Sexism in language: A problem that hasn’t gone away

Sexism in language: A problem that hasn’t gone away

Deborah Cameron

2016 marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Words and Women. Described on its cover as a ‘landmark work that reveals the sexual biases present in our everyday speech and writing’, this second-wave feminist classic drew attention to the pervasiveness of what feminists dubbed ‘he-man language’ (the conventional use of ‘he’ and ‘man’ in generic references to mixed groups, as in ‘man has always adapted to his environment’), and to the routine occurrence in journalism of formulas that either defined women by their familial roles (‘mother-of-two breaks speed record’), or else objectified, sexualised and demeaned them (‘vice-girl arrested’; ‘gentlemen prefer blondes’). In feminist circles these complaints were already familiar; but books like Words and Women, accessibly written for a general audience, helped to bring the issue of sexist language into the mainstream.

In those days the mainstream was not unreceptive. Changes in conventional usage always provoke resistance, and the reforms proposed by feminists were no exception. But many influential gatekeepers were sympathetic to the feminist argument. Advice on avoiding sexist language began to appear routinely in publishers’ and newspapers’ style guides, college writing handbooks and standard reference works on usage. By the end of the 1980s it seemed the battle had largely been won—all feminists and their supporters had to do was wait for the remaining dinosaurs to become extinct.

But as it turned out, it wasn’t quite that simple.

One problem which arose early on was a tendency to water down the original feminist analysis by equating ‘non-sexist’ language with what is now often called gender fair’ or ‘inclusive’ terminology. What feminists had originally coined the term ‘sexism’ to describe was a systemic structural inequality between men and women; but as the concept entered mainstream thinking it came to be understood in more liberal terms, as meaning any kind of unequal or differential treatment on the grounds of sex. This understanding, which presupposes that sexism affects both sexes equally, was reflected in legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act which was passed in Britain in 1975. The Act had a linguistic dimension, in that it required job advertisements to make clear in their wording that positions were open to applicants of both sexes. The result was to favour the use of neutral or inclusive terms over other strategies which feminists had developed (such as the ‘visibility strategy’ of using language that deliberately calls attention to the presence of women, or treats women rather than men as the norm). Over time, this preference has become entrenched: any attempt to counter sexism by departing from the inclusiveness principle is liable to attract the criticism that it treats men unfairly and is therefore sexist itself.

In some contexts (including job advertisements), inclusive language is a reasonable strategy for countering sexism. In others, however, it tends to obscure the structural inequalities that were foregrounded in feminist analysis. An example is the proliferation of inclusive terms like ‘gender-based violence’ and ‘intimate partner killing’, which are now part of the official language used by government agencies, NGOs and transnational bodies like the UN.  These terms can imply that women are as likely to harm or kill men as vice-versa, when in reality virtually all ‘gender-based violence’, especially where it involves repeated and/or serious offences, is in fact male violence against women. Also ubiquitous nowadays are references to ‘parents’ and ‘parenting’: though this is an area where inclusive terminology can be useful, the automatic use of neutral terms obscures the fact that childcare continues to be disproportionately the responsibility of mothers.

Since it was first taken up as an issue, the progress of non-sexist language reform has also been affected by various changes in the political weather. In the 1970s and 1980s feminism was a significant political and cultural force, but its influence weakened during the 1990s. Younger women were repudiating the ‘F-word’, a new ‘lad culture’ was on the rise, and pundits proclaimed the onset of a ‘post-feminist’ era. At the same time, there was a concerted attack on so-called ‘political correctness’, and the alleged policing of language by a motley crew of feminists, LGBT activists, anti-racists and multiculturalists promoting extreme and restrictive speech-codes. Though non-sexist language policies had been around for two decades, and had not been considered ‘extreme’ by the many mainstream organizations which had adopted them, in this new climate they became suspect by association.

This change in mood was reflected not only in attitudes to the project of language reform, but also in everyday language-use. Some quantitative analyses of corpus data from the late 20th century (a ‘corpus’ is a large, computer-searchable sample of authentic usage, selected to be representative of the language in question) suggest that trends which were noticeable in the 1970s and 80s, such as a rise in the use of ‘he or she’ rather than ‘he’ in formal written texts, were starting to be reversed by the turn of the millennium. Evidently the cultural pressure to avoid sexism was not maintained for long enough for new conventions to become naturalized: as the pressure decreased, the old habits of usage crept back. Of course, there were parts of the culture where they had never really gone away; but it is noticeable that ‘he-man’ language has returned to some of the areas which most decisively rejected it in the past.

Universities are one example: research suggests that the shift away from ‘he’ in the 1970s and 80s was most pronounced in academic writing, but as a university teacher today, I rarely encounter a student who does not use the generic masculine. Similarly, few of my colleagues raise an eyebrow when faced with references to the ‘chairman’ of a committee, even when the person in question is female. The mass media are another domain where there seems to be less awareness of the issue now than there was at some points in the past. Again, it is true that there was never much awareness of it in some parts of the media (especially the press): it was no surprise when, in 2014, the Daily Mail reported the choice of Rev. Libby Lane as England’s first female Anglican bishop under the headline ‘Saxophone playing vicar’s wife is C of E’s first woman bishop’. But broadcast news outlets which do not share the Mail’s conservatism can also display a surprisingly old-fashioned turn of phrase. As I write, one of the day’s main news stories concerns a clinical trial in which several volunteers suffered brain-damage after taking an experimental drug: the news bulletin I watched explained that it was not the first time the drug had been tested ‘in man’. (In fairness, I heard another which used the phrase ‘on humans’, but the point is that ‘man’ has not withered away as feminists 40 years ago imagined it would.)

In the 21st century there has been a notable resurgence of feminist political activism.  But the form in which feminism has returned is, inevitably, different from the form it took in the past.  One development that has affected attitudes to language is the rise of a new kind of gender identity politics.  Today the most vocal demands for linguistic reform come from trans, non-binary and genderqueer activists; and when they call for ‘inclusive’ language, what they mean is not language that includes women as well as men, but language that includes people of all genders and none.

This new version of the inclusiveness principle can be in severe tension with the older feminist aim of using language to raise women’s status and visibility. Recently, the desire to avoid language deemed ‘trans exclusionary’ has led a number of women’s organizations, from Britain’s National Union of Students Women’s Campaign to the Midwives’ Association of North America, to move away from female-specific language, abandoning expressions like ‘sister(hood)’ in favour of the more ‘inclusive’ ‘siblinghood’, and substituting ‘people’ or ‘individuals’ for ‘women’ in the phrase ‘pregnant ____’.   There have also been proposals to redesign official documents such as UK passports, drivers’ licenses and university application forms so that an individual’s gender no longer has to specified—though some feminists have expressed concern that this change would make it harder to access full and accurate information relating to areas where we know there are continuing problems of sex inequality and discrimination.

On the other hand, some non-sex-specific terms originally proposed by feminists have been successfully revived by supporters of the new gender identity politics. For instance, it was 1970s feminists who first argued for ‘they’ to be accepted in its (historically well-established) use as a singular third person pronoun; the non-sex-specific courtesy title ‘Mx’ was also created in the 1970s as a more radical non-sexist alternative than ‘Ms’ to ‘Mr/Mrs/Miss’ (the first known use of it appeared in a 1977 magazine for single parents). Though both proposals met with strong resistance at the time, they have now won the support of influential gatekeepers. In 2015 the Washington Post accepted singular ‘they’ as a legitimate usage, while the title ‘Mx’ is now offered as an option by mainstream institutions including universities, banks, the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions and the Royal Mail.

But in their new guise these linguistic forms have a different function from the one feminists originally envisaged for them. Rather than replacing the alternatives and so eliminating gender distinctions, they have become additional options on an expanded menu, marking the newer distinction between ‘cis’ and other gender identities. That may be why they have proved more acceptable to the gatekeepers this time around: they don’t require everyone to abandon traditional pronouns or titles, they only require acknowledgment of the alternative choices made by certain individuals.

Concerns about the way women are represented may figure less prominently in public debates on language than they did 40 years ago, but it would not be true to say that feminists have stopped criticizing sexist language, or that they are no longer making organized efforts to change it. Today, though, their efforts are more likely to be incorporated into campaigns on other issues. For instance, anti-rape activists have targeted the use of victim-blaming and otherwise inappropriate language in rape reporting, and campaigners on the issue of child sex abuse have put pressure on the media to stop describing children as ‘having sex with’ (rather than ‘being raped by’) adult men, and to end the use of the term ‘child prostitute’. There has also been renewed criticism of sexist language in the context of campaigns against the marketing of sex-stereotyped toys, books and clothing to children.

So, this is a story of continuity as well as change, and of successes as well as setbacks. But an important reason for telling it is to counter the view (in my experience quite a common one outside activist circles) that sexism in language is yesterday’s problem: that we no longer need to think about it, or do anything about it, because it was all settled decades ago. I think that’s a mistake—and not only because, as I’ve already pointed out, the battle wasn’t won decisively in the 1980s. Since language changes continuously, along with the larger social context in which it is used, questions about it can never be considered definitively settled. Every generation of feminists will need both to revisit old arguments and to engage with new debates—and of course, to develop their own ideas about why and how language matters.

Further reading and references:
Anne Curzan, Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014)
Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and Women: New Language in New Times (Anchor Press, 1976, 2001)
Casey Miller and Kate Swift, The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing: A Practical Guide for Writers and Editors (Women’s Press, 1980)
Sara Mills, Language and Sexism (Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Anne Pauwels, Women Changing Language (Longman, 1998)


Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University. She is the author of several books about language, gender and feminism, including The Myth of Mars and Venus and On Language and Sexual Politics, and she blogs at Language: a feminist guide.

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