Tag Archives: sexist

Mind your sexist language!

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.

Girls reading: Photo credit: USAID Africa on VisualHunt.com

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? 

Mea culpa!

Gossips: deti_leta on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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: 

  • Gossip
  • Feisty
  • Frumpy
  • Bubbly
  • Curvy

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:

  • Bossy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • A career woman

The first three words are not intended as complements. And probably behind my back I was also called

  • Bitchy
  • Hormonal
  • Emotional
  • Catty
  • 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 …

Devant l’affiche de “j’accuse” : Jeanne Menjoulet on VisualHunt/ CC BY

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

Ursula K. LeGuin by Gorthian reading from Lavinia at Rakestraw Books, Danville, California June 2008. Via WikiMedia

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. 


Filed under Feminism, Reading, words, Writing

What Katy did to me

Yuk! I read What Katy Did as a little girl, as many little girls did. My copy is old and battered, printed on war-time yellowing paper and has 1945 written in my childish hand in red pen on the title page. It was first published in 1892, written by Sarah Chauncey Woolsey under the pen name Susan M. Coolidge.

172 What KD coverWhat Katy did for me was underline the sexist messages that abounded in my youth. Katy’s story would not have worked if the main character had been a boy. This was growing up for girls.

And What Katy Did said that girls should learn patience, cheerfulness and making the best of things. And that suffering endured will ensure that a girl will be ‘beautiful and beloved’. Indeed, as Samantha Ellis says, the pernicious idea that suffering has value is common. What Katy Did is a fiercely moral book that appealed to the fiercely moral child that I was. I have since had to unlearn that lesson.

Katy and me

They say that good fiction allows the reader to identify with the main character. I certainly identified with Katy although I allowed myself to pick and chose the things I identified with. Like me she came from a large family of six children and Katy was the eldest. (I was the oldest girl of six siblings which wasn’t that different). Unlike the Carr children my mamma was not dead and we were not cared for by Aunt Lizzie. Like me, Katy was very tall – ‘the longest girl that ever was seen … up above Papa’s ear, and half a head taller than Aunty Izzie.’ (16) And Katy had wild imagination and was always getting into scrapes, although she knew she should be being good and taking care of the children, when she wasn’t learning her lessons or lacing her boots.172 What K didf cover

The story

Katy is 12 years old and blessed with imagination, spirit but no patience. She gets into scrapes at school and at home and cares little about the effects of her behaviour. Refusing to accept Aunt Izzie’s injunction not to use the swing Katy falls from it as it breaks and in falling damages her back so that she is more or less bedridden for four years.

Aunt Izzie did not warn the children that the swing was unusable. The narrator comments:

This was unwise of Aunt Izzie. It would have been better to explain further. The truth was … that the swing really was not safe. If she had told this to the children all would have been right; but Aunt Izzie’s theory was that young people must obey their elders without explanation. (97)

The second half of the book follows Katy’s slow progress through ‘The School of Pain’. The insufferable Cousin Helen explains this concept to Katy. She will learn to become patient and cheerful, become the woman at the heart of the house and to make the best of things.

“Sometimes there isn’t anything to make the best of,” remarked Katy, dolefully.

“Yes there is, always! Everything in the world has two handles. Didn’t you know that? One is smooth handle. If you take hold of it the thing comes up lightly and easily, but if you seize the rough handle it hurts your hand and the thing is hard to lift. Some people always manage to get hold of the wrong handle.” (114)

Still looking for the smooth handle to life myself. Cousin Helen has some good ideas about learning, if not about handles.

“For you know we never do people good by lecturing; only by living their lives with them, and helping a little here and a little there to make them better.” (120)

And Katy learns her lessons and becomes thoughtful, patient and grateful. She does this by taking over the running of the household. Yes really. And to conclude the book demonstrates her newly acquired modesty.

“Oh, Cousin Helen, don’t!” said Katy, her eyes filling with sudden tears. “I haven’t been brave. You can’t think how badly I sometimes have behaved – how cross and ungrateful I am, how stupid, how slow. Every day I see things that ought to be done, and I don’t do them. It’s too delightful to have you praise me – But you mustn’t. I don’t deserve it.”

But although she said she didn’t deserve it, I think that Katy did. (175)

Why I hate this book now

I certainly absorbed the idea that suffering led to virtue. I am glad to say this idea has more or less disappeared, otherwise hospitals and doctors’ surgeries would be less caring and comforting.

And I absorbed the pernicious idea that my job as a child was to lose my impatience, my bossy exuberance, my imaginative games and my quick temper. I should be more meek, pretty, tidy and patient. Girls were constantly told this and Katy’s story underlined the message. By the way, although I didn’t want such a bad injury as Katy’s, I did believe that if life dealt me such a blow I was sure I would respond, and without Cousin Helen’s interfering and angelic prompting.

Now I want to say, especially to those reviewers who say Katy was their childhood heroine, ‘Look at Katy and what those adults did to her, forcing her into becoming better in their terms and ultimately the best homemaker.’ If Katy was my heroine, it was before the accident, not after.

Yuk! It was the first in series of What Katy Dids. I probably read them all. Enthusiastically.

172 How tb heroineI am indebted to How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis for some of the criticism and inspiration for this post. Speaking of her own life, Samantha Ellis observes that pain did not teach or liberate her. I liked this comment:

There should be a special place in hell for Cousin Helen, a saintly invalid who wafts about in ruffled lace nightgowns, and thinks illness is an opportunity. Yes, an opportunity. (131)

I am pleased to find that What Katy Did is the name of a retro shop, based near me in Devon.

What Katy Did by Susan M Coolidge. Version used for this post was published ?1945 by the Children’s Press (London and Glasgow).

Do you have any views on What Katy Did? Did you ever read it?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews