Not unprecedented: 2020

No one, you might think, needs an end-of-year round-up to tell them what 2020 was all about. The word-watchers of the English-speaking world all chose pandemic-related terms as their Words of the Year: Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com selected ‘pandemic’ itself, while the American Dialect Society voted for ‘Covid’ and Collins went for ‘lockdown’. Oxford offered not one word but a whole glossary, including ‘coronavirus’, ‘furlough’, ‘superspreader’ and ‘PPE’—an unusual move for a year which they described, using another word that turned up on several WOTY shortlists, as ‘unprecedented’.

But here at Language: a feminist guide it was a rather different story. Of course the pandemic was omnipresent, and I did write a couple of posts that were specifically about it. But most of the language controversies that caught my eye this year were very much not unprecedented.

Many of them were variations on the old and familiar theme of disrespect for women, especially but not only women in positions of authority. Back in February, in the most-read post I published this year, I analysed a particular form of this gendered disrespect, the ‘gentlemanly sexism’ directed by her colleagues towards Lady Brenda Hale, the now-retired President of the Supreme Court. Gentlemanly sexism is—or appears to be—polite, measured and reasonable, but it conceals a deep resentment of women who are too clever, too outspoken and too critical of the arrangements that make the gentlemen’s power seem natural and benign.

That resentment may also be in evidence when powerful men tell women who challenge them to ‘watch their tone’, as the Health Secretary Matt Hancock did in June to the junior shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan. This tone-criticism is a defensive move, often employed as a distraction when a politician has no substantive answer to the question being posed; in this case it served only to make Matt Hancock look like what he is—over-promoted and out of his depth.  But the 2020 award for self-defeating abuse of a female political opponent should probably go to Rep. Ted Yoho, who called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a bitch outside the Capitol in July, and so provided her with a golden opportunity to demonstrate her own political and rhetorical skills with a hard-hitting speech about sexism to the House.

As the US presidential election campaign hotted up, I turned my attention to another familiar form of gendered disrespect, the interruption of women by men, and the far more punitive treatment of women who interrupt men. Joe Biden’s running-mate Sen. Kamala Harris was very familiar with this double standard: when she questioned former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions in 2017 she was sanctioned by the Chair for her ‘aggressive’ interruptions. In her Vice-Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October it was apparent that she had learned from this experience: she was at pains to present herself as civil and approachable, while also resisting Pence’s attempts to take the floor from her. It was (IMHO) a skilful performance, but it did not prevent her from being criticised as (in one commentator’s words) ‘an insufferable smug power-hungry bitch’.

Another phenomenon Harris encountered during the campaign (and indeed during her debate with Pence, though she waved the moderator’s apology away) was being addressed and referred to as ‘Kamala’ (sometimes mispronounced, or as one Twitter commentator felicitously put it, ‘dispronounced’—i.e., it was deliberate disrespect rather than an ‘innocent’ mistake) when her opponent was ‘Vice-President Pence’. The de-titling of women is a common pattern, but in politics it isn’t always self-evidently an insult. Being known familiarly by a first name or a nickname can sometimes work to a politician’s advantage (think of ‘Maggie’, ‘Boris’, or ‘Bernie’). Outside politics, however, the withholding of women’s titles usually does imply a lack of regard for their authority, status or expertise.

This point was illustrated in December by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal urging Jill Biden to stop using the professional/academic title ‘Dr’, which according to the 83-year old male writer sounded ‘fraudulent’. Though Biden has made clear that she is not planning to be a traditional, fulltime First Lady, she was clearly being told to get back in her ‘wife of’ box. This year we’ve also seen a series of cases where women scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals were first-named in media interviews and captions, while the male experts who appeared beside them were ‘doctor’ and ‘professor’. Women who complain about this are often accused—sometimes even by feminists—of being petty and self-regarding: in my post about it I explained why I don’t think that’s the right response.    

You might be thinking: but what about all those articles we read this year which praised women political leaders for the way they were managing the Covid crisis? Didn’t that prove that female authority was finally getting some respect? I did write about this trend, taking the view that a lot of the commentary t was patronising, essentialist fluff. It lumped all kinds of women together (passing swiftly over those who were doing a terrible job, like some US state governors) and praised them in stereotypical terms for their empathy, their rapport with children, and their supposedly natural communication skills. It also glossed over the point that the worst pandemic leaders weren’t just any old men, they were right-wing populist mavericks like Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, men who couldn’t, at the best of times, manage their way out of a paper bag.

But in any case, it’s not just women in authority who suffer from the gender respect gap. This year I also wrote about the way girls and young women are treated in educational settings—both in universities, where so-called ‘lad culture’ continues to inspire much hand-wringing and little useful action, and in schools, where the verbal and other harassment of girls by boys has prompted a series of reports suggesting that Something Must Be Done, but somehow nothing ever happens because, as one pupil quoted in the latest report remarked, ‘nobody thinks it’s a big deal’. To my mind it’s a very big deal, one of the most important issues we as feminists need to address: we cannot create a culture of equality and respect if we teach our children from the age of 5—not explicitly but implicitly, through the everyday experience of going to school—that boys’ freedom to do and say what they like matters more than girls’ freedom to live and learn without harassment.

Finally on the subject of respect and its absence, in April I published my second most-read post of the year, about the disrespect to which women are routinely subjected as they age out of the category of desirable and compliant sexual objects. It’s been a terrible year for ageism in general–even as I write, I can see the Usual Suspects on Twitter are back on their ‘why not just let the over-60s die so the rest of us can get back to normal’ bullshit–but the way ageism interacts with sexism (and ageist language with sexist language) tells us a lot about what’s valued, and what isn’t, in women of every age.

Another recurring-and-by-no-means-unprecedented theme of the posts I published in 2020 was violence against women, the stories that are commonly told about it and the linguistic formulas that pop up repeatedly in those stories. In January I criticised the BBC’s coverage of two high-profile rape cases; in July I took a closer look at how the press reports physical assaults on women, and at the use of the cliché ‘an isolated incident’ in cases where women are killed by men. Though posts on this topic are never popular, I’ll go on using this blog to criticise the misleading and harmful narratives peddled by the media. They’re not the root cause of male violence, but they do play a major part in shaping most people’s understanding of it, and that in turn plays a part in licensing our present, patently inadequate response to it.

But I didn’t spend all my time accentuating the negative. One of my own favourite posts of 2020, inspired by Jonathon Green’s Sounds and Furies, a history of women and slang, celebrated the linguistic creativity of fishwives, fast young ladies, flappers, fictional schoolgirls, Valley Girls et al. I also had fun writing about that hardy perennial, gender and colour terms, aka ‘Why Real Men Don’t Know Lavender From Mauve’. And I was glad to be able to bring one of last year’s stories—about the campaign to change the entry for ‘woman’ in the Oxford Dictionary—up to date (a revised entry was published in November).

Meanwhile, as the year wore on, I began to suspect that the pandemic was having at least one unexpectedly positive effect–reducing volume of bullshit advice on how women should or shouldn’t speak. Apart from a brief flurry of corporate nonsense on International Women’s Day, we heard relatively little this year from the purveyors of ’empowering’ top tips. On the minus side, this may be only because they’d found a new outlet for their finger-wagging: instead of banging on about ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ they were busy telling women how to look ‘professional’ on Zoom (wear make-up, get a ring light, and make sure your home workspace contains no domestic clutter, whether it’s a pile of laundry or a stray child). Which is also irritatingly sexist, of course, but happily it falls outside this blog’s remit.

There were other subjects which I did feel moved to write about, and even started writing about, but then abandoned for lack of time (both work and basic life-admin take much longer in a pandemic). But I expect I’ll have opportunities to return to them in future: even in ‘unprecedented’ times, the basic problems faced by women tend to stick around. Meanwhile, as always, my thanks and good wishes to everyone who stuck around to read this blog in 2020.