Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

So: men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, I’m sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport: criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a wa y they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’. They’re collaborating rather than competing: in Locke’s terms it’s less a duel than a duet.

Why would these young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information: it allows members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it takes the form of critical or judgmental talk, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that everyone gossips: it’s not an exclusively female preserve. One survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

But some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with what men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

Getting real about bad advice

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It’s been a while since I posted anything about the policing of women’s language, but that’s not because the police have been idle: while I’ve been concerning myself with other matters, it’s been business as usual for the finger-wagging advicemongers. Here’s a recent example which I wouldn’t bother clicking on, since it’s just a rehash of the generic Bullshit Article About Women’s Language that’s been doing the rounds for the last two years. And here’s a piece about uptalk and vocal fry, which does contain one novel feature–a link to this blog, which the author cites to show she considered both sides of the argument before deciding to go with the ever-popular ‘stop it, you’re annoying people’.

Both these pieces use what I’m going to call the ‘let’s get real’ argument, which goes something like this: ‘it’s all very well to call out prejudice/preach tolerance, but the world is the way it is; the faster you adjust the more successful you’ll be’. My function, where a writer brings me into the discussion, is to represent the naive idealist whose extreme and unworldly opinions no true supporter of women should be distracted by.

Along those lines, yet another advicemonger recently informed her readers:

Deborah Cameron argues that it’s basically sexist to examine how women speak at all — they should be allowed to say whatever they want (however doormat they sound)

I’m not sure what she thinks the alternative is. Language wardens patrolling the offices of the nation, and fining women on the spot for saying ‘sorry’ or ‘just’? But the laissez faire attitude she attributes to me is not what I’ve argued for either. No one has total freedom to speak however they want, at least if they want to be (a) intelligible to others and (b) considered a competent member of society. My aspirations for women are more modest: I’d just like them to be able to speak without constantly being told they’re doing it wrong.

But to my critics this is shockingly irresponsible, and does women no favours at all. As they see it, telling women to mind their ‘justs‘ and ‘sorries‘ is like telling a stranger in the toilets she’s accidentally tucked her skirt into her knickers–she might be embarrassed, but she’ll also be grateful.

Some women evidently are grateful. Whenever I criticise some egregious piece of sexist language policing, I get a couple of emails from women who protest that they have personally found it helpful. I don’t argue with them: obviously only they can say whether or not they found something helpful. But in the spirit of ‘let’s get real’, I do have a question about how the advice has helped them.

You might think the answer is obvious: it’s helped them by prompting them to change the way they speak, cutting out the bad habits that make them ‘sound doormat’. But in reality that’s not very likely. All the evidence suggests that criticism of a linguistic feature does a good job of making people aware of it, but has little effect on the way they actually use it. Think of all the grammar, spelling and pronunciation shibboleths (double negatives, ‘aint’, ‘we was’, h-dropping, t-glottalling, saying ‘somefink’, writing ‘it’s’ when it should be ‘its’, etc.) which have been relentlessly criticised for decades or even centuries. Most English-speakers are well aware that these features are stigmatised, and most believe the stigma is deserved. Yet that hasn’t led to a decline in their use: in some cases they’ve spread rapidly since the criticism started.

This isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. Our ideas about good and bad language may be derived from the pronouncements of authorities (like parents, teachers, or the people who write opinion pieces in the media), but our actual behaviour is much more strongly influenced by the speech of the people we converse with directly. When we talk to someone, we have a tendency to ‘accommodate’ to them, usually by (subconsciously) making our speech more similar to theirs. This is one way speech-patterns like uptalk spread. More generally, a lot of our spoken output is produced without much conscious reflection. It’s habitual, automatic, below-the-radar behaviour, and as such quite difficult to modify.

Of course, there are people who’ve succeeded in altering their habitual speech-patterns, either permanently (like Margaret Thatcher, who lowered her voice-pitch in a bid to sound more authoritative), or temporarily (like the actors and impressionists who can perform in various different accents and vocal personae). But these cases are notable precisely because they’re unusual. Success depends on a combination of aptitude, motivation, structured training and intensive practice; failure is not unusual.

Yet most critics of women’s speech seem to think there’s nothing to it. They have plenty to say about why you should stop saying X, Y and Z, but nothing to say about how you’re meant to do it. The implication is that once you’ve become aware of what you’re doing wrong, you can simply decide to stop. It’s ironic that these critics so often describe the features they want women to stop using as ‘verbal tics’. As much as I hate this inaccurate and trivialising use of the phrase, you’d think the word ‘tic’, meaning an involuntary response which the subject cannot control, might be a clue to the fact that changing your speech-habits isn’t easy.

Occasionally advice-writers do pay attention to the ‘how’ question. One of my favourite examples is a WikiHow entry headed ‘How to stop saying the word “like”’.

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The reader’s mission, should she choose to accept it, is to train herself (I’m using feminine pronouns advisedly: all the visual illustrations depict young women) to use ‘like’ only in its two ‘proper’ meanings, which are ‘enjoy’ (as in ‘I like chocolate’) and ‘similar to’ (as in ‘that tastes like chocolate’), while breaking the bad habit of using ‘like’ as a quotative (‘she was like, who cares?’), an approximator (‘she’s like, five feet tall’) or just an all-purpose filler. The author recognises that this is a challenging task, and offers strategies for approaching it in a systematic way. For instance:

  • Whenever you realise you’re about to say ‘like’, pause. If your ‘like’ was going to be a filler, you’ll have dodged the bullet. If it wasn’t, you’ll have time to think of a suitable substitute.
  • Arm yourself in advance with a selection of potential alternatives to ‘like’. For instance, you could replace quotative ‘be like’ with a more ‘descriptive’ verb like ‘yell’, ‘whisper’ or ‘exclaim’.
  • If the ‘likes’ are still creeping in, slow your speech down to a speed which allows you to consider each word before you utter it.
  • If you’re really struggling, go cold turkey: ban ‘like’ from your speech entirely, even in its legitimate senses. Say ‘I enjoy chocolate’ and ‘it tastes similar to chocolate’.

The last tip is to persevere, since your efforts may not bear fruit immediately. No kidding: it’s hard to imagine anything more fruitless than trying to follow this advice. Whoever was unlucky enough to engage you in conversation would be baffled, if not maddened, by your strange inability to talk at a normal speed, your sudden unexplained silences, your weirdly formal vocabulary and your peculiar habit of reporting others’ speech as though you were writing the dialogue in a bad novel (she quipped, sarcastically). It’s heartbreakingly earnest, and about as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.

In that it is not unusual: the world is full of useless advice. Some people have argued that the uselessness of the advice it offers is the secret of the self-improvement industry’s success: if the advice really worked, people wouldn’t keep coming back for more. But some research has raised the question, is it actually advice that people are after?

Research done with people who regularly read self-help books has found that the advice element of the genre is not very important to them. The books are generally marketed on the promise of solving readers’ problems, but readers themselves say that isn’t what they read them for: rather their goal is to understand themselves better. A ‘good’ book, as they see it, provides a description of the problem which they can recognise themselves in, along with an explanation of what’s behind the problem that resonates with their own experience. The benefits they say they get from this include feeling validated (‘this writer understands me’) and feeling more able to cope with their situation. As one woman explained to the researcher Wendy Simonds, ‘if I understand something, I feel a little bit better about it; I don’t feel so overwhelmed and so helpless’.

This may also be what my correspondents mean when they tell me they find advice on speaking helpful. Not that it’s transformed their behaviour, but that it’s given them a valuable insight into their problems. Their situation may not have changed, but at least someone has explained it in a way that seems to make sense (‘you aren’t getting respect because your tentative and apologetic way of speaking undermines your authority’).

There are parallels here with the experience of feminists. If you’re a feminist, it’s because, among other things, you think feminism explains women’s situation and their problems in a way that makes sense. Most feminists can recall moments when their understanding was changed by a conversation in a group, or by something they read in a book; and most would probably agree that this felt like a positive experience, even though on its own it didn’t solve anything. To change your situation you first need to understand it: that’s one belief feminism shares with self-help.

But there are also important differences. Feminist consciousness raising—the process of reflecting on experience and coming to understand it differently—is meant to lead to collective political action, the goal of which is to change the social structures that are ultimately responsible for women’s situation. Self-help, on the other hand, is committed to an ideology of hyper-individualism, whose two core tenets are (1) you’re in control of your own destiny, and (2) the only thing you have the power to change is yourself.

Not only does this mean that changing yourself has to be the solution to every problem, it also means that self-help has to downplay the social dimension of the problems that confront its readers. Women’s experiences of sexism in all its forms, from being ignored in meetings to being trapped in abusive relationships, are persistently presented as avoidable consequences of their own bad choices or self-destructive behaviour-patterns. The good news, however, is that women can solve their problems by making better choices and adopting different patterns of behaviour. You don’t have to ‘sound doormat’ forever: the remedy is in your own hands.

It’s not hard to understand why many women might find this message of individual empowerment more appealing than some old sourpuss like me banging on about structural inequality. But let’s just get real here. If you believe there is such a thing as society, and that one of its organising principles is gender hierarchy–male dominance and female subordination– then suggesting that women should deal with problems like workplace discrimination by changing their way of speaking will look less like empowerment and more like victim-blaming. It will also look like a mystification: not something that helps women to understand their situation, but something that stops them from seeing it clearly and working together to change it.

The amazing disappearing ‘women’

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September began with some good news: Purvi Patel, the woman sentenced to 20 years for ‘feticide’ by an Indiana court, was finally released from prison after her conviction was overturned. But the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood warned that the fight wasn’t over. ‘People’, it said, ‘are still being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’. The organisation had already commented on another welcome development, New York State’s decision to stop levying sales tax on sanitary products. Once again, though, there was a hitch: not all drugstores had implemented the change, and some ‘menstruators’ were still being charged.

Planned Parenthood is not alone in its careful avoidance of the word ‘women’. Last year the Midwives’ Alliance of North America rewrote its core competencies document using ‘inclusive’ terms like ‘pregnant individuals’, to acknowledge that some of the individuals in question do not identify as women. And let’s not forget the UK Green Party’s brilliant solution to the same problem—putting women, trans and non-binary people into a single category of ‘non-men’.

Expressions like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘non-men’ are controversial among feminists, not only because the political issue they relate to is controversial, but also because the terms themselves are still relatively new. With vocabulary it’s novelty that breeds contempt, while familiarity promotes acceptance: the more frequently we encounter a term, the less we stop to think about its implications.This makes it easy to overlook what isn’t new about expressions like ‘pregnant people’. These particular terms are of recent origin, but they exemplify two tendencies with a much longer history: the tendency to prefer inclusive to gender-specific language, and the tendency to avoid the word ‘women’.

Back in the 1970s, when feminists began campaigning for institutions like publishing houses, universities and local councils to adopt non-sexist language policies, one argument that was often used against them was that their proposals would just replace one form of bias (against women) with another (against men). In English-speaking communities, this concern about avoiding bias against either sex often led to a preference for gender ‘neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ terms which could, in theory, apply equally to both.  For instance, one set of 1980s guidelines proposed replacing ‘maternal instinct’ with ‘parental instinct’, on the basis that it was sexist to suggest that men had no natural urge to nurture their children. ‘Parental instinct’ didn’t catch on (perhaps because it misses the point about why ‘maternal instinct’ is sexist), but other expressions using the inclusive ‘parent’–notably ‘parenting’–have now become so normalised, it’s strange to think that they were once regarded as awkward ‘PC’ neologisms.

Some of the inclusive terms that were introduced between the 1970s and the 1990s are less familiar to the average English-speaker because they belong to a more technical or bureaucratic register. An example is the term ‘gender-based violence’, which is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organisations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella-term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’.

If the two phrases are just synonyms, though, why prefer the gender-inclusive formulation to the more specific wording?  One organisation which attempts to explain this is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The relevant section of its website says:

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms that are often used interchangeably as most gender-based violence is inflicted by men on women and girls. However, it is important to retain the ‘gender-based’ aspect of the concept as this highlights the fact that violence against women is an expression of power inequalities between women and men.

But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?)  Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being.

That’s also how it seems to be interpreted in some of the more recent official definitions. For instance, the guidelines published in 2005 by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an international co-ordinating body for humanitarian groups) say that

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.

I don’t think most people reading this definition would conclude that ‘gender-based violence’ means the same as ‘violence against women’.

You might think this is all just semantic hair-splitting: what difference does it make if the terms are specific or inclusive? One common answer to this question is that inclusive terms are problematic because they misrepresent the facts. Arguments about this become wars of statistics, with each side challenging the other’s claims about how many ‘pregnant people’ do not identify as women, or what proportion of ‘gender-based violence’ is perpetrated by women against men. But for the purpose of choosing linguistic labels, I don’t think the numbers are the point. Terms like ‘violence against women’/‘gender-based violence’ are not just labels for statistical trends we observe in the world, they’re conceptual categories we use to understand the world. From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual.

Feminists conceptualise male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women—including those who will never experience an actual assault—have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis.

As one feminist remarked on Twitter, there’s a parallel here with the self-serving faux-inclusiveness of ‘All Lives Matter’, a slogan adopted by some white people in response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The substitution of ‘all’ for ‘Black’ is an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s focus on institutional racism by presenting it as narrow and exclusionary. ‘Why do you only care about Black lives?  Shouldn’t we affirm the value of every human life?’  It’s neutralising the political challenge by reframing a specific problem as a universal one. ‘All lives matter’. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We don’t need feminism, we need humanism’. The effect is to make a problem of structural inequality–racism or class privilege or male dominance–disappear.

When feminist organisations adopt inclusive terms, their motives are different: they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control—and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behaviour of women. Inclusive language obscures that: as Katha Pollitt has argued,

Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.”

The proliferation of inclusive alternatives to ‘women’ has the cumulative effect of making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. If I can’t get an abortion I’m being oppressed as a ‘pregnant person’; if I don’t get a job because the employer knows I have young children I’m being discriminated against as a ‘parent’; if I’m paying tax on tampons the state is profiting from my status as a ‘menstruator’. Maybe we’ll soon be urged to refer to women who earn less than men with the same qualifications as ‘underpaid people’. Lots of people are underpaid, after all: why would we only care about some of them? Let’s not be so vulgar, so unreconstructedly essentialist, as to point out that certain forms of unjust treatment don’t randomly happen to ‘people’, and they certainly don’t happen to men: they happen to women, because they are women.

Why is it so difficult to say ‘women’? The objections I’ve focused on so far are political ones, to do with the exclusionary and essentialising nature of ‘women’ as a category label. But I can’t help wondering if those objections are the whole story, or if the avoidance of ‘women’ might also be connected to something much older, and less ‘politically correct’.

The first post I ever published on this blog was about the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. I recalled learning as a child that ‘lady’ was the ‘polite’ word, whereas ‘woman’ was disrespectful: it implied low social status, a lack of respectability and a failure to display proper femininity. Analysis of the contexts in which ‘lady’ and ‘women’ are most likely to appear reveals another reason for the impoliteness of ‘woman’: its association with the gross and unmentionable functions of the female body.

What this implies is that ‘polite’ substitutes for ‘women’ (like ‘ladies’, or ‘the fair sex’) function as euphemisms: like ‘elderly’ and ‘plus-size’ (aka ‘old’ and ‘fat’), they enable speakers to acknowledge the sensitivity of a taboo subject or concept by avoiding the word that refers to it most directly. That’s why an earlier generation of feminists were so insistent on being referred to as ‘women’. It wasn’t just that they disliked the alternatives: what they really disliked was the assumption that alternatives were necessary. They saw the avoidance of the plain word ‘women’ as expressing a kind of squeamish distaste for femaleness, and they saw that distaste as one expression of a more general cultural misogyny. To them it seemed important to challenge this attitude, even if people thought they were being petty when they snapped ‘I’m a woman, not a lady’ at someone who was only trying to be polite.

Yet today it’s feminists themselves who are treating ‘women’ as a taboo word. Katha Pollitt suggests this may reflect women’s ‘long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt [others’] feelings’. ‘We are raised’, she observes, ‘to put ourselves second’. But that doesn’t entirely explain the historical U-turn. It is not a small demand to make of a political movement that it should renounce the term which, more than any other, has defined its constituency and its purpose throughout its history. Is feminism not, by definition, a women’s movement, a movement that fights for the rights or the liberation of women?

Some feminists today would answer that question in the negative. Feminists like Laurie Penny, who complained last year that ‘feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary’. Once upon a time, complaining that feminism focused on women would have seemed as odd as complaining that a baker’s shop sold bread. But what’s behind it is the belief that the old feminist goal–liberating women from the oppressive structures of patriarchy–has become outdated and politically reactionary. What feminism should be about in the 21st century is freeing individuals from the oppressive constraints of binary gender.

To people who think ‘feminism’s focus on women’ has no relevance to the politics of the 21st century, I say: try telling that to the Pope. Or to Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate, who was responsible, as Governor of Indiana, for the law that was used to persecute Purvi Patel. Those guys don’t care how you identify, but they do still believe in women; they also believe in using their considerable power to ensure women are kept in their subordinate place. A feminism that can’t talk about that has nothing to say to most of the world’s oppressed people. It is living in a bubble, and talking to itself.

Lekkers and losers

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It will not be news to readers of this blog that I take a keen interest in popular literature on the subject of gender and communication. In my house there’s a whole shelf of old books I can’t keep in my office because they’re too embarrassing: they include Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and several examples of vintage neurobollocks. Fortunately, the internet now allows me to sample this kind of material more discreetly (and usually for free). Really, I’ve no excuse not to stay current.

Yet until two days ago I’d never heard of Dan Bacon, a self-described ‘dating and relationship expert’ and the proprietor of a website called The Modern Man (‘if you have a problem with women, I have the perfect solution for you’). Dan has recently become infamous for writing a piece entitled ‘How to talk to a woman who is wearing headphones’. Or, put another way, ‘how to make a woman take her headphones off and pay attention while you try to pick her up’.

From what I could see on Twitter, the general consensus was that the premise wasn’t just sexist, it was creepy and borderline rapey. I don’t disagree. According to Fiona Vera-Grey, who has done research on women’s experiences of being harassed by men in public places, wearing headphones is one of several tactics women use specifically to protect themselves from unwanted male attention. Like looking down at your phone to avoid eye contact and sitting near the door on the tube, it’s a form of everyday ‘safety work’.

But to men like Dan it is a truism that a woman’s apparent lack of interest in you is not to be taken at face value. It’s a challenge. Reading his piece reminded me of when I was in my early 20s (before anyone had a mobile phone or routinely wore headphones when out and about), backpacking around Spain with my then-girlfriend. After days of being hassled by men, we went into a bookshop and bought large badges adorned with lesbian symbols and the sentence (in Spanish) ‘we want to walk in peace’. Which we soon stopped wearing, because they proved to be the opposite of a deterrent. The more clearly we broadcast the message WE’RE NOT INTERESTED IN YOU, the more of a challenge we were, and the more persistent the men became.

In those days we had no idea how men rationalised this kind of behaviour to themselves. Today we have the benefit of websites like Dan’s, where practical tips on picking up women are often padded out with more philosophical reflections on masculinity and gender difference.

Dan’s views are perhaps most clearly summarised in his concluding paragraph.

As you may have noticed, women don’t usually go around approaching men. Women know that it’s the man’s role to be confident enough to walk over and talk to women he finds attractive. Women, on the other hand, have to look their best and try to attract the attention of the confident alpha males who approach.

From this we learn that in Dan’s imagination, nothing is what it seems. Deliberately ignoring a woman’s ‘leave me alone’ signals isn’t proof that you’re a jerk, it’s proof that you’re an ‘alpha male’. The woman’s headphones aren’t saying ‘I’m not available to talk’, they’re a test she’s set for the men who cross her path, and the losers who take her literally will fail. The man she’s actually attracted to is the one who disregards what she appears to want–who knows that her resistance is token, only there to be overcome. In this Mills & Boon theory of male-female relationships, no woman wants her man to be a wimp, or indeed an equal: he needs to make his dominance felt.

In an earlier post about lists of ‘things not to say’ to the opposite sex, I pointed out that women are told not to say things that men might perceive as criticisms or demands, whereas men are told not to say things that women might perceive as concessions or indications of weakness.  Dan Bacon observes this convention: his piece includes a list of mistakes men make which includes ‘allowing her to take control of the interaction’.

No matter how confident or challenging a woman might behave, she still dreams of meeting a guy who is more confident than her. A woman doesn’t want to be forced to control an interaction with a guy.

He goes on to point out that just getting the woman to take her headphones off is only the first step: now you’ve got her attention, you need to deliver on the promise of having something to say.

Engaging conversation skills are essential in keeping a woman’s attention at the best of times and even more so when she can switch herself off with a click of the “play” button.

Obvious? Banal? Well, yes, but it’s also an illustration of something that’s puzzled me for quite a while. Advice on communicating with the opposite sex presents men in two distinct and apparently contradictory ways. When the subject is dating, men—or at least, the alpha males the reader is encouraged to emulate—are depicted as articulate, smooth-talking charmers who ‘take control’ of interactions and use their ‘engaging conversation skills’ to keep women hanging on their every word.  But when the subject is marital relationships, men are most often presented as verbally-challenged idiots who can barely string a sentence together. They are said to prefer action to words, to be incapable of expressing their feelings, and to have great difficulty understanding what women say to them.

What unites these two accounts at a more abstract level is that each contains an inbuilt justification for problematic male behaviour. In the first case it’s ‘women want men to dominate them’, and in the second it’s ‘men care about women really, they’re just Martians with poor communication skills’. But it still seems odd that they can exist side by side. Maybe it’s a case of telling the target audience what it wants to hear: the smooth-talking charmer appears mainly in dating advice addressed to men, whereas the idiot appears in advice for heterosexual couples which is probably read more often by women.

The same two characters also turn up in scientific discussions of the evolution of language. Here there’s more explicit awareness of the contradiction: it’s a topic of debate among evolutionary scientists with an interest in how and why the human language faculty evolved. The question that’s relevant here is the ‘why’ one: our linguistic abilities are costly (because they require such a big brain), and other primates have done fine without them, so what survival advantage did they confer on us?  One early theory about this was that language enabled humans to co-ordinate joint activities that contributed to survival, like hunting. But more recently attention has turned to two other stories.

I’ll call the first one the ‘social networking’ theory. It says that the essential advantage conferred on humans by their ability to speak was to do with forging social bonds and transmitting social knowledge: talking helps individuals keep track of what’s going on in the group and maintain social relationships with other members. This produces a more cohesive (and therefore more successful) group. One prominent advocate of this theory, Robin Dunbar, argues that gossip—by which he means everyday talk about what’s happening and who’s doing what with whom—has a similar function in human groups to physical grooming among non-human primates. Dunbar thinks early human females would have been central in the development of language. Females play a key role in the organisation of primate groups, and females caring for infants would have had a particular interest in building networks of mutual co-operation.

Supporters of this theory often claim that it’s in line with contemporary observations about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour. Everyone agrees that women are the ‘more verbal’ sex, more talkative and more verbally skilled than the action-oriented male. What’s happening here is that the verbally-challenged idiot who appears in books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus (and the unspeakable neurobollocks classic Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps) is being projected back into pre-history.

But as you’ll know if you read another of my early posts, it isn’t actually true that women talk more than men: most evidence points in the opposite direction. And while women do, on average, do slightly better on certain tests of verbal ability, the abilities being tested are not things that would have helped our preliterate ancestors as they foraged on the African savannah. These points have been seized on by supporters of the second story about what language did for humans, which I’ll call the ‘lekking theory’.

A ‘lek’ is what students of animal behaviour call a type of courtship ritual seen among, for instance, peacocks, where males display themselves in groups to an audience of females, and the females make judgments on their reproductive fitness. The peacock’s tail is the example famously given by Darwin to illustrate the concept of ‘sexual selection’, where a trait that may confer no practical advantage is selected because it makes its carrier more attractive as a mate. Some evolutionary scientists suggest that the human capacity for language was selected in the same way and for much the same reason: speaking offered an excellent way for early human males to show off to females, and for females to judge the males’ fitness, given that verbal behaviour is a clue to both intellectual abilities and social skills.

Supporters of this theory, like the behavioural scientist John Locke, also claim that it receives support from contemporary observations about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour. Women may have the edge in lab tests of verbal skill, but who dominates—in virtually all the cultures where the question has been studied—the oral performance genres that display most skill and creativity? Who are the most accomplished orators, debaters, poets, rappers, preachers, stand-up comedians? Who fights verbal duels to assert their superiority over their rivals?

In this account it’s the smooth-tongued charmer who gets projected back into prehistory—conveniently ignoring the more recent evidence (by which I mean evidence from the past thousand years or so) that women’s non-participation in various kinds of oral performance reflected neither lack of skill nor lack of interest, but had more to do with men’s strenuous efforts to exclude them. (Which have not entirely ceased, but they’re becoming steadily less effective.)

I’ve got nothing good to say about either of these competing accounts of gendered linguistic behaviour: both are thoroughly sexist, as well as being unconvincing for other reasons. They also illustrate that sex-difference science and folk-wisdom aren’t always as far apart as we might think. Sometimes one is just a scienced-up version of the other. It’s possible Dan Bacon got his ideas from a book about evolutionary psychology, but it’s more likely he’s just channelling the wisdom of the ages. Either way, the effect is to reinforce the belief that women have no right to withhold their favours from men. Sorry, Dan, but the headphones stay on. If you don’t like it, lek off.

Familiarity and contempt

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Earlier this month, in an English court, a man who had just been sentenced to 18 months told the judge she was ‘a bit of a cunt’. To which she replied: ‘You’re a bit of a cunt yourself’. Complaints about her language are now being considered by the Judicial Standards Investigation Office. But plenty of people applauded her, calling her a ‘hero’, a ‘role model’ and a ‘legend’.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New York Times reported that sexist endearment terms like ‘honey’ and ‘sweetie’ were no longer acceptable when addressing women in court. The American Bar Association had adopted Resolution 109, which makes it a breach of lawyers’ professional standards to engage in ‘harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests prejudice and bias’.

These two stories might seem to belong to different worlds: one where a judge can be hailed as a hero for calling a man a cunt, and another where lawyers can be fined for using endearment terms. (I can hear the denizens of the manosphere now, muttering darkly about feminazis and their double standards.) But ultimately I think they’re about the same thing: the ongoing, messy and often confusing struggle over what counts, in the 21st century, as ‘appropriate’ or ‘offensive’ language.

Resolution 109 is an example of a kind of verbal hygiene which has loomed large in recent decades: regulating language-use in an effort to combat prejudice and discrimination. This is popularly known as ‘political correctness’, and it is, of course, highly controversial. Although the resolution passed, it was not unopposed. And opinions were particularly divided on the inclusion of endearment terms like ‘honey’ in the category of ‘harmful verbal conduct’.

Some of the reasons for this disagreement became apparent when the New York Times invited lawyers to share their views on its Facebook page: the resulting thread attracted more than 500 comments. Many came from female lawyers who shared their own experiences of being addressed with terms they found demeaning:

I was called ‘young lady’ today while I was in court. I am 42.

I have been called honey, sweetie and missy.

Called ‘blondie’ by a sitting federal judge

I’ve been called ‘sweetheart’, ‘honey’, my first name and asked to get coffee.

But there were also a number of contributors who defended the use of endearment terms, arguing that

  1. In some US regions (e.g. the south and south west) the use of endearments is just ordinary politeness.
  2. It’s not just men who use endearment terms and it’s not just women on the receiving end.

As one commenter said, putting the two arguments together:

Good luck with that in Texas. This 70 year-old male has been called [honey] by women for 25 years.

It’s true that there are regional differences in modes of polite address. It’s also true that women use endearment terms to men (as well as to other women: the only potential speaker-addressee pairing you don’t typically get is men using ‘honey’/ ‘sweetheart’/ ‘darling’ to other men—though they may use other comparable terms, like ‘mate’, ‘dude’, ‘bro/bruv’ or—to younger men—‘son’). But that doesn’t mean the women lawyers’ complaints are unjustified. To see why, let’s take a closer look at the underlying sociolinguistic principles.

In 1960 Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published a now-classic article entitled ‘The pronouns of power and solidarity’.  Its subject was the alternation (lost in modern standard English, but still present in many other European languages), between familiar and polite second person pronouns (Brown and Gilman referred to these in shorthand as T (familiar) and V (polite), from the Latin ‘tu’ and ‘vos’). They pointed out that what these pronouns communicate doesn’t just depend on which one you choose, but also on whether they’re used reciprocally or non-reciprocally. If two people address each other with the same pronoun, either T or V, they are treating each other as equals. Between equals, reciprocal use of the familiar T implies intimacy; reciprocal use of the polite V implies a more distant relationship of mutual respect. When the pronouns are used non-reciprocally, however, they imply an unequal, hierarchical relationship: the higher-ranked person addresses the lower-ranked person with T, while expecting to receive V in return. In this situation, the speaker who addresses you with T is not saying ‘I think of you as an intimate’, but rather ‘I think of you as an inferior’.

The same kind of analysis can be extended to other forms of address like names and titles. In hierarchical institutions these are used reciprocally among peers but non-reciprocally between people at different levels of the hierarchy. In the military, for instance, you address subordinates by their surnames and superordinates with ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’.  School students call their teachers ‘sir’,  ‘miss’ or ‘Mr/Ms X’, while teachers call students by their given names.

Exchanges between unacquainted adults offer more freedom of choice, but the choice is not just random. In customer service interactions (to take one common situation in which strangers address each other), the server may call the customer by a generic respect title like ‘sir/madam/ma’am’, a familiar term like ‘honey/dear/mate’, or neither. Here the choice will probably depend not only on the status of the two parties (e.g., their relative ages), but also on the type of establishment and the service being provided. I’d be surprised to be called ‘honey’ in a fancy restaurant, but I wouldn’t find it surprising in a diner. Nor would it offend me in a diner, because I wouldn’t suspect the server of patronising me: I’d understand the endearment as a form of politeness, treating a stranger like a friend or family member to signal that you are positively disposed towards them. In more formal contexts, though, politeness demands an overt show of deference (which can be accomplished by using a respect title), or at least the avoidance of familiarity (which can be accomplished by using no address term at all).

The fact that the same address forms (T/V pronouns, given names/family names, endearment terms/respect titles) have both a ‘power’ meaning and a ‘solidarity’ meaning offers a useful get-out clause for men who are accused of talking down to women. They can say, in effect, that the women have mistaken one meaning for the other: what they intended to communicate was a solidary form of politeness (‘I am positively disposed towards you’), but the women have interpreted it as an example of the power meaning (‘you are my social inferior’) and taken offence where none was meant.  Several of the comments on the Times’s Facebook thread suggested that women don’t find it easy to dismiss this possibility. Knowing that endearment terms can sometimes be used in a solidary way, even when the parties are not actually intimate, they do wonder if they might sometimes be judging men’s motives unfairly.

But if we’re not sure whether the person who calls us ‘honey’ is being courteous or condescending, the analysis I’ve just sketched out gives us some tests we can apply. One is whether there is, or could be, reciprocity: if an address form is used non-reciprocally, you’re generally looking at power rather than solidarity. With judges, in particular, the answer is clearly ‘no’—a lawyer could not address the judge as ‘honey’ and then claim they were ‘just being polite’. Some Facebook contributors did suggest that if the endearment came from opposing counsel (i.e. a peer rather than a superordinate) you could retaliate by addressing him similarly. But their comments implied this would be seen as a hostile act. So, it seems the ‘just being polite’ excuse does not pass the reciprocity test, at least in the courtroom context.

Context, of course, is an important influence on what counts as polite behaviour, and the second test we can apply to doubtful cases is whether the claim that someone ‘was only being polite’ is contextually plausible. Are we dealing with a situation (like getting served in a diner or at a market stall) where we’d expect informal friendliness, or is it more the kind of situation where we’d expect to hear the more formal language of distance and deference?  One contributor to the Facebook thread, a lawyer practising in Canada, made an interesting observation on that point. She hadn’t had to deal with being called ‘honey’, she said, because the Canadian courts (like the British ones they are presumably modelled on) require lawyers to refer to one another formally using stock phrases like ‘my learned friend’. Some kinds of courts and court proceedings may be less formal than others, with less strict (and less archaic) rules of address, but it’s hard to imagine any court of law being as informal as a diner or a market stall.

Then again, we have the example before us of the judge who called a man she’d just sentenced ‘a bit of a cunt’.  That happened in an English court; why wasn’t it prevented by the contextual norm of formality?

In this case there may be a very specific reason. The man in question had a long history of launching racist tirades at passing strangers. He had been prosecuted after breaching—for the eleventh time—an order prohibiting this behaviour. So, as well as responding to his immediate provocation, the judge might have wanted to give him a taste of what he’d inflicted on many others over the years. I suspect that’s why so many people applauded her: despite the obvious contradiction (using abusive language to someone you’ve just sent to prison for using abusive language), the nature of the man’s offence made her response seem like poetic justice.

I’m not sure the JSIO investigators will share that view: they’ll probably be more concerned that a judge who uses words like ‘cunt’ is compromising the dignity of her office. But from a linguist’s perspective there’s another question here. Should the judge have engaged in any kind of informal exchange with a defendant (regardless of whether obscenities were involved), or should she have maintained the formality of the proceedings by responding to his intervention with a formal rebuke?

Historians of English generally agree that since the late 20th century there’s been a shift towards greater informality in both speech and writing. This has happened, it’s argued, because of changes in the wider society: we’ve become less deferential and more egalitarian, as well as (in Britain), less reserved in our dealings with others. Formal politeness has come to be seen as old-fashioned and patrician—a throwback to the bad old days when everyone wore a hat and kept a stiff upper lip. Institutions which have preserved the traditional formalities, like the law courts and Parliament, are often accused of being remote, inaccessible and off-putting to the ordinary citizen.

Like most people, I have no desire to return to the days of obsequious forelock-tugging and stiff upper lips.  But the contemporary preference for informality and familiarity over formality and distance is not without its problems—especially for women.

Most people are offended or irritated when strangers address them in a way they consider over-familiar. But for women, enforced familiarity and intimacy are more than just irritants: they’re part of the apparatus that’s used to subordinate and control us. Catcalling, casual touching, groping, unwanted personal comments or sexual overtures, being followed on the street, being verbally abused or threatened if you ignore a man’s demand for your attention—these are everyday experiences for women in public places, and they all rest on the assumption that any man has an automatic right to treat any woman as an intimate: get close to her, touch her, make demands of her. The non-reciprocal use of endearment terms to women is another manifestation of the same thing. And if a woman objects to it, the excuses men make (disingenuously or otherwise) are the same ones they make about street harassment. ‘I was only being friendly’. ‘It’s just banter’. ‘Can’t you take a compliment/a joke?’

These excuses can be effective in derailing complaints of sexism. Measures like Resolution 109, targeting discriminatory language, are easiest to apply to cases like racist and homophobic slurs, where the offensiveness of the words is not disputed. They work less well when the issue isn’t the use of an inherently offensive word, but rather the allegedly offensive use of a word which also has legitimate, non-discriminatory uses. Endearment terms are an example: there’s always scope for argument about what the speaker ‘really meant’.

But in contexts like the courtroom we could cut through this by stipulating that professionals must use formal modes of address. No one can deny that endearment terms are informal, so insisting on formality—the reciprocal formality that signals mutual respect between non-intimates—would make their use inappropriate regardless of the user’s intentions.

You might be thinking: ‘but this is 2016!’ As I said before, today it’s usually assumed that what we want in public institutions is more informality rather than less: formal language is seen as elitist and exclusionary, whereas informal language is more inclusive and democratic. But maybe we should reconsider that. We should remember that many subordinated groups—including women, Black people and working class people—have a long history of being addressed with familiar terms; not as a token of friendship or positive regard, but as a mark of contempt for their ‘inferior’ social status. There is surely something to be said for breaking with that tradition, and showing people the explicit respect that more formal terms communicate.

To put the point in simpler terms: intimacy should be our choice, and respect should be our right.

 

 

Dykes, old maids and the summer of 66

Old Maids Puzzle for Wanda

This summer, British television has been reliving the glory days of 1966, when London was swinging and England’s footballers won the World Cup. My own memories of the year are rather less glorious. 1966 was the year when I turned eight; it was also the year when I first heard the word ‘dyke’.

It happened when I was eavesdropping on a conversation between my parents (a bad habit I developed at an early age). My father used the phrase ‘those dykes’ in a passing reference to two women who lived in the posher part of the village. I knew who he meant: they weren’t part of my parents’ social circle, but the village was the sort of place where everyone knew everyone by sight. But I had no idea why he called them ‘dykes’. When I asked my mother later, she said: ‘he just meant they’re old maids: they live together because they never got married’.

I’m not sure if my mother was just trying to avoid the issue, or if she genuinely disagreed with my father about the nature of the women’s relationship. Looking back, I really don’t know if they were lesbians. There was nothing about the way they dressed, spoke or behaved in public that set them apart from other women of their age and class—women I knew to be married because they were addressed as ‘Mrs So-and-So’. ‘Those dykes’ might have been a couple, but equally they might have been friends, or even sisters, who had chosen to pool their resources. It’s pointless to speculate, since I’ll never know their story. But it’s interesting to consider the way such women were talked about back then, and how differently we talk about them now.

In 1966, my father’s phrase ‘those dykes’ was markedly pejorative: even without knowing what it meant, I could tell it was not meant kindly. My mother’s phrase ‘old maids’, by contrast, though also negative in its connotations, was not too offensive to be uttered in polite company, or to an eight year-old. The difference reflected the differing levels of stigma attached to the two classes of women. Both were considered ‘unnatural’, but the unnaturalness of the lesbian was more extreme: she inspired disgust, whereas the unmarried and unmarriageable (but presumptively heterosexual) woman inspired–in varying proportions–pity and contempt.

In the 1960s there were still women around who were understood to have been denied a ‘normal’ life because the men they should have married had been lost to the carnage of World War I. These women were pitied rather than despised; some were admired for the way they had channelled the energy that should have been devoted to their families into various forms of community service. But when people spoke in that vein, they didn’t generally use the term ‘old maid’. What that term evoked was much more negative: sexless, downtrodden church-mice, or censorious old biddies whose nasty, interfering ways were the products of bitterness and sexual frustration.

In search of more evidence about the usage of ‘old maid’ 50 years ago, I paid a visit to COHA, a historical corpus of American English where you can track words and phrases decade by decade. In the 1960s section there are 42 occurrences of ‘old maid’ (giving it a frequency of just under two occurrences per million words). A couple of these, on closer examination, were not examples of the ‘older unmarried woman’ sense, but rather references to an old person who worked as a maid (or in one case, to a closet formerly used by the maid). But once those had been excluded, almost all the rest were clearly negative in the ways I’ve already described. Here’s one from a mystery novel that was published in 1966:

There’s usually one to every couple of blocks or so. The snoopy old maid with nothing better to do than look out of the window most of the day.

But by the end of the decade there are signs of change. One interesting example crops up in a 1969 Good Housekeeping article by Dr Joyce Brothers, entitled ‘Women who don’t need men’.

How can we explain the fact that so many women don’t seem to need men? Well, for one thing, the world has changed. A hundred years ago, a woman had two choices: she could marry, devoting herself to the intensely real, demanding business of childbearing and housekeeping (and maybe helping her husband plow the land and fight off Indians); or she could spend the rest of her life in her parents’ house, tatting doilies. No wonder the “old maid” became a comic-strip caricature—a tiresome old busybody with no place in the social scheme. Today, of course, a woman has multiple choices. If she doesn’t wish to marry, she can have an intensely real life as a research chemist or an officer of a bank. Furthermore, she doesn’t need a husband to enjoy sex. Moral standards are more lenient than they used to be and a woman’s private life can remain just that…

With the sexual revolution in full swing and feminism resurgent (Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl had appeared as early as 1962, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique a year later), it seemed the old maid might have had her day: unmarried women’s lives in 1969 were no longer about tatting doilies and minding other people’s business.

In the 2000-2010 section of COHA the old maid not only makes fewer appearances than she did in the 1960s (the number of tokens falls to 26, and their frequency dips below one per million words), it’s also striking that many examples explictly locate her in the historical past:

She was only 36. Considered an old maid at one time, but not now.

In an age when women were wives before they were 21, she was already an old maid.

In 2016 I think I’d be more surprised than affronted to hear myself, or any other woman, referred to unironically as an ‘old maid’. If I did hear it, though, I would assume that the speaker intended to cause offence: the connotations of the term have, if anything, become even more negative. One key attribute of the old maid was her lack of sexual experience (historically, ‘maid’ meant ‘virgin’), and today, large parts of western culture consider abstinence from sex far more unnatural than a preference for same-sex partners. You could say that the old maid has swapped places with the lesbian: as the latter’s sexuality has become more normalised, the former’s abstention or exclusion from sex has been further pathologised.

Which brings me to the recent history of the word ‘dyke’.

In the 1960s section of COHA there are only five examples of ‘dyke’ meaning ‘lesbian’ (two taken from play scripts and the rest from a single 1968 novel), and all of them mark it clearly as a pejorative term.

It was a terrible thing to say. But the old dyke got my goat. Jerry said, ‘You shouldn’t call her names like that. You don’t know if she’s a dyke or not…’

But by the middle of the 1970s ‘dyke’ was no longer pejorative in every context. Many lesbian feminists not only regarded it as an acceptable term for in-group use, they actually preferred it to ‘lesbian’. As the linguist Julia Penelope explained the distinction in 1974,

A dyke is a woman committed to revolution, the most radical position. A lesbian is committed to a more liberal position, and she is more willing to compromise and work within the system. A gay woman affirms her commitment to a gay community, and sees nothing wrong with working with men.

Not all radical lesbian feminists preferred ‘dyke’, however: in the early 1980s I knew some who avoided it because they couldn’t get past its history of being used in the way my father used it, to express disgust. Then as now, opinions differed on whether words with that kind of history can ever really be ‘reclaimed’.

Another issue was who had the right to use in-group terms. Even women who did call themselves and each other dykes often objected to outsiders using the word. The same patterns are found with other reclaimed, historically offensive terms relating to ethnicity or disability. It’s usually only in-group members who have an unconditional right to use them (with some latitude sometimes given to trusted allies), and there are always some in-group members who object to them being used by anyone.

In the case of ‘dyke’ the arguments about reclamation are still ongoing. The examples in the 2000-2010 section of COHA include one, from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, referring directly to the view that ‘dyke’ is no longer pejorative:

She wants to erase the negative connotation to the word “atheist” just as homosexuals have reclaimed slurs like “queer” and “dyke.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence, though, that this view is attributed to someone who isn’t herself a potential target for homophobic insults. Those who are potential targets know that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be slurs: it depends on the context, the speaker and the intent. In the week I’m writing this (in August 2016), it’s been alleged that some constituents of the lesbian Labour MP Angela Eagle held a meeting in her absence where she was referred to as ‘Angie the Dyke’. This has been described as a ‘homophobic slur’ both by those who allege the phrase was uttered and by those who insist it was not.

Looking through the 21st century examples of ‘dyke’ in COHA I was actually surprised by how many clearly were being used as slurs:

Your mama works in the closest hardware store, doesn’t she? What is she, a dyke?

[The] caller said he knew where she lived on campus and would kill her for being a “filthy dyke.”

There are a couple of cases where ‘dyke’ is evidently intended to be jocular rather than insulting:

‘Did you tell them you were a dyke?’ she asked with as much humor as she could muster.

I’d expected to find more of these; I’d even thought they might be more numerous than the pejorative cases. But in the mainstream sources sampled for COHA, the balance seems to tip the other way. The pejorative and ‘reclaimed’ uses coexist in contemporary English, and adjudicating their competing claims can be tricky–a point that was dramatized during the noughties by a legal dispute involving ‘dyke’.

In 2003 the San Francisco Women’s Motorcycle Club, unofficially known as ‘Dykes on Bikes’, applied to trademark their nickname. The US Patent and Trademark Office turned down their application on the grounds that the word ‘dykes’ was offensive and disparaged lesbians. The group contested this judgment, arguing that ‘dyke’ functioned, as the veteran activist Joan Nestle put it, as a symbol of ‘community and self-affirmation’. Apart from Nestle, those who submitted evidence in support of this argument included the cartoonist Alison Bechdel (creator of ‘Dykes to Watch Out For’) and the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, who had researched and written dictionary entries for ‘dyke’ and ‘bulldyke’.

In 2006 the original decision was reversed–and then immediately challenged by a Men’s Rights activist who claimed that the term ‘dyke’ was ‘scandalous and immoral’ and ‘a symbol of hate towards all men’. The complaint was eventually dismissed, but it took until 2008 for the trademark to be granted.

The fact that ‘queer’ and ‘dyke’ can still be used against gay men and lesbians does not necessarily mean that attempts to reclaim them have failed. To put it another way, we should not assume that successful reclamation requires the total eradication of the earlier, pejorative meaning. At any point in time there will be variation rather than uniformity in the meanings with which a word is used: semantic change is not the result of one meaning suddenly being replaced by another, but a more gradual process in which the balance between coexisting variants shifts. Eventually a once-dominant meaning may drop out of use entirely, but that’s unlikely to happen in the space of a few years. A more realistic approach is to ask whether non-pejorative uses are becoming more frequent, and if they’re moving into the mainstream, so that in time they will predominate in the input received by speakers acquiring the language. With ‘queer’ I’d say that shift is definitely happening. With ‘dyke’ it may be less advanced, but both words have moved further along the path of reclamation than, say, ‘slut’, ‘bitch’, ‘whore’ or ‘cunt’.

Some of those words offer a useful reminder that reclaiming pejorative terms is not always the right thing to do. ‘Slut’, for instance, is a word that I would argue needs to be abolished rather than reclaimed. The problem isn’t the negative connotations attached to the word, it’s the fact that the category exists at all. The idea that we need any label–positive, negative or neutral–to identify a subclass of unchaste or promiscuous women is entirely a product of the sexual double standard. In a society that took women’s sexual autonomy for granted, the concept of a slut would become meaningless, and the word would fade into obsolescence.

That’s more or less what’s happened to ‘old maid’: its use has declined along with the relevance of the category it labels. That category was produced by the restrictions which historically prevented most women from living outside male-headed households while also remaining both respectable and financially solvent. In some societies those restrictions are still in place, but in modern western societies they have largely withered away. I say ‘largely’ because their traces do survive in certain cultural assumptions (e.g. that ‘normal’ women will find a spouse or partner before they reach a certain age, or that a heterosexual wedding is a happier and more significant occasion for the bride than for the groom). But there is no longer a material, structural basis for the idea that a woman who remains single has, as Joyce Brothers put it, ‘no place in the social scheme’.

When a social category becomes socially irrelevant, the label(s) attached to it will survive, if at all, only in archaic references (any mention of a ‘debutante’ or a ‘kept woman’ locates us either in the past or in some particularly retrograde corner of the present) and fossilized metaphors (‘lepers’ in contemporary English are more likely to be social outcasts than people with leprosy). When I did an online search for ‘old maid’, most of the top results were references to the card game (though as I scrolled down further I also discovered the quilt pattern ‘Old Maid’s Puzzle’ which I’ve used to illustrate this post). The old maid as we knew her in the real world of 50 years ago has now passed, it seems, into history. And a good thing too, IMHO: not everything was better in 1966.

Sorry, but it’s complicated

sorry

‘Sorry’ may have been the hardest word for Elton John, but to women it comes as naturally as breathing. Women, as everyone knows, apologise. They apologise constantly. They apologise unnecessarily. They apologise for things that aren’t their fault, and for things that require no apology from anyone. They’re like the proverbial cracked records with their ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’.

Recently we’ve become obsessed with the problem of the over-apologetic woman. She seems to pop up everywhere—not just where you’d expect to find her, in listicles with titles like ‘The Seven Ways Women Undermine Themselves At Work’ and products like the ‘Just Not Sorry’ plug-in which I wrote about last year, but also in shampoo adverts, comedy sketches and various other forms of humour (check out #7 in this set of cartoons).

The advice and coaching industry has an obvious interest in endlessly recirculating the idea that women apologise too much (it’s in the same category of female verbal misdemeanours as uptalk and ‘just‘ and ‘I feel like‘–all of them gifts that keep on giving if your business is creating problems that people will then pay you to solve). It’s not so obvious why it also gets uncritically recycled by feminists (there’s an example in this Woman’s Hour interview with the historian Amanda Foreman). It might seem that feminists have nothing to gain by repeating what is, after all, a negative stereotype; but some evidently see it as proving a point about the harmful effects of female socialisation. Excessive apologising, they say, is the behaviour of a person who’s been trained from early childhood to think of herself as a lesser being: to devalue and efface herself, put others’ needs before her own, take up as little space in the world as possible, and defer, in particular, to men.

As a feminist myself I don’t doubt that female socialisation has many damaging consequences for girls and women. But I still don’t buy the argument that women over-apologise because they’ve been socialised to be self-effacing and deferential. It may sound plausible, but here’s why I don’t think it’s true.

First, let’s just go back a step. So far I’ve been taking it for granted that women really are the more apologetic sex. But that shouldn’t be accepted without question: the evidence from research is mixed. Some studies have found women apologizing more than men, but others have found no difference. Which findings you give more weight to is a judgment call, and researchers have different views.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there probably is a tendency for women to apologise more frequently than men (though the usual caveats apply: this generalisation may not be valid for every group of women in every context, and it certainly won’t be valid for every individual woman). However, there’s a difference between description and interpretation: even if we accept that this tendency exists, it doesn’t follow that women apologise ‘too much’ (too much in relation to what?), nor that the reason must be their socialised unassertiveness and deference. In fact, if you dig a bit deeper into the research, you discover there are other patterns which don’t fit with that assumption.

One of the most detailed investigations of gender differences in apologising was done in the 1990s by the New Zealand linguist Janet Holmes. Holmes recorded naturally-occurring talk in a range of social situations, and extracted all the sequences that included apologies (183 in total). As well as counting the frequency with which men and women apologised, she looked at who they apologised to, what they apologised for, how they formulated their apologies and how those apologies were received.

Holmes’s is one of the studies I mentioned earlier which did find women apologising more than men. A lot more, in fact: women produced nearly three quarters of all apologies. But there was another, equally striking pattern: the majority of female apologies, accounting for 55% of all the apologies in the data, were cases of women apologising to other women. Apologies from women to men accounted for about 18% of cases, apologies from men to women for about 17%, and apologies from men to other men for just 8.5%.

These figures are hard to reconcile with the belief that women’s apologies are displays of deference and subordinate status. If that were the issue, you’d expect women to apologise more frequently to men than to other women; you might also expect women, as the subordinate sex, to receive fewer apologies from men than they give to men. In this study, however, cross-sex apologies occurred with more or less equal frequency in both directions. Almost the whole of the overall gender difference was the result of the very large difference between women’s behaviour towards other women and men’s towards other men.

What Holmes actually found, then, was not a general tendency for men and women to behave differently, but a more specific tendency for them to behave very differently with members of their own sex. The standard story about unassertive and deferential women doesn’t explain that. Why would women become less deferential when addressing their social superiors, men, and conversely why would men defer to their subordinates, women, twice as often as they defer to their male peers?

But if it isn’t about deference, what is the gender difference about? Holmes offers two suggestions.

The first is that men and women may understand the act of apologising differently, with women seeing it primarily as a way of maintaining good relationships by displaying concern for others, whereas men see it primarily as an admission of inadequacy or guilt. This second interpretation is more negative, and that may explain why men avoid apologising (or dare I say, ‘under-apologise’?) with other men who share their understanding of it as demeaning. (Though it doesn’t really explain why men are more willing to apologise to women: perhaps they think women won’t judge them in the same way, or perhaps they don’t care so much what women think.) Among women, on the other hand, apologising is interpreted more positively: it need not diminish your status, and it may even earn you credit for being a nice person.

Holmes’s second suggestion is that men and women may have different perceptions of what’s offensive enough to require an apology. In her data, a higher proportion of men’s apologies were for relatively serious offences (like forgetting a date with someone or damaging one of their possessions). This led her to wonder if women apologised more because they felt the need to apologise for things men would dismiss as trivial. (Interestingly, she found women were more likely than men to apologise for what she calls ‘space and talk offences’—things like inadvertently touching or interrupting another person. She suggests that women may be more sensitive to these transgressions because they’re so often committed against women–most typically, of course, by men.)

The idea that men have a higher threshold for perceiving behaviour as offensive has received some support from other research. The psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross  got research subjects to keep a diary of all their offensive acts, and to say, in each case, whether they had apologised. They found that women and men reported apologising for a similar proportion of the offences they’d committed, but the raw numbers—of both offensive acts and apologies—were higher for the women than the men. This suggested that women had considered more acts offensive enough to need redress. To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed an experimental task where subjects had to rate the seriousness of various offences. They found, as they expected, that their female subjects gave higher ratings.

Readers who know something about the study of language and gender may think that Holmes’s arguments are somewhat reminiscent of what’s been labelled the ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, because it treats differing patterns of language-use among men and women as the product of quasi-cultural differences. The idea is that the sexes behave differently because they understand things differently, and they understand things differently because their experiences and values are different. But you can’t say that one sex’s way of doing things is better or worse than the other’s, any more than you would say Japanese culture is better or worse than Greek culture. They’re just different: ‘different but equal’. The classic statement of this position is Deborah Tannen’s popular bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, which has been criticised by other scholars (full disclosure: I’m one of them) for glossing over the issue of structural sexual inequality. Does Holmes’s explanation of gender differences in apologising invite the same criticism? Is she saying that women’s tendency to apologise more than men has nothing to do with power and inequality?

The short answer is no: Holmes’s position is not the same as Tannen’s. She believes that ultimately, ‘power is the issue’:

Women’s ways of talking differ from men’s because each group has developed interactional strategies which reflect their societal position. The different patterns of interaction into which girls and boys are socialised are not randomly different. Their features are attuned to the requirements of the society.

As a general observation this is not, of course, incompatible with the popular story about over-apologetic women (which says that women’s societal position requires them to be unassertive and deferential). The trouble with that story is that it leaves some patterns unexplained (in particular, the difference Holmes observed between cross-sex and same-sex behaviour). The relationship it posits between apologising and subordinate status is too simple and general to account for the reality of women’s (or men’s) behaviour. But there’s another way to relate apologising to the requirements of an unequal, male dominated society. Rather than treat it as a general expression of female powerlessness, we could connect it to a more specific feature of social structure which is directly linked to women’s subordinate status: the division of labour which makes caring for others a female responsibility.

The aim of an apology is to maintain or restore harmony. Apologising says: ‘I accept that I have given (or might give) offence, I regret that and I ask for your forgiveness’.  By implication it also says: ‘your feelings matter to me: I understand that you may feel bad and I want you to feel better’. In that sense apologising can be seen as a form of emotional labour, part of the work of managing your own and others’ feelings. And willingness to perform emotional labour is one of the most basic things that’s expected of women just because they are women. Even when they’re not explicitly cast in a caring role (like ‘mother’), women are routinely expected to pay attention to others’ feelings, and pour oil on troubled waters when harmony is threatened. They’re expected both to apologise when others are or could be offended, and to forgive when others have offended them (Holmes found that women were less likely than men to reject an apology and more likely to accept one).

I would argue that women’s apologising behaviour has more to do with these gendered expectations than it does with lack of confidence and self-esteem. In fact, I suspect that for some women, this behaviour may actually be a source of self-esteem. Not all women embrace their prescribed role with joy, but even if we don’t much like our jobs, most of us derive some satisfaction from being good at them. And while selflessness and nurturance may be poorly rewarded in material terms, they do come with moral and social benefits.

In this case one key benefit may be the approval of your female peers. Although you often hear women castigating themselves publicly for the sin of ‘over-apologising’ (a term  which covertly treats what men do as the norm), the high frequency of apologies between women suggests that privately they may not regard men’s behaviour as the gold standard. And indeed, why should they? What’s wrong with showing concern for others? From a feminist perspective, nothing: the problem isn’t that caring is inherently worthless or degrading, it’s that the responsibility for caring is unfairly distributed, obliging most women to do too much while most men do far too little.

This already unfair distribution of rights and obligations can give rise to a further injustice, with men getting more credit than women when they do show consideration for others. In a study conducted by a group of researchers in Israel, subjects were asked to imagine that a work colleague had scheduled a meeting and then failed to turn up for it. They were then given a letter which the colleague had supposedly written, apologising for the inconvenience and promising it would not happen again. The letter was always the same, but some subjects were told that the writer was their boss, others that the writer was their subordinate. In addition, the writer was presented to some subjects as male (‘David’) and to others as female (‘Rachel’). After reading the letter, the subjects were asked to judge the sincerity of the apology and to say how willing they were to forgive the writer.

The researchers found that people’s judgments were influenced by both status and gender:

the most effective apology was by a male manager, followed by a female manager, a male subordinate and finally a female subordinate.

They explain:

The less expected an apology, the more effective it is.  …When an apology is not socially obligatory, [it] will be more accepted and more highly esteemed.

A subordinate who apologises to the boss is merely doing what’s expected, whereas a boss who apologises to a subordinate is perceived as displaying unusual magnanimity. Gender has a similar (though slightly weaker) effect. A woman who apologises is meeting others’ expectations, whereas a man is exceeding them, and the response is therefore more positive. The researchers conclude by suggesting that managers shouldn’t treat apologising as a ‘powerless’ and therefore risky move: done strategically, it can actually enhance your reputation. Especially, it seems, if you’re a man.

Where does this leave us? Again, I’d say it’s complicated. On one hand, I think we should reject the popular stereotype of the over-apologetic woman, along with the language-policing it’s used to justify. It isn’t true that women ‘over-apologise’ because they are timid, deferential creatures: the fact (if it is one) that they apologise more than men seems to have more to do with showing concern for others’ feelings. Do feminists really want to disparage that as a weakness?

On the other hand, as Janet Holmes points out, women and men don’t make linguistic choices in a vacuum: they are expected to behave in certain ways, and if they choose not to they will pay a price. Maintaining harmonious relationships is an obligation imposed on women rather than something that just comes naturally; it is one of the many unjust burdens women carry in this world, and as such there is every reason for feminists to criticise it. The question is whether we can find a way to do that without ridiculing, shaming or bullying women for the way they do or don’t speak.