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Sexist Language

The sense of the noun ‘man’ is ambiguous. It is
not clear whether or not the expression is to be
understood in a neutral manner. The ambiguity allows
for the continued subjection of the female. Evolutionists began by thinking neutrally and then,
tacitly, switched to thinking in terms only of the
male. Employers who advertise for a ‘man’ can trade
on the ambiguity (a) to dissuade women from applying
for the job; and (b) to appoint a male.

Here it is the confusion generated by the continued use of ‘he’ and ‘man’ in their purportedly
neutral senses, I believe, which justifies the claim
that continued use of this language serves to reinforce male oppression. So long as we can switch,
unconsciously, from the neutral to the non-neutral
senses, in one breath, we are silencing and
excluding women.

There are two reasons, then, why ‘he’ language
tends to reinforce unequal power relations between
the sexes. First of all, the claim that there is a
genuinely neutral sense of the term ‘he’ is, in fact,
false; rather the introduction of such language presupposes unequal relations between the sexes. Its
continual use reinforces oppression. Secondly, there
are often tacit switches from the supposed neutral to
the non-neutral sense, slides which confirm that a
greater degree of importance is often attached to the
male in the neutral use of the expression.

Use of ‘he/man’ language specifically, then, does
seem to reinforce unequal power relations between
the sexes. I would propose, however, that, rather
than this indicating that these expressions are part
of a male language reflecting a male reality, it
suggests that such discourse is ideological – it
functions to disguise the power relations between the
sexes. These relations are not presented clearly,
for all to see; rather it is because there is domination of one sex by the other that the expressions
‘man’ and ‘he’ can be used in their purportedly
neutral senses. But, as we have seen, there is
l’eall,y no such thing as a neutral use of them.

To conclude: while I strongly disagree with the
‘philosophical’ strands in Dale Spender’s book, I
believe that she presents an array of examples from
English, many of which do provide incontrovertible
evidence of sexism in language. Recognising that
‘he/man’ language – as one case of such sexism reinforces male supremacy is not at all to do away
with that primacy. But it is a step in the right
direction.

To say, as Spender does, that there are two
realities – the male and the female – is not only to
make criticism of the male ‘reality’ impossible, but
it is to weaken the feminist case. Supposing that
the phenomenon is ubiquitous makes it more difficult
to see where sexism in language really operates. [12]
Alison Assiter
Footnotes
D. Spender, Man Made Larzguage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980
G. FreRe, On Sense and Nomination, in H. Frege and W. Sellars (eds.),
Readings in PhUosophiaal Analysis, NY, 1949
3 F. de Saussure, Course in General Linguistias, McGraw Hill Book Co.

Toronto, London, 1966
See M. Dwmnet, F’1’ege: Philosophy of Language, Duckworth, London, 1973
I put the point in this picturesque fashion for effect. It is, of course,
intended to be generalisab1e beyond husbands and wives.

6 N. Chomsky, Aspeats of the Theory of Syntax, MIT, CambridRe, Mass., 1965
J. L. Austin,
See, for instance, H.P. Grice, ‘Heaning’, in Philosophiaal RevieN, 1966
For example, Keith Graham, in ‘I11ocution and Ideo1o!”y’, in Issues in Mar:cist
Philosophy, Vol. IV, Harvester, 1981, argues that intentions are sometimes
irrelevant in determining which illocutionary act has been performed. The
speaker himself, he claims, may sometimes be unaware of the true import of
his/her utterance.

10 The Papers of the House of Cormrons, 31 January – 15 August 1850, Bills,
Papers 1.

11 H. Cixous, ‘Castration or Decapitation’, Signs, Autumn 1981
12 I should like to thank Jonathan R~e, Martin Boxer and Keith Graham for
commenting on an earlier draft of this, and No~n Parker for his assiduous
commenting on several versions.

Sexist
Language:

Fatherfuck or
Genderspeak?

Mike Shortland and John Favvel

The numerous reaent writings on sexist language have
prompted the fol,l,owing exahange of letters between
two members of the Col,l,eative:

Dear John,
I enclose the book on sexist language [1] I mentioned
during our last conversation. I think it ought to be
reviewed for the next RP. Would you take it on,
perhaps adding in The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing
[2] too. Several of us believe RP should tackle the
whole issue of sexist language in a serious and
practical way – beyond simply inserting a note inside
the back cover of the journal to the effect that
‘Authors should write accessibly, and avoid sexist
and racist formulations’. (I’m not sure we ought to
have such a note anyway; for one thing ‘accessibility’

is difficult to define a priori, and for another it
is our job as editors to deal with th~s .. If sexist
or racist formulations were intrinsic to the piece
we would either not be publishing it, or we would be
publishing it precisely for its problematic position
on this. This is, of course, to consider hypothetical
problems.)
In practice, we work closely with authors to make
their work clear in meaning and intention. Beyond
that, my initial reaction is to beware of any great
reformulations of language beyond those which, for
example, would alter gender-specific formulations
like ‘chairman’ to ‘chairperson!. I am conservative
in this regard not just because I hold the English
language in high respect but because the impulse
behind some of the linguistic prescriptions being
advocated strikes me as crude and poorly thought
through.

I have only skimmed through The Handbook, but
chunks of it remind me of Orwell’s Nineteen EightyFour. The whole intention of his Newspeak was that
if one could manage to eliminate certain words from
normal currency, the emotions the words labelled
would also disappear. The point was that unexpressed
thoughts and emotions atrophy. There is something
frightening – or is it instead liberating? – in the
notion that new linguistic structures and contents
will reshape a person’s view of reality and truth.

In any case, is there anything more involved here
than a satiric thrust against polysyllabic prose,
vague pseudo-scientific concepts and ugly neologisms?

Linguistic relativism which, according to Sapir [3],
has the real world unconsciously built up on the
language habits of different groups is a powerful
theory, but how would one go about proving or disproving it? I will grant that the argument that a
language biased against one sex can inflict harm upon
members of that sex (and perhaps on members of the
opposite sex as well) makes great psychologican sense.

29

But, in practical terms, would the elimination of
‘man’ in occupational titles open the way for women
into those occupations? Does the status, role or
authority of a ‘chairman’ change when he becomes a
‘chairperson’? Doesn’t a woman merely assume the
mantle of that authority when she takes over the
chair? And doesn’t the use of a ‘neutral’ term like
‘chairperson’ actually disguise or distopt the fact
that the powers invested in the title, and the
position the-title occupies in a network of social
relations, remain constant despite linguistic
alterations?

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes, Mike
Mary Vetter1ing-Braggin (ed.), Sexist Language: A Moder>n PhiZosophicaZ
AnaZysis, Littlefie1d, Adams & Co., 1981
Ca~ey Miller and Kate Smith, The Handbook of Non-Sexist Wroiting foro rnteros,
Ed1-toros and Speakeros, The Women’s Press, 1981
3 E. Sapir, Sdected Wr>itings in Language, CuZture and PerosonaZity, edited by

Do you think it our job, do you think it right for
Miller and Swift in their Handbook, to address the
controllers of the gutter press? For all its faults,
The Sun’s prose is consistently clear and simple and
straightforward; I note that in their previous book
[1] Miller and Swift supported the criterion of
whether a term or usage contributed to clarity and
accuracy. Hasn’t this principle been ditched in
their latest contribution?

Best wishes, Mike
1

Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Worods and Women: New Language in New Times,
Penguin, 1979

1

2

D. Mande1baum, Berke1ey, 1949

Dear Mike,
Thanks for the Vetterling-Braggin book. An
interesting collection of essays, in which several
schools contend. It even includes – the better to
confute it in subsequent essays – the wild provocation of one Michael Levin: ‘ … the warping- of
language to suit the ideological line of the new
feminism … ugly neologisms …. Like all bullies,
the new feminists … ‘ and so forth. Or, to
illustrate another aspect of the collection, how’s
this for clearing the decks (from a paper by Sara
Shute)?:

I offer the following definition of ‘sexist
language’ in any society S:

Sexist language exists in S=df.

(i) There are names, terms, or expressions which
are taken by speakers of the language to be
appropriate to refer to or to characterize
people who possess (at least) certain
biological reproductive characteristics but
which are inappropriate to refer to or to
characterize those who possess (at least)
certain other biological reproductive
characteristics, and
(ii) There are names, terms, or expressions which
are used to limit certain activities of people
who possess (at least) certain biological
reproductive characteristics, but not to
limit those same activities to those who
possess (at least) certain other biological
reproductive characteristics.

Hardly the kind of thing to get the editor of The
Sun to see the light, I fear. It seems to emerge
unhappily from two misguided traditions: that philosophy is better the closer you can get it to look
like Newton’s FTinaipia Mathematiaa, and that women
in order to be academically respectable should
write just like men.

No, I think we should be starting from the real
problem, and take it from there.

All the best, John

Dear John,
Glad the book reached you. Did my letter get lost?

Incidentally, the problem with the editor of The Sun
is not that he has failed to ‘see the light’, but
that he provides the light for millions of readers.

30

Dear Mike,
I won’t argue about The Sun any more, beyond asking
(rhetorically, if you like): What is philosophy for?

But on style, as someone quoted in the first Miller/
Swift book wrote, ‘the style is the writer’. This
strikes me as a more important point than you allow.

The increasing feminist awareness of recent years
offers the potential for a much more radical reassess·
ment of disciplinary paradigms than has yet been universally conceded. Many of the papers in the Sexist
Language collection are of the ‘Let us, as Philosophers, examine this new phenomenon’ variety. (A
similar approach informs Janet Richards’s remarkable
attempt [1] to see feminism as floundering flabbily
until rescued by Oxford Philosophy). A worthy and
comfortable enterprise, no doubt. But for radical
thought we need to turn to someone like Michele le
Doeuff [2], or to Mary Daly’s Gyn/EaoZogy [3] both
attempts to think through the implications of feminism for philosophy, rather than slotting feminism
into a pre-formed academic package.

.

Yes, I did receive your letter; and I agree that
day-to-day decisions about language choice are the
most pressing. As far as neologisms are concerned,
I think one soon gets used to linguistic ‘absurdities’. I’m more interested in lending support to
those trying to create a non-sexist verbal climate
than in safeguarding ‘our’ linguistic heritage.

Language has always been pretty absurd anyway. Anyone worried by the use of the singular ‘they’,
for instance, in place of ‘he or she’ (i.e. the
generic ‘he’) can generally be calmed, if not
silenced, by reference to Shakespeare: ‘God send
everyone their heart’s desire.’

This type of solution, to cope with every problem
of sexist words in an ad hoa fashion, does not speak
to more difficult problems. It may be worth recalling
an episode from the history of RP. In RP16 a book
review began:

Through the sixties and early seventies English
academic Marxism lay back with its legs open.

We experienced the successive thrills of penetration by the giants of continental European Marxist
philosophy …. It seems that this tradition of
Western Marxism which has been inseminating our
culture is now senile, perhaps even a corpse ….

each time it was a more or less transitory affair
and there soon followed a post-coital tristesse.

It has all been a rather confusing experience ….

This paragraph aroused considerable anger among
women readers, and an exchange of letters was printed
in RP18. The ‘Women in Society’ Course Collective
wrote to say this betrayed ‘careless and uncritical
participation in the worst sort of sexist ideology’.

The reviewer, John Mepham, wrote to say that he had
been misunderstood, that he was trying to criticise
the politico-cultural policy of the New Left Review,

and that ‘this deliberately and manifestly sexist
image was used in order to make an anti-sexist point’.

He sounded a bit bewildered that his irony had been
so misconstrued. In response, Valerie Binney pointed
out that his ironic metaphor was open to very different reading by women and by men, and that it might
have succeeded better had the review been written by
a woman. More deeply, she drew attention to some
difficulties in the metaphor itself: to appear to
criticize the NLF for ‘prostituting’ itself to various
bodies of European thought may call up suitable feelings of disdain for the journal, but leaves the
metaphor unchallenged.

The moral of this – besides instilling a due sense
of caution in writers adopting the ironic mode – is
that consciousness-raising about sexism in language
does not stop with the kind of problem dealt with by
the Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing. And being a male
feminist is fraught with difficulties, open as he is
to suspicion and -lack of trust.

-In simple answer to your first letter, I think
language important enough to require continual monitoring. Notwithstanding all you say about a ‘linguistic heritage’, the language you and I, and women and
the editor of The Sun use, is not a unitary discourse
but a site of conflict always open to contestation: a
political, philosophical battlefield. The question
is not whether we should take up arms, but who the
enemy is and what weapons we should bear. I agree
there will be casualties, some regretted, but a’est
Za guerre! Are we friends or foes?

Regards, John
1 Janet Radcliffe Richards, The Sceptical Ferrrinist: A Philosophical Enquiry,
Penguin, 1982. See also the essay-review by Jean Grimshaw, ‘Feminism:

History and ~,lora1 ity’, RP30 and Richards’ reply in RP3l.

Michele le Doeff, ‘Women and Philosophy’, RP17.

Mary Da1y, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, The Women’s Press,
1979

Dear Friend!

There are two issues involved in the example you use
from a past debate in the p~ges of RP: one is linguistic, the other socio-political. (Before you reach
for your sword, I know they are intertwined, but
there is some value in separating them out for
analysis. )
We could spend many hours debating exactly what we
mean by our statement, but presumably we would agree
that we both live in a ‘sexist’ society. This is
something we oppose, and are committed to changing,
so things which bolster sexism in society we fight
against and things which seem to subvert it we support
Indeed, all sides of the debate in RPl6 and RPl8 would
also call themselves ‘anti-sexist’. The problem is
that linguistic considerations often clash with antisexist commitments – hence the debate.

My impression is that you would always value your
male feminist commitments above any attachments to
linguistic freedom of expression, metaphorical flourish or ironic thrusts. John Mepham’ s use of a sexual
analogy was carefully chosen but gave offence to some
women. Had you been on the editorial board of RP at
the time, and – let’s make the problem more difficult
– had you known that the passage would give offence to
some readers, what would you have done? Woul d you
have supported its publication? In my first letter I
mentioned printing ‘sexist’ pieces precisely for
their problematic positions on the relation between
language and sexism; doesn’t John Mepham’s paragraph
fall into just such a category? I think it does and,

although I don’t particularly like the use of sexual
analogy in this context, I would argue that its presence makes an important point about the reception of
French Marxisms into English political discourse.

The reason I don’t like the analogy is that it is
open to misinterpretation and the whole point of
example, illustration and analogy is to clarify not
to confound.

I’m intrigued to know why it was that using the
example of the sexual act was thought offensive, why
writing of ‘penetration’, ‘insemination’, ‘postcoital tristesse’ and ‘affairs’ was believed by the
author and his critics to be sexist. Am I the only
one to detect a note of prudery and Mary Nhitehouseness in many feminist critiques of ‘sexist’ discourses?

I note, for instance, that Miller and Swift in The
Handbook do not venture into the area of sex, obscenity and pornography. I find Virgil’s point apposite:

‘Shall we say boldly: kill, rob, betray; but that,
only in whispers?’ But perhaps things today are more
complex. To maim, kill and plunder is fare for any
audience; to have sexual relations fit only for
adults. The anti-abortionists who favour capital
punishment; the male politicians who criminalise
prostitution; the feminists who demand leniency for
murderers but full sentences for rape … does not a
strange myopia affect our vision of sexuality and
crime?

Anyway, I find The Handbook’s silence on sex mysti·
fying, especially as the authors take such pains to
impose a point of view on grammar, which should only
have the points of view of precision and naturalness.

John Simon, in his recent book Paradigms Lost, makes
the point that the great majority of young girls are
not likely to grow up miserable and psychically
stunted by such constructions as ‘Everyone must look
after himself’. But I think they would stand a
chance of doing so by seeing paraded before them
only those images of sex and sexuality which were
cheapened, degraded and commercialised; or by seeing
no images of sex and sexuality at all. Nonetheless,
I refuse to accept that merely viewing sexist images
makes sexist audiences, anymore than just to censor
sexist language will make the society that traded in
it non-sexist. So, I agree with you that problems
of sexist language do not stop with the kind of
issues dealt with by The Handbook; perhaps I would
add that the problems start elsewhere – not with the
use of language, but with the conditions that make
this use possible, current and acceptable. I return
to my first letter: will the elimination of ‘chairmen’ inaugurate chairwomen, or chairpersons? Does
the censorship of sexist imagery stamp out the circumstances which generated it and the audiences which
receive it?

One last point to ponder: men and women ‘fuck’ in
The Guardian, ‘have intercourse’ in The Times,
‘copulate’ in textbooks, and ‘make love’ in The
Express and The Sun. They do nothing in Hiller and
Swift’s Handbook. Is the act so irredeemably ‘sexist’, and if not, in what terms is it most happily
conducted? In the silence of the bedroom behind
closed doors?

Best wishes, Mike

Dear

~1ike,

Yes, I think the act probably is irredeemably sexist,
in the present state of society, and the language
used is a pointer to this. Catherine MacKinnon put
31

it succinctly in a recent paper [1]: ‘Han fucks woman:

subject verb object.’ There is in fact a whole
section of the Sexist Language collection devoted to
this problem, which is welcome. (And men fuck men
in The Guardian as well, you shouldn’t forget. But
that’s something else.)
John Simon’s remark is simply silly and thoughtless: of course young-girls won’t grow up ‘miserable
and psychically stunted’ – or any more so than anyone
else, at any rate- But they will grow up, unless
something is done about it, into a society in which
their existence is tacitly denied by such constructions as ‘Everyone must look after himself.’ You can
defend any single such injustice by isolating it and
saying that changing it won’t make much difference;
a wizard tactic for defending the status quo. The
point is to work for a language which embodies our
hopes and aspirations and ways of looking at the
world, and if patriarchal sensibilities get bruised

in the process, that’s too bad.

Your challenge over what I would have done about
John Mepharn’s review is made simpler, not more difficult, by assuming one knew it was going to cause
offence. In circles where people know one another,
or can rely on levels of cultural understandings,
your valued ‘linguistic freedom’ is fine. Only Jews
can – and as things stand, – should – get away with
telling Jewish jokes. And RP could well print a few
more ironic thrusts at the left (such as the immortal
‘Peter Rabbit and the Grundrisse’ of RP11). But
feminists have enough problems with men without
having to suffer the wit and wisdom of an almost
entirely male collective.

Fraternally, John
1

Catharine A. Mac Kinnen, Feminism, Mar:r:ism, Method, and the State: An Agenda
for Theory, Signs, Vel. 7 (1982), pp.515-544.

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