The male default, and why this excludes women
Anne Onne // 2 June 2008
It’s a shame that many people just can’t see why assuming men are the default excludes women, so I thought a short post on language would be a good reminder. Whether it’s the plurals always taking the male form, or writers presuming a male reader, this is pervasive. There is so much you could write about this, that I will only concentrate on a small part of, more as a reminder of why as feminists we need to examine how language can present problems than as an exhaustive. This is also more of a stream-of-consciousness post, so it may be more rough-around the edges than it should. If it comes across as more than a jumble of words, I’ll be happy. Any way, feel free to comment, and point out anything I seem to have missed or confused.
In language, some writers still use the male second person ‘he’ to refer to a general audience, for example: “It can be said that if the reader were to think deeply, he would consider this to be an exaggeration.” To me, this sentence is alienating. Yes, even after growing up in a society that aims everything at white men, assuming that everyone who is not one will have to like it and lump it, I still don’t feel included. I have never grown up being called ‘he’. Ever. Writing that assumes their reader is a ‘he’ is rarely written in a way that we can actually assume will be only read by men. Rather, it’s a throwback to the worse remnants of tradition that men mustn’t be insulted by not being addressed as men. To address any males as if they were women would be more insulting and alienating, we are taught, than addressing a majority of women as men. However, we’re not in the 18th century. Men are actually not fragile creatures who crumble if they are not directly addressed as men every time people are referred to.
It’s a poor excuse, as Richard Dawkins wrote in one of his books that some ‘feminist’ chastised him for writing ‘she’, because it was patronising, so sod it, just write ‘he’. Sorry, you can write ‘he or she’. And no, it doesn’t ruin everything, as some stuck-in-the-stone-ages sods claim. Those of us who have grown up with such innovative language don’t skip a heartbeat when we see it. If you hate using both, then occasionally use either gender. You can substitute ‘she’ for some examples and ‘he’ for others. Why not, nobody needs to assume the reader is always male in every example. Use ‘Zie’, if you think changing is too inconsistent. If that’s too newfangled for you, use ‘they’. If you’re too much of a grammar obsessive (I empathise), pick one of the above. But pick one. Show women that you have noticed they exist. We’ll thank you, believe me. Either way, there are many ways to try and be inclusive, by removing the repetitive focus on male pronouns. Not doing any of the above is sheer laziness, or more likely, an outright refusal simply because you don’t want to be inclusive. Neither deserves a pat on the back.
You also get the deluded souls who insist that phrases such as ‘mankind’ as in ‘man has done X’ or ‘Great men have done Y’ is inclusive, and totally not misogynist. The fact that ‘man’ has come to encapsulate many people who are NOT MEN, thereby masking their existence has never occurred to them. It probably wouldn’t, because many of the people arguing that these words are inclusive are men.
They are not. The words do not take parts that are male and female, and blend them. Nor do they take something that is neither, and can only used to refer to people in a non-gendered sense. They take words that focus on men. These words are like an invading army. They don’t live peacefully side by side with the other, they trample over it, masking its existence with their gendered association. They remind us that men have been controlling women throughout history, defining history (and no, I don’t see history as a gendered word, for crying out loud!) by silencing others not like them. They are a verbal reminder that men dominated over women, and that they don’t want to change that.
I don’t take the etymological roots of the word ‘man’ as proof of it NOW being gender-neutral. Yes, it originally was, but now, when we are referring to a single entity, the word ‘man’ is always used to refer to male person. We never use these to refer to a woman when we know her gender. Why? Because we see it as words designated to men. They are never neutral. The only reason we use them in a mixed gender context is because we as a man-centric society, cannot bear it if men aren’t recognised in a group. It’s not even about calling people all ‘women’. I can’t help but think that the people who have issues with using the word ‘humankind’, or ‘humans’, or ‘people’, do so because their maleness, their male-centric-ness is not being recognised and suitably flaunted. After all, none of the above words are coded female. They’re not taking away one’s manliness by grouping him in with ‘womankind’ or ‘women’. But they take away men’s special status as being the supreme group that everyone else fits around. And that is enough for people who conform to a male-centric society to feel that they are being erased.
These people insist that the word ‘mankind’ is not about men. To all these people, I say to you: prove it. Prove being referred to as if you are someone else is actually not denying your existence. Prove it by assuming the default instead is, unlike you (I’m assuming most of them are men), female. Ask people to refer to you, and the hypothetical reader as ‘she’. Refer to humans as ‘women’, and ‘womankind’. Instead of ‘great men’, say ‘great women’. If a word that most of the time is used exclusively for one group can be adequate for both, surely either will do?
Can’t do it, can you? You’ll go on about how you’re not a woman (what a thought! A woman!) and that the word ‘woman’ can only be used to refer to people who are, in fact women. It’s the same for me. It really is. No matter how many times you tell me ‘mankind’ is supposed to represent me, I still look at that little three-letter word at the front, and you know what, it isn’t me. Neither is ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ or ‘himself’. They’re not me. They never will be. Society has brought me up to answer to the label ‘woman’, the words ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘hers’ and ‘herself’ to describe me. We may have a discussion about what labels really say, and whether they are necessary, if you wish. That’s another long discussion for another day. But if I choose to keep the labels society has brought me up with, I and the other three billion like me, deserve to be represented. We don’t want invisible inclusion, to melt into a word designed around men.
I’m a human. The word ‘human’ connects us all, whether we have ovaries or testes, or neither, or both. It’s not perfect, because it has the word ‘man’ in it (and I’ll chalk this up to etymology, like the word ‘woman’), but it can always be used to refer to both men and women. Short of inventing new words for them all, I think ‘human’ is what I’m personally comfortable with. I appreciate that it is necessary when writing about problems people defined as women suffer, to use a word that encapsulates us, hence the use of the word ‘woman’. This is a complex issue, but I believe that if we choose to use any words already existing in common usage, we should properly use them. That is, male words only for men, not as words with which to mask the inclusion of women.
Don’t always put ‘his’ before ‘hers’ and try to pay attention to these things. Don’t frame maleness as being a rejection of all that is bad and female. Don’t’ frame femaleness as lacking all the positive points of maleness. These also assume male is the default. Men are courageous, strong and have a penis. Women are considered not strong, not courageous, and to lack a penis. We do not ‘lack’ male traits, because personality traits are not unique to a gender. We have strength, both of the kind seen as male and other kinds normally ignored. Next time, instead of framing it as lacking male traits, maybe turn it around. What if we said men lacked a uterus, or lacked breasts, or lacked ovaries? The focus on male gonads stems from the patriarchy. Whilst I don’t like focusing on either, maybe in the right contexts framing it in terms of being woman-centric will be a subversive way to demonstrate how male-centric society it. This one’s important in feminist discourse, because it’s tempting even as a feminist to frame things in male centric terms, without realising.
And whilst I’m at this, I’m not ‘a female’. I’m not a specimen, or nameless organism in an ecologist’s quadrat. I’m a woman, a person, a human who wants all of her rights, and wants rights for everyone else still owed theirs. Using the word as a noun rather than an adjective (‘a female’ instead of ‘female’) reads to me as if you’re appraising an animal. It creates a distance from their humanity. It’s clinical, and creepy. The use of these words as nouns is gendered, because it’s much rarer to see women calling men ‘males’ as if to herd them together as some amorphous group. Even the same men who usually sleazily refer to women as ‘females’ don’t refer to all men as ‘males’. They don’t refer to themselves as ‘a male’, and they don’t generalise about ‘all males’ or more importantly, don’t refer to their mates as ‘the males’. They don’t refer to a group of men as ‘males’ full stop. Men are still ‘men’ to them, when it comes down to it.
Whereas I have seen men refer to ‘females’ more times than I’d care to recall. And funnily, when they call women ‘females’ they’re even more likely to be either dismissive, or plain predatory, and I think this reflects the distance that the word creates from women’s humanity. Therefore men who are less likely to see women as fully human are more likely to call them ‘females’ and act as if they are some below par species good only for mating with.
So, people, here’s the deal. Women deserve to be included equally in mixed groups by not being masked by men. You realise, and probably admit that history has been very male-centric (even if you don’t agree with feminist views of how much inequality we still have left to battle). It is precisely because these words have been used historically to silence women, and to mask their existence that I don’t believe they refer to me. We want neutral words that can equally refer to both. And we deserve them.