Sexism Comes Out in Prejudiced Language

Language is sexist.

This is a fairly self-evident fact given that language, as the way we express ourselves, is the repository of our cultural mores. It reflects our understanding, our value system, and our stereotypes. Despite the fact that the women’s liberation movement and gender equality struggles have been around for decades, events such as the recent Take Back the Night rally against sexual violence committed overwhelmingly against women show that we still live in a world of many gender inequalities. Naturally, our language reflects this.

But can anything be done about it? Will trying to change language help eradicate the social inequalities it reflects, or is focusing on the sexism of language merely an obsession with ephemera that neglects the realities of the problem?

There is a host of words for female sexuality—beginning with “slut” and becoming rapidly more unprintable from there—and there are far, far fewer words with equivalent negative connotations for male sexuality. For example, who has ever heard of “satyromania,” the male equivalent of “nymphomania,” meaning obsessed with sex? Even on a far more basic level, language reinforces gender distinctions with specified pronouns. It is impossible to make a generalization about an anonymous person without choosing his or her gender or settling for the awkward—and grammatically incorrect—“their.”

However, attempts to blatantly change this have not met widespread success. While one of my high school teachers was convinced that one day we would all come to use the gender-neutral singular pronoun “te” instead of “he” or “she,” I have not yet heard anyone else besides him use it. People generally react to usage of words like “womyn” and “herstory” with lots of eye-rolling, and in last year’s Varsity Show, one of the running jokes was about the daughter of a feminist linguist who met any reference to the sun with a yell of “And daughter!”

But changing sexist language patterns is not necessarily a priority for some of those who combat gender inequalities on campus. Anne Epstein, BC ’09, who is involved in gender and anti-violence activism on campus and helped coordinate Take Back the Night, said that her efforts do not usually include altering her pronoun usage. “If changing language is the way to do that, I’m all for that, but I look for other options where I can take action,” she said.

She added that often the choice of which pronoun to use depends on individual preference. “I think it’s a very personal issue. ... I don’t know if it’s feasible or if it’s necessary in terms of changing the entire culture,” Epstein said.

Still, there has been some evolution of language use in recent years. Jenny Davidson, an associate professor of English and comparative literature and a member of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia, said, “In some kinds of academic and scholarly writing, the use of ‘she’ rather than ‘he’ has become surprisingly non-distracting.” She added, however, that in her field of study—writing about earlier eras when the use of ‘he’ as the third-person singular pronoun was the norm in English—more gender-balanced pronoun use can seem “anachronistic and distracting.”

Davidson also commented that a concern with sexual inequality generally has gained its own negative linguistic connotations. “The name ‘feminism’ can seem a little bit dated, or reductive, or potentially alienating,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a good thing.” She pointed out that these days, women who have sentiments largely in line with feminist thinking often do not want the label “feminist.”

The issue dates back to the long-standing problem of language holding and controlling our cultural values. Language, whether through unrepresentative pronouns or through labels that gain insulting connotations, reflects prejudice endemic to the world we live in. It is a world in which being called a feminist, one who takes a stand against inequality, has become pejorative. It is unclear, however, whether language can do more than reflect these ideas, and whether or not the struggle against prejudice can be successfully fought merely on the grounds of trying to change the words we use.


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