Sexism in Language -- I
Yesterday, a daughter of the Ohio State University Marching Band director, who lived in New York City and was an aspiring dancer, was stabbed to death in her apartment. She was described as beautiful young woman who was in "a new off-Broadway show called The Privilege," as the Columbus Dispatch reports. I have no free URL to direct you too. This came as I was struggling with my next blog which started off with the sentence "In my opinion, many -- maybe a majority of -- men genuinely don't respect women." In support of this claim, which some might see as controversial, I simply noted that men abuse women and girls both physically (including to the point of killing them) and sexually (which sometimes leads to murder as well.)
Of course a majority of men don't physically or sexually abuse women but in my 67 years of experience, a majority of men seek to dominate women and value women not for their wit and intelligence but on physical grounds -- how pretty and shapely they are. The movie, "When Harry met Sally," took the position that a man couldn't be with a woman without wanting to sleep with her even when their relationship was officially a friendship. I believe a majority of men seek also to dominate the women in their lives but I would be hard pressed to defend that claim (though I doubt that women readers would need a defense to be convinced.)
One of the really interesting concepts to me is that of "date rape." Why is there any need for this concept? A rape is a rape whether it is perpetrated by a date, who might use either force or a drug to gain compliance, or a stranger who uses force or the threat of violence to gain compliance. I think this notion was created by men to put a pretty face on certain types of rapes by way of suggesting that the female might have done something to encourage the rape such as invite the male up to her apartment.
The question arises as to where does this violence against women come from? Do mothers and fathers teach their boys that dominating women is the right of a male and that women should be valued primarily as sexual beings? I don't think so though boys might learn from how fathers treat their mothers that violence toward women is okay. They may also learn a disrespect for women from their male friends who will typically be interested in "how far" a guy got on his last date rather than in "how interesting" she was.
We see in these two types of violence against women two basic themes -- a theme of male dominance over women and a theme that women are commodities -- are vehicles for male sexual pleasure. The fact that men may love their wives and daughters doesn't mean that they value women generally for "good reasons." Everyone knows racists and ethnocentric people who make exceptions for certain persons of the despised group. I suspect this is what goes on in the case of many happily married men.
My question is where are these concepts of "male dominance" and "the female as commodity" learned. Do fathers tell their boys that it is okay to exert your will over your girlfriend or wife even if it requires violence? Perhaps I am naive but this seems to me to be somewhat implausible. These are behaviors that people are more likely to keep silent about. So where do boys learn this stuff?
In my opinion both language and how we use it play a role in conditioning boys and young men not to respect women, which is the first step toward using force on them to gain compliance, including sexual compliance. To demonstrate how this might happen, we need, first, to define "sexism." I shall define it in terms of what a sexist action is:
A sexist action is one which is predicated on an assumption of a difference between men and women which is not biologically justified and which is harmful to the interests of specific women (or men) or women (or men) generally.So according to this distinction, men too can be the victims of sexism though I suspect it is relatively rare. The next distinction I will make is between sexist language and a sexist use of language.
Sexist language is language that is inherently sexist in that it is encoded in the language itself and often cannot be avoided.Pronoun reference provides a classic instance of sexist language. Consider sentences like
A sexist use of language is the use of language that is sexist which is avoidable.
(1) a. Any person who passes the final will get a passing grade, won't he?Here we see the ubiquitous presence of he, him, and his as the default resumptive pronouns (a resumptive pronoun that has the same referent as an earlier noun phrase (in these cases any person and a person. Use of he, him, and his has historically been dictated by those who enforce the canons of Standard English. What is of interest to us in this context, is that use of these pronouns makes women invisible.
b. If a person hits you, you have a right to hit him back.
c. Any person who speaks his mind about religion could get in trouble.
Interestingly, large numbers of people have come to use officially ungrammatical plural pronouns like they, their, and them to avoid this problem.
(2) a. Any person who passes the final will get a passing grade, won't they?I suspect cases like (2) arise in part out of a desire to be politically correct by avoiding use the masculine form and in part in an effort to simplify their speech by avoiding the cumbersome locutions he or she, him or her and his or her. Anyone who writes for publication faces this problem. I adopted two different solutions - one was to use the cumbersome compound phrases and the other was to use masculine and feminine pronouns in some sort of random order. Neither is satisfactory. The correct solution in my opinion is to go with the man on the street's solution and use they and their despite how old school grammarians may feel about it.
b. Any person who gets hit by another person should hit them back
c. Any person who gives some of their money to the poor should receive
some sort of commendation.
I wonder how many of you noticed my use of the man in the last sentence of the last paragraph? I suspect that many of you will not have even though use of sexist masculine pronouns was the topic of discussion. In using this phrase, I too spoke as if women didn't exist. The invisibility of women is also fostered by words like mankind and chairman and fireman, such other terms that refer to humans generally with words with male referents. Those hoping to be PC might say the person on the street's solution or humankind, or chairperson or firefighter . In using these male oriented terms we not only treat females as invisible we also see males as being the normative sex.
Many of our terms for vocations establish males as the normative sex. Many of us use doctor when referring to male doctors and woman doctor when referring to female doctors. In other cases, the fact that males are the norm is shown by the existence of separate terms for males and females, the latter always being longer thanks to the addition of a suffix. So we have actor and actress, prince and princess, Jew and and Jewess, lion and lioness, etc. Interestingly, it is said on a Wikipedia entry that
"Jewess" was sometimes used for Jewish women. This word, like "Negress" is now at best an archaism, and is generally taken as an insult. However, some modern Jewish women have reclaimed the term Jewess and use it proudlyIf you listen carefully to how female actors talk, many insist on referring to themselves as actors, not actresses because they know that actress has less status associated with it because it is restricted in its reference to women and in this society, in general, women have less status than men. So, even when women are not made invisible by our general terms for referring to people, they are frequently referred to using lower status forms.
There are numerous other ways in which male dominance is codified in the language. Letters are addressed to Mr and Mrs Jones but never (or almost never) to Mrs and Mr Jones. A locution that establishes not just male dominance but the subservience of women to men occurs in the old fashioned but still used phrase I pronounce you man and wife.This is both a bizarre expression -- how do you go about pronouncing someone to be a man? -- and establishes the woman in the subservient role of wife. There is an easy way to improve the language of wedding vows. One may simply use husband and wife. Notice though how odd sounding I pronounce you wife and husband is. The man must always come first.
There are various instances in which linguistic distinctions tend to mask the marital status of men but not women. The most obvious is the distinction between Mr, which is used for married and single men, vs. Mrs, which is used only for women who are married (or were married, as with widows), and Miss, which is used for women who are unmarried. The women's liberation movement tried to establish Ms as the equivalent to Mr but that has failed Another way in which males are treated differently from women is that bachelor refers to males who are single and who may or may not be divorced. We have divorcee for single women who were previously married and no one word term for single women who have never been married. The contrast between bachelor and the highly pejorative term spinster, used to refer to persons who have never married, makes clear that a woman who has not been married, i. e., the object of serious male attention, is a lesser being than a male who "chooses" not to be married.
(To be continued.)