Unreasonable doubt

Content note: This post deals with the reporting of sexual violence, and contains details of a very distressing case.

In the first week of 2019, news media around the world reported that a woman in a healthcare facility outside Phoenix, Arizona, had unexpectedly given birth to a baby boy. This was not a happy event. The woman had been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage in a near-drowning many years earlier (some reports said ‘over a decade’, others 14 years; later it was suggested she had spent as long as 27 years—by implication, most of her life—in full-time medical care). Unable to move or communicate, she relied on others to take care of her most basic needs. Yet her pregnancy went unnoticed until, alerted by her moaning, a staff member realized she was in the advanced stages of labour.

Clearly, there are all kinds of questions that need to be asked about this horrific case. And while it isn’t the most important or the most urgent, one of those questions concerns the way it was reported by the media.

Criticism of the media’s coverage of sexual violence often focuses on the twin problems of victim-blaming and ‘himpathy’, the tendency to make excuses for men or to present them as victims themselves. In this case those problems did not arise. But there was another problem with the language used in reports, as you may notice if you look at these examples:

  1. The police in Phoenix have opened an investigation into allegations that a woman in a vegetative state at a private nursing facility was sexually assaulted and gave birth to a child last month (New York Times)
  2. An Arizona health care facility is investigating what it calls a “deeply disturbing incident” that a local television station has said involved the alleged sexual assault of a patient in a vegetative state (People)
  3. Local news outlet KPHO-TV reports that the Phoenix Police Department began investigating the incident as a possible rape case after the woman gave birth on Dec. 29. (Huffington Post)
  4. Police in Phoenix, Arizona, are investigating a possible sexual assault after a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at a healthcare facility on Saturday (Insider.com)
  5. Woman in vegetative state gives birth after apparent assault (ABC News)
  6. She gave birth on December 29 after apparently being raped at the facility some months earlier. (Mail Online)

A fancy name for what concerns me about these examples is ‘epistemic modality’—the expression of meanings relating to certainty or uncertainty, belief or disbelief. Suppose I’ve lost my keys and you ask me when I last had them. I can convey the same basic information—that I had them yesterday—in a range of different ways that communicate different degrees of confidence in the truth of that proposition. I might say, for instance (though there are many other possibilities):

It must/ might/ may/ could have been yesterday
I know/ think/ guess I had them yesterday
It was definitely/ probably/ possibly yesterday
I’m absolutely/ quite/ pretty/ almost sure it was yesterday

I’ve deliberately used a banal example to make the point that we all do this all the time. But in some contexts it’s particularly important to pay attention to this aspect of language. News reporting is one example. In a genre where, proverbially, ‘facts are sacred’, reporters must choose their words to make clear whether a proposition is being presented as a fact, a theory, a belief, a rumour, a supposition, a speculation or an opinion.

In news reports on the Arizona case, the proposition that the woman who gave birth had been sexually assaulted or raped (Arizona’s state law uses the term ‘sexual assault’ for both) was persistently worded in a way that implied a lack of certainty. In the first two examples reproduced above, the assault is said to be ‘alleged’ or an ‘allegation’, i.e. a claim someone has made that could be either true or false. The next two refer to a ‘possible’ sexual assault or rape. In the last two we get ‘apparent(ly)’, which suggests a higher degree of confidence, but stops short of full commitment (‘we don’t know for sure, but this is how it looks’). In everyday talk ‘apparently’ is often used to indicate that a proposition is hearsay, second-hand information whose truth the speaker can’t vouch for independently (e.g., ‘she’s broken up with her girlfriend, apparently’).

I didn’t make a full survey of the coverage, but this was the dominant pattern in the sample of reports I looked at. Among those which did not fit the pattern, most avoided taking any position at all (for instance, by reporting only that the woman had given birth and the police had launched an investigation). I found only one report, in the Washington Post, that expressed a high degree of confidence a crime had been committed:

The birth — and the sexual assault of a vulnerable individual that must have preceded it — has cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

By using the modal verb ‘must’, this report presents the proposition that the woman was assaulted as something we are logically obliged to treat as certain. Even if there were no witnesses (or more exactly, none capable of making a statement), there is no other explanation for what some people did witness, the birth of a child to a woman who had been in a vegetative state for (much) longer than the duration of her pregnancy.

To me, and I imagine most readers of this blog, the conclusion drawn by the Post is self-evidently the correct one, while the caution displayed in other sources is excessive. If ‘sexual assault’ is understood to mean sex without consent (which is how Arizona’s legal code defines it), then there is no doubt that this woman was assaulted. Her pregnancy is evidence of sex (or in a hypothetical alternative scenario involving artificial insemination, of a bodily intrusion that would also count as assault by Arizona’s definition), and since she could neither move nor speak we can be certain that she did not consent, nor do anything that could have been construed as consent. In any case, under Arizona law a person affected by ‘a mental disorder, defect, drugs, alcohol or any type of impairment’ lacks the capacity to consent to sex.

In this case there really are no ifs, buts or maybes: what was done to this woman was a criminal assault. Why couldn’t the media just say so, without all the hedging and equivocating? The impression their language gave was that they didn’t understand either the legal definition of sexual assault or the concept of consent. The hedging invited readers to look for reasons why this might not have been rape, potentially reinforcing well-worn myths like ‘it’s not rape if he doesn’t use force’ and ‘it’s not rape if she doesn’t resist’.  Or in this situation, ‘it’s not rape if she’s in a permanent vegetative state’. (Yes, it’s a horrible thought–but there are men who think it’s not rape if a woman is asleep.)

On Twitter, I saw a number of comments suggesting that cautious language had been used for legal reasons (‘they can’t say it’s rape when it’s still being investigated’). In some cases, it’s true, the legal presumption of innocence obliges the media to remain non-committal on the question of whether a rape occurred. If the defendant in a case is denying he raped the complainant and claiming it was consensual sex, then the complainant’s account of it as rape cannot be presented as factually true, or even as more credible than the alternative, because that would be prejudicial to the defendant, presupposing his guilt before it has been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction). Unless and until there is a conviction, the complainant’s statement can be presented only as an ‘allegation’. And most rape cases where the disputed issue is consent do not result in a conviction. The arguments made by defence lawyers and the conclusions drawn by jurors reflect the attitudes of the wider culture, which is not only predisposed to doubt women’s accounts, but willing to accept almost any argument for doubting them as ‘reasonable’.

But in the Arizona case it should have been obvious that these considerations did not apply. No police officer or lawyer will ever question this woman; no jury will ever be asked to determine whether she consented, or whether she lied. If there’s a trial, it will be all about the DNA. How, in these circumstances, could anyone have thought it was necessary, or indeed accurate, to report that the police were investigating an ‘alleged’ assault? Who is supposed to have made the ‘allegation’? Clearly not a woman who is unable to communicate. And if it’s the staff at the facility, what they did was not ‘allege’ something but report something some of them had directly witnessed. As for ‘possible’ assault, when you describe something as a ‘possible X’, you’re saying it might turn out that either nothing happened or that what happened was something other than X. In this case, what would that have been? Abduction by aliens? A miracle?

What were the people who wrote this stuff, or passed it for publication, thinking? One answer to that question might be quite simply that they weren’t thinking: they just reached for the conventional formulas on autopilot, without stopping to ask themselves whether in this situation the result would be inaccurate and misleading. Like the political writers George Orwell criticized in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, they were stringing together stock phrases in the manner of ‘a prefabricated henhouse’.

Feminist efforts to change the language of rape reporting have often assumed that this thoughtless recycling of outdated formulas is the central problem, and that the solution is a combination of awareness-raising—getting people to notice what’s implied by the language they habitually use—and offering practical alternatives. That’s the approach taken in, for instance, this checklist for journalists produced by Canada’s Use the Right Words project , which touches on the question of epistemic modality: it notes for instance that ‘allegedly’ may be necessary in certain contexts but warns against over-using it, and recommends that complainants’ statements should be framed using neutral verbs (e.g., ‘she said’) rather than verbs that imply doubt or blame (like ‘she claimed’ or ‘she admitted’).

But while this kind of advice can be helpful to those who are disposed to take it, the problem it can’t address is that which words are ‘the right words’ depends on what story you’re using them to tell. What if the media use the words they do strategically, because they are in fact the ‘right words’ for the narrative being constructed? Is the problem the words themselves, or is it the narrative?

In a 1992 article entitled ‘The linguistics of blame’, Kate Clark analysed the vocabulary and grammar used in the Sun newspaper’s reporting of violence against women,  and found that different patterns were associated with two contrasting narratives: one in which an innocent victim—a child, a chaste young woman or a good wife and loving ‘mum’—was attacked by a man described as a ‘monster’, a ‘beast’ or a ‘fiend’, and another in which a bad woman—a negligent or frigid wife, a provocative ‘Lolita’ or promiscuous ‘blonde divorcee’—was held responsible for provoking whatever had happened to her. In addition to being a standard-bearer for sexism, the Sun was a staunch supporter of right-wing ‘law and order’ policies: cases of violence against ‘innocent’ women could be used to advance that part of its political agenda. More recently we’ve seen some sections of the press eschewing the usual scepticism and victim-blaming where that enables them to construct a racist narrative in which ‘our women’ [i.e., white women and girls] are being exploited and abused by non-white, foreign or Muslim men.

In the Arizona case it seemed the media had no strong or consistent narrative. We might have expected this to be, in the Sun’s terms, an ‘innocent victim abused by a monster’ story, worded to express outrage rather than caution. But the outrage was noticeably muted (‘a deeply disturbing incident’ was as strong as it got). Though the victim’s ‘innocence’ was not in question (many reports contained obfuscation and needless scepticism, but none engaged in actual victim-blaming), there did not seem to be much empathy for her either. As this comment piece notes, abusers of women with disabilities (who as a group suffer disproportionately high levels of sexual violence) can exploit not only their victims’ inherent vulnerability, but also their cultural invisibility. The mistreatment of disabled people in institutions is hidden from public view, and the media that might bring attention to it are, as one disability activist quoted in the piece puts it, ‘still largely uncomfortable seeing disabled people as, well, people’.

Even if they are deemed ‘innocent’, some victims may still be treated as less deserving of our sympathy and concern than others. Race, class, age and (dis)ability all influence the ranking. Another pertinent example recently in the news is the way the media covered R. Kelly’s marriage to 15-year old Aaliyah in the 1990s, described in this piece as a ‘collective shrug’ which resulted from a combination of celebrity-worship, himpathy and misogynoir. In most mainstream media narratives, as the activist and writer Kevin Powell says,

The lives of…poor or working-class women like the ones Kelly preyed on are simply not valued.

I am not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize the media’s use of specific words, stock formulas or linguistic strategies (something I’ve done myself in this post), but I do think we need to recognize that the problem here goes far beyond language. The language of rape reporting is more a clue to the problem than a cause of it: it reflects the narratives the media construct around sexual violence, the culture of disbelief those narratives spring from, and the male dominance which that disbelief protects. Those things, ultimately, are what we have to change.

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2018: the year of the war of the W-word

At the beginning of December I promised I’d be back at the end of the month with my traditional round-up of the year in language and feminism. But I missed that self-imposed deadline, and I’ve ended up writing something a bit different from my previous efforts–longer, less list-y, and noticeably shorter on jokes. That’s partly about the timing (the festive season being well and truly over), but it’s also a reflection of what went on during the year I’m looking back at.

With a few exceptions (like the vote to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland) it wasn’t a great year for feminism. If 2017 was a year of hope, a moment when women came together to expose injustice and express their collective rage, 2018 was a year of disappointment and frustration, when we were often made to feel that nothing we said or did made any difference. Men continued to behave badly, and often with the same impunity that #MeToo was meant to have put an end to.

In the US, Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he had sexually assaulted her in high school (I wrote about this in November, but unlike the many commentators who dissected Ford’s style of speaking and its impact on her credibility, I focused on the language of the men). In Canada, minutes after posting a message of support for ‘the Incel Rebellion’ on Facebook, Alek Minassian killed ten people and injured 14 more by driving a van into a crowd of pedestrians (I wrote about this event too, and the debate it sparked on whether mass killings inspired by misogyny should be discussed in the language of terrorism). ‘Incel’ was among the words Oxford Dictionaries put on its shortlist for the Word of the Year—though ultimately it lost to ‘toxic’, as in ‘toxic masculinity’.

Several of the other news stories I blogged about were variations on the theme of ‘men being pissy about women treading on their turf’. A trivial but telling example was the reaction of the football-watching public to the women who were allowed, for the first time in history, to commentate on the men’s FIFA World Cup. Did these women have the Right Stuff, or were their voices just too shrill? Earlier in the year there had been a brief flurry of concern about the ‘unattractiveness’ of women swearing; later there would be a row about the ‘immodesty’ of women with PhDs who wanted to be referred to with the title ‘Dr’. Forceful speech, authoritative speech and expert speech continue to be treated as male preserves, on which women trespass at their peril.

But the theme I returned to most often this year was was our current preoccupation with ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusionary’ language, a perennially contentious issue which was at its most divisive in arguments about the use or avoidance of ‘woman’. Conflict about the W-word isn’t new: it was already simmering when I started this blog nearly four years ago. But this was the year when it came to a rolling boil. Between June and November a series of well-publicized incidents dramatized a clash between two opposing tendencies: on one hand, increasing pressure to adopt altermatives to ‘woman’, and on the other, a growing resistance to that pressure.

In June, Cancer Research UK ran a campaign promoting cervical cancer screening for ‘everyone aged 25-64 who has a cervix’. This avoidance of the W-word was not without precedent in the field of reproductive health: ‘pregnant people’, for instance, has been widely adopted. But this time the complaints were louder, and less easily dismissed as just the usual reactionary grumbling about ‘political correctness’ or language change in general.  ‘Hi Cancer Research’, tweeted one critic: ‘people who have cervixes are called women. Please stop erasing us. Thanks’. Others accused the organization of caring more about virtue-signalling than about clear communication, pointing out that some people who have a cervix may not be familiar with the word ‘cervix’.

In July there was controversy about a commemorative plaque in York that described Anne Lister, a 19th century landowner most famous for the coded diary in which she detailed her romantic relationships with women, as a ‘gender nonconforming entrepreneur’. The main objection to this phraseology was that it failed to identify Lister as a lesbian, but some critics also suspected that the group responsible for it had wanted to avoid specifying her sex. This apparent projection of contemporary gender identity politics into the relatively distant past (Lister died in 1840) prompted so many complaints (and so much media interest), the York Civic Trust opened a public consultation on whether the plaque should be reworded.

In September, activists campaigning against a proposed change in the law (if enacted it will allow individuals to be legally recognized as men or women on the basis of self-identification) sponsored a billboard displaying a dictionary definition of the W-word: ‘Woman. Noun. Adult female human’. This was immediately reported as transphobic hate speech; the company that owned the billboard took it down, and the message was subsequently removed or pre-emptively banned from several other sites. While the campaigners’ response (‘how can it be offensive to quote the dictionary?’) was disingenuous—they must have known that what offended their critics was not the quotation but the political statement they were using it to make—to many onlookers it did seem extraordinary that feminists could be threatened with prosecution for expressing the belief that only female humans can be women. Offensive though others may find that belief, the idea that its expression should be prohibited or criminalized raises questions about what we mean by ‘hate speech’ (this isn’t the place for a full discussion, but the recent broadening of this term/concept is something I’ll return to at a later date).

In October the Guardian reported on a survey that had asked ‘menstruators’ about their experiences of period pain at work.  Many readers complained, and on investigation it turned out that the researchers whose work was being reported hadn’t used the offending word themselves: they had referred to the survey respondents as ‘women’, and someone at the newspaper had ‘corrected’ them. The report was duly amended, with a mealy-mouthed footnote explaining that this had been done ‘to more precisely link the language with the survey it describes’.

The menstruation debate continued in November, when Sheffield Hallam University hosted a workshop featuring Chella Quint, the founder of the #periodpositive project and creator of what she wittily describes as a ‘flow chart’ about the language of ‘queeriods’. The project does useful work (for instance, taking up the issue of period poverty and urging the makers of menstrual products to stop using shame as a marketing tool), and the linguistic dos and don’ts on the ‘queeriods’ chart are mostly, in my opinion, sensible. No feminist I know would disagree with Quint’s suggestion that we should stop talking about ‘feminine hygiene’ products and referring to menarche as ‘becoming a woman’. These expressions aren’t just trans exclusionary, they are twee, archaic, and recycle ancient sexist beliefs (e.g. that menstruating women are ‘unclean’). They should have been binned long ago. But does the W-word really have to go into the bin with them, to be replaced by alternatives like ‘menstruator’ (Quint’s recommendation) and ‘bleeder’?

As the responses to the Guardian article showed, a lot of women find these terms both peculiar and offensive. And in this it appears they may not be alone. One interesting contribution to a discussion of ‘queeriods’ on Twitter came from someone who works with young trans people, and who reported that the trans men in her group also hated ‘menstruator’: one had said it ‘sounds like a Victorian gynaecological torture device’. ‘They like to be included’, she continued, ‘but they don’t mind the word “woman” being used’.

And indeed, why should anyone mind the word ‘woman’ being used in discussions of menstruation and pregnancy? There is something deeply irrational about the insistence that inclusiveness requires nothing less than the total avoidance of the W-word. If the point is to include everyone who menstruates or gets pregnant, that could surely be achieved by using one of the simplest tools in the linguistic box, the word ‘and’. Just as people talking about the armed forces have learned to say ‘servicemen and women’, people discussing reproductive rights or providing reproductive health services could say ‘pregnant women and trans men’. Why is it necessary to treat ‘women’ as a taboo word, a threat that must be countered by substituting arcane neologisms or obscure circumlocutions?

November was also the month when the Wellcome Collection got an unwelcome response to its publicity for an event designed for ‘womxn’. For many people this was their first encounter with ‘womxn’, a form whose X-spelling is meant to signify that it refers not only to women, but also to trans, nonbinary and queer individuals. And for the most part they were not impressed. Caroline Criado-Perez spoke for many when she commented, bracingly,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man. Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

Taken aback by both the volume and the vehemence of the complaints, the organizers announced that they would revert to ‘women’.

All this might seem like a long-winded way of saying that nothing changed in 2018.  The familiar battle continued, and the familiar tropes were repeated. But however subtly, I think something did change. As the conflict escalated, both sides were forced to confront the reality that changes in the meanings and uses of words have to be negotiated: they can neither be imposed by fiat nor prevented by appealing to some higher authority. Nor can change be accomplished overnight: it takes time for new words to bed down, and for old ones to shed their historical baggage.

That last point was dramatically illustrated in December, when the W-word featured in a different kind of political controversy. During Prime Minister’s Question Time, as Theresa May addressed the House of Commons, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made an inaudible remark which may or may not have been ‘stupid woman’ (he maintained that it was ‘stupid people’, and we can’t be certain it wasn’t because speech-reading, which was the basis for the ‘woman’ claim, cannot distinguish related sounds (like the labial consonants p and m) with 100% reliability).

What followed—May’s supporters gleefully denouncing the Labour leader’s sexism, while his own colleagues accused them of manufacturing their outrage–was as unedifying as most of what has passed for Parliamentary debate during the past 12 months, but it did raise an interesting linguistic question. What makes the phrase ‘stupid woman’ sexist? ‘Stupid’ is obviously an insult, but it’s not specifically a sexist insult; and May is, after all, a woman. Why is calling a female politician a ‘stupid woman’ perceived as more pejorative than simply calling her ‘stupid’—or than calling a male politician a ‘stupid man’?

Pondering this, I was reminded of Ana Deumert’s account of a landmark judgment in the South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was fired from his job for using racially offensive language in a workplace dispute about parking. Finding he had insufficient space to park his own vehicle, he demanded the removal of an adjacent vehicle to which he referred as ‘that Black man’s car’. He didn’t dispute that he used those words, but he did dispute that they were racist, and sued his employer for unfair dismissal. Two lower courts accepted his claim that ‘that Black man’ was a purely descriptive phrase. But the Constitutional Court overturned their judgment, arguing that in a society with South Africa’s history of institutionalized racism, a white man’s reference to a Black colleague’s race could not be considered neutral: in context it was liable to be heard as an expression of contempt for an inferior Other. As Deumert explained,

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time. […] Words mean because they have meant before, and …wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

That women as a class are stupid is another proposition that has been endlessly repeated over time, and this has consequences for the way we react to verbal formulas like ‘stupid woman’. Whereas ‘stupid man’ will be heard only as an assertion that the individual in question is both stupid and a man, ‘stupid woman’ (especially when said by a man) can easily be taken to imply that the individual is stupid because she is a woman. Like the racism of ‘that Black man’, the sexism of ‘stupid woman’ isn’t in the words themselves, but in the cultural presuppositions we bring to bear on their interpretation, and which, as Deumert says, we inherit from history.

‘But hang on a minute’, a sceptic might interject, ‘I’m confused. First you said it was sexist for the Guardian or Cancer Research to avoid the W-word, now you’re saying it was sexist for Jeremy Corbyn to use it. Surely you can’t have it both ways!’

Actually, I can, because sexism in language is complicated. As I explained in another of last year’s posts, it manifests itself in two apparently contradictory ways. One is the exclusion/erasure of women, as with the pseudo-generic use of masculine forms like ‘he’ and ‘man(kind)’. The other, however, is the over-use of feminine gender-marking, gratuitously drawing attention to a woman’s sex in contexts where it’s irrelevant and where the effect is demeaning or derogatory (for instance, calling Jane Austen an ‘authoress’). These are different surface manifestations of sexism, but at a deeper level they reflect the same basic assumption–that men are the default humans.

This is one aspect of the traditional gender order that seems to have survived: we are seldom if ever exhorted to replace ‘man’ with terms like ‘mxn’, ‘ejaculator’ and ‘everyone who has a penis’. That’s another reason why some feminists resist analogous W-word substitutes like ‘womxn’ and ‘menstruator’. Whatever else it may be, a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.

I’d like to think that in 2019 both sides in this debate will turn the heat down, and put more energy into finding mutually acceptable solutions to practical linguistic problems. For some purposes I think we do need inclusive terms (as well as, not instead of, the W-word), but ideally they’d be less clunky, obscure and needlessly offputting than the ones we’ve been presented with so far. We can surely improve on words like ‘menstruator’, which no one seems to find satisfactory: why not follow the lead of the Twitter commentator mentioned earlier by asking trans men how they would prefer to talk about their periods? And before they dream up any more formulas like ‘everyone who has a cervix’, organizations like Cancer Research could try emulating the approach their scientists use when developing new treatments, by testing their proposals on a sample of the target audience.

But to make these suggestions is to treat the issue as a technical problem of language planning, when of course it is much more than that: like most verbal hygiene debates, this is an ideological and political conflict played out in the arena of language. So, I predict that the struggle over the W-word will continue, and that the conflict may become, at least in the short term, more rather than less intense.

That’s not, I acknowledge, the happiest note on which to end this review of 2018. Nevertheless (and with apologies for the lateness), I wish all readers of this blog a happy new year. Here’s to courage, strength, and hope for better times ahead.

The illustration shows part of Gillian Wearing’s statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of (some) women in Britain gaining the right to vote. The words ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’ come from a speech Fawcett made in 1913 following the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby. Davison had been a suffragette, a member of an organization whose tactics Fawcett criticised; but despite their political differences, she spoke of Davison in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect.  

A woman’s (shit)work is never done

In Láadan, the fictional women’s language created by the feminist sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin, there is a word, ‘radiidin’, which means ‘a non-holiday: a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much of a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion’. In the season that most likely inspired this term, the thoughts of feminists will inevitably turn to all the invisible labour performed by women: the endless shopping and cooking and cleaning, the planning and managing that’s been described as ‘the mental load’, and the emotional labour of spreading seasonal good cheer.

Of course, invisible female labour is not just for Christmas. It’s a source of perpetually simmering discontent which comes to the boil at regular intervals. In 2015 a Guardian article predicted that it would be the next Big Feminist Issue; this year a similar suggestion has come from Gemma Hartley, author of a book entitled Fed Up: Women, Emotional Labor and the Way Forward. A condensed version of her argument, published as an article in Harper’s Bazaar (‘Women aren’t nags—we’re just fed up’) was shared an astonishing two billion times.

Clearly this is not a ‘problem with no name’. Different aspects of it have been given different names–‘unpaid care work’, ‘wife-work’, ’emotional labour’, ‘the mental load’, ‘the second shift’. And though these terms are not interchangeable, the kinds of activity they name are all cases, to quote the sociologist Pamela Fishman, where

The work is not seen as what women do, but as part of what they are.

This observation points to a subtle difference in our ideas about ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’. Though it is often assumed that ‘men’s work’ harnesses qualities associated with the male of the species—like aggression, toughness or a willingness to take risks—it is rarely suggested that a man who works on an oil rig or trades on the stock exchange is doing nothing more than being a man, using skills he didn’t have to learn to carry out tasks that any other man could do just as well. With ‘women’s work’, by contrast, whether it’s done in the home or in ‘pink collar’ jobs like nursing, teaching and secretarial work, the assumption has often been that women are just doing what comes naturally, using their maternal instincts or their innate ability to empathize to take care of other people’s needs. And since what’s ‘natural’ is assumed to be effortless, requiring no conscious thought or special skill, it is not seen as ‘real’ work–or in some cases, seen at all.

The sentence I’ve just quoted from Pamela Fishman appears in an article which identified a specifically linguistic form of invisible female labour. Fishman called this ‘interactional shitwork’ (though the most readily available version of her article appeared under the more decorous title ‘Interaction: the work women do’). The article is a fascinating historical document: brief and unapologetically angry, it’s written in a style that owes at least as much to the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement as to the academy (though it has frequently been cited, and sometimes anthologized, in more conventional academic sources). And it wasn’t only of interest to academics: when Fishman presented an early version at a conference in 1977, it was reported in the New York Times under the headline ‘Woman Speaks Up: Men Control Conversation’.

Fishman’s analysis was based on 52 hours of conversation recorded by three heterosexual couples in their homes. She did find that ‘men control conversation’, but she also found that to do it they depended on women’s support. Whereas men’s attempts to initiate talk were taken up enthusiastically by women, women’s own efforts were more likely to receive either very minimal acknowledgment (for instance, an unenthusiastic ‘yeah’ or ‘mm’ followed by the man changing the subject) or none at all. In fact, women received so little encouragement to talk, they often resorted to the attention-getting techniques young children use, like saying ‘d’you know what?’ (a formula which demands an answer like ‘what?’, or ‘no, tell me’, thus allowing the first speaker to respond to the ‘question’ she has essentially forced the second speaker to ask).

By way of illustration, here’s an extract from one of Fishman’s transcripts: the man (M) and the woman (F) are both graduate students (as was Fishman herself when she did this research), and the exchange takes place in their apartment while she is studying and he is making a salad.

fishman

The woman wants to share something she’s reading, and to get her partner’s attention she asks a question prefaced with ‘you know’. He doesn’t seem very interested: he allows two seconds to pass (more than one second is a noticeable silence in casual conversation) before he produces a (hesitant) answer signalling that what she’s just said is new information. Encouraged, she continues with the next chunk of discourse. This time he allows five seconds to pass before making a substantive point. Once again, she responds straight away (that’s what the = sign means), agreeing with his point and adding a related one. But then his attention shifts elsewhere: it turns out he’s looking for oil to make salad dressing. She responds immediately to his observation that they’ve run out with the information that there’s another bottle. His next utterance comments on the salad dressing, and invites her to agree that it looks good. This time she doesn’t answer immediately, and he repeats his last move (‘see, babe?’) until she acknowledges his point with ‘it does yeah’. She doesn’t try to resume the conversation about what she’s reading until more than a minute later.

Fishman claimed that what we see in this extract was a recurring pattern in her data. Men talk about what they want, when they want, and women do the work of supporting them. They pay continuous attention to their partners, respond promptly when a response is called for, and stop talking when it clearly isn’t. They provide on-topic answers to men’s questions and tokens of agreement when men express opinions. Men evidently expect this from women, but they don’t feel obliged to do it for women. When women talk men pay less attention, produce delayed and unenthusiastic responses, and change the subject if something else is more important to them.

This study has been criticized for generalizing from a tiny sample; a number of researchers who have tested its claims using other data have failed to replicate Fishman’s findings. But many of these ‘replications’ have used data which isn’t comparable to Fishman’s–for instance, recordings of non-intimate male/female pairs talking in a lab, or of colleagues talking in a professional setting. The researchers involved seem to have missed the point that the focus on couples wasn’t incidental: what Fishman set out to investigate was, by her own account, ‘the interactional activities which constitute the everyday work done by intimates’. She also explained why this was of interest to a feminist sociologist: because

It is through this work that people produce their relationship to one another, their relationship to the world, and those patterns normally referred to as social structure.

Fishman examined linguistic patterns in heterosexual couple-talk as a way of shedding light on the underlying power dynamics. There’s no reason to expect the same patterns to appear, or the same dynamics to be in play, in every other situation where women and men converse. The significance of gender, and indeed its relevance, may be different in different contexts and kinds of talk.

Many years ago, I co-authored an article about tag questions (interrogatives of the form ‘nice day today, isn’t it?’).  At the time tag questions were a big deal in language and gender research because, like uptalk today, they were widely believed to be used by women who were so unconfident about expressing their opinions they found it necessary to turn statements into questions. My co-authors and I didn’t believe that: we knew tag questions have a range of functions, and one of them is facilitating interaction. Adding a question tag to a statement is a way of inviting someone else to talk. Some researchers had suggested that the real reason women used more tag questions than men was because they did more facilitating. Our study showed, however, that what men and women do, and indeed what tag-questions do, will depend on various features of the context.

There are some kinds of talk where asking questions is the prerogative of the person who has institutional power (e.g. the teacher in a classroom or the lawyer in a courtroom). In these contexts asking questions–including tag-questions–is not a sign of insecurity: it’s an assertion of authority and a way of controlling the interaction. There are also contexts where facilitating interaction is a professional skill, associated with a high-status occupational role. Not only lawyers and teachers, but also (for instance) doctors, psychotherapists and media interviewers, must master the art of getting others to talk. Some of our data came from contexts of this kind, and in those cases it was the professionals who used more tag questions. Most of them were men, but that’s by the by: this pattern isn’t about gender, it’s about the speaker’s institutional role.

In complete contrast to these institutional encounters, the conversations Fishman analysed were personal exchanges in a domestic setting between people who knew each other intimately. In that context, the division of labour she observed (women doing the facilitating and men treating that as a form of service) raises the same questions feminists have asked about housework and the mental load. In a situation where there’s no institutional hierarchy, where the participants have equal status and have chosen to live together, why isn’t facilitating interaction a reciprocal obligation? Why do women do so much and men so little?

Fishman’s answer is that the participants in heterosexual couple-talk (a context where gender is highly salient) don’t really have equal status. They agree that the man’s interests come first.

Both men and women regarded topics introduced by women as tentative; many of these were quickly dropped. In contrast, topics introduced by the men were treated as topics to be pursued; they were seldom rejected.

They also agree that the woman is ultimately responsible for the success of the conversation–and for intuiting what that requires of her in any given situation.

Sometimes women are required to sit and “be a good listener” … At other times, women are required to fill silences and keep conversation moving, to talk a lot. Sometimes they are expected to develop others’ topics and at other times they are required to present and develop topics of their own.

At all times, however, women must avoid giving the impression that they are, or would like to be, in control.

Women who successfully control interactions are derided…terms like “castrating bitch,” “domineering,” “aggressive,” and “witch” may be used to identify them. When they attempt to control situations temporarily, women often “start” arguments.

The picture Fishman paints is bleak–and still depressingly recognizable more than 40 years on. Women are still expected to ‘sit and be a good listener’ (if you doubt it, have a look at this piece, based on the replies the writer got when she tweeted a request to get in touch ‘if you’ve ever been on a date with a man who asked you zero (0) questions about yourself’); and they still get identified as aggressive bitches if they aren’t sufficiently self-effacing (remember #ImmodestWomen?)

What makes the problem of invisible female labour such a tough nut to crack (no matter how many times or ways we name it) is that the obvious form of resistance–refusing to do it–has such negative consequences for women themselves. What hurts our loved ones hurts us too: few women want to get into conflicts with the people they care about, or to forego the tangible benefits their unseen efforts produce (like comfortable homes and meaningful conversations). In many situations it costs less to maintain the status quo than to challenge it. (Not all, though. We could surely put an end to the phenomenon of dates where men ask women no questions. Someone should design a card for women to hand to their date as they leave after 15 minutes.)

I’m aware that this post has been a bit short on festive spirit, but I hope your Christmas, if you celebrate it, will be less a radiidin than a season of peace and goodwill. Go easy on the shitwork, don’t let the bastards grind you down, and when it’s all over, look out for my round-up of the year in language and feminism.

Who owns words?

Lately there’s been some controversy about the word ‘partner’, meaning the person you’re in a long-term relationship with. I’d always considered ‘partner’ an innocuous term, too colourless to generate strong feelings (though an acquaintance once told me he hated it because it was so bland: ‘it sounds like you’re a firm of solicitors’.) But some people, it turns out, do feel strongly about it–or more exactly, about who has the right to use it.

In August Sadie Graham described her frustration with a series of encounters where the people she was introduced to had talked about their ‘partners’:

it was a guessing game every time whether they meant a long-term, serious relationship with another queer person or a long-term, serious relationship with another straight person, but one who wears flannel and cares about justice and reciprocity and shit.

As she saw it, the hip heterosexuals who talked about their ‘partners’ were guilty of a kind of cultural appropriation, using the language of queerness to make themselves look cool, and to downplay or deny their heterosexual privilege. ‘At some point’, she complained, ‘it’s like: can we have anything?’

These sentiments were echoed a month later in an article about ‘partner’ that posed the question bluntly: ‘should straight people be saying it, or does it belong to queers?’ The writer, a self-described femme married to a trans man, explained why the two of them prefer ‘partner’ to the spousal terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. First, because it’s ‘the only word equipped to convey the seriousness of our bond without ascribing either of us a fixed gender’; and second, because it ‘dispels some of the ownership associated with the institution of marriage’. This second point–that ‘partner’ doesn’t carry the same patriarchal baggage as ‘husband’ and (especially) ‘wife’–is also a reason why many non-queer couples use it. But in this writer’s view they shouldn’t just assume they’re entitled to do so:

“partner” was brought into its current understanding through a history of use—often out of a necessity not felt by cis, straight people—within the queer community. If they want to say “partner,” people of relative privilege should take a moment to reflect on their word choice.

I’m tempted to reply that if people want to make claims about the history of words, they should take a moment to check their facts. As a glance at the relevant OED entry makes clear, ‘partner’ has been used for centuries to denote a spouse, a lover or a member of a cohabiting couple, and for most of that time it has been used predominantly by and about heterosexuals. The earliest illustrative quotations for this sense of ‘partner’ come from letters written in the late 16th century by Richard Broughton and his wife Anne, each of whom refers to the other as ‘my partner’. By contrast, the earliest quotation illustrating same-sex usage is dated 1977. That’s not to say the term wasn’t used by lesbians and gay men before the 1970s, but it’s unlikely to have been common before the 20th century.

Even today, queer uses of ‘partner’ have not overtaken straight ones, mainly because ‘partner’ has become the mainstream term of choice for referring to people who live together without being married. Since 1970 the number of people in relationships of this kind–the majority of them heterosexual–has increased significantly, and as a result the word ‘partner’ is very frequently used in reference to cohabiting heterosexuals. There is nothing cool or hip about this usage, as the OED’s examples of it show. It’s hard to imagine anything less cool—or more heteronormative—than this piece of advice, taken from a 2000 publication of the Institute of Advanced Motorists: ‘if you are a married or cohabiting man, try adding your partner to your insurance policy’.

There is, in short, no historical foundation for the claim that straight people ‘appropriated’ ‘partner’ from queers. But of course, proposals about the use of a word in the present do not have to be based on facts about its usage in the past. We wouldn’t think much of someone who defended the use of racist or sexist epithets by saying ‘but people have used this word in this way for hundreds of years’. Being a politically conscious language-user may well mean deferring to the preferences of marginalised groups—for instance, using the names/pronouns they specify, avoiding labels they consider offensive, and being cautious about using in-group terms (like words from an indigenous language, or reclaimed slurs like ‘dyke’ and ‘crip’) if you don’t belong to the group yourself. But how far should this principle extend? Do ‘people of relative privilege’ have a moral obligation to stop using everyday words like ‘partner’ if they are claimed by a marginalised group? More generally, what does it mean to talk about the appropriation, and thus by implication the ownership, of words?

Modern capitalism has made it possible for a person or corporation to claim ownership rights over a word by trademarking it. This is a strictly limited form of ownership: Apple, for instance, can only use its rights over the word ‘apple’ to prevent its use by competitors in the tech sector, not to stop the rest of us talking about fruit. Specsavers, which has trademarked the verb form ‘should’ve’ (as used in its ‘should’ve gone to Specsavers’ ads), can’t just sue anyone who drops ‘should’ve’ into casual conversation: they’d have to be using it in a way that threatened the company’s commercial interests. But not all cases are so straightforward. Some have raised questions about whether the trademarking of words places unacceptable restrictions on artistic or political freedom.

One case of this kind was reported earlier this year, when several romance novelists received a message from a fellow-author, Faleena Hopkins, telling them to remove the word ‘cocky’ from their book titles because she had been granted a trademark giving her the exclusive right to use it. Hopkins is the producer of a self-published book series in which every title contains the adjective ‘cocky’ (they include Cocky Biker, Cocky Cowboy and Cocky Romantic): she applied for the trademark after she became aware that readers were ordering other books with ‘cocky’ in their titles in the mistaken belief that they were part of her series. She managed to convince the US patent office, which granted the application, that titles including ‘cocky’ were part of her brand. But that didn’t impress the other writers who were forced to retitle or remove their books from sale. In fact, they petitioned for the trademark to be revoked, pointing out that ‘cocky’ is a common word in romance titles because it’s a conventional way of describing the ‘alpha male’ hero who is one of the genre’s stock characters. How, they asked, can anyone be granted exclusive rights to a cliché?

In France in 1979, a women’s group known as ‘Psych et Po’ (short for ‘psychanalyse et politique’, or in English ‘psychoanalysis and politics’), managed to trademark the words ‘Mouvement de Libération des Femmes’ (Women’s Liberation Movement) and its abbreviated form ‘MLF’, so that the name could no longer be used by any other group. This benefited Psych et Po both politically and commercially: by taking the movement’s name as their own, they were able to present themselves, and their publishing company des femmes, as the quasi-official voice of French feminism. Since most feminists considered them an unrepresentative fringe group whose ideas had little to do with feminism, their action was seen as a deliberate provocation. The conflict it caused consumed feminists’ energies for several years, prompting Simone de Beauvoir to describe it as ‘a grave threat to the entire women’s movement’.

The question these cases raised was whether an individual or a small group should be able to take a community resource–a word or phrase that was previously available to everyone–and turn it into private property.  In the controversy about ‘partner’, by contrast, the issue is more or less the opposite. The writers I quoted earlier aren’t accusing straight people of treating a communal good as their exclusive property, but rather of failing to recognise ‘partner’ as the property (in this case moral rather than legal) of the LGBTQ community. In the age of identity politics, it seems that more and more disputes over language are being framed in this way: ‘this word belongs to group X, and if you’re not a member of that group your use of it is disrespectful/ offensive/ ‘cultural appropriation’.

The idea that words are property–that some people have a right to them and others don’t, or that they can be stolen from their ‘rightful owners’– is one I struggle to get my head around, because it’s at odds with what we know about the history of languages and the way they are shaped by contact between different groups. Consider, for instance, the 20th century British argot Polari, which is remembered and celebrated now as—to quote the title of Paul Baker’s book about it—‘the lost language of gay men’. There’s no dispute that Polari did at one time function as a gay in-group code, but it wasn’t something gay men just spontaneously created for that purpose. Rather, as Baker explains,

It arose from a number of overlapping “low” forms of slang that were associated with travelling or stigmatised groups, stretching way back to the Thieves’ Cant of Elizabethan England. The 18th century added words from the molly house culture – mollies being men who had sex with other men… The 19th century also saw the incorporation of some Parlyaree, the Italian-derived language used by travelling entertainers, fairground people, costermongers and beggars. Later influences on Polari included Cockney rhyming slang, backslang (pronouncing a word as if it is spelt backwards), Yiddish, Lingua Franca (words from sailors’ slang), American air force slang and the vernacular of drug users.

To identify gay men as the owners and originators of Polari would not do justice to this history. At the same time, it would make little sense to accuse gay Polari-speakers of stealing or misappropriating words that ‘really’ belonged to someone else. The words Polari-speakers learnt from fairground people and Yiddish speakers didn’t stop being used in Parlyaree or Yiddish: they just acquired an additional use in Polari Words are not objects that can only be in one place, or belong to one community, at a time.

In the past the charge of ‘stealing’ words was most often levelled against minorities by conservatives who claimed to speak for the majority. I’m old enough to remember, for instance, when newspapers regularly printed letters complaining that a bunch of perverts had stolen that useful and charming word ‘gay’, which as everyone knew really meant ‘cheerful or brightly coloured’. Obviously, they lost that argument–though the people who won it were not able to prevent the subsequent development of a new usage among (some) young people in which ‘gay’ means ‘lame’ or ‘uncool’.

More recently, religious conservatives accused campaigners for same-sex marriage of hi-jacking the word ‘marriage’ and trying to change its meaning (‘the union of a man and a woman’) to suit their own agenda. And though they were operating with an unconvincing theory of language (according to which the meanings of words are set in stone), what they said about their opponents was correct. Of course campaigners for same-sex marriage were trying to change the meaning of ‘marriage’: that’s what radicals do, try to change things. ‘You can’t go around appropriating other people’s words and changing their meanings to suit yourself’ is an inherently conservative argument, and the only part of it that’s right is ‘to suit yourself’. Attempts to change language will only succeed if they also suit other people in the relevant linguistic community. For that to happen, enough people need to be persuaded to see something about the world in a new way. Debates about language are never only about the words.

I’m not suggesting that all change, either in language or in the world, should automatically be considered progressive; I’m not saying it’s never legitimate to object to someone else’s way of using words. But whether you’re promoting change or resisting it, you can only do it by persuasion, not by laying down the law on the basis that the words you’re arguing about belong to you, and other people have no right to an opinion. Words belong to whoever uses them, and different people use them differently, reflecting their differing beliefs, values, life experiences and social positions. We need to learn to live with that–to understand that we don’t own words, and we can never make everyone use them our way.

 

Coming to terms with the past: what should we call Anne Lister?

This summer the city of York got its first LGBT history plaque, dedicated to the 19th century landowner Anne Lister.  It was placed at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Goodramgate, where in 1834 Lister and her partner Ann Walker took part in an unofficial marriage ceremony.

In the course of her life Anne Lister had numerous sexual and romantic relationships with women, as we know from her voluminous diaries, which were partly written in code to conceal the details. Since they were decoded in the 1980s Lister has been regarded as a significant figure in British lesbian history. To people already familiar with her story, therefore, it came as something of a surprise that the word ‘lesbian’ did not appear on the commemorative plaque. Instead the local LGBT group which was responsible for the wording chose to describe Lister as ‘a gender non-conforming entrepreneur’.

The pushback was immediate: many objectors visited the group’s Facebook page to protest, and a petition proclaiming ‘Anne Lister was a lesbian: don’t let them erase her story’ attracted over two thousand signatures. In the face of these complaints the York Civic Trust undertook to review the wording of the plaque. They have now opened a public consultation which invites people to choose between the original phraseology and an alternative that refers to Anne Lister as a ‘Lesbian and Diarist’.

Both these options are open to the charge of anachronism, projecting present-day concepts and identity categories back into the historical past. Though Anne Lister clearly understood herself as someone who desired women, she had no access to the conceptual frameworks that enable or even oblige us, 200 years later, to classify individuals in terms of sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

In the first volume of his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault famously argued that the modern notion of ‘the homosexual’ only emerged in the latter half of the 19th century. Before that, he maintained, discourse on sex focused on what people did rather than what or who they were; but the advent of a ‘scientific’ approach brought a new interest in explaining sexual behaviour as an expression of people’s underlying (and in the case of homosexuals, ‘deviant’) nature. ‘The 19th century homosexual’, wrote Foucault,

became a personage, a past, a case history and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. …It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration: the homosexual was now a species.

From this perspective, labels like ‘homosexual’ and ‘lesbian’ are not just names for categories which have always existed in essentially the same form, just with different (or no) words attached to them. The terms come into existence along with the categories, and both are effects of the production of knowledge, which in modern societies, Foucault argues, is inextricably bound up with power and control. It follows that the problem of anachronism in language is both real and intractable. And as numerous commenters pointed out, the compromise chosen by the York LGBT group in the case of Anne Lister—describing her as ‘gender non-conforming’—is not really a satisfactory solution.

The group acknowledged that in practice the label ‘gender non-conforming’ is most often applied to people who identify as trans, non-binary or queer. But in principle, they argued, it could be used to describe ‘a broad range of identities, expression and behaviours that are non-normative and/or marginalised by a particular society or culture at a particular moment in time’. The implication seemed to be that whereas ‘lesbian’ names a specific identity that has only existed in some times and places, ‘gender non-conforming’ is more generally applicable: it says only that the person so labelled deviated in some way from whatever gender norms prevailed in their society.

I can’t say I’m convinced by this. One problem with the broad definition of ‘gender non-conforming’ is that it’s too broad (is there anyone on earth who has never deviated in any way from the prevailing norms of masculinity or femininity?). But in addition, the claim that it avoids anachronism does not stand up to scrutiny. There’s nothing timeless and universal about either the phrase ‘gender non-conforming’ or the assumptions embedded in it.

For one thing, its meaning depends on a sense of the word ‘gender’ which did not become established in English until the mid-20th century. We can be confident that Anne Lister wouldn’t have described herself as ‘gender non-conforming’. If that’s our criterion, incidentally, it’s also unlikely she would have called herself an ‘entrepreneur’. According to the OED, the relevant sense of that word, meaning the owner/manager of a business, did not appear in print until more than a decade after her death. (One critic of the plaque remarked that the overall effect of ‘gender non-conforming entrepreneur’ was to make Lister sound less like a 19th century landowner and more like the recipient of an award for the year’s most successful LGBT start-up.)

But perhaps all this agonising about anachronism is beside the point. A commemorative plaque is not a thesis: its purpose is to make whatever it commemorates intelligible and relevant to a contemporary audience. We memorialise historical figures like Anne Lister because of what they mean to us now, and the choices we make about how to do it, including what terminology to use, are always going to be shaped by what’s at stake for us in the present.

For most of those who got involved in it, what was at stake in the debate about the wording of the plaque was not some abstract theoretical point about the applicability of terms like ‘lesbian’ and ‘gender non-conforming’ to a person who lived 200 years ago. The issue was rather why one of those anachronistic terms had been preferred to the other, and what that said about contemporary attitudes to lesbians.

The commonest objection to the original wording was that, like the code Anne Lister used in her diaries, it seemed like a deliberate attempt to downplay if not conceal her sexuality. Why, critics demanded, was lesbianism being treated as the love whose name could not be spoken? Is the idea of sex between women still so shocking or revolting that it can only be alluded to in the vaguest and most ambiguous terms? But while I’m sure there are people who shy away from the L-word because of basic anti-lesbian prejudice, I wouldn’t expect to find them in an LGBT forum. In this case I think it’s more likely the group had a different reason for finding ‘lesbian’ problematic–a reason that was spelled out last year in a much-debated Buzzfeed article which asked, ‘Can lesbian identity survive the gender revolution?’

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

Attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation. Young people in particular are more likely than ever before to identify outside the assigned-gender binary; trans men and women are joined by those who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid — to name only a few. …Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like “gay” or “lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?

Not surprisingly, this article was controversial. Many lesbians were less than delighted to be dismissed as ‘stale and stodgy’, and some were vocal in their criticisms. Nevertheless, I think it’s true that the emphasis placed on gender identity in contemporary LGBT politics has affected the way sexuality is thought about. In particular, it has led to the adoption in some quarters of the principle that sexual orientation should be defined in relation to gender identity rather than sex. This opens up the possibility that someone like the ‘gender non-conforming’ Lister might not have been (that is, felt herself to be) a woman; and if she wasn’t a woman then her attraction to women wouldn’t make her a lesbian. If the York group was applying this logic, that would explain their otherwise puzzling reluctance to use the L-word.

This particular way of understanding the relationship between gender and sexuality is a relatively recent development, and as we saw in the row about the plaque, it remains highly contested. But the questions it grapples with are not new, and nor is their capacity to cause conflict.

Fifty years ago when I was growing up, homosexuality was commonly understood as a form of gender deviance or ‘inversion’. That was how my parents explained it to me: homosexual men and lesbian women were people who felt and behaved like members of the opposite sex. This mid-20th century common sense reflected the expert theories of an earlier period. The term ‘invert’ had been used by the 19th century sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and the concept was popularised in Radclyffe Hall’s early 20th century novel The Well of Loneliness. It also shaped the way homosexuals were depicted in mainstream popular culture (something my parents and I were more directly acquainted with)–most commonly as effeminate, campy ‘queens’.

But by the end of the 1960s this understanding was being challenged. The new gay liberation movement promoted the idea that gender and sexuality were distinct and independent–a view championed in particular by younger, middle-class activists who found the association of homosexuality with effeminacy embarrassing, and saw it as an obstacle to achieving social acceptance. In a 1972 piece entitled ‘The fairy princess exposed’,  the gay liberationist Craig Alfred Hanson denounced the old-style queens as ‘relics of a bygone era in their fantasy world of poodle dogs and Wedgwood teacups’. Though these ‘relics’ were unlikely to change their ways, the movement needed to ‘expose our Princess Flora Femadonna so that our younger brothers will not fall into the lavender cesspool’.

As this rhetoric makes clear, there were divisions and tensions within the emerging gay ‘community’: not everyone had the same ideas about what it meant to be gay or what would constitute ‘liberation’. Lesbians had their own version of the conflict dramatised in Hanson’s attack on the ‘fairy princess’: as I noted in an earlier post, the new generation of lesbian feminists were often critical of the older culture of butch-fem relationships, which they saw as aping heterosexuality and reproducing traditional gender roles. Like their gay male comrades, they wanted to challenge the idea that same-sex desire was integrally bound up with gender deviance (or to put it another way, that all desire was fundamentally heterosexual–that every sexual relationship must involve a ‘masculine’ and a ‘feminine’ partner, even if they were both women or both men).

Today we are seeing another shift in ideas about the relationship between sex and gender, identity and desire—one which is also exposing divisions within the community. I’m not suggesting this is a straightforward case of history repeating itself (or reversing itself), but the questions being raised are not completely unfamiliar either. In some form or other, they may even have been questions for Anne Lister and the people around her in the first half of the 19th century.

But that isn’t what’s at issue in the dispute about the wording of her commemorative plaque. What the plaque will show, whatever it ends up saying, is not how Anne Lister defined herself, but how we have chosen to define her. And what makes that so contentious is not what we can’t know about the past, it’s what we don’t agree on in the present.

Note: at the time of writing it is still possible to respond to the consultation about the plaque: if you want to read the background information and then register a view on the competing options you can do so here.  

X marks the what?

Earlier this month there was controversy after the Wellcome Collection, a museum in London, used the word ‘womxn’ in its publicity for an upcoming event. ‘Womxn’ has been around for a while in activist circles: there are various Womxn’s Marches, the Olympia YWCA in Washington State runs a ‘Womxn of Achievement’ award, and the UK organisation Her Stories recently announced an art auction to benefit refugee and migrant womxn. Nevertheless, Wellcome got so many complaints that they eventually removed the contentious X. ‘We invite challenges to our thinking’, they tweeted, ‘and we listen to our audience’. But what were they thinking when they originally chose to write ‘womxn’? And why did that choice provoke resistance?

These questions take us back to something I’ve discussed in a couple of recent posts: the contested concept of ‘inclusive language’. The letter X in ‘womxn’, also found in ‘Latinx’, ‘folx’ and the title ‘Mx’, has become an orthographic symbol of gender-inclusiveness, signalling that the term it appears in addresses or refers to people of all gender identities (though ‘womxn’ is a partial exception to that rule, in that it does exclude people who identify as men). The Olympia YWCA’s ‘Womxn of Achievement’ awards, for instance, are open to ‘two-Spirit, gender non-binary and queer folks’ as well as women. That isn’t the only thing that makes it a sign of the times: it also reflects the primacy of digital media and the written word, and the transnational or global nature of contemporary political communication. But at the same time it’s part of a longer history of attempts to change the way gender is marked linguistically, and has a complicated relationship with earlier feminist interventions.

Re-spelling words to make a political point is not a new strategy. In the 1960s and 70s leftist counter-culture types sometimes wrote ‘Amerika’ or ‘Amerikkka’ to convey the idea that the US was a fascist and racist state. And in the 1970s and 80s some feminists adopted variant spellings of ‘woman’ and ‘women’—including ‘womon’, ‘womyn’, ‘wombyn’ and ‘wimmin’—that were designed to get rid of the ‘man/men’ part, and so convey the idea that women are not just extensions or appendages of men. Sometimes this move was justified with reference to the (inaccurate) folk-belief that the word ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’ in the same way the Biblical Eve was fashioned from Adam’s rib.

The Wellcome Collection explained its use of ‘womxn’ by citing a definition from Urban Dictionary which repeats these old ideas, presenting ‘womxn’ as a direct successor to the earlier feminist re-spellings:

Womxn: A spelling of “women” that is a more inclusive, progressive term that not only sheds light on the prejudice, discrimination, and institutional barriers womxn have faced, but to also show that womxn are not the extension of men (as hinted by the classic Bible story of Adam and Eve) but their own free and separate entities. More intersectional than womyn because it includes trans women and women of color.

I should probably point out here that Urban Dictionary is not a reliable source: since the people who post definitions on the site have neither the expertise nor the resources of professional lexicographers, what you get isn’t a systematically researched, evidence-based account of where words came from and how they’re used, it’s just one person’s understanding, sometimes embellished with theories they’ve come across in other, mostly equally unreliable, sources. It’s certainly not true that ‘womyn’ (let alone, as some readers inferred, ‘women’) excluded women of color; and it’s a myth that ‘woman’ was originally derived from ‘man’. But whatever its relationship to the actual historical facts, there is evidently a widespread belief that ‘womxn’ combines the anti-sexism of older variants like ‘womyn’ with the inclusiveness of newer X-forms like ‘folx’.

The letter X had its own place in the liberation movements of the 20th century. In California in 1988 I met a feminist named Laura X, who was a central figure in the long campaign to make rape in marriage illegal in the US. In 1969 she had replaced her last name with ‘X’, following the example of Malcolm X, who repudiated his original surname, ‘Little’, when he joined the Nation of Islam in the 1940s. That name, he pointed out, was part of the legacy of enslavement: it had been imposed on his paternal ancestors by the white man who owned them. Some feminists saw a parallel with the situation of women, who were also named by and for their oppressors. Even married women who declined to take their husband’s name would in most cases be keeping their father’s. In the 1980s I knew many feminists who had swapped their patriarchal surname for their mother’s first name, or some other name of their own invention. But ‘X’ makes a different kind of statement: it isn’t so much an alternative name as a placeholder for the name (and lineage, and history) that slavery or patriarchy has denied you.

If you want a placeholder, X is an obvious choice, because of its history of being used to symbolise an unknown quantity–first in algebraic equations, and later in other contexts. ‘X-rays’, for instance, were given their name by Roentgen on the basis that he did not yet know what was causing the effects he observed. ‘Brand X’ was once a common formula in advertising, where it denoted the unidentified cereal or washing powder to which the advertised product was allegedly superior. These usages had nothing to do with gender, but it isn’t hard to see how gender-inclusive X-forms rework the same idea. If X can stand for anything or anybody, then nothing and nobody is excluded by it. Its use can convey a commitment, not only to the norm of being inclusive, but also to the norm that one should not make assumptions about the identities of others. Until these are ascertained by asking the individuals concerned, they remain an unknown quantity.

The second of these norms is relatively new, but the first was also the basis for earlier feminist proposals to reform conventional usage—the difference being that ‘inclusiveness’ was conceived in terms of a two- rather than a many-gender model. It was a strategy for countering sexism by using terms that included women as well as men. And it is these earlier gender-inclusive terms which are now, at least in some quarters, being superseded by the new X-forms.

‘Latinx’, for instance, is increasingly being preferred to the dual-gender forms that Spanish-speaking feminists adopted to make women visible in a language where any reference to a group of people not exclusively female is conventionally required to be grammatically masculine. The male bias of conventional usage was addressed by creating masculine-plus-feminine forms like ‘Latinos y Latinas’ or ‘Latinos/as’. In digital-era writing another possibility was to use @ (‘Latin@s’), which looks like a combination of masculine -o with feminine -a. The newer X-form continues the move away from conventional male-centred usage, but in addition it signals a rejection of the binary model of gender which earlier departures from convention assumed. That’s also, as I noted earlier, the main difference between ‘womxn’ and earlier feminist re-spellings like ‘womyn’ and ‘wimmin’. And it helps to explain why opposition to the new X-forms is coming from two very different directions.

One kind of opposition, now as in the past, comes from social conservatives who see any deviation from conventional usage as an attack on traditional gender roles and hierarchies. A dramatic example occurred in Rio de Janeiro in 2015* after a biology teacher at one of the city’s most prestigious high schools constructed a test for his students on which the space for them to write their names was marked with the word ‘Alunx’ (an X-form of the Portuguese word for student, ‘aluno/aluna’). News of this spread through social media, and soon it was being reported in the national press. In the ensuing debate, the school was accused of ‘succumbing to the dictatorship of gay groups and feminazis’ and using ‘newspeak’ in the service of ‘the gay Marxist agenda’.

But another kind of opposition, particularly to the English re-spelling ‘womxn’, is coming not from conservatives, but from feminists. And while these two sets of critics have sometimes been presented as saying the same thing for the same reason–essentially because they’re right-wing transphobic bigots–I don’t think that claim stands up to scrutiny. The feminist opposition is certainly political, but the logic it follows belongs to the left rather than the right.

Earlier this year the blogger Sister Outrider tweeted:

I have yet to see anyone who uses the spelling “womxn” for purposes of inclusivity also use “mxn”. Significant that women become the unspeakable Other while men remain a recognised category.

If people say they write ‘womxn’ to be inclusive, then why don’t they also write ‘mxn’? What does this asymmetry imply?

One possible answer takes us back to the Urban Dictionary entry quoted earlier. If, like the older feminist re-spellings, ‘womxn’ is intended to make the point that women are not appendages of men, then putting the X into ‘men’ would make no sense: it would just reinstate the idea that ‘men/mxn’ is the root from which ‘women/womxn’ is derived. But if the main reason for using the X-form is to communicate that you’re referring not only to the people traditionally labelled ‘women’, but also to people who claim other gender identities, then there is an argument for treating ‘men’ as a parallel case. If you only give the X-treatment to women, you’re essentially replicating the Green Party’s much-criticized opposition between ‘men’ and ‘non-men’. As Caroline Criado Perez commented during the recent row,

I’m really fed up of women being just a big grab bag of anyone who isn’t a proper default human, aka a man.  Read some bloody de Beauvoir and pull your head out of your a**.

This reference to Simone de Beauvoir may answer a question I know some people asked: why would anyone get so worked up about a minor tweak to the spelling of a word? It’s not as if the X makes that word unrecognizable: it still looks more like ‘women’ than it does like anything else. For feminists influenced by Beauvoir, however, the imposition of the X-form has a deeper significance. In The Second Sex Beauvoir wrote that ‘man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being’. The replacement of ‘women’ with ‘womxn’, creating a taxonomy in which there are two classes–men, the default humans, and others, defined in relation to men–can be seen as a symbolic enactment of the same principle. Once again, women are being told they must accept others’ definitions and accommodate others’ needs. The argument about ‘womxn’, in short, is not just about competing theories of gender; it’s also about the basic political principle that every oppressed group has the right to define and name itself.

These are both issues on which feminists themselves are divided: they have different ideas about what and who feminism is for. While some remain committed to the traditional view of it as a movement for the rights, equality or liberation of women, others argue that it’s time to redefine it as a more inclusive social movement seeking justice for all oppressed people. This is not a new argument either. Since at least the 1920s, after women in Britain and the US won the right to vote, the whole history of feminism has been punctuated with cries of ‘surely we’re beyond all that essentialist stuff about women’ and ‘isn’t it time to move on?’ But as the historian Catherine Andrews observed earlier this year, these exhortations have always turned out to be premature, based on an over-optimistic assessment of women’s progress towards equality.

This latest call to ‘move on’ seems particularly ill-timed: in the past couple of years we’ve had a flood of depressing evidence that the old forms of patriarchal power have not withered away. Until they do, feminists will (still) need to talk about women and the specific ways in which they are oppressed. And the right word to use for that purpose will (still) be ‘women’. I’m not saying we don’t also need terms that address or refer to a wider constituency: for some purposes I think we do need them. But that doesn’t mean they should replace more specific terms in every context. As I said in my very first post on this blog, a movement for the liberation of women (and yes, I’m in the camp that still thinks that’s what feminism is) cannot go along with the treatment of ‘women’ as an outdated, irrelevant, unspeakable dirty word.

*My information on this case comes from the Brazilian linguist Rodrigo Borba: the English translations quoted are his, and I thank him for letting me reproduce them. (The opinions are mine and he should not be held responsible for them.)

Language and the brotherhood of men

I started writing this post on what one Facebook friend called ‘a sad day for women and for justice’: Brett Kavanaugh had been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in spite of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he was one of two men who sexually assaulted her at a high school party in 1982. As in 1991, when Anita Hill testified to being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, the Senate hearings were a stark reminder of pretty much everything feminists object to about the patriarchal treatment of women—their bodies, their experiences and, not least, their speech.

The speech of Christine Blasey Ford featured prominently in media commentary. A couple of journalists contacted me with questions about her speech patterns, and I know of at least one other linguist who was asked for her expert opinion. As this colleague remarked, it was telling that these requests were all about Ford. Nobody asked us to comment on Brett Kavanaugh’s speech patterns, or the language of the male Senators on the Judiciary Committee. That’s usually the way it goes. People don’t tend to treat a male speaker as a generic representative of his sex: they’re more likely to ask what his speech patterns say about him as an individual. Women’s linguistic performances, by contrast, are routinely treated as performances of gender—and this is true whether the commentator is feminist or anti-feminist, sympathetic or hostile to the woman concerned.

One tactic right-wing anti-feminist commentators couldn’t easily use in this case was the one they used against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign, namely decrying a woman speaker as ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘harsh’, ‘strident’, etc. Ford’s vocal performance was, by common consent, none of those things. But for the right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh that in itself was a reason to be suspicious:

It’s an odd speech pattern for an accomplished woman. I’m not denying that it could be legit. But it’s a speech pattern that garners sympathy. …she comes off as an up-talker, ends sentences with an upward inflection, which is how young girls — young teenage girls — come off. It makes the speaker sound uber-nice and harmless, non-aggressive, sensitive, vulnerable and so forth, like there’s not a mean bone in their body.

This is an attempt to discredit Ford’s testimony by suggesting that her performance was inauthentic. Why would this middle-aged academic use uptalk, an intonation pattern which is stereotypically associated with teenage girls, if not to manipulate us into thinking she was ‘uber-nice and harmless’? The message is ‘don’t be fooled: this is a plot to bring down an innocent man’. Other hostile comments on Ford’s uptalk and her so-called ‘baby’ or ‘little girl’ voice (like the ones quoted in this Economist piece) conveyed a more familiar but equally negative message: ‘don’t be impressed, it means she’s not a reliable witness’.

Feminist commentary on Ford’s speech was dominated by the idea (first popularized in the 1970s by the linguist Robin Lakoff) that her performance reflected the way women are socialized from girlhood to communicate. Here’s a typical example from the Huffington Post:

For countless women watching, her gestures struck a chord. Every knee-jerk “thank you” and “I’m sorry” felt like words so many had uttered before, part of a familiar display of courtesy we’d all performed at some point ― out of sheer necessity. Out of a desire to make other people, not ourselves, feel comfortable at all costs. …From an early age, girls learn that authority figures will reward them for being amenable and punish them for being “too” assertive.

There are problems with this ‘We Are All Christine Blasey Ford’ line of argument, an obvious one being that we are not all Christine Blasey Ford: women, their ways of speaking, and even the prejudices that confront them when they speak, come in more than one variety. And it was clear that not all women identified with Ford. Some evidently felt more sympathy for Kavanaugh, or for the husbands/sons/brothers they could imagine being in his position.

But in any case, why was there so much emphasis on Ford’s speech patterns? For me, what made the hearings so revealing was the light they shone on men: they showed how men, or more exactly a particular subgroup of highly privileged men, use language to perform both gender and power.

As many commentators noticed, the account Ford gave of her assault suggested that what motivated her assailants, Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, was less a desire for sexual gratification, or even power, than a need to impress and to be approved of by one another. Lili Loofbourow dubbed it ‘toxic homosociality’: two men abusing a woman ‘to firm up their own bond’.

One telling detail in this regard was Ford’s vivid memory of the two men laughing together as they held her down.  According to the neuroscientist Sophie Scott, laughter evolved as a social bonding behaviour: research has found that

you laugh more when you’re with other people and you want them to like you; it establishes that you like them, that you are part of the same group as them, and that you agree or understand.

Language can fulfil the same functions. The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino commented that what Kavanaugh and Judge were doing in their assault on Ford seemed a lot like what Donald Trump and Billy Bush were doing in the purely verbal exchange that was captured on tape in 2005, and made public a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election. I agree: as I said in my own post about the tape, the speech genre Trump called ‘locker room banter’ is all about male homosocial bonding. It’s another case of men using women’s bodies (in this case, talking about them and what you have done or would like to do to them) to ‘firm up their own bond’.

Banter was clearly part of the culture Brett Kavanaugh and his high school buddies inhabited. Their yearbooks were full of sexual boasting, joking and slang terms that expressed contempt for women. Since written evidence had survived, Kavanaugh could not deny that he was familiar with words like ‘boof’ (anal sex) and ‘devil’s triangle’ (intercourse involving two men and one woman); but when questioned he chose instead to lie about what was meant by these terms (glossing the first as ‘flatulence’ and the second as the name of a drinking game). On the face of it this seemed odd, given that the terms were not part of a secret code known only to his immediate circle; millions of people knew their real definitions. But this is how fraternal loyalty works: as with Fight Club and the Mafia, the rule is that you don’t talk to outsiders, and if you’re forced to talk to them you obfuscate or lie, trusting that your brothers will have your back.

In my post about Trump’s banter I argued that fraternal loyalty is central to the workings of modern patriarchy: its effects are felt far beyond the proverbial locker room. And I would argue that they were felt at the Senate hearings, which became, during Kavanaugh’s testimony, another arena for male bonding. Though it was Kavanaugh’s performance that drew most attention, he was not left to defend himself alone: other men, especially the Republican men who dominated the committee, collaborated in this effort. Of course their support for him was politically motivated; but it was also gendered, expressed in terms of what they shared as men.

One thing the Senators evidently identified with was Kavanaugh’s performance of the role of the devoted family man who has been unable to protect his family from the damaging effects of the accusations against him. In this role he was angry and tearful, prompting some feminists to remark on the double standard which allows men to emote in public without being labelled hysterical or crazy. Several Senators got quite emotional on his behalf: Ted Cruz, for instance, said that

watching your mother’s pained face has been heart-wrenching as she’s seen her son’s character dragged through the mud after not only your lifetime of public service but her lifetime of public service as well. And I know as a father, there’s been nothing more painful to you then talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks that the media is airing.

Another thing that resonated with these men was the idea that any man could find himself in Kavanaugh’s predicament—facing the loss of his career because of something he did as a teenager. Boys, after all, will be boys: who hadn’t got drunk and done stupid things in high school?  (If the stupid things in question were sexual assaults, one answer to this question might be ‘women’.) And as the 85-year old committee chair Chuck Grassley said in a TV interview, who could remember what happened 35 years ago? (Again, one answer might be ‘a woman who’d been sexually assaulted’.)

Their loyalty to Kavanaugh was also evident in the way they responded to his testimony, which was very different from Ford’s. She had been an extremely co-operative witness, answering questions directly when she could and stating clearly when she could not; she didn’t shout, interrupt, argue, ramble, attack the questioner or turn the question back on them. Brett Kavanaugh, by contrast, did all those things–and in most cases he wasn’t challenged. However aggressive, evasive or irrelevant his answers were, his Republican brothers had his back.

I don’t think anyone’s use of language had much impact on the outcome of these proceedings. That was a political decision, and with hindsight we might well think that nothing anyone said during the hearing (short, perhaps, of Kavanaugh confessing to the assault) was ever going to make any difference. But in another way, language was central to this story: it was all about the power of speech.

The ability of men to abuse women with impunity relies on two things: the support of other men and the silence of women. Breaking that silence is a powerful act: in speaking about what was done to her, the woman who was treated as an object becomes an agent. In this case, her decision to speak made Christine Blasey Ford a threat–not only to Brett Kavanaugh’s ambitions, but also to the hopes of the politicians who were using him to advance their agenda. These men worked together to neutralize that threat. And they succeeded, in the sense that their candidate was confirmed; but only because they had the numbers. Not because their speech was more powerful. It wasn’t, and I think some people who supported Kavanaugh–people like Susan Collins and Rush Limbaugh, who were noticeably reluctant to call Ford a liar–knew that. So did all the women who looked at him and saw the faces of their own abusers.

So, appalled though I am by the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh, I do also see some reason to be hopeful. In 2018 as in 1991, a woman testifying at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing told the truth about her life, and the world did not split open. But one day, if women keep on speaking, it will.

Note: quotations from the Senate proceedings are taken from this transcript, which is available on the website of the Washington Post