Find out How Words Can Shape Our Culture

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), September 22, 2004 | Go to article overview

Find out How Words Can Shape Our Culture


Byline: Denise Raleigh

I feel way too comfortable in sweats and old tennis shoes to be a girlie-girl.

But I know girlie-girls. They're always impeccably dressed, no matter if they're in the frozen food section of a grocery store or in the corner booth of a fancy restaurant.

Most of the girlie-girls I know give credence to the belief you can be both well-appointed and smart.

I also know many men who are sensitive. Does that make them girlie-men and somehow unintelligent?

I've had some discussions with non-experts about the origin of "girlie-men" and everybody seems to trace it back to a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

Whether it's used to describe legislators or economists, I don't like the use of "girlie-men" to denigrate others' thinking.

Not news to anyone, but I'll point out the obvious: there are quite a few of us who've spent a lot of time as girls, and the noun used to describe us doesn't mean bad nor dumb.

As you may have deduced, I'm still one of those hung up on using terms that don't diminish half the population.

But I'm not as expert as I would like to be on the use of language. So I called on the chairwoman of the English department at North Central College, associate professor Jennifer Jackson.

Jackson was trained as a classical rhetorician and has been teaching college courses for 23 years on topics such as Writing for Social Change, Rhetoric and Culture, Women's Studies and Literature and Ethics.

She's also a girl - one with a Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic. Jackson said using feminine terminology as a negative has deep roots.

"During Aristotle's time, women were considered slightly above slaves. They were chattel," she said.

During the Middle Ages, women like Julian of Norwich joined a nunnery in order to be taken seriously.

"Even though it is a sign of a healthy adult psychology to hold opposing views and not go mad, the use of polarizing language escalates in times of conflict and war," Jackson said.

In the late 1980s, a woman's style of management leadership - stressing communication and shared decision-making - was held in high esteem, she said. But in times of war, Darwinian kill-or-be- killed attitudes seem to arise. Jackson doesn't find the current political rhetoric from either of the major presidential candidate's camps overly useful. …

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