Nonsexist Language-Empowering Women, Dethroning Men

By Slovenko, Ralph | Journal of Psychiatry & Law, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Nonsexist Language-Empowering Women, Dethroning Men


Slovenko, Ralph, Journal of Psychiatry & Law


Feminists and their supporters argue that nonsexist language promotes the empowerment of women. David Crystal, a leading authority on language, writes:

The relationship between language and gender has attracted considerable attention in recent years, largely as a consequence of public concern over male and female equality. In many countries, there is now an awareness, which was lacking a generation ago, of the way in which language can reflect and help to maintain social attitudes toward men and women. The criticisms have been directed almost exclusively at the linguistic biases that constitute a male-oriented view of the world, fostering unfair sexual discrimination, and, it is argued, leading to a denigration of the role of women in society. English has received more discussion than any other language, largely because of the impact of early American feminism.1

The movement to use nonsexist language began in the 1970s with a publication by casey Miller and Kate Swift on English usage and its relationship to the status of women. They were opposed to language that, they said, relegated women to a secondary status. They considered the English language to be sexist, degrading, and oppressive to women. They waged a forceful campaign against it. They achieved recognition as authorities on the subject with "One Small Step for Genkind," a 1972 article in the New York Times Magazine that has been reprinted in college textbooks. In it, they wrote:

Except for words that refer to female by definition (mother, actress, Congresswoman), and words for occupations traditionally held by females (nurse, secretary, prostitute), the English language defines everyone as male. The hypothetical person ("If a man can walk 10 miles in two hours. . ."), the average person ("the man in the street") and the active person ("the man on the move") are male. The assumption is that unless otherwise identified, people in general-including doctors and beggars-are men.

They concluded:

[Language] is a semantic mechanism that operates to keep women invisible; man and mankind represent everyone; he in generalized use refers to either sex; the "land where our fathers died" is also the land of our mothers-although they go unsung. As the beetle-browed and mustachioed man in a Steig cartoon says to his two male drinking companions, "When I speak of mankind, one thing I don't mean is womankind."

Miller and Swift sought inclusive, gender-neutral titles such as firefighter and police officer. They did not want to make words more feminine by tacking on "ette" or "ess." That practice, they argued, makes words sound diminished and delicate. Even a word as seemingly nonoffensive as "woman" is abhorred because, they said, it is a variation on "man," which implies that man is primary and woman an afterthought. Distaste for this deviation has been the impetus for such alternative spellings as "womyn," "wimmin," and "womon."2

Sexist language

Language deemed to be sexist falls basically into three groups: (1) "Man" (or "father") to refer to both male and female, (2) Compound words formed from "man," (3) The singular pronoun "he" (or its possessive or reflexive forms "his" or "himself) to refer to both sexes. The following are illustrations of what has transpired in recent years.

1. "Man" (or "Father")

Lawyer William M. Todd of Columbus, Ohio, was in a jury trial in a medical malpractice case. All the members of the jury and the alternate were women. Plaintiff's counsel began his closing argument, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury." Immediately realizing his error, the plaintiff's lawyer tried to recover. He said, "After a week I should have realized that you were all women. However, I am sure that even though you are all women, when you retire to deliberate you will be able to do a 'man's job.'" Because of this, as he noted, he lost the case.3

Yet, we would note, the qualities of masculinity and femininity are applied to both sexes. …

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