Last August, Republican Representative Tim Walberg asked sarcastically, “When did I stop beating my wife?” as a response to what he considered difficult questions during two town hall meetings. The response was immediate on social media with many people both bewildered and offended by this comment. When I read about it, I had a similar reaction. But, when I mentioned it to my husband, who is an attorney, he was nonplussed. He said this is the most common example of a loaded question, and he was surprised I had never heard it before. When I asked him where he first learned the phrase, he recalled that it was at law school. I pointed out to him that law school has until recent decades been a bastion of white male privilege, a place where men had not paused to think about how this phrase represents women as victims of male abuse. This conversation really made me pause and begin to pay more attention to and study how our language shapes our thinking, specifically about women.
Deb Liu, the Vice President of Marketplace for Facebook, is also interested in this topic. She anecdotally began keeping track of the number of male-associated language references including phrases such as: manning up, man hours, ballsy, and gentleman’s agreement to name a few. She issued a challenge to all of us to spend at least a week noticing the instances of gendered words and replacing them with gender neutral pronouns. For example, if you heard that someone needed to “man up”, you would replace that with “person up”. While this practice might seem trivial at first pass, once you start really paying attention to the number of ways that male dominance is featured in our language, you realize just how prevalent it is. And once you realize how prevalent it is, you have to ask yourself how language influences our thoughts.
Another more entertaining way to understand the effect that our language has on gender is by reading the @manwhohasitall twitter feed. This site parodies the ridiculous magazine article titles and common phrases about women by replacing the female nouns with male nouns. For example, “I don’t mind being called a ‘girl’ at work because I know it covers men too,’ Paul, one of the girls.” or “MY DREAM: That one day boys will become anything they want to be – male spacewomen, male chairwomen, male actresses and gentleman doctors.” By bringing attention to the ridiculous sexist language we encounter every day, we can understand the myriad ways that our culture has indoctrinated us into believing women are weak victims or otherwise less than men.
On a more serious note, as we consider the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and how to move forward, we must seriously examine the cultural practices that promote and enable discriminatory thoughts and feelings. As one of the most powerful cultural practices, the language that we use when referring to men and women is rife with subtle and not-so-subtle messages that lead us to believe women are either obnoxious (bitchy), difficult (hormonal, drama queen), or objects to be demeaned (wife beater shirt, there’s that phrase again!) or not to be taken seriously (she’s not hard on the eyes). While some might not understand how much our language influences behavior, research indicates that language does, in fact, govern much of our unconscious behavior.
For example in 2011, Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, and Laasko studied the differences in gender equality between countries with gendered, natural gender, and genderless language systems. The natural gender of a noun, pronoun or noun phrase is a gender to which it would be expected to belong based on relevant attributes of its referent. They found that in countries with gendered language (meaning that nouns are marked by gender) there was less gender equality than in countries with natural gender language systems. Women are not paid as well and are not well-represented in the upper echelons of employment and government. In France, there has been much discussion regarding making changes to the language to improve the position of women within the gendered language. Many professions in French are expressed in masculine terms and then an ending such as -ette are added to indicate a female. The English equivalent would be to say “woman doctor or female mechanic”. When we make a gendered clarification around professional roles, we are inadvertently recognizing that most people cannot think of a woman in that role. Here in the United States, there has been a conscious movement to make many professions that traditionally had gendered titles become non-gendered. For example, we now refer to actors, servers, and flight attendants instead of actresses, waitresses, and stewardesses. When we use one word to describe a profession, it becomes gender neutral, and we can imagine anyone in that role.
Related research by Gastil (2009) found that the language we use influences our cognitive processes. Feminists have often complained, correctly, that using the male gendered words (e.g. “you guys”, “mankind”, “chairman”) to include everyone makes the idea of a woman disappear from our thought process. When we use the male generic term, we actually visualize a male. The ramifications of this language practice are important in that we do not regularly visualize women in powerful roles, and therefore do not consider them for these positions in society. Because this all happens on a subconscious level, most of us are not aware of the broad implications of the practice. If we cannot imagine a woman in the leadership role because of the words we are using, them we are less likely to consider a woman for that role.
Other times, language is used on a very conscious level to diminish the role of women in society. Just this week, the government of Canada voted to change the lyrics of their national anthem to become gender neutral. The two words “in all thy sons,” will now read “in all of us.” As with most political decisions, there were detractors who insisted on sticking with the traditional wording. According to the New York Times, however, the original lyrics to the song were gender neutral saying “True patriot love thou dost in us command.” No one seems to know why the gender-neutral lines were changed. This is a case where it is hard to understand the reasoning of the opponents to the legislation since the change to “in all thy sons” was actually changing the traditional wording. If they truly are traditionalists, then the opponents to the legislation should have stepped aside when the original lyrics were revealed. One can only conclude that the opponents to the legislation preferred to honor only men within the national anthem.
As a culture and society, our language does change with the times, although, the changes can appear to move at a glacial pace. But recently, the Associated Press Style Book added an entry for “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in its latest edition. The AP gave two reasons with the first being that we are already using “they” as a singular pronoun in spoken language. They also noted that as we understand more about gender and how we are not necessarily gender binary beings, we need a word for those who identify as transgender. While admittedly when you first begin using they as a singular pronoun, it can sound grammatically incorrect, we have chosen to make the adjustment as a society in the interest of respecting the personal truth for those who are transgender.
As individuals, we can examine our own use of language to determine how to make our language more equitable to women. For me, the convention of defaulting to the male gender in our writing when the gender is not named is one that I personally challenge in my own writing. I use s/he or his/her rather than use the generic male pronoun so that my reader can imagine a male or female. I also frequently but gently point out to others when they are using a male pronoun for something that could just as easily be a female pronoun. I invite you to give the topic some deep consideration, delve into some of the research, and make the changes to your practices that resonate with you. As you learn more, you will find that many of your patterns of speech and common phrases will change. And with each of our changes, women will benefit from becoming more visible and powerful within our language.