Language matters

// 7 January 2009

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has a fantastic post up on how masculine bias in language marginalises women and why, therefore, neutralising this language is so important:

Using “male” as the universal for all humankind is one of the most pernicious narratives of institutional sexism, diametrically opposite in its gravity from the seriousness with which it’s usually treated. Objections to, for example, the substitution of “mankind” for “humankind” are perhaps the most likely to elicit knee-jerk reactions of the exasperated eye-rolling sort, frequently even from generally feminist men and women, who might insist that there are more important things about which to worry.

But an inevitable effect of regarding “male” as the Norm is regarding “female” as the Other. Every time we engage in the little, unimportant thing of male-universal language, we are reinforcing the very foundation of inequality upon which the entire structure of institutional sexism rests.

Read the rest here.

Comments From You

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 7 January 2009 at 3:41 pm

Dale Spender’s book Man-made language deftly exposed how male-centric language neatly invisibilised women’s lives and experiences. The widespread belief the word ‘mankind’ supposedly incorporates both women and men becomes ridiculous within the phrase ‘mankind gives birth.’ Since it is only women who give birth, but still many men and some women too believe language is not male centric but inclusive of both women and men.

What is always ignored is the fact male-centered language defines and reinforces human experiences from the male perspective which of course means only men are human. As regards claims appropriate language which is not male-centric is simply political correctness. In fact PC is a term designed to trivialise any group which is not white and male. Women have human rights too and this includes using language which acknowledges women exist rather than claiming man is the centre of the universe through the widespread use of ‘mankind.’

earlgreyrooibos // Posted 7 January 2009 at 4:26 pm

You have no idea how many times I have had people tell me that I shouldn’t be so focused on male-centric language, that it’s not a big deal, that they are “just words.”


I shouldn’t be concerned with the basis of communication? It’s just mindboggling.

What also drives me crazy is when people think that a little progress is enough. I have often criticized the male-centric language of Jewish texts, and people have said “well SOME synagogues are making an attempt to use gender-inclusive language, isn’t that good enough for you?” Sorry, it’s not. If you’re a synagogue that claims to be egalitarian, you had better use egalitarian language.

Sorry to get ranty, but this is one of my major pet peeves.

maggie // Posted 7 January 2009 at 4:35 pm

I agree with all the sentiments put forward in this post.

I know I digress slightly but one phrase I dislike is ‘women and children’, especially in light of the recent attacks in the Gaza. To me a life is a life. Is it to be assumed that men (past the age of childhood?) don’t matter when it comes to casualties?

Laura // Posted 7 January 2009 at 4:50 pm

That’s been bugging me too, Maggie. I guess men are seen as more likely to be soldiers rather than civilians, so their lives could be seen to be worth less, but I think generally the whole “women and children” thing is entirely unthinking, based on the centuries old idea that women are less than men and need their protection, like children. Essentially, we are infantalised. It might mean that we are afforded extra protection in war, or get to jump in the lifeboat first, but it also means that we suffer massive discrimination the world over.

Men shouldn’t be expected to give up their lives to protect women, because both sexes are of equal worth – it is the belief in inequality that leads to “women and children” being seen as a special category deserving of extra protection, rather than just “children”.

emma // Posted 7 January 2009 at 4:53 pm

language constructs your reality so of course power relations are bound up in that..when someone says language doesnt mean anything just try asking them to imagine not having a language. How would you be able to say the sky is blue if you didnt have that word.

Rose // Posted 7 January 2009 at 9:10 pm

Many would say that he/his is used as neutral alot of the time, and it doesn’t matter if you use the male or female. I seriously question this.

The assumed use of the male frankly makes me feel like a novelty, an exception to the rule, and frequently uninvited, unwelcome and generally excluded from the norm. With words such as ‘they’ and ‘one’ in the dictionary, there is a choice.

How often does ‘mankind’ bow down before the Lady Goddess, Queen of Heaven? How many would keep a striaght face about respecting this ‘girly’ deity?

As mentioned in the linked posts, ‘so long as god is male, male is god’.

Well, I for one am an atheist!

Anne Onne // Posted 7 January 2009 at 9:30 pm

Yes yes YES. This issue bugs me. Big time. So much I could rant about it repeatedly, so I do.

@earlgreyrooibos: exactly! Somehow the words we use to shape our understanding of ourselves, each other and the world don’t matter! Because they seem OK to them!

I posted about this back in 2008/a> , and it’s worth noting that people will insist the word is inclusive of all humans one minute, and then just about men the next. What really stood out for me was the comment from bzzzzgrrrl about her mother, who was perfectly willing to accept that ‘he’ was inclusive of her, until the very same wording she was told included her was used to deny her the right to be a priest. This shouldn’t happen.

We mustn’t have language in which some groups of people *disappear* when convenient, which is accepted to mean everyone, whilst the words can also be used to refer specifically to only one group. Because then it leaves it open to interpretation that only that group ‘really’ represent everyone, and that language may just mean certain people, instead of all.

Plus, it’s absolutely infuriating when objections to words such as mankind are treated as being hilarious overreactions by the ‘unPC’ who then hilariously carp on about ‘humanchester’ and ‘humanifestos’ (which would be a great word, used in the right context, methinks…)and hu-/wo’- anything with the letters M-A-N in them, as if we’re idiots who don’t have a clue about the origin of words.

So let’s break it down for these people:

Man or any word containing it where man = everyone is BAD.

Words that happen to have the three letters ‘man’ in them which are not connected to assuming that every human can be described with the same word as describes humans with penises* are NOT BAD.

Does anyone know if there’s something in Feminism 101 about this yet? Because there totally should be.

* or transpeople, but I doubt that the kinds of people who insist that asking to be acknowledged in the name of your species is hilarious or misguided give a damn about anyone other than themselves.

Now, I absolutely must go and fangirl over Melissa’s words of wisdom.

Anne Onne // Posted 7 January 2009 at 9:55 pm

Oh, and I forgot to add something:

The importance of language reminds me of 1984 (we really need a Godwin’s Law equivalent for Orwell references, cos lately they seem to be scarily omnipresent…) and NewSpeak (I can’t remember the exact name of the language, it’s been a few years since I read it).

There, the limitation of words is very significant. One must decide if something is ‘good’, ‘plusgood’ or ‘doubleplusgood’. Everything is in discrete categories, limited by the ever decreasing number of words. With the decrease in words comes the decrease in what we think we experience, for how can we really make sense of something if we can’t express it? So often when I read a blog, I come accross a feeling I couldn’t articulate, and to me finding how to express it is always amazing. Being able to give a problem a name makes it feel real, tangible, and acknowledgeable.

Conversely, not giving something a name renders it invisible. Sure, it still technically exists, but there’s no real record it’s there. ‘Mankind’ might as well refer to a huge bunch of men. ‘He’ might refer to just men reading a book, or doing something else. ‘Man’ might mean that men are a species. It doesn’t, obviously, but why are we ready to accept that these words should mean both a group and a part of that group? It’s like saying the word ‘blue’ can mean ‘rainbow’. Sometimes it will mean just the colour blue, sometimes all colours. In doing this, all the other colours are wiped from the palette whenever the word ‘blue’ is used to refer to a multitude of colours. It sounds silly, but apparently gender is supposed to work this way.

Words have power. Knowledge of how we use words, how we manipulate those who experience them (by which I mean how someone can bias by subtle description, if the reader is unaware) matters. That’s why I think it’s important to encourage people from all backgrounds to read, to gain education and to think. Uneducated people aren’t incapable of thought. They aren’t the root cause of all problems, nor are they inherently prejudiced. They need some sense of belief (not necessarily spiritual or religious, but some framework to make sense of the world) to make sense of the world, like we all do. They just happen to have less exposure to different ideas, or don’t have them explained to them, and this is really alienating.*

To help them achieve this, support them to analyse everything, and learn to tell fact from simple manipulation (It was a great turning point for me when I realised that the Daily Mail presents one fact or figure per who-knows-how-many emotive angst-ridden descriptions designed to manipulate the reader). Without the tools to question and express, we limit what we think and even what we feel.

Here, we limit our experience of gender by relegating all but those who fall/choose to fall under ‘he’ to an invisible pile. I feel that these words literally render me and other ‘non-he’ people invisible, because whilst we are reminded constantly that ‘all MEN are created equal’ and the word is often used to refer to men specifically, the rest get no recognition.

*I don’t mean to be patronising, which seems to be hard to avoid when referring to a group of people as ‘they’ and making generalisations, even hopefully progressive ones. A lot of my relatives are barely literate and had little schooling because of various circumstances, and fought for their children/siblings to have a better education and life, whilst simultaneously distrusting that which was new and differed from their ‘common sense’ passed-down beliefs.

I know that a lot of people have an uneasy relationship with academia, specifically because it requires a lot of work to get to a stage where many ideas really make sense, and because it’s often presented as a bad thing to change anything, because what we did so far seems to have worked, and why can’t we just accept it?

I seem to have rambled, but there was a point in there somewhere…

Jennifer Walen // Posted 8 January 2009 at 6:15 pm

Words are powerfull and have meaning BUT two things always spring to mind when I hear these debates. People on the side that words should be gender neutral always point to words like mankind but never MOTHER EARTH. Why. Or how about like boogeyman. Or how about devil (which is always depicted as a male).

I wonder why that is.

Anna // Posted 8 January 2009 at 9:04 pm

Maybe because the earth is fertile and gives life, which is pretty much all women are ‘supposed’ to do?

I’m pretty sure it’s got roots in some ancient mythology, too.

Boogeymen are always male, sure (but to my knowledge we’ve never really used that term in England – might just be my area that doesn’t, though) but what about witches? They’re pretty much always female. Wicked step..mothers. You don’t really get wicked stepfathers. The old hag that wants to eat children is always an old, single woman. Little Red Riding Hood was a girl – naive and vunerable – and she was saved by a woodcutter.. a big, strong man. Sleeping beauty was the ultimate in female passivity; the ugly woman, jealous, puts a curse on the land, the beautiful princess dutifully falls asleep for a hundred years to be saved.. by a man.

Snow white (wicked stepmother again) was saved.. by a man. We speak of ‘chairman’ ‘fireman’ .. should we attempt to speak of ‘chairperson’ or ‘firefighter’ we’re roundly criticised for being ‘PC’.

*shrug* guess that ties in more with the nursery rhyme post, really, but I’m tired and confused.

Qubit // Posted 9 January 2009 at 1:43 pm

I don’t see how you can argue mother nature excludes men since it doesn’t really include anyone. It is a reference to something else. It is fairly similar to the analogy of ‘old father time’. While I think it is reading far too much into things I could argue that actually the choice of the word mother nature agrees with the main article since the word is generally used to refer to anything but (hu)mankind and its creations. I feel by your logic I could argue that I feel invalid in society because Father Christmas is most often portrayed as male.

The devil is more often portrayed as male than female HOWEVER is far more often portrayed as female than God is. In fact I think drawing God as female would offend numerous people but drawing the devil as female would be acceptable. Also when talking about God and the devil they are both most commonly portrayed as men, this means both good and evil is portrayed as masculine. This does in some ways make men seem the norm but it also makes moaning that the personification of evil is male seem slightly superfluous as the personification of good is also male therefore the conclusion male = evil is not the most logical.

As for bogeyman, this is an interesting one. It certainly isn’t a word I heard much in my childhood. It would be easy to change into bogeymonster and could then easily be portrayed as female. I don’t see it changing any more than the rest of the language will. However I feel the fact the odd negative word uses ‘man’ at the end is not necessarily the point. Again the word bogeyman refers to something else, normally something not human. When talking about this the normal complaint is with things such as using ‘he’ as standard to mean ‘he or she’ or fireman to refer or male or female fire-fighters, this is something that is meant to include people both male and female rather than refer to a (non-human) 3rd party. The bogeyman debate has far more in common with negative female characterisations such as witches, evil stepmothers, bunny boilers etc and while I can understand your point on that I feel is a bit inaccurate to put in a discussion of inclusionary and exclusionary language.

Rachael // Posted 9 January 2009 at 2:30 pm

Isn’t it sad that the only word that I can think of without ‘man’ in it, is the word ‘people’??? This is the word that I use when describing a group. It has no male connotations like the word “human”!!!

So I see your point Anne Onne! How about ‘people-festo’!!! I realize you were making a serious point about how the ‘un-pc’ use these words to mock – but I had a similar coversation recently with one such person and when I came up with ‘peoplefesto’ as a response, they really had no answer!

aimee // Posted 9 January 2009 at 6:36 pm

I personality feel that designating the male pronoun as the default pronoun is inherently sexist. It is, in my opinion SO wrong to alienate more than half of the population when referring to the whole. I discussed this with my archaeology tutor when I was doing my A levels, who agreed and said that technically, it is now common practise to talk about “humankind” INstead of mankind. But I have also been told on numerous occasions that it “doesn’t matter” and it’s “just words”, but it’s NOT just words because it is the main way in which we interact with eachother and designating men as an “elite” and women as an “other” – an alternative to the standard male, reflects our intense underlying presumptions about the position of women.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds