Sexism in Language

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Sexism: there is still work to be done.You would not refer to any group as “you whiteys,” so why is “you guys” accepted? The same can be said for freshwhite and chairwhite; why would standardizing one gender be okay if doing the same with race is not? According to our guest, sociologist Dr. Sherryl Kleinman, the tendency to use male terms, or “male generics”, to stand for all people is one way that our language reflects and reinforces sexism. Among many related problems, we also make gender assumptions for professions (e.g., surgeons vs. nurses and presidents vs. secretaries). For both men and women, some of the worst insults highlight femininity, and in English there are hundreds more pejorative terms for women than for men, most of them sexual. Join us as we explore sexist language, what is at stake and what we can do about it.

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Here is the riddle we mention: A father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the surgeon says ‘I cannot do the surgery because this is my son’. How is this possible?

The anti-”you-guys” card can be printed using this and this (pdf templates). Dr. Kleinman’s paper critiquing the use of the word “bitch” is available here. As she says in the interview, “women cannot reclaim a word they never owned.”

Here is a copy of Dr. Kleinman’s poem, which she read on air:

Why I’m Not a Lady (and No Woman Is)
by Sherryl Kleinman

Published in Feminist Frontiers, edited by Laurel Richardson, Verta Taylor, and Nancy Whittier. 2004. McGraw-Hill, p. 94.

Ladies have pale skin,
wear white gloves
they sweep across the top
of the armoire
to make sure the darker-skinned woman
who cleaned it
didn’t forget or cheat.

A lady doesn’t sit
with one leg dangling
over the arm of the chair
like she just doesn’t give a damn.

Ladies don’t fix cars, build bridges, wire houses.
Ladies become First Lady, not President.

Sit up straight, young lady!
Cross your legs (shave them first),
Remove (surgically if necessary)
that frown from your forehead.
Lower your voice.
Smile.

(If anyone asks why you
snuck down to the Ladies Room,
say you had to powder your nose.)

Call yourself a lady
and he’ll protect you,
he’ll respect you,
he won’t leave.

But who protects the cleaning lady?

Wonder why we don’t have
“Ladies Studies”
at the university?

I’ll remain a woman,
keep the basic word
that got so dirty
she wants to clean herself off
and be called lady.

Until a real woman
can earn one dollar on the man’s dollar;
Until a real woman can call her body her own;
Until a real woman can love a woman in peace,
love a man without fear;
Until a real woman can walk the dark streets
with her mind on the stars and not on her back,

I will know that lady is a lie.

  • Emily

    Excellent discussion of the insidious ways language is used to reproduce gender inequality and great examples of the social harms sexist language enables. But, like Dr. Kleinman suggests, this is one social problem we can tackle pretty easily. We can fight back against our sexist conditioning and choose language that does not erase women. I’m sharing this piece with my family, my students, other people I care about, and whoever else will listen! Thank you for bringing this important work to our attention!