‘In 1986 Douglas Hofstadter, a philosopher, wrote a parody of sexist language by making an analogy with race. His article (“A Person Paper on Purity in Language”) creates an imaginary world in which generics are based on race rather than gender. In that world, people would use “freshwhite,” “chairwhite” and yes, “you whiteys.” People of color would hear “all whites are created equal” — and be expected to feel included. Substituting “white” for “man” makes it easy to see why using “man” for all human beings is wrong. Yet, women are expected to feel flattered by “freshman,” “chairman” and “you guys.”
And can you think of one, just one, example of a female-based generic? Try using “freshwoman” with a group of male students or calling your male boss “chairwoman.” Then again, don’t. There could be serious consequences for referring to a man as a “woman” — a term that still means “lesser” in our society. If not, why do men get so upset at the idea of being called women?’
i was in a class this spring that focused on social justice issues, and one of our facilitators would use gender neutral words like “folks” or “youse.” i ended up being part of a conversation about why some of the students thought he used those words (he wasn’t present at the time). It showed me that people do take notice when gender neutral language is used and see that as a model of acceptable behavior. one of my fellow students said that after thinking about why our facilitator used non-gendered language, she was attempting to stop saying “you guys.”
‘I’m not saying that people who use “you guys” have bad intentions, but think of the consequences. All those “man” words — said many times a day by millions of people every day — cumulatively reinforce the message that men are the standard and that women should be subsumed by the male category. We know from history that making a group invisible makes it easier for the powerful to do what they want with members of that group. And we know, from too many past and current studies, that far too many men are doing “what they want” with women.‘
it is a really hard change to make because this gendered language has been so ingrained in us from such a young age. i slip up all the time. it really frustrates me because i can be very vocal about using certain language and i feel like i’m being hypocritical when i make a mistake.
part of what makes it so difficult to make changes about our uses of sexist language is the “proper grammar” police. now i am a huge fan of using good grammar, just not when it is oppressive. even as i’m writing this i keep getting that red squiggly line under “gendered” because it isn’t a real word, even though feminists have been using this to create discourse for quite a while. when i use “they” instead of “he” or “she” i get a telltale green squiggly line. i’ve gotten pretty good at using “they” in my everyday language, but when i go to write a paper i make sure to use “he” for the singular unknown so that the professor knows that i know proper english (racist, classist, sexist in and of itself). there ends up being a disconnect between the language my activist self uses and my academic self uses.
i didn’t mean to come here to complain about how hard it is to avoid using sexist language. i wanted this to be a way to show how sexist language matters and that making changes in our own language use can make people think about their own language use. and that is social change and activism at its finest. i’ll leave you with the pleas from the author of this article:
‘If we cringe at “freshwhite” and “you whiteys” and would protest such terms with loud voices, then why don’t we work as hard at changing “freshman” and “you guys?” Don’t women deserve it? If women primarily exist in language as “girls” (children), “sluts” and “guys,” it does not surprise me that we still have a long list of gendered inequalities to fix. We’ve got to work on every item on the list. Language is one we can work on right now, if we’re willing. It’s easier to start saying “you all” instead of “you guys” than to change the wage gap tomorrow. Nonsexist English is a resource we have at the tip of our tongues. Let’s start tasting this freedom now.’