Academic journal article Style

Words of One's Own: Some Evidence against Men's Use of Language as a Tool of Domination

Academic journal article Style

Words of One's Own: Some Evidence against Men's Use of Language as a Tool of Domination

Article excerpt

A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the

work

first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have

been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as

liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male

prerogative.

Adrienne Rich's characterization of the domination of women by men throughout history contains two assumptions that the present paper will debate: at language has been a primary source of men's continued supremacy and that written language contains the record of that supremacy. Having taken Rich's claim as an invitation to study gender differences in language use, we have conducted an inquiry into men's and women's use of written language during the eighteenth century, a period of history much focused upon by feminist scholarship. Our findings have led us to contend that there are perceivable (and describable) gender-relevant differences in the language written by men and women during that century. We will trace the way the element of gender informs the dichotomy of the sexes in language, information that has been assumed by other scholars interested in this question to be the product of patriarchal culture and to have been under the control of men in that culture. Most important in view of such a prior perspective, we will bring to light the well-documented and significant extent of women's written contribution to the shaping of their own gender identity according to patriarchal values, a phenomenon anticipated by some contemporary feminist language and historical theorists. The eighteenth century was a time that feminist historians contend was formative in the development of the patriarchal definitions of modern womanhood, and the evidence of this linguistic contribution by eighteenth-century women to the construction of the patriarchal ideal argues for a review of some feminist historicists' contention that the domestic subculture, as a vital support structure of modern industrialized culture, was solely a patriarchal product.

The development of the feminist critique of language and literature that Rich called for 23 years ago has been fruitful and has multiplied in a variety of academic disciplines. Research into the details of the history of male domination of the female, theories about its role in the development of modem sociopolitical organization, and questions about the patriarchal stamp of language and literature all have been pursued. Joan Scott, in Gender and the Politics of History, has provided a feminist interpretation of nineteenth- and twentieth-century historical processes that links the identification of gender to the evolution of power relationships in modem industrialized society (42). She argues that gender identities are determined by the total conglomerate of cultural forces rather than by individuals or groups within cultures whose power and identity are derived from some category -- such as race or class -- other than gender. Scott's contention about the significance of gender in social history is that "differences between the sexes constitute and are constituted by hierarchical social structures" (25). Beside Scott, other feminist theorists of social, political, and literary history such as Nancy Armstrong, Rita Felski, Vivien Jones, and Jane Spencer have argued for the identification of gender as an essential part of the construction of social hierarchies by a cultural process that features language. Although Armstrong concludes her political history of the novel with the observation that women's writing has contributed much to the definition of the political hierarchy that emerged in the eighteenth century, she, too, acknowledges that "the modem political state ... was accomplished largely through cultural hegemony" (9). All of the writers mentioned use fiction and nonfiction texts as cultural products demonstrating the "feminization" of culture. …

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