Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Erasing Women from the English Language

Sandra Parshall

Have you changed the way you talk about women? Do you think twice when writing fiction – avoiding depictions of fat or ugly female characters, toning down a woman character’s bitchiness? Are you offended when a male author writes an unflattering description of a woman?

Just how politically correct is your language, and how did it get that way?

New words and changes in usage normally spring up in conversation (and these days the internet is part of the conversation), with official recognition from dictionaries and other publications lagging a bit behind. But when it came to the way we talk and write about gender, as well as race, changes were forced into being by law and a new social consciousness.

By now most government departments, businesses, colleges and universities, newspapers, TV stations, and magazines have written guidelines for avoiding racist and sexist language. Judging by the evidence, though, getting rid of racial references in everyday speech has turned out to be easier than achieving totally
gender-neutral expression. Regardless of how we twist and torture common words and phrases, it’s not easy to erase women from the English language.

The person who brings our meal in a restaurant may introduce herself or himself as a server, but male and female customers alike continue to use the terms waitress and waiter.

In the military, where women are expected to perform exactly as men do, no gender-neutral form of address exists for officers beyond their ranks. A female superior is addressed either by her rank or as ma’am.


In corporations where men hold most of the top-level jobs, the term chairman of the board has never been supplanted by chair. (Does chair of the board sound as peculiar to you as it does to me?) As in many other cases, the “man” ending is dropped only when a woman occupies the position, so the altered word fails its purpose by loudly signaling that this is a female we’re talking about.


In other cases, so-called gender neutrality is awkwardly achieved by dropping the female version of a word and applying the male version to men and women alike.
The Screen Actors Guild, for example, calls all its members actors. But they negate what they may believe is a principled stance by separating the sexes at awards time, presenting awards for “Best Performance by a Male Actor” and “Best Performance by a Female Actor.” If they want to remove distinctions between the sexes, perhaps they should give gender-neutral awards and let both men and women compete for them. That’s the way we do it in the writing field. Mystery Writers of America doesn’t give out Edgars for “Best Novel by a Woman” and “Best Novel by a Man” – and no other writing awards make that distinction either. Is SAG afraid women will be slighted if they have to compete directly with men? Do they think Meryl Streep can’t hold her own against Brad Pitt?

Fortunately, many job titles sound fine when given to either men or women. There was a period, blessedly brief, in the 19th century when grammarians wanted people to use words like doctoress and lawyeress, but the idea seems laughable now. However, some people still feel compelled, when mentioning a doctor who isn’t a man, to tack on a gender word: woman doctor, female doctor. The opposite side of the coin is the way we refer to nurses who aren’t women. If you were telling someone about a hospital stay, would you drop in the fact that one nurse was a he, even if the nurse's gender had
nothing to do with the story?

I believe some job descriptions have changed for the better in the campaign for gender-neutral language. The term stewardess was so sullied by smutty jokes and lame comedy routines that it did no justice to the trained professionals who will not only serve us beverages during uneventful flights but will possibly save our lives in a crash. Flight attendant is an altogether more dignified job title, whether it refers to a woman or a man.

On the whole, though, I think a lot of energy is wasted on trying to make people drop particular words from their vocabularies. A few months ago I was verbally attacked because I used the word “suffragette” in a group discussion. I was informed that by using such a word I dishonored the women who fought for female suffrage, that I was insulting them, making light of their achievement. Actually, I was making a distinction between suffragists – anyone and everyone who supports women’s suffrage – and the courageous, militant women who marched, protested, chained themselves to fences, went to prison, endured force-feedings and other indignities to gain the same rights men enjoyed. Suffragette may have been a derogatory term when it was coined by a British newspaper, but it stuck even as changing attitudes and laws swept away the negative meaning. No one who really knows me would seriously suggest that I don’t respect the women I call suffragettes.

In my opinion, we also waste time trying to remove job titles like waitress from
the language. The title is innocuous. What matters is how the waitress is treated by her employer, whether she is penalized for being overweight or middle-aged, and whether customers see her as a human being with a life and mind of her own rather than a faceless servant. Calling a female server a waitress doesn't have the same effect as calling a woman a slut or a whore. Sometimes a job title is just a job title, and it doesn’t automatically denigrate the person doing the work.

I know some writers who are so determinedly P.C. in their speech, and so terrified of offending readers with their prose, that I’m afraid their timidity will rob their writing of all originality and insight. For a fiction writer, too much political correctness can be deadly. We have to write about people as they really are. Women can do stupid things. For example, some women stay in abusive relationships. Some commit murder. Men, too, can be selfish and pigheaded and violent. Writers have to explore those realities. The minute we start censoring our characters’ behavior and editing their speech, it’s time to stop writing and find some other way to occupy ourselves.

12 comments:

Julia Buckley said...

An interesting post. Our language really does have no graceful way of making genders equal--and this includes the annoyance of having no singular "they" word, necessitating the annoying "he or she."

But as writers, I suppose we have to find ways to use the language we have to tell the story we need to tell, and must do so boldly, fearlessly.

Thanks for the points to ponder, Sandra!

Sheila Connolly said...

As a veteran of the second (or was it third?) wave of feminism, and a graduate of a women's college, I try to use gender-neutral terms consistently--and feel like an idiot doing it. It doesn't sound natural, and looks even worse on the page. Although I do prefer "Chair", but then you've got silly things like, "Madame Chairperson..."

Better we should create balanced characters of both--or all--genders and win people over that way. I just finished a book by a person whose name was gender-ambiguous, who based on his character definitions was clearly male. I kept saying as I read, your female character wouldn't do that!

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, try as I might, I don't think I'll ever get used to calling a human being a chair. :-)

Irene Fleming said...

Some years ago the chairperson of the New Jersey State Board of something-or-other was referred to in a local newspaper headline as "Big Board Head." It might even have read, "Big Board Head Eyes so-and-so's Seat." There's an image for you, and by Georgina, it's gender-neutral.

kd easley said...

JD Robb, in her futuristic police procedurals has all officers addressed as Sir. It always makes me smile.
I don't like the ...person tacked on to a word. For me, the person that delivers the mail is the mailman, be they male or female. Letter Carrier just sounds boring, but mailman, is cool. When I was a kid I might have said, our mailman is a girl. LOL
Someone at work the other day was talking about fishing and ask if I was a fisherperson. HUH? I'm a fisherman.

Sandra Parshall said...

KD, I read somewhere that women who captain or work on fishing boats for a living in places like Britain and Canada have angrily resisted efforts to get rid of the term fisherman and replace it with the neutral fisher. The women want to be called fishermen. And if that's what they want to be called, that's what I'll call them.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

In 1977-78, I worked as an editor at McGraw-Hill (nothing interesting: accounting textbooks!). They had just published the first editorial guide to nonsexist language, and it had lots of common sense solutions to some of the dilemmas people still seem to struggle with. For example, the graceful way to use the gender-neutral plural "they" is with a plural verb. "The therapist must always consider his or her client" becomes "Therapists must always consider their clients." If I remember correctly, that guide included locutions we'd never considered before, like "firefighter" instead of the ludicrous "fireperson" and "staff the booth" rather than "man or woman the booth." I must say that as a Jewish woman who was a poet for many years, I'm agin "-ess," which with some words is a put-down. Don't call me a Jewess or a poetess!

Donis Casey said...

I don't mind "Chairwoman". I don't think everything should be gender neutral necessarily. There is certainly nothing wrong with being female. The idea of calling all officers "Sir" bothers me. It suggests that women should be "promoted" to men. That being said, if female boat captains want to be called "Fishermen", that is their privilege and I would certainly honor their wishes. (Though when I hear of women who don't want their gender mentioned I wonder if they aren't unconsciously buying into the idea of their own inferiority. I can't help but think of that old Groucho Marx quote : "I would never belong to any club that would have me as a member.")

lil Gluckstern said...

I think this a toughie and a very thought provoking post. Some PC terms make sense; some just sound pretentious-server for one. I'm also torn because I think Actress is just as impressive as actor, and I agree with Donis Casey that refusing the female version seems to degrade the gender, but there is also a reality to the perception in our culture that the feminine is somehow less. In spite of female firefighters, etc. the change in perception is just slower than the reality. There is a lot of social anxiety at stake. Just sayin'

Diane said...

It's not just English. Languages based on Latin are even more gender specific. Objects are either male or female - all objects. For example, beer is feminine (la servesa), wine masculine (el vino) in Spanish. And I do mean everything. Though I would think beer & wine would be the opposite genders than what they are.

Sandra Parshall said...

Maybe women who insist on using the same job title as their male colleagues (fisherman, for example) do so because they are in jobs where "acting like a woman" -- this is, weak and in need of protection -- would never be allowed. Crewing a fishing boat is damned hard work, and I doubt it was easy to reach the point where men would accept having women aboard. Same goes for coal mining and other typically male jobs. Women who take on those jobs are trailblazers, and they almost have to be more "male" than the men. I can see why a woman who works on a fishing boat would reject being called a fisherwoman.

kathy d. said...

In my environs and among editors I know, terms are used, such as "chairperson," "congressperson," and "councilperson," as well as "firefighter, "police officer," and "wait staff," rather than waiter or waitress, and postal worker.

Years ago, before usage had changed, friends and I were calling a "Walkman," a "Walkperson." There were other terms, which could be considered lewd, so I won't list them here.