads, birds, dolls, sluts and tarts which mean that women are never simply 'women' but always to be defined according to their sexual appearance and their sexual availability.
I should have been prepared for the lack of change on this front. In the 1970s when feminism first drew attention to sexist language it also argued that sexism was deeply rooted in our attitudes precisely because of the power of language to make sexist terms appear to describe permanent cultural values, And in using these terms, we reinforce such attitudes and make them seem like something timelessly true about women.
There are endless terms which stereotype or dismiss women. Words like 'bitch' and 'shrew' imply that women are in some way transgressing their feminine role; such women are too strong and stroppy, not considerate and attentive in the way women are meant to be.
One would expect that the term 'feminine' would carry correspondingly positive associations. But this is not always the case. 'Feminine' does often suggest positive (although limited) values like petite, delicate and caring as in 'She makes a good nurse because she is very feminine'. But it can also have extremely negative connotations, as in 'She is a difficult person to work with; she is too feminine'. Here feminine implies hysterical, illogical and unreasonable. 'Masculine' on the contrary never carries these negative implications; it simply implies strong, sometimes powerful and not effeminate.
Feminism's objections to sexist language have been much parodied. The insistence that 'person' should be used rather than 'man', has produced endless jokes about Manchester being renamed Personchester or Mr and Mrs Freeman renaming themselves Mr and Mrs Freeperson. Such jokes obscure the fact that words which have negative connotations, or which seem to exclude women, tend to reinforce a sense of powerlessness.
'Man' and 'mankind' are terms used interchangeably, supposedly to refer to the whole of humanity, as in 'Mankind has fallen from grace' or 'Man is the most intelligent of the animals'. Yet feminists have pointed out the terms 'mankind' or man often imply only males. To say, for example, that 'Woman is the most intelligent of the animals' is therefore interpreted as a definite political statement.
And when the term 'man' is applied to categories of work - chairman, foreman, spokesman - it becomes clear that although it is meant to imply both sexes, it very frequently implies exactly what it says, spokesman. If the language itself assumes that men will fill these jobs, it becomes 'natural' for men to do so - and exceptional if women do. And even women internalize the sense that it is inappropriate or especially difficult for them to do these things. This example points to an underlying trend in the English language: to assume that male is the norm and to define women by reference to their sexuality.
The common use of man or mankind does also hide the fact that women have an experience and a history of their own. A right-wing politician recently declared that 'Rape is the only one of mankind's crimes which I have not been forced to commit'. This does suggest that it is men doing the raping. But it still obscures the fact that it is women who are raped. The statement implies that rape is a factor of humanity - an eternal problem for all humans - rather than a specific crime committed against women. In the same way as taking the surname of the male in marriage tends to make tracing the female branches of the family more difficult, the use of the term man tends to make women's history disappear.
Where the English language does make specific references to the female, it often has derogatory implications. All the male terms in the following list are relatively neutral and descriptive of a job or a position - master/mistress, host/hostess, fisherman/fishwife, prince/princess, bachelor/spinster. The female categories on the contrary have negative, pejorative or just excessively feminine connotations. 'Hostess' and 'mistress', both imply certain kinds of sexual behaviour; 'spinster' implies not only unmarried but unmarriageable.
Not all female/male oppositions have such connotations of course. In the actor/actress pairing there are no particularly negative qualities attaching to the female term. And in this respect it is partially correct to think of language as rooted in particular social forms and reflecting the social conditions of various different occupations. In our society, men historically have occupied the positions of power such as master and host. The deviation of the feminine term from the profession into other meanings partly reflects the assumed impossibility that women should occupy these positions, and the ensuing implication that women only occupy head of household positions by virtue of selling sexual services to men, whereas in the acting profession women are much more 'equal'.
However language does not just reflect the society in which we live, it also contributes to how we experience that reality and how much we contribute to keeping things as they are. Language doesn't just change when social conditions change. Even if women are legally entitled to equality, sexist language still activates and re-circulates deeply held beliefs about female inequality. The idiomatic phrases, the stereotyped utterances, the patterns of speech themselves actively contribute to a world where women are the different sex, the defined sex. What we have is an excess of definitions around the feminine whereas men are the undefined norm.
There is a school of thought (embodied by Dale Spender's book Man-Made Language) that says we can think of language itself as being 'male'. Dale Spender describes the tendency to refer to the male as the norm and women in pejorative terms as a 'rule' of language; she uses the term 'sexist syntax' to describe this. She also uses studies of women's habits of speech to suggest that women use a slightly different language.
This is somewhat inaccurate. The habit of treating man as the norm and the feminine as negative is not a syntactic rule. Syntax refers to the rules of speech which underlie the production of grammatical utterances. The differences between male and female connotations are really located at the level of semantics (that is the level of meaning) rather than at the level of syntax. Thus it is perfectly grammatical to say 'wife and man' but not customary to do so. 'Man and wife' represents a habitual mode of speech which treats men as the norm and women as requiring definition.
The issue of whether women themselves actually use a different form of language to men is more complex. There does seem to be a certain amount of evidence that men and women have different styles of speech in the English language. The evidence for this is summarized by Jennifer Coates. When men and women are talking together, for example, it seems that men interrupt more, talk more, swear more and use more imperatives; whereas women ask more questions and tend to use more polite forms of speech.
But these differences of style hardly constitute different languages. Indeed men and women regularly cross from one style to another. We have only to think of Margaret Thatcher's parliamentary delivery or interview behaviour to find a woman using characteristically male speech styles.
The differences between men and women seem to arise from factors such as women's hesitancy, women's role as cajoler and mediator for men, and men's social dominance and sense of themselves as more authoritative. The patterns of speech are rooted in a society where men literally do have more power than women, and indeed power over women. But as with the sexist idioms and assumptions we looked at earlier, the patterns of language do 'not just reflect inequality. They also actively contribute to it.
Because language appears such a natural instrument with which we can describe reality, its terms and expressions seem to describe the way things are and will always be. But the truth is that these patterns of speech belong to convention and habit. And every time we use prejudicial terms, we actively re-circulate sexist ways of seeing the differences and relations between the sexes. I hope therefore that however much the cards seem to be stacked against us, feminists will keep on about language. For every time someone talks about piglets', 'sluts' and 'chicks', the task of achieving equality for women is that much harder.
Ros Coward is the author of Language and Materialism (with John Ellis) and Female Desire. She is a freelance writer and her new book The Whole Truth, about alternative therapies, will be published by Faber in the new year.
1 Women, Men and Language, Jennifer Coates, Longman 1988
This list is based on one issued by the National Union of Journalists in the UK.