Linguistic feminism

I just never had any problem with the so-called male pronoun representing both and/or all genders

Martha Kennedy said this almost in passing, in her post entitled ‘Too Many to Name’, and had I been younger/more agile and energetic, I’d have bounced up from my desk chair and danced a celebratory jig.

Because of all the storms in teacups, self-righteous blatherings and PC nonsenses unfortunately associated with the very real cause of gender equality, this one takes the cake.

For a start, it makes women look pathetic. Are we so insecure about our own gender identity that what has been accepted as an all-purpose pronoun for hundreds of years leaves us feeling excluded and disparaged?

Certainly its use evolved in an age when women weren’t exactly front and centre, but if our image of ourselves is too fragile to tolerate centuries of generic English usage, how can we expect society to see us as strong? Unfortunate though it may be, the image we project is the accepted ‘truth’, and if we ponce about nitpicking over words that have long since lost their gender reference in the general consciousness, we will go on being perceived as poncing nitpickers too fixated on trivia to be trusted with important issues.

Secondly, I’m sick to death of mangling the language to conform to some latter-day concept of political correctness. Mankind is a damn good word. Personkind is a clumsy joke. He/she can foul up the rhythm of a sentence in one extra syllable. They can cause untold ambiguity. And as for chairperson… The person responsible for arranging the meeting’s seating?

Maybe I’ve just been lucky. Gender inequality wasn’t discussed much in my family, let alone expected. We could achieve, we were told, whatever we set our minds to, provided we worked at it. And we did. One of my sisters became a Federal Court judge. The other was an international consultant on educational broadcasting. And until the fuss began, I don’t suppose any of us gave a thought to the gender issues of pronouns.

So how about we stop fussing around with perceived linguistic inequalities and concentrate instead on raising our children to know they are equal, and to hell with splitting hairs over words so long accepted as generic that drawing attention to them is counterproductive.

Mankind includes us all and always has. Women do themselves no favours by seceding from it.

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16 Responses to Linguistic feminism

  1. bkpyett says:

    Well said Helen, I concur with all you have written.

  2. kholli says:

    How about “humankind?” That is more appropriate than either of your suggestions. And, I see that you are pointing out the need to address the important core issues of inequality, however linguistics DO matter. The way we talk about things affects our the way we think about them. There is an entire scientific literature dedicated to this connection. Language has played a big role in perpetuating the subjugation of women and others. So, while using “man” to denote “human” may seem harmless and “PC” avoidance of its use petty, the cumulative use of such terms negatively impacts the way we, as a society, see women. Some scholars (in the fields of linguistics, law, psychology, etc.) argue that changing the language is a fundamental step in changing attitudes and behaviours. Just something to think about.

    • I have thought about it, believe me, and not just recently, but I still have reservations.
      In the early years of the women’s movement, it was drummed into us that these words perpetuate the subjugation of women, and any woman not embracing the message instantly could expect to be scorned and excluded. So in any study undertaken in the last 50+ years, the outcome is virtually predetermined by the fact that the participants have already been well conditioned to believe implicitly that these terms are negative and harmful.
      However had the message been slanted towards inclusion rather than exclusion – had we pointed out our right to be included in ‘mankind’ rather than being aggressive about being excluded from it by the word itself – we might not have fallen into the trap of painting ourselves as a sub-species.

  3. Elle Kacee says:

    I agree with you that the replacement words we have are cumbersome and tend toward tangled tongues. I do not have a solution; I don’t know what we should do about our language’s patriarchal tendencies.

    That said, it doesn’t seem to me that you’ve considered–or maybe never knew about–all the the angles. The main argument for changing the language that I’m aware of is not because women feel left out; it is because language literally shapes the way we think and what we see. If our very language reaffirms that women are women and men are people then that idea will be embedded into our subconscious being from the moment we begin to process words. In other words, a more equitable language will help create more equitable people, not the other way around.

    But I still don’t know what to do about those clumsy, clumsy replacements.

    • I do understand what you’re saying, and I’m not so insensitive to it that I won’t restructure a sentence to avoid the gender traps. I can only say that what was embedded in my subconscious as I was growing up was that people were people. Some I liked, some I didn’t, some I admired, some I thought were idiots, but gender, status, race, creed, appearance etc had nothing to do with anything. So I saw words like ‘mankind’ as comprehensibly inclusive, and while I know it’s too late, I’d love to see more of that perception rather than the divisive attitude so prevalent now.

  4. I thought it should extend to dog breeds. Gerperson Personpard; Doberperson pinscone; Personty (Shelty) 🙂

  5. Karyn says:

    I’ve tried (twice) to re-blog and get a message ‘trouble re-blogging. try again” I will later.

  6. Thank you. On behalf of all mankind. ☺ Van

  7. Woohoo! The blogosphere is full of common sense today. I love it.
    You and Martha move to the head of the class, please!

  8. I agree. I also am saddened at the stupid removal of the feminine version of words like “actress” and “heroine.” What’ wrong with being female? Does being equal mean we have to be the same? I never understood it and I no longer try.

  9. Aunt Beulah says:

    So much common sense. I wish the world would listen. As a writer, I used to struggle with the awkwardness of trying to be politically correct and ruining, as you said, the rhythm of my sentences. I no longer worry about it.

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