Our Language Has a Way of Turning Women into Men
Fisk, Robert, The Independent (London, England)
A week ago, in my front-page story on the Hiroshima commemoration, I planted a little trap for our sub-editors. I referred to Vita Sackville-West as a "poetess". And sure enough, the sub (or "subess") changed it - as I knew he or she would - to "poet". Aha! Soon as I saw it, I knew I could write this week about the mysterious - not to say mystical - grammar of feminism and political correctness. At least, I guess feminism was the start of it all, for was it not in the Eighties and early Nineties that newspapers started turning feminine nouns into male nouns? This was the age, was it not, when an "actress" became an "actor", when a "priestess" became a "priest" - which does sound more sensible - and when a "conductress" became a "conductor". A policeman and policewoman have turned into "police officers" (even if they are constables). Even in Irish, a "Bean Grda Sochna" (policewomen or woman civic guard) turned a few years ago into a "Grda" - simply Guard or (I suppose) "policeperson".
I've always been bemused by this desire of women to turn themselves, semantically speaking, into men. 'Twas never the other way round. Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have never demanded to be called "actresses", nor did Sir John Barbirolli ask to be a "conductress". Now don't get me wrong. I can see the misogyny of dictionaries that always put the masculine first ("actor, actress"), but if I'm reading a film or theatre review, I like to know straightaway - if an actor's/ actress's first name is "Jo", for example - whether they are a man or a woman. As it is, the moment I read "actor", my eye skips down the paragraph to find out their sex. The Independent likes to use 'actor' for both sexes. Yet this Wednesday, our Daily Quiz referred to "actress Kathleen Turner". And, if feminism had been a Tudor conviction, what would we have called the men who played women in Shakespeare's plays - since all female theatrical roles were then played by males?
But are all "seamstresses" now to become "seamsters" or do we just use the all-purpose "tailor"? I have to add, my Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary could turn me into a feminist. For it describes a seamster as "a person employed at sewing" but a seamstress as "a woman whose occupation is sewing". Men are paid to sew, you see. Women just do it because, well, that's their job in life. Here, it's the verb - not the noun - that's the giveaway.
We got round the "steward"/"stewardess" problem on airliners by inventing the all-purpose "cabin attendant", which I'm quite happy with - not least because it gets rid of the idea (which remains patently true in the case of many airlines) that women are chosen to work as stewardesses for their looks. But again, no one worries about "journalist" or "gardener". There is no female version, so we rest easy. It's curious, though, that Private Eye and others are happy to use …
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Publication information: Article title: Our Language Has a Way of Turning Women into Men. Contributors: Fisk, Robert - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: August 14, 2010. Page number: 40. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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