A few years ago I became involved with someone and when it became serious I decided to tell my mother about it. ‘Oh darling,’ she said. ‘Don’t be rash!’ To which I could only reply ‘I‘m in my 50s, for goodness sake. If I can’t be rash now, when can I be?’ It made me realise that in my childhood I was often accused of being headstrong. Now there’s a word. I don’t believe that in my childhood boys were called headstrong. I was also known as a tomboy. These are all things that go against what society expects of its girls: being rash, headstrong and tomboys. Oh no, I should have been patient, pensive and feminine. Quiet and unnoticed, in other words. We still use words to indicate deviation from expected norms, especially for women and girls. (And there is a whole other vocabulary for older women, but that’s for another day).
In this post I’m going to look at a few sexist words that have evaded my attention until now, and say something about how to detect them and what to do about it.
The reversibility test
In the ‘70s I belonged to a women’s group. Today I would be described as participating in the Second Wave of feminism, but at the time we mostly called it raising awareness. I recall that at one meeting we watched a film. I don’t remember a huge amount about it except that it was in B&W and made in a Scandinavian country. The language was no barrier for there was none. The film made its points through the shock of reversing the roles of men and women.
For me the most powerful scene was in the office, where women sat behind huge desks and summoned the men to take notes, or bring them cups of tea or to have their bottoms pinched. The men worked in cramped rows typing away (it was the ‘70s). For lunch the women were provided with a lavish meal in a special dining rooms while the men went off to do their shopping which they then placed in lumpy bags at their feet under their desks. At the end of the working day the women got into their huge cars and drove home. The men picked up their awkward shopping bags and went to queue for the bus.
From this film I learned to use the reversibility test for any situation where there may be sexism in play: would it look the same if the men and women swapped places? If not then it is usually to the detriment of women. Would a particular word mean the same thing about men and women?
So it was with some shame that a dawning realisation came over me that I had not been applying this test in the language I used in my reviews on Bookword. I came across a long twitter thread about all the words used about women which are not commonly applied to men. Here are some examples:
The originator of the twitter thread had posted some that she thought were common and invited further contributions. The thread went on way beyond my patience, listing word after word. Sadly I have not been able to rediscover this thread. (Please send it to me if you noted it and can find it again.)
It was the second word on the list that drew my attention: feisty. Quite close, people noted, in meaning to spirited and I know that I have used both these words approvingly of the authors of, for example My Brilliant Career and Mary Olivier: A Life.
In my own time, as well as the above, I have been called:
- A career woman
The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called
- A nag
And I might even have been described as a working mother.
Applying the reversibility test you can see that some of these words indicated that I was transgressing in some way. Women were not supposed to be or do these things: but whoever refers to working fathers, or a career man? Being bossy is another way of describing a leadership role (I was a headteacher); ambitious suggests that women should not seek to advance themselves in work; and aggressive (also known as abrasive) is another term for being direct. And so on …
So where a word suggests that the user divides the world by gender, two categories only of course, it can be identified as sexist.
And there’s more
I have drawn attention to 20 words. Here’s a link to an article where the writer had a list of 122 words with subtle sexist overtones. It appeared in Sacraparental in May 2016: EVERYDAY MISOGYNY: 122 SUBTLY SEXIST WORDS ABOUT WOMEN (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT THEM). Read it here.
So what can we do?
Use the reversibility test and then if necessary …
Call out the user of such terms when you hear them, name the practice as sexist.
Call out and name the practice when anyone does it about you.
And another thing …
And in case you think that writers of books use gender-free terms, here is the link to an article that revealed in August last year that a robot read 3.5 million books to find women were overwhelmingly described by appearance, and men by virtue. Read it here
And while we are about it, I would love you to read Ursula Le Guin’s debunking of the use of he to include to all humankind, I am a man, which you can find on this link. As you might expect she is funny and to the point.