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Debate on Sexist Language

DEBATE ON SEXIST
LANGUAGE
Sexism and Semantics
Deborah Cameron
In RP34, two articles appeared dealing with the relation
between language and sexism: Alison Assiter’s critique of
Dale Spender’s Man Made Language and a dialogue between
Mike Shortland and John Fauvel on the subject of sexism
and linguistic reform. Although these articles were not
explicitly connected (except by proximity and subject
matter) I suggest that it is revealing to read them as a
single discussion. It is revealing because all three authors
have in common certain assumptions and ways of looking at
language which are fundamental to current feminist linguistic theory; and it seems to me that those assumptions and
approaches are misguided enough to call for serious
comment in the pages of Radical Philosophy.

Before embarking on a critique, however, let me
briefly summarise what I take to be the main points made
in the RP34 articles.

First, Assiter on Spender. Assiter criticised Spender
for asserting that women and men have different and
irreconcilable meanings for linguistic expressions. She
argues that on one hand this is simple minded, ignoring
crucial theoretical distinctions like those between sense
and reference, or the meaning of an utterance and its
force; while on the other hand it is politically damaging
because it leads inevitably to a separatist stalemate in
which women and men inhabit separate worlds, unable to
communicate and thus unable to change. For Assiter the
notion of separate meanings and separate worlds is dangerously essentialist, as is the associated contention that all
uses of language by men are inherently oppressive. This
claim is especially pernicious because in lumping all usages
together as equally sexist, it obscures the iniquity of language that is really sexist (by which Assiter means socalled ‘he/man’ language). This ‘really sexist language’, in
Assiter’s opinion, is damaging to women.

At this pOint, Shortland and Fauvel take over with a
discussion that focuses on whether ‘really sexist language’

of the he/man variety is a suitable case for reforrnist
treatment. The discussion is rather inconclusive, but in the
course of it, linguistic reform (embodied here in the proposals of Miller and Swift 1980 (1» is disparaged with a
veritable hotch-potch of objections, for instance that
reform constitutes an attack on the language, that it only
disguises women’s ‘real’ (i.e. extralinguistic) disadvantage,
that it produces inaccuracy and obscurity, interferes with
freedom of expression and so on.

I propose to argue that underlying all this we have
several unquestioned but problematic assumptions about
language, what its functions in society are and how the
meanings it conveys arise. It should be emphasised from the
outset, however, that failure to engage with these problems
14

is not peculiar to Assiter et al. On the contrary, the reason why the gap is important is that it afflicts practically
all present day linguistics and philosophy of language. We
can hardly blame feminists for taking certain ideas on
board, then, but I believe that until they deconstruct the
view of language their theories presuppose, they will never
understand
the
connection
between
language and
oppression.

Let us now proceed to the underlying assumptions and
misconceptions I am talking about. Basically, there are two
connected problems which merit discussion: one concerning
the status of meaning, and the other having to do with the
relation between language and reality.

1 Meaning
The most serious flaw in the Assiter/Shortland/Fauvel discussion is the conventional view of meaning espoused by all
three of them. F or to assert or presuppose, as they all do,
that some expressions are definitely sexist while others are
not (cf. Assiter, who says that ‘supposing the phenomenon
is ubiquitous makes it more difficult to see where sexism in
language really operates’) is to conceptualise meaning as a
fixed essence, determinable in principle and determinate in
fact.

This notion is of course central to linguistic theory,
the main aim of which is to discover the correspondences
of form and meaning that constitute ‘a language’. When
this enterprise turns out to be difficult in practice, linguists resort to the sort of abstraction Assiter accuses
Spender of ignoring: langue/parole distinctions, which allow
the analyst to posit an underlying set of correspondences
even if people’s behaviour offers little empirical support
for them, and illocutionary force, by invoking which the
analyst is able to separate what the speaker intends from
what her uttered sentence means qua sentence (as well as
reifying what the speaker intends, a point to which I shall
return).

Abstractions like these are products of desperation.

Somewhere, somehow, the linguist must isolate a fixed code
of form/meaning correspondences as her object of study.

Because if no such set code existed, how could we transcend interactional anarchy and communicate? What would
differentiate a rational speaker from Lewis Car roll’s
Humpty Dumpty?

This is of course a crucial question, but anyone who
confronts it must be wary of the term ‘communication’. For
it is clear that orthodox linguistics has pre-empted the definition of communication, and has done so in a manner that
might seem remarkable if it were not so ingrained in West-

ern thought. The model of communication assumed by linguistics and philosophy alike is the one expounded by John
Locke (2): through language we transfer ideas from one
mind to another – that is to say, we engage in telementation (3). This hypothesis is preserved intact from Saussure
~the generativists, and once you are committed to it,
there is no alternative but to treat languages as fixed
codes of form/meaning correspondences internalised by
every speaker. Nothing less could guarantee the perfect
understanding which is normative in the linguist’s model.

The trouble is, of course, that linguists, particularly
those working on the data of conversation, have found it
impossible either to crack the fixed code or to keep faith
with the· telementation hypothesis of meaning and understanding. Perfect comprehension and indeed, broad agreement on what any utterance means is conspicuous by its
absence in study after study (4). Thus many of us have
come to believe that the orthodox paradigm is inadequate.

The same belief was forcibly expressed in 1929 by the
Soviet linguist V.N. Volosinov, and has since been reiterated by Julia Kristeva (5). Both these writers point out
that all meaning is in the end contextual, and that it is
impossible in principle to determine once and for all the
meaning of any expression. Determinacy either of form or
of meaning is a myth, shored up by the pointless abstractions of structural linguistics.

It is precisely at this point that any critique of Dale
Spender ought to start. Spender holds that all language is
sexist because the meaning of every expression has been
fixed exclusively by men (women’s meanings are a potential
rather than an actual category for Spender). In saying this,
however, Spender entirely ignores the contextuality of
meaning and its ultimate indeterminacy (which makes it
impossible for any group to fix meaning or to exercise
monolithic control over it). She is forced to posit a ‘big
bang’ type theory of the origin of language, with each generation of speakers as passive inheritors of the tradition,
or else an omnipresent conspiracy of men working to retain
their semantic monopoly.

Given what we know of child language acquisition and
of normal interaction, these two ideas are implausible to
say the least. All language users construct their own meanings and are endlessly creative in their interpretations of
what others say: the price they pay for such flexibility,
however, is imperfect communication. Alienation from
language in Spender’s terms, the feeling either that others
do not understand you or that your experience is not adequately expressed in words, is not just part of the feminine
condition but an inescapable part of being human.

If we take it that no expression has a meaning independent of its linguistic and non-linguistic context, we can
plausibly explain the sexism of language by saying that all
speech events in patriarchal cultures have as part of their
context the power relation that holds between women and
men (and indeed many other political factors as well). This
varied and heterogeneous context is what makes expressions and utterances liable to sexist interpretation. Notice,
though, that the sexism we are talking about cannot be
reduced to speaker intentions: if we assume a non-telementational, non-fixed code model, there is no way of
being sure you know what a speaker’s intentions are (the
rock on which Searle founders, as Strawson has pointed out
(6». Ultimately it is the hearer in each situation who
produces a meaning.

This is not to say that the hearer is not constrained,
since obviously she is. But this is not a function of language alone; rather it depends on a whole cluster of culturally approved ways of making sense of the world. As far as
language is concerned, a particularly important role is
played by authoritarian, prescriptive institutions that regulate our use and our understanding of language. An example
of such an institution is the dictionary, which fosters the
illusion of determinate meaning and is thus able to inqest
particular definitions with authority. When Shortland writes
of his respect for ‘the English language’ it is these historically produced and ruling-class sponsored institutions he

has in mind: for except insofar as languages are institutionalised, they cannot be said to exist outside their individual users.

Assiter is right, then, to criticise the Whorfianism of
Man Made Language. Spender has ignored the contextuality
and indeterminacy of meaning to produce an account of
Orwellian thought-control via malespeak which is patently
false. But Assiter’s own criticisms fall into the same error,
because in claiming that some expressions are sexist and
others are not, in wanting to emphasise the fixity of reference and restrict sexism to force (whether or not defined
by speaker intentions) she too ignores context and asserts
that any expression has at least some irreducible core of
meaning.

2 Language and Reality
The second major problem in the RP discussion is connected with this essentialist and decontextualised notion of
meaning. It concerns the relation of language and reality, a
central issue for those who believe in sexist and non-sexist
language as well as for out-and-out determinists like
Spender.

Spender’s view of language and reality (and here she
is at one with the influential neo-Saussurean tendency) is a
simple one: language determines reality. Reformists like
Miller and Swift, whose proposals are discussed by
Shortland and Fauvel, have just the opposite view: they
believe that language exists to represent states of affairs
accurately. What is wrong with sexist language is that it
distorts reality – generic ~ for instance, conceals the
existence of women. Therefore we must embark on reform
if only for the sake of clarity and accuracy. For Miller and
Swift, reality should determine language and not the other
way about. If language is not playing its subordinate, superstructural role properly, language must be made to pull its
socks up.

A lot of sexist expressions are presented by Miller
and Swift as matters of historical accident. Thus man used
to mean a person of either sex, and gradually narrowed to
refer exclusively to males. Conventional usage has not
changed to accommodate this narrowing, and thus it is
ambiguous and distorting. The use of words like spaceman
and craftsman persuades English speakers that these groups
consist only of males; if we all said astronaut and artisan,
the problem would disappear.

15

Or would it? When we look at certain registers of
language (newspapers, for instance) something rather odd
emerges. Even the most casual glance at a newspaper
reveals usages like the following:

FOURTEEN SURVIVORS, THREE OF THEM WOMEN
A MAN ••• WENT BERSERK WITH A MACHETE AND
MURDERED HIS NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOUR’S WIFE.

It seems that neighbour and survivor are being used as if
they were intrinsically male in reference, even though the
words themselves have no overt gender marking and are
thus not on a par with spaceman and craftsman. It appears
that, far from glorying in the accuracy and clarity potential of neutral items like neighbour, some language users
are perversely using these items to falsify reality.

This must look bizarre to Miller and Swift, who
believe that the real function of language is to represent
actual states of affairs truthfully and accurately. If however one takes it that this is not the real function of
language – that language is the product and vehicle of its
ideological and political context – we can see what ~ going
on, and we can draw the obvious conclusion that it is
wholly idle to hive off a small area of usage (like he/man
language), to label this and only this sexist, and to believe
in any completely neutral alternative either actual or
potential. It is obviously idle, too, to criticise feminist linguistic reforms in the way that Short land does, by arguing
that non-sexist language does not produce any gain in
accuracy, if accuracy is not what language is all about.

Footnotes
1 Miller and Swift, Handbook of non-sexist writing, Women’s Press, 1980.

2 Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

3 I take this term from Roy Harris’ book The Language Myth (Duckworth, 1981).

Harris claims that linguistics is supported by two fallacies, the te1ementational
fallacy of what communication is, and the fixed code fallacy of how it is achieved.

Apart from their criticisms of it, Shortland and Fauvel
seem curiously undecided as to whether non-sexist language
makes any political difference (Assiter would presumably
support its use, since she comes to the conclusion that sexist language is positively damaging). But once again, the
entire discussion is locked into a framework dictated by
false premises, for within the authors’ problematic the
reformist’s rationale can only be determinism (change
language and you change the world) or else accuracy
(change language and you reflect reality better).

So it is perhaps worth pointing out in conclusion that
the demand for institutional and individual changes in usage
may be seen as progressive for different reasons. Specifically, to make demands around language calls into question
the stability and transparency of meaning so many of us
take for granted. It undermines our fundamentally conservative desire to see language as a fixed point in the
otherwise ungraspable flux of experience. And this in turn
makes us less likely to swallow other people’s definitions at
any level.

Ultimately, the way language is used does make a
difference. As Trevor Pateman points out, ‘ ••• the change
in outward practice constitutes a restructuring of at least
one aspect of one social relationship…. Every act reproduces or subverts a social institution’ (7). There is nothing
trivial, therefore, about developing a politics of language.

But if we are to produce a truly radical linguistic theory
and practice, we must question the orthodox paradigm,
rejecting absolutely its rigid, authoritarian and inadequate
conception of what human language is and how it works.

The view presented above of meaning, context etc. is in the general framework
provided by Harris.

Ij. Cf. especially Marga Kreckel, Shared Knowledge and Communicative Acts in Natural
Discourse, 1981.

5 V.N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 1929.

Julia Kristeva, ‘The Ethics of Linguistics’, Desire in Language, Blackwell, 1980.

6 Strawson, ‘Intention and Convention in speech acts’, The Philosophy of Language
(ed.) Searle, Oxford University Press, 1971.

7 Trevor Pateman, Language, Truth &: Politics, 2nd edition, J. ‘Stroud, 1980.

More on Man Made Language
Anne Beezer
In her article on Dale Spender’s book Man Made Language,
Alison Assiter offers some major criticisms of Spender’s
thesis on language which, she says, must not be understood
as making any concession ‘to the opposition that there is
no sexist bias in language at all’. Whilst agreeing with her
that Spender’s ideas on language need to be questioned, I
think her alternative account of sexist bias in language
does provide the space for just such ‘concessions to the
opposition’ that she is at pains to avoid.

Assiter identifies two propositions made by Spender
which she thinks are particularly problematic. The first
proposition is that language ‘constructs reality’, the second
that this language and, hence, the resulting reality are
both ‘man made’. Assiter argues that Spender’s general
conception of language is ambiguous because (a) it does not
contain a clear theorisation of meaning and (b) it overrides
crucial linguistic distinctions that have been made between
sense and reference (Frege), or signifier and signified
(Saussure). She illustrates the confusion which results from
Spender’s relativistic thesis by using the example of the
16

word ‘table’. Assiter suggests that if Spender’s thesis about
language in general, and man made language in particular,
is correct then, using Frege’s distinction between sense and
reference, we would have to accept that the sense and reference of the term table was originally set by men so that
women, when using that term, are speaking what is, in
effect, a borrowed language. Assiter points to a further
ambiguity in Spender namely, the idea that, besides there
being a ‘male’ language and ‘male’ reality, there are also
‘women’s’ meanings and a ‘woman’s’ reality. Applying this
to ‘table’, we get into the absurd situation of accepting
that there is a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ sense of table
and even possibly male and female referents – thus ‘male’

and ‘female’ tables.

According to Assiter, the way around this difficulty is
to propose the weaker thesis that men originally did determine ‘sense’ of linguistic referents (perhaps that tables are
sturdy, strong things), but they do not necessarily continue
to do so. Again, Assiter uses an analogy to illustrate this
weaker thesis of ‘man made’ language. If language is co m-

~

I
I

pared to a house, then the architects who designed it were
male and, in this sense, language can legitimately be called
‘man made’. However, the architect no longer owns the
house, although his design may have influenced (skewed)
the convenience it has for subsequent owners/users. But all
men today cannot beheld to blame for the design problems
and biases of the original architects unless, of course, they
consciously support the same architectural philosophy. I
want to argue that the two examples of ‘table’ and ‘architecture’ that Assiter uses to explore gender/language relations reveal the inadequacies and difficulties involved in
her alternative theorisation of language.

1 ‘Unproblematic’ signs and the struggle over meaning
In many expositions of semiotics, the crucial importance of
the distinction between denotation and connotation is illustrated by reference to ‘unproblematic’ signs such as table,
roses, chairs etc. Such ‘easy’ illustrations are, in my view,
extremely misleading. Firstly, there is the denotative level
– the act of referring to something – and then, the connotative level – the social associations and evaluations of
that thing. In other words, there is a staged process of
attributing meaning within semiotics which is very close to
the kind of distinctions that Assiter draws upon in her criticisms of Spender. Assiter argues that Spender simply ignores the difference between the locutionary act and the
illocutionary and perlocutionary acts performed in making a
locutionary act. The locutionary act, according to Assiter,
‘deals with reality’ whilst it is the illocutionary and perlocutionary acts which may ‘exhibit the sexist bias’. To distinguish this way between language as a system, which is a
shared reality, and language as performance, which is a
disputed reality, seems to me to make the ‘system’ of
language into an ‘innocent’ vehicle which is only corrupted
by its ‘guilty’ passengers. If instead of using ‘easy’ signs,
we turn to more ‘complex’ ones such as sexism, democracy,
or equality, then a staged or layered interpretation of the
linguistic sign becomes much more difficult to accomplish.

‘Democracy’ does not have a clear referent on top of which
are several (hundred) competing interpretations or even a
clear locutionary force but an infinitely variable illocutionary force. Rather democracy is, as Volosinov would have it,
a ‘multi-accented’ sign, wherein competing definitions or
struggles over meaning are contained. There is not, then,
with the sign ‘democracy’ a clearly agreed-upon denotative
level, but only competing connotations. We might, however,
hypothesise situations which might allow ‘democracy’ to
have more denotative force than it presently does. It could
happen where either there was a near complete and totalitarian imposition of linguistic referents (in practice highly
unlikely since there would always exist some ‘underground’

alternative to the official referent), or where the present
social divisions had been overcome such that democracy
was a living (socialist) practice, not a future ideal or a
current rationalisation, as is the case now. My argument is
that for language to have an agreed locutionary force or
denotative referent, social and historical changes are paramount; agreement over meaning is not an intrinsic feature
of the linguistic sign.

The conception of language implied by Assiter’s use of
the analogy with architecture is also problematic. It tends
to reinforce a conception of language as a system, a completed edifice which may then only be subject to tinkering
and minor alterations at the margin, altering the position
.)f dining rooms here, breaking down the odd partition,
there. What such a view ignores is the way in which
language forms a crucial part of our overall social practice, or ‘practical consciousness’ as Marx expressed it. If
this is the case, then language is never finished or completed, but is in a continual state of flux as it responds to
changing social practices and shifting power relations. This
active role of language is indicated by linguistic evidence
provided by Spender, evidence which Assiter acknowledges
to be ‘formidable’ in its support of a close connection

between language and sexism. One such example is the dramatic shift in the meaning of words like ‘biddy’, ‘slut’,
‘tart’ and ‘whore’, all of which were once non-gender
based, but are now confined almost entirely to one or other
form of derogation of female sexuality. This historical shift
in the ‘meaning’ of these terms can be explained in a way
that would throw doubt not only on Spender’s view of
language as constructing ‘reality’, but also on Assiter’s
arguments th”at we must distinguish between language as a
system (langue) and the particular usage of language
(parole), if we are to arrive at a philosophically sound
understanding of sexism in language.

If we take the example of the shift in the meaning of
the word ‘whore’, one needs to ask why it is that it once
referred to a ‘lover of either sex’, and how was it that,
given the existence of sexual inequalities at the time of its
usage, such sexual descriptions were available to either
sex. Were there other terms, now lost, which were derogatory to female sexuality, or is that what we see, historically, is not an uninterrupted line of sexual inequality, but
changing types of inequality – sexisms, not sexism? There is
historical evidence to suggest that women did achieve a
significant degree of independence in the 18th century,
which was then systematically eroded as capitalist forms of
production increasingly came to predominate, bringing with
them the necessity for different forms of family control. If
this is the case, then both Spender’s thesis of the necessary connection between men in power and the semantic
derogation, and Assiter’s countering of this by proposing a
distinction between languages as a system and language
use, become problematic. Spender’s rather unilinear thesis
of male power leading to ‘male’ language has to be further
refined by asking which men, from which social class and
with what particular social intentions being paramount. The
fact that a word such as ‘whore’ can shift its referent so
completely must surely indicate that language does not
have some basic, sedimented core of meaning, as Assiter’s
arguments imply, but is continually changing in line with
changing social purposes.

Assiter provides an alternative explanation to that of
Spender’s concerning the grammatical ruling introduced by
the infamous Mr Kirby who, when compiling the O.E.D. in
the 18th century, decreed that the ‘male gender is more
comprehensive than the female and, thus, the pronoun ‘he’

should include both males and females. Assiter contends
that the sexism in language engendered by this ruling
should be understood as the unintentional consequence of a
more general attempt ‘to abbreviate the language’. Although the effect of this change is sexist, Assiter argues
that ‘it is ludicrous to suppose that every man who has
ever used such language intended to (subjugate the female
sex) by his use of it’. I think Mr Kirby’s reformulation of
the rules can be explained in a way that neither reduces
sexism, weakly, to an unintended consequence of a more
general (reasonable) rule, nor makes it part and parcel of
an overarching, historically non-specific male conspiracy.

Could it not equally well be the case that the change in
ruling was a small, but important, part of a much larger
proposal about the relative power of women vis-a.-vis men?

Just as ‘the Falklands spirit’ is as much an ideological proposal, intending to shape our responses to the nation as it
is some half-conscious, popular attitude that Thatcher is
articulating, so also might it not be the case that grammatical rules, as enshrined in the O.E.D. in the 18th century, were part of a larger project set, not by man as a
species, but by the 18th-century ruling class (of which
those with legislative power were all male) in order to establish and ‘rationalise’ new forms of sexism. This seems to
me to be just as plausible an explanation as that provided
by either Spender or Assiter and one, furthermore, that
avoids the problem of reifying language or ‘men’ as the
source of a timeless oppression of women, but rather places
both in a historically particular but active form of sexual
politics.

Assiter’s case against Spender’s formulations on
gender and language is not just that it is philosophically
17

untidy, but also that it has politically damaging consequences for women. Assiter points to the relativist implications of Spender’s thesis that language ‘constructs reality’,
which carries with it the further implication that there
are, therefore, ‘male’ and ‘female’ realities. Of this,
Assiter states This is damaging for women, I believe, for the
following reason: if husband and wife can
neither understand nor communicate with one
another, then the wife cannot present criticisms
of the husband’s use of language which he can
come to accept. She and he will continue, whatever she says, to occupy their respective universes: he his, she hers. She cannot begin to
enter his, nor he hers.

Although I agree with Assiter that the relativism of
Spender’s thesis is politically damaging, my reasons for this
differ from hers. To illustrate this disagreement, I’d like to
make some substitutions to Assiter’s example of the husband and wife, because I think this will help to pinpoint
some of the worries I have about her general argument
about language. Instead of using a lack of communication
between husband and wife, we might reasonably substitute
a manager and shop steward, since one could also argue
that discourse between these would also be based on
unequal power relations. In this case, we get •••• if manager and shop steward can neither
understand nor communicate with one another,
then the shop steward cannot present criticisms
of the manager’s use of language which he can
come to accept. They will continue, whatever
either one of them says, to occupy their respective universes •••
Clearly if manager and shop steward spoke, literally, different languages, they would require the use of an interpreter, but I think this is not the point of Assiter’s criticism of Spender, nor does it reveal the argument behind
my substitution. I take it that Assiter’s addition of use in
this context is to argue that, of course, they speakthe
same language in the sense that there is a common set of
linguistic referents, but these carry differing illocutionary
or perlocutionary force for the manager and shop steward.

I would counter this by arguing that, although the words
spoken by manager and shop steward (in my example) are
the same, there is no single and clear set of referents, so
that even if the manager understood the words spoken by
the shop steward, the wider political and social referents
of those words might well denote not different ‘realities’,
but a single ‘contested’ reality and, thus, no amount of
linguistic clarification would, of itself, be any avail. Again,
to use an example, let us suppose that the manager and
shop steward were discussing the issue of ‘a fair day’s
work for a fair day’s pay’. It is likely that what they would
be disputing is the referent of the term ‘fair’, with the
shop steward suggesting that this should involve less hours,
include reasonable rest breaks, and so on, whilst the manager would be referring to such things as the return on
profit of labour, efficiency and speed of production, etc.

The word ‘fair’ in this case does not have a clear and unambiguous referent, but is itself the site of dispute and
struggle. One could easily make a similar kind of argument
in relation to the husband and wife example provided by
Assiter in which the substance of their communication (or
lack of it) was his continual reference to her ‘inadequate’

management of the family budget. Their point of dispute
will be what constitutes ‘adequate’ management, and this
may not be resolved by better lines of communication, even
though he agrees not to describe this as ‘a feminine foible’.

Assiter’s distinction between locutionary identity and
perlocutionary or illocutionary differences, with only the
latter carrying the sexist bias, seems to have an equally
dangerous implication that apart from varying usages of
language, there is an agreed upon set of verbal signs. I
have argued that language is not nearly as immutable as
that and can, not simply carry sexist bias, but propose and
18

promote it precisely because the meanings of verbal signs
are constructed by political and social practices. Where
there are stable linguistic referents, this is because those
social and political practices have found some form of
resolut ion.

2 Spender’s Relativism: the easy language of multiple realities
The relativism that Assiter rightly criticises in Spender’s
work is most clearly evident in the chapter ‘Language and
Reality’, in Man Made Language. In that chapter, Spender
refers to the sociology of knowledge of Berger and
Luckman in support of her ideas on gender and language;
she states that ‘when there are a sexist language and sexist theories culturally available, the observation of reality
is also likely to be sexist’. Spender’s reliance on a sociology of knowledge that elsewhere has been strongly criticised for its politically conservative implications is, to say
the least, somewhat paradoxical (1). Spender’s dependence
on such a relativistic theory of language leads her to make
some really confusing and contradictory arguments. She
states that ‘it could be said that out of nowhere we invented sexism, we created arbitrary and appropriate categories of male-as-norm and female-as-deviant’ – a theory of
sexist language she categorically rejects, only to come up
with a theory which is remarkably similar except that the
culprit is not gender-indeterminate, but male. On page 142,
she elaborates her view:

I would reiterate that it has been the dominant
group – in this case males – who have created
the world, invented categories, constructed sexism and its jus tifica tion and developed a
language trap which is in their interest.

But this is not a different theorisation of language, it is
exactly the same one, only this time identifying half the
population as having un problematically ‘invented’ categories, language and, hence, sexism. This theory also
depends on a tautologous ~xplanation of male power, which
seems to be that males are powerful because they are
males. These arguments, as do most forms of philosophical
and sociological relativism, veer between a biological
determinism (an even more politically dangerous theory for
feminists, but one which Spender gets very close to in her
talk of ‘male’ and ‘female’ realities) and an ahistorical
phenomenology, which ignores the way in which conditions
of oppression, and the possibilities of liberation are limited
by the historical conditions that we inherit from our predecessors. It is this sense of history as an active social
force that is missing from Spender’s work and which, I
think, should have been the focus of Assiter’s criticisms.

I wholeheartedly concur with Assiter’s rejection of
the male/female ‘apartheid’ that is implied by Spender’s
notion of separate male and female ‘realities’. Spender sees
this as not just an unfortunate consequence of male power,
but something that feminists should value. She counterposes
the concept of ‘multidimensional reality’, emerging from
the women’s movement, to that of male ‘multidimensional
reality’, which she also refers to as ‘tunnel vision’. Her
political justification for this is worth quoting; she says
that Multiple reality is a necessary condition of the
experience of all individuals as equally valuable
and viable. Only within a multidimensional
framework is it possible for the analysis and
explanation of everyone to avoid the pitfalls of
being rejected, of being classified as wrong.

(p.103)

Taken out of the context of a consideration of the different approaches to and understandings of the relationship
between women and childrearing that Spender uses to justify this view, the above statement becomes either meaningless or wrong. Would we want to say, for example, that the
‘experience’ of the white South African under apartheid is
as ‘valuable and viable’ as that of the oppressed, black

~
I

South African? Would we accept, in the case of South
Africa, that separatism is a possible ‘solution’ to the
oppression of blacks by whites? The easy language of
‘multiple realities’ loses its radical edge when confronted
with a situation in which it is quite evident that, not only
is separatism not a ‘valuable’ political strategy, but it is
not even a ‘viable’ one. Oppression of whatever kind does
not go away by simply shutting the door and proclaiming
this room as your ‘reality’ into which the oppressor may
not enter. All too often the oppressor holds a duplicate set
of keys and the lease on the building as well.

Assiter’s objection to separatism, on the grounds that
it may well be the first staging post to either the use of
force or the elimination of men (as S.C.U.M. proposed),
misses the point in my view. A (violent) form of separatism
is to be rejected, not only because it is damaging for
women or nasty to men, but because it is a non-viable, collective political strategy. Of course, some women may
exclude men from most of their personal lives, but they
cannot avoid the effects of sexist practices in their public
lives. In the provision of nursery places, in primary,
secondary and tertiary education, in availability of work, in
the negotiation of wage levels and, indeed, in all ways in

which a politics based on gender intersects and feeds upon
a politics based on class, then feminists, both men and
women, have no option other than to contest and oppose
the one, unequal ‘reality’.

In the final paragraphs of her article, Assiter argues
that, whilst a conspiratorial view of man made language is
to be rejected, the evidence cited by Spender and others
does support the view that language can ‘reinforce’ power
relations between the sexes. This reinforcement is, she
says, part of an ideological discourse which is powerful,
precisely because it works to disguise those power relations. The semantic derogation of woman and the sexualisation of terms used to describe women suggests that sexism
in language is much more thoroughgoing than mere ‘reinforcement’. I would argue that language can and has been
used to propose and initiate sexual inequalities, just as the
reporting of the recent Falklands debacle tried to mobilise
a jingoistic attitude on the part of the ‘British people’.

Ideology does not always work behind people’s backs. If
Spender’s thesis on language is to be rejected, as I think it
must, then it must be replaced by one that inserts the
struggle over language into the forefront of sexual politics
and does not confine it to some rearguard skirmish.

Footnote
1 See Jean Grimshaw’s article ‘Socialisation and the Self: Critique of Berger and
Goffman’, in RP25 – Summer 1980.

-VERSOPHILOSOPHY
Peril’lDdersoD

IN TBE TUCKS or
HISTORICAL MATERIALISM
“Highly recommended” Time Out
•Anderson’s work is distinguished not only by its theoretical brilliance but by
its moral conscientiousness.” Terry Eagleton in Economy and Society
“Anderson offers some very sensible thoughts on the relationship between
feminism and socialism.” New Society
Clothll••OO; …… I4.95

NormaD Geras

MIBXAND HUMlNNATORE
RE~ONOFILIGmID

IMaJx did DOt reject the idea of a h1lllUlD. Dature. Be was right DOt to do IO!

That is the conclusion of this passionate and polemical new work by Norman
Geras. In it, he places the sixth of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach under rigorous

scrutiny. He argues that this ambiguous statement – widely cited as evidence
that Marx broke with all conceptions of human nature in 1845 – must be read
in the context of Marx’s work as a whole.

Cloth 114,00; Paper 12.15

Georg laiaes

RECORD or I LD’E

A revealing autobiography of Lukacs which takes the form of a series of
interviews recorded )lery late in life with the Hungarian literary critic Isvan
EOrsi. In addition to the development ofhis thought, he describes life in the
Hungarian Soviet Republic, in Stalin’s Russia and as Minister of Culture in
Budapest during 1956.

Essex Sociology of Literature Conference

EUROPE AND ITS OTHERS
University of Essex, 13-15 July 1984

Most contemporary theoretical work has been
resoundingly europocentric. The main aim of this
conference will be to break away from a narrowly
European focus by inviting and encouraging work
that deals with the relationship between Europe
and other cultures. Two broad areas are envisaged:

a general archaeology of europocentric
disclosures, and an assessment of the body of anticolonialist writing.

For further details about the conference, and
information about the published proceedings from
earlier conference, write to: Conference
Committee, Department of Literature, University of
Essex, Colchester C04 350, Essex, England.

Clothll5.00; …… I4.95

19

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