Toy stories

This week the world said goodbye to Mr Potato Head. Hasbro, the company that makes the popular plastic tuber, announced that in future it will be adopting the more inclusive name ‘Potato Head’, so that everyone can feel ‘welcome in the Potato Head world’.

This news was greeted by the usual suspects in the usual manner–with either rapturous applause or thundering condemnation. The LGBT organisation GLAAD congratulated Hasbro on helping kids to ‘be their authentic selves outside of the pressures of traditional gender norms’; Piers Morgan complained that ‘woke imbeciles’ were ruining everything. But then Hasbro issued a clarification:  

While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the `MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD.

So, apart from some minor tweaks to the toy’s packaging (moving the ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ names from the top to the bottom of the box) the Potato Head world remains unchanged. You will still be able to create the familiar figures of Mr Potato Head and Mrs Potato Head (who hasn’t even become a Ms, let alone reverted to her unmarried name, Maris Piper), and the resources provided for that purpose will still be a set of stick-on bits and pieces that include a luxuriant moustache, eyes with or without long mascara’d lashes, a bowler hat, heeled red shoes, heavy black spectacles and a pink handbag. Of course, if you want to mix things up by teaming the bowler with the heels or sticking the moustache and the mascara’d eyes on the same potato-face, you will now be totally free to do so. EXACTLY AS YOU WERE BEFORE. 

Hasbro’s ‘rebranding’ of Mr Potato Head is an example of what’s been dubbed ‘woke capitalism’, where corporations seek to associate themselves with progressive political causes in the hope of burnishing their public image on the cheap. We see this every year when International Women’s Day rolls around, and big companies start putting out feelgood messages about women’s empowerment—last year, for instance, the energy company Shell temporarily rebranded itself ‘She’ll’—even if their Boards are 95% male and their gender pay-gap hasn’t shifted since the last time they made this gesture.

Often these corporate messages are bland and uncontroversial, but sometimes they’re designed to manufacture controversy. Hasbro’s announcement looks like a case in point: the company must have known that its ‘Potato Head goes gender-neutral’ message would immediately get dragged into the ongoing culture war around gender, generating thousands of words of free publicity. It worked like a dream: the announcement made headlines around the world. Yet all Hasbro had done was make a formulaic statement about its commitment to ‘gender equality and inclusiveness’. The product itself remains as gender-stereotyped as ever (not to mention as plastic as ever, and as dependent as ever on overseas manufacturers whose labour practices have raised questions).

But even if Hasbro really had decided to phase out the titles ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ and call the toy simply ‘Potato Head’, what impact would that have had on the way it was perceived and used? In my opinion, none. Whatever the characters were called on the box, I’m betting that most kids would still (a) use the pieces provided to make the traditional Mr and Mrs, and (b) treat the male version as the default or prototypical version. The world they inhabit, and are actively trying to make sense of, is one where both gender differentiation and androcentrism are the norm. You don’t have to give a toy a clearly gendered name for kids to impose a gender on it. Of course, if you want to change this, it makes sense to pay attention to language, but we shouldn’t think of language-change as a panacea. Gender-neutral terms, though undoubtedly useful in some contexts, are not a sure-fire way of eliminating bias.

In 1973, two researchers set out to investigate this question by asking students to suggest visual illustrations for a fictitious sociology textbook. Half the students were asked to find images to illustrate chapters with titles like ‘Urban Man’ and ‘Economic Man’; the other half were given alternative titles like ‘Life in Cities’ and ‘Economic Behavior’. The question was whether the use or avoidance of ‘man’ would influence the students’ choice of images. The researchers found it did have an influence. Nearly two thirds of the ‘man’ group’s suggestions were images that showed only men. But while women were better represented in the other group’s selection, they still only featured in around half of the suggested images. Both groups, in other words, showed a tendency to treat men as the human prototype; this tendency was strengthened by using androcentric language, but avoiding androcentric language did not eliminate it. The bias isn’t just in language, it’s ingrained in the way we’ve learned to think about the world.

This point about ingrained ways of thinking was dramatized in another story about toys that appeared this week, though it got far less attention than Mr Potato Head. Toni Sturdivant, a researcher based in Texas, has done a quasi-replication of a 1947 study which used dolls to investigate Black children’s ideas about race. The children who took part in this famous study had been presented with Black and white dolls, and asked questions like ‘which doll is the nice doll’? They showed a strong preference for the white dolls over the Black ones. The study’s findings were later used in the 1954 court case that paved the way for school desegregation in the US—Brown v. Board of Education—and they were also one inspiration for Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye.

Several decades later, Toni Sturdivant set out to investigate the perceptions of Black pre-school children by looking at their spontaneous interactions with a diverse selection of dolls. She didn’t want to repeat the original study’s somewhat unnatural and potentially stress-inducing design by quizzing her subjects directly; rather she provided four different dolls—one white, one Latina, and two Black (one with lighter and one with darker skin)–and observed how the children (in fact, girls) played with them. Here’s how she describes her observations.

The girls rarely chose the Black dolls during play. On the rare occasions that the girls chose the Black dolls, they mistreated them. One time a Black girl put the doll in a pot and pretended to cook the doll. That’s not something the girls did with the dolls that weren’t Black.

When it came time to do either of the Black dolls’ hair, the girls would pretend to be hairstylists and say, “I can’t do that doll’s hair. It’s too big,” or, “It’s too curly.” But they did the hair for the dolls of other ethnicities. While they preferred to style the Latina doll’s straight hair, they were also happy to style the slightly crimped hair of the white doll as well.

The children were more likely to step over or even step on the Black dolls to get to other toys. But that didn’t happen with the other dolls.

In 1947 the finding that Black children preferred white dolls to Black ones was put down to the effects of segregated schooling. Toni Sturdivant’s study, however, suggests that the root of the problem isn’t so much what kind of schools children attend as the messages they absorb from a culture pervaded by racism. Her findings also raise questions about the idea that the self-esteem of children who differ from the cultural prototype—Black and brown children, children with disabilities, gender non-conforming children—is automatically enhanced by giving them toys which look like them, and which they will therefore (it’s assumed) identify positively with. This diversification may be a necessary part of trying to create a more equal world, but on its own it clearly isn’t sufficient: it doesn’t override all the other messages kids are getting about what, and who, their society values.  

Stripping Mr Potato Head of his gendered title (while leaving him his hat, his moustache and his handbag-toting wife) will not override those messages either. It’s ridiculous to present this as striking a blow for equality and inclusiveness, or enabling children to ‘be their authentic selves outside the pressure of traditional gender norms’ (has the GLAAD spokesperson who wrote those words ever looked at Mr and Mrs Potato Head?) And it’s even more ridiculous to suggest, as some conservative commentators appeared to be doing, that a gender-neutral Potato Head will somehow mislead children about the nature of reality. If that were in any way a reasonable concern then the toy should surely have been banned years ago for blurring the natural distinction between humans and root vegetables.

This is what happens when the goodness or badness of of gender-neutral/inclusive language becomes a tribal article of faith instead of a question to be assessed on its merits, which will vary with the context and the case. People talk embarrassing nonsense, and the result is to create an even more hospitable climate for cynical PR stunts like Hasbro’s.

‘You have no authority here’

We’re not even a week into February, but the shortest month has already produced two news stories on one of this blog’s perennial themes: the Divine Right of men to talk at, about and over women.

One of these stories garnered international attention. In Japan, Yoshiro Mori, head of the organising committee for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, pushed back against proposals to increase the representation of women by saying that women talk too much at meetings. ‘Women’, he explained, ‘have a strong sense of rivalry. If one raises her hand to speak, all the others feel the need to speak too’. The ensuing outcry prompted what was described as ‘a grovelling apology’, though not—as yet—Mr Mori’s resignation. I won’t comment further, because I said what I had to say in this post about (ex-) Uber director David Bonderman, who made a near-identical gaffe in 2017. Different country, different man, same story. [Update: a few days after this post was first published, Mori did resign.]

The other news item concerned a meeting of the Handforth Parish Council held remotely last December, which became a viral sensation in Britain last week after a recording was posted online. It featured a woman named Jackie Weaver, Chief Executive of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils, who had been parachuted in to act as Clerk after concerns were raised about the conduct of some council members. What you see in the viral clip is a series of male councillors bellowing at Ms Weaver (‘STOP TALKING…YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY HERE JACKIE WEAVER…READ THE STANDING ORDERS’), to which she responds by calmly removing them from the call and parking them in the virtual waiting room. Two female councillors, meanwhile, intervene to urge civility and get on with the business of the meeting. They don’t raise their voices; their interventions (Yoshiro Mori please note) are brief and to the point.

Many of us will, at some time in our lives, have wondered how men like Yoshiro Mori and Brian Tolver, Chair of Handsforth Parish Council, came to be such prize asses. Perhaps there’s a clue in a recent piece of research. Last month a couple of people sent me the link to a brief item in the US academic weekly Inside Higher Ed, headed ‘Study: Men Talk 1.6 Times More Than Women in College Classrooms’. The study in question, titled ‘Who speaks and who listens: revisiting the chilly climate on college campuses’, has just been published in the journal Gender & Society, and it’s worth taking a closer look at.

The phrase ‘chilly climate’ alludes to a report that first appeared in 1982 (‘The classroom climate: a chilly one for women?’), and what the authors, Roberta Hall and Bernice Sandler, meant by it was ‘an environment that dampens women’s self-esteem, confidence, aspirations and their participation’. When I worked in the US in the late 1980s it was used among the feminist academics I knew as shorthand for everything from the endemic problem of sexual harassment to the way women students were ignored or interrupted when they tried to make a point in class.  

It’s that last aspect of the chilly climate which this new article revisits, with the aim of finding out whether the patterns reported in the 1980s have persisted into the 21st century. The research was conducted by the first author, Jennifer Lee, for her undergraduate thesis at Dartmouth College, where her co-author Janice McCabe is a sociology professor. In the article they refer to the institution as ‘Oakwood College’, but I think we can assume it’s actually Dartmouth.

To answer the question ‘who speaks and who listens’, Lee observed nine different classes—three each in science, social science and humanities—over a period of five weeks; this gave her a sample of 80 class meetings adding up to 95 hours of classroom talk. Five of the nine classes were taught by women and four were taught by men; they all included (though in varying proportions) both male and female students. Lee used a coding frame to record her observations systematically:

each time a student spoke, we noted their observed gender based on their appearances and pronouns, type of student response (comment, question, answer to professor’s question, or response to a previous comment), and the beginning of interactions (raise hand, speak out, called on by professor). As much as possible, we captured students’ and professors’ exact words and body language.

She also kept fieldnotes, supplementing the information captured by coding with observations about ‘the feel of what happened’. When the data were analysed, two main patterns emerged.

First, men took up more ‘sonic space’ than women: on average they spoke 1.6 times as much. They were more likely to speak ‘out of turn’ (that is, without either being called on or raising their hands), and to interrupt someone who was already speaking; they were also more likely to engage in prolonged exchanges with the teacher.

As always, though, averaging flattens out the differences within each group. The researchers’ discussion suggests that the pattern was disproportionately affected by the behaviour of one or two individuals in each class—men like ‘Danny’, of whom Lee wrote in her fieldnotes that ‘he completely dominates the conversation’. Or ‘Tom’, whose behaviour in one session Lee’s notes describe like this:

As the class continues, Tom cannot hold still…[he] has already interrupted the professor multiple times. Before Tom can continue arguing with the professor, the professor calls on Jackie instead. As Jackie is making a comment, Tom interrupts her…

While it’s telling, as the researchers comment, that they didn’t observe a single class in which a woman was the dominant speaker, it’s also important to recognise that only some men behave like Tom and Danny.

The second pattern to which Lee and McCabe draw attention is that men tended to formulate their contributions more assertively than women. 

Men’s comments included strong phrases like: “I’m not kidding.” “It’s impossible.” “That will never happen.” One man commented on a thought experiment initiated by the professor by saying: “Imagining that . . . is preposterous.”

‘In contrast’, the article goes on,

women students’ tones were largely hesitant and apologetic. In one class session, numerous women’s presentations started with hedges such as: “Um, so I couldn’t find a whole lot online, but… ” “I don’t want to repeat the lecture too much, but .. .” “Perhaps this is too specific, but…”    

Later they note that ‘women repeatedly answered professors’ questions with another question, such as “Isn’t it what they are doing?” …Even when they clearly had the correct answer, women often double checked their answers by offering them in question formats’.

These comments might strike us as uncomfortably close to all those finger-wagging pop-advice pieces telling women they’re undermining themselves at work by ‘over-apologising’ and saying ‘just’ too much. The comparison isn’t entirely fair: unlike the pop-advice writers, Lee and McCabe are not in the business of either blaming women or fixing them. Rather, as they say in their conclusion, they want to ‘shift the blame from individual-level to interactional social processes that continue to disadvantage women’. But like a lot of the earlier research their study revisits, I do think they’re still implicitly operating with a deficit model of women’s speech-style.

My evidence for that is in the article’s own language. Men’s comments are described as ‘strong’ whereas women’s are ‘hesitant’; men who engage in prolonged exchanges with the teacher are said to ‘actively pursue answers and claim an education, rather than passively receiving education’. Even if the intention isn’t to blame women, these lexical oppositions—‘active/passive’ and ‘strong/hesitant’—have an obvious evaluative loading. They suggest that the male pattern is preferable. And for feminists I think that should raise questions. Is talking less, or less assertively, inherently disadvantageous for learning, or is that assumption based on unexamined cultural prejudices?

In my 37 years as a university teacher I have often pondered that question, beginning in the late 1980s when, as I mentioned earlier, I moved from the UK to teach in the US. One of the differences I found most striking was how much American students talked. The belief that talking was essential for learning was stronger in the US than (at the time) it was back home, and it was reflected in the practice of giving a ‘participation grade’ (i.e., some of the marks for each class had to be earned by actively contributing to class discussion). The grade was meant to reward the quality rather than just the quantity of students’ contributions, but if you wanted to do well, total silence was not an option.

My next job was in Scotland, where my students were more reserved. I had one class whose members were so reluctant to talk, I eventually asked them directly what their problem was. After a lengthy, awkward silence, a student finally spoke up. ‘What’s the point of talking’, he said, ‘when we know we’d only be talking pish?’

These students didn’t share the belief that talking in class was the key to learning. And since then I’ve taught students from many other parts of the world where that is not the prevailing view. It’s a historically and culturally specific belief, and in my experience students who don’t embrace it, for whatever reason, learn just as much (or as little) as those who do. There are, of course, cases where silence does signal disengagement, but I’ve had plenty of students who spoke rarely in class, but then produced written work which showed they’d been fully engaged. Though personally I prefer a talkative class, I no longer believe that talking in itself is a measure of how much a student is learning.     

So, am I saying it’s not really a problem if women aren’t getting as much airtime as men in college classrooms? No: in an academic culture like Oakwood’s, which directly rewards students for talking, it’s clearly a problem if the dominance of some men denies women (and other men) opportunities to talk. And it’s always a problem when women like ‘Jackie’ are interrupted and talked over so their contributions go unheeded. What I’m questioning, rather, is the tendency to treat stereotypically male behaviour as a model for success in every activity, whether that’s politics, management, or—as in this case—learning.

Often this argument is based on a kind of common-sense logic: men are more successful at X than women, so women who want to succeed at X should model themselves on men. But in the case of higher education this seems perverse, since if their grades are anything to go by, men are not more successful learners than women. Today in the US, on average, women have higher GPAs than men. Of course, I’ve already said that averages don’t tell the whole story. Maybe the point is more that women who already do well would do even better if they were more like Tom and Danny, men who ‘pursue answers and actively claim an education’.

But how do we know that Tom and Danny are learning more, or doing better, than their less vocal classmates? The short answer is, we don’t: the article contains no information on anyone’s grades. It’s surely at least conceivable that these men’s classroom performances of alpha-maleness are actually doing them no favours. Their compulsion to dominate rather than listening to other views might even be harming their education.  

Still, grades aren’t the only thing you go to college for–especially if it’s an elite college like Dartmouth. Even if they’re not helping themselves academically, the Dannys and Toms may be cultivating habits that will help them to be successful later on. Perhaps Danny is fashioning himself into exactly the kind of person who will eventually impress the recruiters for a top law firm; whereas Jackie, who waits to be called on and does not protest when Tom interrupts her, will get fewer and less prestigious job offers, despite having equally good grades.

If you’ve seen this scenario play out enough times, of course you’ll be tempted to conclude that Jackie would have a better chance if she were more like Danny. But as I’ve pointed out many times before, that isn’t how it works in practice. The behaviours we reward in men will often attract disapproval or resistance when they come from women: ‘STOP TALKING…YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY HERE’.  

I am not a fan of the ‘Mars and Venus’ approach to language and gender which portrays women collectively as co-operative and caring while men are competitive status-seekers. There’s a lot of variation in both groups, and to the extent the Mars and Venus generalisation holds at all, I would say it does so largely because of sexism, which leads us to reward (or punish) different behaviours in male and female speakers. But when I look at something like Lee’s fieldnotes about Tom, or the recording of the Handforth Parish Council meeting, I do wonder why we keep on rewarding a style of hyper-masculine performance which in many situations is so patently dysfunctional.

In the classroom we reward it when we allow students like Tom free rein; in other settings we reward it by elevating men like Brian Tolver to positions of responsibility. I’ve never been a parish councillor, but in my long experience of other nonfeminist bodies – juries, local voluntary groups, workplace committees – it’s absolutely typical for self-important blowhards like Tolver to be chosen by their peers as leaders and spokespeople. We favour these men because they match our cultural template for what ‘authority’ looks and sounds like. Maybe it’s our template that we really need to change.

Pussy riot

Last week was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and the NHS’s myGP app used its Twitter account to suggest that women could raise awareness about the importance of regular screening by using the hashtag #myCat to share ‘an image of the cat that best reflects your undercarriage/flower/bits (technical term, vulva!) current look’. The accompanying image of three cats–long-haired, hairless and short-haired–was captioned ‘Bushy, bare or halfway there’.

What, we might ask, do pubic hairstyles have to do with cervical cancer prevention? An answer eventually surfaced: in a survey of over 2000 women, a third of the respondents said they would avoid going for screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their ‘bikini area’. So, #myCat is intended to address a real issue. But it’s an odd way to go about it: who, confronted with this survey finding, would think, ‘I know, let’s reassure these women that no one’s going to judge them by running a campaign that invites them to share the current state of their pubes on social media, through the ever-popular medium of a cat pic?’

The ‘no one’s going to judge you’ message has been conveyed in other ways too. In verse, for example: ‘The nurse isn’t fussed/ if you haven’t had a trim/ She’s looking at your cervix/ not your lovely hairy quim/ The nurse don’t care if it’s jungle or fluff/ It’s about saving lives/ not a nice neat muff/’.

As well-intentioned as all this may be, it points to a serious problem with the language of health messaging on this subject. In an effort to make the messages more ‘relatable’, their creators persistently resort to language which is either vague and euphemistic (‘undercarriage/flower/bits’) or overtly sexualised-slash-pornified (‘quim’, ‘muff’). #myCat manages to be both at once: ‘cat’ is being used here as a euphemism for ‘pussy’, which may have originated as a euphemism itself, but is now a sexualised term not only for women’s ‘bits’, but also for women themselves, imagined as men’s collective prey (‘he spends his life chasing pussy’).

To many women (as their Twitter responses made clear) this language, in the context of a cancer prevention campaign, is not relatable, it’s offensive. Are men ever addressed in such a coy and cutesy way? One woman on Twitter, @iseult, addressed that question with a male-oriented riff on #myCat:

Share an image of the chicken that best reflects your chicken tenders, beanbags, gangoolies (technical term testicles!) current look. Use the Hashtag #myChickenBalls. Tell and tag your friends to let them know

@Iseult is right: It’s hard to imagine this getting onto, let alone off, the drawing board.

But as I pointed out back in 2015, men and women aren’t in the same position when it comes to talking about their ‘bits’. Large numbers of people are profoundly ignorant about female sexual anatomy: one of the studies I discussed in my earlier post (conducted in 2014) found that 50% of women under 35 could not locate the vagina on a diagram. In another study, 65% of respondents said they avoided using the words ‘vagina’ and vulva’, which they regarded as embarrassing or offensive. Yet another study suggested that most words for female sexual organs are perceived to be degrading (the main exception was ‘vagina’). And there is little agreement on what nonclinical terms like ‘pussy’ and ‘fanny’ actually refer to.

These findings do pose a problem for health messaging, in that the language health professionals might prefer to use may be unacceptable, or unintelligible, to the women they are trying to reach. With men this is less of an issue: they might not know what or where their epididymis is, but they’re not going to confuse their penis with their testicles, or be too embarrassed even to utter those words.   

It might seem that the solution is straightforward: education. No girl (and actually, no boy either) should leave school without having learned both the relevant anatomical facts and the associated terminology. And I do think that’s important, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and on its own I don’t think it’s enough.

The underlying problem here—the root cause of the ignorance, the reticence, the retreat into vagueness and euphemism—is shame. And school is often where that starts. Research has found that girls in school are routinely subjected to body shaming and sexual shaming, which–to quote one girl who was interviewed for a recent report–they ‘just have to put up with, because no one thinks it’s a big deal’. A teacher who was quoted in the same report specifically referred to boys harassing and shaming girls with intrusive questions about their pubic hair—how much they had and whether they shaved it. Is it any wonder young women feel the anxieties which the poem I quoted earlier decries as trivial?

Perhaps it’s to myGP’s credit that they don’t pile shame on shame by simply castigating young women for their stupidity; but what they’ve chosen to do instead is not much better. The suggestion that women should tell the world (in cat-code) if their pubes are ‘bushy, bare or halfway there’ has something in common with the kind of harassment I’ve just mentioned: in both cases women are being sexualised in a context where that’s incongruous and unwelcome. Seriously, did no one at myGP see how weird this is? If someone’s actual GP commented on her ‘bushy undercarriage’ she’d have grounds to make a formal complaint, and I don’t think the doctor would get very far by saying ‘well, I’d heard that a lot of women are self-conscious about their pubic hair, so I was just trying to be reassuring’.

MyGP is not, of course, an actual GP, but it does represent the NHS, and its mode of address to women should reflect that. I’m not saying that public health messaging has to be rigidly factual, humourless, and couched exclusively in coldly clinical language. But women are not children, and the cancers which affect them are not cute, sexy or a joke. I don’t know if #myCat will raise awareness about cervical cancer, or persuade more women to turn up for screening; but it has certainly made me even more aware than I was before of the sexism that still pervades both our language and our institutions.

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 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.

Don’t drop the doc: Jill Biden and performative outrage

Last week The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein headed ‘Is there a doctor in the White House? Not if you need an MD’ . This header suggested that what followed would be a rehash of the perennial debate on whether ‘Dr’ should be reserved exclusively for medics (cue 300 indignant tweets from academics reminding us that the title was given to the learned when medicine was still the province of barbers and quacks); but while that was certainly in the mix, it turned out to be buried in a steaming pile of sexist condescension aimed at a high-profile, topical target. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, here’s the opening paragraph:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

Whether women who have doctorates should be permitted to use the title ‘Dr’ is also a perennial question. British feminists may recall the case of the historian Fern Riddell, who was deluged with abuse on social media in 2018 after she expressed the view that she, and other academic experts consulted by the media, should be given their professional titles. Accused of lacking humility, Riddell created the hashtag #ImmodestWomen.

Joseph Epstein, similarly, thinks Jill Biden should ‘drop the doc’. Addressing her as ‘Mrs Biden’, ‘Jill’ and ‘kiddo’, he informs her that her title sounds ‘fraudulent’, though he evidently knows it isn’t, because his next move is to suggest that her degree, an Ed.D from the University of Delaware, is academically worthless. (This disparaging assessment is itself an indirect manifestation of sexism: in the US, more women earn doctoral degrees in education than in any other discipline.) Only then do we get the ‘leave Dr for the medics’ argument, which he attributes—of course—to a ‘wise man’ (though a wiser man might have chosen a different procedure as his litmus test for Dr-worthiness, given how many millions of children throughout history have been delivered without the assistance of an MD).

Epstein’s piece attracted numerous complaints, and two days later the Wall Street Journal responded by suggesting that a campaign had been orchestrated by (Joe) Biden’s media team. The criticism, it noted, had only really taken off following a tweet from Biden press spokesman Michael LaRosa, who called the article ‘a disgusting and sexist attack’. ‘If you had any respect for women at all’, he added, ‘you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to [Jill Biden]’. The Journal’s line was that the Biden team had seized on this ‘relatively minor issue’ as an opportunity to score culture-war points through a display of performative outrage. Though it came from a different ideological direction, this bullying of the press, it said, was uncomfortably reminiscent of Trump.  

Does this response stand up to scrutiny? I’d say, yes and no. I do think Michael LaRosa’s tweet was an instance of ‘performative outrage’: he must have known that any self-respecting newspaper would resist, on principle, calls from a member of the president-elect’s staff to take down or apologise for an article that criticised the president-elect’s wife. I also have some sympathy for the Journal’s own interpretation of the offending piece: ‘Mr. Epstein criticized the habit of people with Ph.D.s or other doctorates calling themselves “Dr.” as highfalutin, using Jill Biden as Exhibit A’. In other words, the point of it wasn’t (just) to attack Jill Biden. If you can drag your eyes away from the appalling first paragraph, that isn’t an unreasonable summary.

That is not to say, however, that Epstein’s criticism of Jill Biden was incidental or peripheral. It was the peg for his op-ed, which would otherwise have been just a generic rant about falling academic standards and professorial self-aggrandisement that could have been written at any time in the last 60 years. It certainly wouldn’t have generated the kind of controversy which drives lots of extra traffic to a newspaper’s website. In a media economy where outrage pays dividends, the performative outrage of the Biden team was a gift to the Journal, and its complaint about orchestrated bullying was just more performative outrage. And amid all this outrage, we began to lose sight of what’s actually at stake when women are accused of being over-invested in titles like ‘Dr’.

I don’t want to lose sight of that issue, especially since I’ve now seen several feminists online suggesting that even if Epstein made it in a gratuitously insulting way, he actually had a point. Is it not absurdly self-important of Jill Biden to insist on being referred to as ‘Dr’ in any context other than the strictly academic?

I understand where that view comes from—as I’ve written before, the question of titles is one a lot of feminists are conflicted about. On one hand we believe women should be treated with the same respect as men, but on the other we are uncomfortable with the overt marking of status differentials. Many of us (including me, as I admitted in my earlier post) choose not to challenge people who first-name us or call us ‘Ms X’ while addressing our male colleagues as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’, because we don’t want to be seen as elitist, old-fashioned, vain, insecure or unapproachable.

But there are also good arguments for the opposite approach. After I blogged about #ImmodestWomen, I heard from a number of women with PhDs who said they used ‘Dr’ outside their professional lives—for instance, when filling in forms at the dentist’s surgery or booking flights online—not because they expected their status to get them better service, but because it liberated them from the eternal question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ A man with a doctorate who chooses to go by ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’ in private life is not in danger of being treated as someone’s appendage: for women it’s a different matter.

In Jill Biden’s case, anyone who thinks she should use ‘Dr’ only for academic purposes is essentially saying that for all other purposes she should be ‘Mrs’, i.e. defined by her status as a wife. I don’t, of course, know Jill Biden, but it seems fairly clear that she resists being defined in that way. She’s the first US president’s wife in history who has declined to make First Ladyhood her fulltime occupation, instead declaring that she will continue to teach at a community college in Virginia. It’s at least plausible that her preference for the title ‘Dr’ has less to do with intellectual self-importance than with symbolising her commitment to maintaining some measure of independence.

The other thing we should remember before we criticise women like Jill Biden is that even in their professional lives women are frequently denied professional titles. This manifestation of what in an earlier post I called ‘the gender respect gap’ is the subject of many anecdotal complaints among women in academia, and it has been documented systematically in medicine. A study which looked at doctors introducing other doctors at ‘Grand Rounds’ discovered that men introducing women only referred to them as ‘Dr X’ in 49% of cases, whereas the figure for men introducing men was over 70%–and women almost always used the title when introducing colleagues of both sexes.

The media are also regular offenders, persistently addressing or referring to male guest experts as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’ while their female counterparts are first-named. In this Year of the Plague, when scientists and medics have been constantly on our screens, there has been ample opportunity to witness this tendency in action. Here’s a case in point:

The two people in this image are Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Hugh Pennington, a virologist. The caption gives each of them an institutional affiliation, but only Pennington gets the title ‘Professor’. Which would be one thing if he were the only professor in the room, but in fact Donna Kinnair is a professor too. She’s also a DBE: a fully accurate caption would have called her ‘Professor Dame Donna Kinnair’.

This example is particularly bad because it involves captioning, which there is time to check, as opposed to being an error made inadvertently in a live interview. I say ‘error’ because in most cases I don’t believe the media intend to treat men and women differently; I think it’s more likely to be a product of unconscious bias. Or in this particular case, intersecting biases: Kinnair is a woman, she’s Black, and her field is nursing, and all those things are at odds with our cultural prototype of a professor. The older white man beside her, by contrast, fits the prototype perfectly.  

Maybe Donna Kinnair thinks there are more important things to worry about than whether the captioners gave her the correct title, and if so we might think that’s to her credit. But there’s more to the problem of gendered disrespect than just the feelings of the individual women on the receiving end. Every time we tolerate the titling of a male expert and the non-titling of the female expert alongside him, we are effectively reinforcing the beliefs that are the root of the problem—for instance, that professors look like Hugh Pennington and not like Donna Kinnair. And that has knock-on effects. If it’s true that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, then there’s a reason to insist that women’s status should be made explicit which is not just about flattery or self-regard.

I don’t think the answer is performative outrage (in hindsight I regret having performed my own outrage about Joseph Epstein’s piece on Twitter). If the aim is to change things, as opposed to just getting people briefly riled up about them, a better strategy might be quiet, dogged, civilly phrased complaint. ‘Dear TV programme producer, I noticed tonight that your captions identified the two experts in your Covid-19 item as Professor Hugh Pennington and Donna Kinnair. Perhaps you were not aware that Donna Kinnair is also a Professor. I’d like to suggest that in future you adopt a general policy of checking these captions to ensure they provide viewers with accurate information about each guest’s expert credentials’.  

Of course, it’s harder to call out bias when you yourself are at the sharp end, and when the disrespect is coming from your colleagues or your students. That does feel petty and it can feel self-regarding. We all have to choose our battles, and if a woman chooses not to fight this one she’ll get no argument from me—except for the one I’ve made here, and in other posts on this subject, that the granting or withholding of respect titles is not the trivial concern it’s often made out to be. If it’s so trivial, why do so many men become so enraged when a woman expresses the desire to be known as ‘Dr X’?  What impels them to respond with such extraordinary condescension (‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ ‘Mrs Biden—Jill—Kiddo: a bit of advice’)?

At some level I think these men must see the move women like Riddell and Biden are making as an attack on the ‘natural’ (aka patriarchal) order in which men rank above women, and women should defer to men. Hostility towards women who insist on professional titles may also reflect the (conscious or unconscious) belief that whatever else women may do, their most important roles are still the traditional ones of wife and mother. Women who decline to take their husbands’ last names when they marry elicit similarly hostile reactions, and for the same reason. They aren’t just defying convention, they’re challenging assumptions that patriarchy takes for granted. That’s why the gesture isn’t trivial; and that’s why it deserves feminists’ support.     

‘Woman’: an update

Back in the summer of 2019, I wrote about a petition which called on Oxford University Press to change the Oxford dictionary entry for ‘woman’. It was started by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi after she googled the word ‘woman’ and was shocked by what her search returned—entries full of insulting synonyms (‘baggage’, ‘besom’, ‘bint’) and time-warped example sentences like ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’. Oxford wasn’t the only offender, but its market position and reputation made it a prime target for Giovanardi’s campaign. Her petition attracted media attention, and ultimately over 30,000 signatures. Oxford announced that it was undertaking a review. And earlier this month, the first results were unveiled.

Here’s what you get if you google ‘woman’ now:  

Woman /ˈwʊmən/ noun

noun: woman; plural noun: women

  1. an adult female human being. “a drawing of a young woman”

Similar: lady, adult female, female, girl, person, lass, lassie, wife, colleen, Frau, Signora, Señora, the female of the species, member of the fair sex, member of the fairer sex, bird, gal, Jane, sister, Sheila, femme, Judy, dame, broad, frail, maid, maiden, damsel, demoiselle, gentlewoman, bint, mare, [offensive] bitch

  • a female member of a workforce, team, etc. “thousands of women were laid off”
  • a female person associated with a particular place, activity, or occupation “she was the first Oxford woman to take a first in Physics”
  • a disrespectful form of address to a woman “don’t be daft, woman!”
  • DATED  a female person who is paid to clean someone’s house and carry out other domestic duties “a daily woman”
  • a person’s wife, girlfriend, or female lover. “he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him”

Similar: girlfriend, girl, partner, significant other,  wife, spouse, consort, fiancée, lover, mistress, sweetheart, inamorata, better half, other half, baby, Mrs, old lady, gf, missus, bird, her indoors, mot, dona, bibi, querida, lady friend, lady love, young lady, lady, lady wife, old dutch, squeeze, patootie, leman, doxy, paramour

  • a person with the qualities traditionally associated with females. “I feel more of a woman by empowering myself to do what is right for me”
  • a female individual; one “with that money, a woman could buy a house and put two kids through college”

First, a pedantic point: though many headlines said Oxford had ‘changed the definition of woman’, in fact the definition has not changed: it’s still ‘adult female human being’. What’s changed is some of the other stuff that appears in a dictionary entry. The list of synonyms no longer includes some of the archaic and little-used terms from the previous version (e.g. ‘besom’, ‘wench’); it does still contain some insulting items, on the grounds that they remain in common use, but notes have been added explaining that ‘bitch’, for example, is ‘offensive’. Some more specialised senses of ‘woman’ get similar warning labels. ‘Woman’ as a vocative (as in ‘don’t be daft, woman!’) is ‘disrespectful’, and ‘woman’ in the sense of ‘maid/cleaner’ is ‘dated’.

The old example sentences have been ditched; the new ones depict women in what Oxford calls an ‘active and positive’ way, getting first class degrees in physics, empowering themselves and putting their children through college. Even the less upbeat ‘thousands of women were laid off’ is an implicit reminder of women’s presence in the paid workforce. I’ll confess to finding this a bit heavy-handed, as though the entry-writer had decided to atone for the casual sexism of the past by choosing only examples with an Uplifting Feminist Message. But that’s a minor quibble: the new examples do a decent job of illustrating the usages they’ve been chosen to exemplify.    

For most media commentators, however, the most newsworthy aspect of the revision was not the culling of archaic synonyms or the use of examples showing women in a positive light. What really caught their attention was the shift to LGBT-inclusive language in ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover’. Pink News, unsurprisingly, led on this change—but so did many mainstream publications which are not exactly known for their cutting-edge sexual politics. The Daily Mail, for instance, ran a report headed ‘Oxford English Dictionary updates entry for “woman” so that it is now defined as a “person’s” wife, girlfriend or lover as opposed to a man’s after gender review’, and went on to note that the entry for ‘man’ has had a parallel makeover: it ‘now reads as “a person’s husband, boyfriend or male lover”’.   

These updates were undoubtedly needed. We’ve been referring to same-sex partners as ‘wives/husbands’ for several years now, and same-sex uses of ‘boyfriend/girlfriend/lover’ go back much further. But the issue being addressed by the substitution of ‘person’ for ‘man/woman’ is not sexism but heterosexism. The commentators who hailed it as a breakthrough seem not to have noticed that it’s an isolated and largely token gesture: the rest of this section, beginning with the example sentence ‘he wondered whether Billy had his woman with him’ and continuing with a list of synonyms which includes ‘her indoors’, ‘doxy’ and ‘patootie’, is still entirely patriarchal and heteronormative.

Some readers did notice this, and were evidently confused by it: their comments on the Mail story included ‘People in general are definitively much more than just the roles they fill in others’ lives’, and ‘So a woman is not an individual person but belong[s] to somebody else?’ This criticism does not reflect the overall emphasis of the entry, where ‘a person’s wife, girlfriend or female lover’ is only one of several senses listed. But it does reflect the emphasis the media gave to the LGBT inclusion angle, which led some readers to conclude that ‘wife, girlfriend or female lover’ was now the primary definition of ‘woman’, and to wonder–not unreasonably–why that was supposed to be progress.   

Though the petition focused specifically on the ‘woman’ entry, Oxford’s review did not stop there. Revisions have also been made to other entries which were thought to pose similar problems. Many news reports mentioned two of these: ‘housework’, where the example ‘she still does all the housework’ has been replaced by ‘I was busy doing housework when the doorbell rang’, and ‘high-maintenance’, where the sentence ‘if Martin could keep a high-maintenance girl like Tania happy, he must be doing something right’ has been replaced by ‘I freely admit to being high-maintenance’.   

These substitutions, while unobjectionable, show the limitations of an approach which tackles stereotyping by simply replacing sex-specific examples with gender-neutral/inclusive ones. When you read ‘I freely admit to being high-maintenance’, who do you imagine as the ‘I’? In many cases we would tend to imagine a gender-unspecified person as male by default, but in this case I’m betting that most readers will picture a woman. Part of what English-speakers know about the expression ‘high-maintenance’ is that when it’s used to describe a person, that person is likely to be female (I did a quick corpus search to check, and found that references to ‘high-maintenance’ women were over three times more frequent than similar references to men). If you want to block that association, you probably need to pick an explicitly male-referring example. A gender-neutral one avoids overt stereotyping, but it doesn’t prevent the covert stereotyping that results from readers interpreting ‘I’ in relation to their pre-existing cultural and linguistic knowledge.

But in any case there’s a question about whether a descriptive dictionary, one whose aim is to document, as OUP’s press statement put it, ‘how real people use English in their daily lives’, should be trying to block associations which are part of our knowledge about words. It’s one thing if the sexism is gratuitous—if a sexist example has been selected for no good reason (as appears to have been the case with Oxford’s use of ‘a rabid feminist’ to illustrate ‘rabid’, which was criticised on social media a few years ago); but if there’s evidence that ‘high-maintenance’ really is used more frequently about women, should that not be reflected in the entry for it? Should dictionaries be trying to present us with a less biased world than the one we currently inhabit—or is their real obligation to reflect the world as it is, and as it shapes our use of words?

For the makers of dictionaries this is a perennial, and genuinely difficult, question. They may say that their decisions are ‘driven solely by evidence about how real people use English in their daily lives’, but ‘solely’ is an overstatement: they also have to consider what real people want from, and find acceptable in, their products. Sensitivities change over time—in the past many controversies turned on matters of taste and decency, whereas today there is more concern about diversity and bias—but what doesn’t change is the existence of competing pressures, and the difficulty of finding a balance between them.  

Has Oxford found the right balance? Maria Beatrice Giovanardi told reporters that while she is mostly happy with the revisions, she’s disappointed by the retention of ‘bitch’, and will continue to press for its removal. I think she’s got a point: while I don’t believe offensive epithets should be airbrushed out of dictionaries, I do struggle with the logic of putting ‘bitch’ on a list of synonyms for ‘woman’.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s take a look at the list of synonyms in the ‘man’ entry:

male, gentleman, guy, fellow, gent, mother’s son, bloke, chap, geezer, lad, Joe, dude, bro, hombre, digger, oke, ou, oom, bodach, cove, carl.

Essentially this is a list of stylistic and/or regional variants meaning ‘man’, or in a couple of cases ‘old man’. The corresponding list in the ‘woman’ entry (see above) also includes informal and regional variants (e.g. ‘girl/gal’, ‘lassie’, ‘colleen’, ‘Sheila’), but in addition it features two sets of words which have no parallel on the ‘man’ list: archaic courtly terms (‘maiden’, ‘damsel/demoiselle’, ‘member of the fair(er) sex’) and belittling or dehumanising insults (‘bint’, ‘bird’, ‘bitch’, ‘mare’–though not ‘cunt’, which suggests that evidence-based decision-making does have limits).

This is what I meant when I used the word ‘logic’: it’s not just that the two lists contain different words (which you’d obviously expect), it’s that they seem to have been compiled on different principles. That can’t be because there are no comparable words for men. If you’re going to count ‘bitch’ and ‘mare’ as synonyms for ‘woman’, you could equally count ‘stallion’, ‘cock’ and ‘stag’ as synonyms for ‘man’. True, they’re not exact equivalents (the difference reflects our culture’s more negative attitude to female sexuality), but if it’s relevant to include words from this general category in the ‘woman’ entry, why not do the same for ‘man’? If the casually contemptuous ‘bint’ belongs on one list, why doesn’t the other include, say, ‘git’ or ‘bastard’? If ‘damsel’, why not ‘knight’?

I’m not seriously suggesting that these terms should be added to the ‘man’ entry. The serious question is why flowery euphemisms and insults are deemed essential for our understanding of ‘woman’, whereas ‘man’ requires no such elaboration. I’m inclined to see this asymmetry as a hangover from the long history of treating ‘woman’ as man’s ‘Other’, and representing her from men’s perspective. Just removing ‘bitch’ would not resolve this deeper problem–but I do think it needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

So, from me as from Maria Beatrice Giovanardi, it’s two cheers for Oxford’s revisions. Heartfelt cheers in my case, though, because I don’t think we should underestimate either the magnitude or the difficulty of the task they’ve taken on. It’s a lot easier to criticise a dictionary than it is to make one.          

Inclusion beyond English

Last month, somewhat unusually, the English-language media acknowledged that debates on inclusive language are not confined to the English-speaking world. What caught their attention was a story from Germany, where the Interior Ministry had rejected a Bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice. The Bill dealt with insolvency, and made reference to various categories of people including employees, landlords, consumers and debtors. But instead of using masculine forms like ‘Verbraucher’ (consumer) and ‘Schuldner’ (debtor), the draft used the feminine forms ‘Verbraucherin’ and ‘Schuldnerin’. As the New York Times helpfully explained, it was as if the author of an English legal document had used ‘actresses’ to mean ‘actors and actresses’.

The proverbial Martian visitor might wonder why that was a problem. ‘Verbraucherin’ does literally include ‘Verbraucher’, whereas the reverse is not the case (the same is true of many English feminine forms—for instance, ‘shepherdess’ includes ‘shepherd’ and ‘hostess’ includes ‘host’). But humans know the rule is the opposite. In German as in English, ‘actors’ can be used to mean thespians in general, but ‘actresses’ refers exclusively to female members of the profession.

That asymmetry was what bothered the Interior minister Horst Seehofer. He was concerned that the law as drafted might only apply to women, making it unworkable and potentially unconstitutional. Eventually the Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht capitulated, and the Bill was rewritten using the conventional, masculine forms. A spokesperson explained that this had been done to solve a linguistic problem, and was not intended to make a political statement:

The generic feminine for use for male and female people has not yet been linguistically recognized. This applies completely independently of whether a certain social state is desired.

Yet disagreements about the wording of the law were rather obviously political. Support for the use of feminine forms came from left-of-centre politicians like Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat, and the Green Party, while opposition came from those on the right, like Horst Seehofen of the Christian Social Union and the extreme right AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland). This is not and never has been a purely linguistic debate, either in Germany or anywhere else.

In Britain, the principle that masculine terms should be interpreted inclusively for legal purposes was formalised in 1850, when Parliament passed an Act of Interpretation stating that ‘Words importing the Masculine Gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females…unless the contrary is expressly provided’. But in practice, as Dennis Baron recounts in his book What’s Your Pronoun? this provision was not applied consistently.

In 1868 the Representation of the People Act superseded an earlier statute which had specified that only a ‘male person’ could register to vote. The new law replaced ‘male person’ with ‘man’, prompting questions about whether it might be ‘taken to include Females’. But when some women put that to the test, the judge unhesitatingly ruled against them, saying

There is no doubt that in many statutes “men” may properly be held to include women, whilst in others it would be ridiculous to suppose that the word was used in any other sense than as designating the male sex.

To the judge it was obvious that ‘man’, in a statute dealing with voting rights, could only have the sex-specific meaning ‘male person’. Yet if ‘man’ appeared in a statute dealing with taxation or crime, it would be just as obvious that the law applied to women too. This difference had nothing to do with grammar, and everything to do with ‘whether a certain social state was desired’.

But in any case, declaring the masculine inclusive by fiat does not, for most language-users, make it so. I once taught a student who recalled that as a child she had been puzzled by the saying ‘a dog is man’s best friend’. Did ‘man’ mean a human, or did it mean, well, a man? Eventually she asked her teacher, who said it meant a human. But she remained unconvinced: even after this conversation, what came into her mind whenever she thought of the saying was an image of a male person with a dog. Numerous experiments have shown that this is typical: supposedly generic or inclusive masculine forms are commonly interpreted as sex-specific.

By the time the student told this story (the late 1980s), many mainstream linguistic authorities—teachers, editors, handbook and style guide writers—had accepted that this was a problem. For English, the solution most of them advocated was a shift to ‘gender neutral’ language. Writers were advised to avoid ‘man’ words by substituting genderless terms (e.g. ‘chair(person)’ for ‘chairman’ and ‘humanity’ for ‘mankind’), and to get around the generic ‘he’ problem by recasting sentences in the plural (e.g. ‘readers must judge for themselves’ rather than ‘the reader must judge for himself’).

I have pointed out before that merely using formally neutral terms does not guarantee that women will be included. But in English, a language whose modern form makes very little use of gender-marking, it is not difficult to produce at least the surface appearance of inclusiveness. In German, by contrast, and many other languages (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Hindi) the same strategies will not work. When all nouns have a gender, and when gender must also be marked on the adjectives and articles (and in some languages, verbs) that go with them, you can’t easily avoid the issue.

In these languages, the approach feminists have mostly favoured is not gender neutralisation, as in English, but gender specification (also sometimes called ‘feminisation’ or ‘the visibility strategy’)—using feminine forms alongside masculine ones so that women are explicitly included. One way of doing this is by ‘doubling’, conjoining the two forms with ‘and’, as in the German phrase ‘Studenten und Studentinnen’ (‘students (masc.) and students (fem.)’). In writing an alternative strategy is ‘splitting’, using typographical devices like slashes (‘Student/Innen’) and parentheses (‘Student(inn)en’) to avoid repeating whole words.

Different devices have been favoured in different languages. In Spanish, for instance, doubled forms like ‘amigos y amigas’ (‘friends (masc.) and friends (fem.)’) have sometimes been replaced with the split form ‘amig@s’, since the @ looks like a combination of -o and -a. More recently, as the concept of gender inclusivity has broadened to encompass people who identify as neither men nor women, some writers have adopted the form ‘amigxs’, where X signifies ‘all genders and none’.

In French there are numerous options. One currently much-discussed splitting device is the ‘point médian’, a centrally-positioned dot, as in ‘les étudiant·e·s’ (‘students’), which is sometimes treated as the defining feature of ‘écriture inclusive’ (‘inclusive writing’). But in fact it’s only the latest in a series of conventions which have been used for the same purpose over the years, and which in many cases are still being used: they include parentheses (‘étudiant(e)s’), hyphens (‘étudiant-e-s’), and the ‘point’ (full stop, period) in its normal position (‘étudiant.e.s’). Doubled forms are also possible (‘étudiantes et étudiants’)—some writers order the forms alphabetically while others make a habit of putting the feminine first.

Neighbourhood bar: notice addressing customers (‘client(es)’)

These inclusive writing strategies are more ‘in your face’ than the neutral terms favoured in English, but they’re intended to address the same concerns about male bias. You may have heard that grammatical gender languages are different, and that the gender of a noun in French or German is just an arbitrary formal feature; but if the noun denotes a person or group of people that argument does not stand up. Experiments with speakers of grammatical gender languages have demonstrated the same effect as in English: masculine forms of nouns which refer to people tend to evoke mental images of males.

There’s also evidence that inclusive writing makes a difference. For instance, studies done with children and adolescents have found that if you present them with a grammatically masculine occupational term they will say that men are more likely to succeed in that occupation, but if you present them with paired masculine and feminine terms the male bias is significantly reduced. It isn’t always reduced to zero, because judgments in this area are also influenced by cultural stereotypes. But research suggests that linguistic gender marking can strengthen or weaken our preconceptions.

Facebook post using inclusive split form with full stops: ‘premier.e arrivé.e premier.e servi.e’ (‘first come, first served’ ).

Nevertheless, inclusive writing provokes resistance. If you follow these matters you may be aware that the Académie Française opposes any deviation from the traditional rules. The same is true of its Spanish counterpart, and of most language academies which have had occasion to consider the question. But you may not know that opposing écriture inclusive has become a pet cause of the French political right.

I found this out a few weeks ago, when I was asked to sign a letter responding to a group of language scholars who had denounced inclusive writing. When I asked a friend to explain the context—who were these scholars, and why had they chosen this moment to attack?—she told me they were aligned with the right, and pointed me to the text of a proposed law which some right-wing deputies (including the Front National leader Marine Le Pen) had put before the French National Assembly. This proposal seeks to prohibit the use of écriture inclusive by anyone in receipt of public funds–which would include, among others, academics and school teachers, since they are public employees.

France is not the only place where far right politicians have taken up this cause. In Brazil, following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the new right-wing government took action to outlaw any future use of the title she had used while in office—she had styled herself ‘Presidenta’ (fem.) rather than ‘Presidente’ (which in traditional standard Portuguese has no feminine form). And in 2015 a high school teacher’s use of the inclusive form ‘alunxs’ (‘pupils’) sparked a media firestorm in which X-forms were said to promote a ‘gay marxist agenda’.

It’s true, of course, that conservatives have always resisted progressive efforts to change language. But the people I’ve just been talking about are not really conservatives: rather they belong to the radical right, which is populist, nationalist, racist and in some cases outright fascist. On the face of things it isn’t obvious why they would care so much about the arcane details of inclusive language. But in fact it’s an excellent target for their purposes—something they can use to whip up outrage about a whole range of ‘culture war’ issues.

In some places (Brazil is an example) hostility to inclusive language is linked to the recent obsession of both the Catholic Church and right-wing evangelical protestant groups with what they call ‘gender ideology’ or ‘gender theory’, meaning both feminism of a fairly traditional sort (the sort that demands equality and reproductive rights for women) and the newer politics of gender identity. Inclusive language makes a convenient target because it directly symbolises what the religious right objects to: feminised titles like ‘Presidenta’ symbolically reject the supposedly God-given precedence of the male/masculine over the female/feminine, while ‘alunxs’ rejects binary gender distinctions entirely.

In other places the targeting of inclusive language has more to do with nationalism and populism. The preamble to the proposed French law, for instance, declares that ‘the French language is a fundamental element of the character and heritage of France’, and reminds readers that in 1539 François I decreed that French should be the language of law and administration. The relevance of this detail is obscure, since there is no reason why French should not continue to fulfil its historic functions while also being written more inclusively. It’s just a nationalist dogwhistle, framing écriture inclusive as a threat to the status of French and therefore France.

Attacking inclusive language also allows you to take pot-shots at one of the new populists’ favourite targets, ‘the elite’. By which they mean not themselves and their wealthy supporters, but rather the left-leaning intellectual and cultural elite made up of academics, media folk, literary writers and other luminaries of the arts. Associating inclusive language with these high-profile users allows populists to argue that it’s elitist and exclusionary, at best offputting and at worst incomprehensible to people outside the charmed circle.

The elitism issue is one I take seriously. You can’t build a socially diverse mass movement if your language is so abstruse people need a degree in gender studies to decode it. But I don’t think it follows that you should just stick to the language most people are familiar and therefore comfortable with. If that language is male biased, there’s a good feminist argument that you should try to change it for everyone. If that’s your aim, however, a degree of elitism, or ‘vanguardism’, may be unavoidable. The kinds of changes feminists advocate tend to be adopted first by people with a strong ideological commitment to them—a group in which highly educated people are probably overrepresented. But where they lead, others will eventually follow.

I am old enough to remember when English gender-neutral terms like ‘chair’ (for ‘chairman’), ‘police officer’ (not ‘policeman’) and even ‘head teacher’ (rather than ‘headmaster/mistress’) were derided as clumsy, unnatural and ‘politically correct’; today they are unremarkable. Similarly, the photos in this post show French écriture inclusive being used by ordinary people in everyday informal contexts. The fact that an innovation initially encounters resistance does not mean it will never be accepted, and the fact that it started in an elite group does not mean it is inherently ‘elitist’.

The conclusion I draw from the evidence we have is that the benefits of inclusive writing in languages like French and German outweigh the disadvantages. The main disadvantage is aesthetic: doubling and splitting are obtrusive strategies which some find ugly or cumbersome (though so far, research has not supported the claim that they make reading slower and more effortful: it has found that people adjust to them very quickly). It’s also true that they don’t all transfer to the spoken language; but inclusive language norms have always been primarily designed for writing, and particularly for writing institutional documents (like job ads) where inclusiveness may be a legal requirement.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that in practice the so-called generic masculine is understood as simply masculine. If inclusive writing can counteract that bias (and there’s some evidence it can), that’s surely a strong argument in its favour. And as an added bonus, by embracing inclusive language you can annoy pedants, conservatives, religious fundamentalists, populists, nationalists and fascists.

Many thanks to Heather Burnett, who contributed not only information and insights from her research, but also the photographs reproduced in this post. Merci! For information on Brazil I’m indebted to Rodrigo Borba. Obrigada! As ever, the opinions are mine and so are any errors.

When Kamala met Mike

Note: all extracts reproduced in this post are taken from the full debate transcript published by USA Today

PAGE: Kamala Harris – Senator Harris, I mean. I’m sorry. 

HARRIS: It’s fine. I’m Kamala.

PAGE: No, no, you’re Senator Harris to me. 

About 14 minutes into last week’s Vice-Presidential debate, the moderator Susan Page apologised for calling the Democratic challenger ‘Kamala Harris’ (first name + last name) rather than ‘Senator Harris’ (title + last name). Harris reassured her: ‘It’s fine. I’m Kamala’. Page (who was herself addressed as ‘Susan’ by both candidates) responded that it wasn’t fine: her role in this formal setting required her both to observe the proper courtesies and to treat the two candidates equally. At no point had she addressed or referred to Harris’s opponent as ‘Mike Pence’. He was always ‘Vice-President Pence’.

Many feminists would agree that it’s not OK to call Harris by her first name while giving Pence a formal title—nor for the media to refer to the two of them in shorthand as ‘Kamala’ and ‘Pence’. I’ve pointed out before that the first-naming and/or de-titling of women in public contexts, when comparable men get last name + title, is a common phenomenon—it’s one manifestation of the ‘gender respect gap’. But as I’ve also pointed out, it’s a bit of a minefield for women with progressive/egalitarian politics. You may recognise the first-naming of women (see also children, domestic servants, and in Jim Crow America, Black people) as a putdown, a case of the familiarity that implies contempt, but you still don’t want to be seen as a self-aggrandising bully insisting that everyone should defer to your exalted status, or as so insecure that you have to stand on ceremony at all times. Was that what prompted Harris’s ‘it’s fine, I’m Kamala’?

In this case there may have been more to it. Like most things we do with language, first-naming takes on different meanings in different contexts. In political contexts, a gesture implying that you don’t stand on ceremony or demand automatic deference from others can signify qualities which many voters regard as virtues—it says you’re authentic, down-to-earth, a woman or man of the people rather than an establishment type motivated purely by personal ambition. Maybe Harris was exploiting that symbolism.

If she was, she wouldn’t be the only woman to do so. In New York City a campaign has just been launched by the Black lawyer and media commentator Maya Wiley using the slogan ‘Maya for Mayor’.  In her campaign video Wiley makes much of her non-establishment credentials: ‘Some will say I don’t sound like past mayors or look like them or think like them, and I say yes, I don’t — that is the point’. Referring to herself as ‘Maya’ underlines that point. Though it’s also true that her name is particularly well suited to the purpose: if you were called Maya and you were hoping to be elected mayor, why wouldn’t your campaign slogan be ‘Maya for Mayor’?

This brings us neatly to an observation made by several people on Twitter, that when we’re talking about the naming of politicians and other public figures, sexism, or indeed sex, is not the only variable in the equation. The media’s preference for ‘Kamala’ over ‘Harris’—but at the same time, for ‘Pence’ rather than ‘Mike’—is also a preference for more over less distinctive names. Mikes (but not Pences) are a dime a dozen; conversely, Kamalas (in the US) are much rarer than people whose last name is Harris.

The distinctiveness principle predicts that there will be a greater tendency to first-name women, because historically women’s given names have been more variable, and thus more likely to be distinctive, than men’s; but it doesn’t apply exclusively to women. It also explains (at least in part) why the current British Prime Minister is so frequently referred to as ‘Boris’—a very unusual name for a white British man—rather than by his more commonplace last name ‘Johnson’.

I say ‘at least in part’ because in Johnson’s case the first-naming also reflects his carefully-cultivated image as an unconventional politician with a larger-than-life personality. But male politicians whose given names are less distinctive have often tried to get some of the positive effects associated with first-naming (sounding more authentic and down-to-earth, or less patrician) by using nicknames or diminutive forms alongside their last names: see ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, ‘Bill’ Clinton and for that matter ‘Joe’ Biden—and on the other side of the US party line, ‘Dick’ Nixon and indeed ‘Mike’ Pence.  

All in all, then, I don’t think feminists need to get too wound up about the first-naming of Kamala Harris. Though there’s probably an element of knee-jerk sexism about it, in context it has other meanings too. In an era of populism, when elected politicians are judged at least as much on criteria relating to their personal authenticity as on criteria relating to their competence, being ‘Kamala’ may do more to help Harris than to hurt her.  

I feel similarly about some of the other features of the debate that prompted indignation on Harris’s behalf. For instance, it was noted that the moderator thanked Mike Pence more than 50 times, whereas she thanked Harris fewer than 30 times. On its own that sounds like more evidence of the respect gap. But when you look at the transcript you soon realise there’s another explanation. Susan Page consistently used the formula ‘thank you’ to fulfil the dual function of acknowledging a debater’s answer and telling them to stop talking because their time was up. She did this with both participants, but more with Pence because he went over his allotted speaking time more frequently. He also ignored more of Page’s interventions, which forced her to repeat herself.

Here’s an extract, from around 24 minutes in, where Page makes three separate attempts to bring Pence’s turn to a close before he finally yields the floor:

PENCE: Joe Biden, 47 years in public service, compared to President Donald Trump, who brought all of that experience four years ago– 

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President –

PENCE: – and turned this economy around by cutting taxes, rolling back regulation, unleashing American energy-

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – fighting for free and fair trade, and all of that is on the line –

PAGE: Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in the White House.

In this short extract Page produces five ‘thank yous’ addressed to Pence, so it’s not surprising that the overall tally was over 50 (if anything it’s surprising it wasn’t higher).

But it isn’t just because of Page that ‘thank you’ appears so frequently in this transcript. Possibly in an attempt to avoid repeating the extraordinary incivility of the earlier Presidential debate between Trump and Biden, Pence and Harris engaged in repeated exchanges of polite thanks:

PENCE: Senator, I want to thank you and Joe Biden for your expressions and genuine concern. And I also want to congratulate you, as I did on that phone call, on the historic nature of your nomination.

HARRIS: Thank you

PENCE: Well, look, I respect the fact that Joe Biden spent 47 years in public life. I respect your public service as well. 

HARRIS: Thank you.

Both candidates were evidently determined to present at least the appearance of adherence to the rules of civil exchange, to the point where they almost seemed to be competing to see who could produce more politeness tokens. But in one much-commented on respect, Pence clearly deviated from those rules. As well as consistently ignoring the moderator’s instructions to stop talking, he repeatedly attempted to interrupt Harris.

Here’s an example from about half an hour in. Harris has just been invited to respond to Pence’s claim (made in his answer to a question about the economy) that if Biden becomes president he will raise ordinary citizens’ taxes. She says:

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I thought we saw enough of it in last week’s debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth. And the truth of the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear. He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year –

PENCE: He said he’s gonna appeal the Trump tax cuts –

HARRIS: Mr. Vice President I’m speaking.

PENCE: Well –

HARRIS: I’m speaking.

Harris deals with the interruptions using a strategy I discussed in an earlier post—what conversation analysts call ‘doing being interrupted’, i.e. explicitly calling attention to the fact that your speaking rights have been violated. She does this by saying, calmly (since as a woman, and more specifically as a woman of color, she has more to lose than a white man if she gets angry): ‘Mr Vice President I’m speaking….I’m speaking’. (If you want to judge her tone for yourself there’s a video clip of this section embedded in the transcript I linked to at the top of this post.) This is a dual-purpose strategy: even if it is not successful in enabling her to regain the floor immediately, she will still have made the point that Pence took it from her illegitimately. And if she’s canny, that will also help her to play a longer game.

The longer game turned out to be needed, because the initial ‘I’m speaking’ move did not immediately cause Pence to back down. Rather, he pressed his advantage:

PENCE: – it’d be important if you said the truth. Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year –

HARRIS: That is – That is absolutely not true –

PENCE: – Senator, that’s the math –

HARRIS: – that tax bill – 

PENCE:  Is he only gonna repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?

By getting drawn into this quickfire exchange Harris is letting Pence set the agenda, but it seems she recognises that, and returns to the procedural point that he has muscled in on her turn:  

HARRIS: If you don’t mind letting me finish –

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: We can then have a conversation. Okay?

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: Okay. [continues for 200 words]

At this point the moderator intervenes with one of her admonitory ‘thank yous’; but Harris uses the fact that she was interrupted to make a bid for more time:

PAGE: Thank you, Senator Harris –

HARRIS: – [Trump is in court right now] trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means that you will lose protections, if you have pre-existing conditions. And I just, this is very important, Susan 

PAGE: Yes, well we need to give – We need to give Vice President –

HARRIS: – and it’s just –  He interrupted me and I’d like to just finish, please

She goes on to deliver one of her more memorable lines of the night, ignoring further interjections from both Pence and Page:

HARRIS: If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you.  If you love someone who has a pre existing condition –

PENCE: Nonsense

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Senator Harris –

PENCE: That’s nonsense

HARRIS: – they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.

PAGE: Senator Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: You’re welcome

We can’t know if Mike Pence would have shown more respect for a male opponent’s speaking rights, or for the instructions given by a male moderator; but in the current state of US politics (which is even more polarised now than it was four years ago) I’m inclined to agree with those commentators who didn’t think Harris’s sex made much difference—that like his boss confronting Biden, Pence would have tried to steamroller whoever he’d been up against. And the fact is that she also used, albeit somewhat less frequently, strategies like cutting in to contradict him and ignoring instructions to stop speaking. Essentially the two of them played the same game by the same rules (making this encounter different from both Trump vs. Biden and Trump vs. Clinton in 2016). I don’t see much evidence that she was treated less favourably or less respectfully in the debate itself.

What happened after the debate, however, as pundits and the public assessed the two candidates’ performances, is a different story—one which shows, once again, that the biggest problem for women in politics is not how they themselves speak, or even how they are spoken to by their male colleagues, but how they are spoken about in the larger public sphere. The judgments made by commentators on the debate were transparently partisan: Trump supporters declared Pence the winner and Biden supporters insisted that Harris had outshone him. But where negative comments were made, they were clearly differentiated by sex, and in Harris’s case they drew from a bottomless well of sexist/misogynist stereotypes.

One commentator complained that ‘her reactions to Pence, which included smirking and smiling while he was answering most of the questions, were a turn off’ (this perhaps deserves some extra points for perversity, since men more commonly claim to be ‘turned off’ when women don’t smile). An Indian publication ran a piece with the predictably loaded title ‘Why is Kamala Harris so unlikable?’ which went on to say that she ‘reeked of condescension’ and had a ‘maniacal’ laugh (she does laugh, but ‘maniacal’ is quite a stretch–see the embedded clip I mentioned before). This writer also called her a ‘megalomaniac’, and in making that assessment he was far from alone. Harlan Hill, a commentator who has advised Donald Trump, and who tweeted during the debate that Harris was ‘a lying bitch’, said afterwards: ‘I stand by the statement that she’s an insufferable power-hungry smug bitch’.

This is really the crux of the matter. When two politicians are contesting the same position, it might seem logical to assume that they are equally ‘power-hungry’; but men are rarely described in those terms so long as they do not pursue power in extreme and extra-legal ways (e.g. plotting a coup or an assassination, as opposed to simply running for office). A woman, on the other hand, is ‘power-hungry’ (and therefore unlikable, a turn-off, an insufferable bitch, a megalomaniac) if she shows any disposition to seek any power at all. The desire for power, considered natural in men, is inherently incompatible with feminine modesty and submissiveness, and that is the standard women are judged against.

You do not have to be an admirer of Kamala Harris, or any other individual female politician, to understand this attitude as a fundamental obstacle to equality—one that cannot be overcome by exhorting women to speak differently, or to project a more ‘acceptable’ public image. Harris’s efforts to appear approachable (‘It’s fine, I’m Kamala’) did not stop commentators from branding her a power-hungry bitch. If you are, or aspire to be, in politics, and you have the pre-existing condition of being female, then whatever you do, the misogynists are coming for you.

In some democracies today the misogynists’ influence is much diminished; in others, including the US, it has reached new heights in recent years. Voting out the grotesque figure who currently occupies the White House (along with his religious zealot deputy) will not, on its own, be enough to turn that tide, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

Life lessons

Where I live September is back-to-school time, and this year the annual ritual had a special significance because it followed a period of several months when schools were closed to most children because of the pandemic. There were many reports on how delighted pupils were to be back with their friends in real classrooms with real teachers. But we all know (some of us from first-hand experience) that for some young people that won’t have been the story. There are many things that can make returning to school a less than delightful prospect. One of those things is sexism.

I first blogged about this back in 2015, when the Institute of Physics (IoP) published a report called Opening Doors, about sexism and gender stereotyping in schools. This document was on my radar because of the emphasis it placed on language. The Institute’s research had found that sexist language—covering a spectrum from casual stereotyping (‘I need two strong boys to help me with this table’) to name-calling and verbal bullying—was ubiquitous in schools. Half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using it to girls, and one in five teachers had themselves been subjected to sexist verbal abuse by pupils. The researchers also noted that this was rarely treated as a problem: often it was dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, though ‘many pupils, especially girls, did not see it as such’.

The IoP’s mild suggestion that schools should be less tolerant of sexist language got a predictable reception from the right-wing press, which treated it as both an outrage and a joke. The Sunday Times’s report lamented that

The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

Still, I found it encouraging that the report was getting some attention (and some buy-in from the government—it had a foreword written by Caroline Dinenage, the then-Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities). If anyone bothered to read the whole thing they’d find some useful examples of good practice and various practical, achievable recommendations. So, five years later, what progress has been made?

I fear that the answer is, ‘not much’. Some schools may have acted on the IoP’s recommendations, but the national initiative that made headlines in 2015 had evidently been forgotten by 2017, when the National Education Union (NEU) in association with UK Feminista conducted another study and produced a report entitled It’s Just Everywhere: A study on sexism in schools—and how we tackle it.

For anyone who’d read the IoP’s report two years earlier, this was déjà vu all over again. Once again, the researchers noted that ‘the use of sexist, misogynist language…is commonplace in schools’. In a sample of over 1600 teachers, almost two thirds of those who worked in mixed-sex secondary schools said they heard this kind of language at least weekly, and nearly a third said they heard it every day. Their further comments made clear they were not talking about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. Teachers expressed concern about boys discussing girls in language they described as ‘degrading, sexualised and offensive’ or even ‘violently misogynistic’; one interviewee reported that ‘sexually unacceptable/ threatening comments’ were made by certain boys both to girls and to female members of staff. Though the report treated sexist language and sexual harassment as separate issues, the accounts it reproduced showed that language played an integral part in many or most incidents of harassment.

In class boys talk about girls’ bodies and what they ‘would do to them’, make female sex noises at the teachers and at girls, ask girls in class if a particular photo was them, have they got it shaved, what it looks like (Secondary school teacher)

Some of the boys make comments on a lot of the girls in our years’ bodies and the girls just have to ignore it because no one thinks it’s a big deal (Female student)

In secondary schools, the use of sexist and misogynist language is no longer, if it ever was, a reciprocal, equal opportunity activity: it’s overwhelmingly a case of boys targeting girls with overtly sexual comments. And the effect on girls is not trivial. According to Girl Guiding UK, which conducts an annual survey with a sample of girls aged 11-16, fear of attracting these comments from boys makes many girls reluctant to draw attention to themselves; about a quarter report that they try not to speak in lessons. Even if most girls do not practise self-censorship, why should any girl (or indeed, anyone at all) be expected to spend 30+ hours a week in an environment where verbal abuse is an everyday occurrence? Beyond its effects on girls’ academic education, what life-lessons is this experience teaching them?  

According to the NEU/Feminista study, few schools were making any systematic effort to tackle the problem. In their sample, 78% of students and 64% of teachers were not aware that their school had any policy on sexism (suggesting that even if one existed it wasn’t being followed), and only 20% of teachers had discussed the issue during their training. The report concluded with a list of recommendations: sexism should get more attention; schools should adopt explicit policies; teachers need specific training; students need opportunities to talk about it. This is all pretty obvious, and it’s also pretty similar to what the IoP came up with. So, three years later, has anything changed?

This month a book has been published which claims that something has indeed changed since 2017—but not, unfortunately, for the better. In her introduction to Men Who Hate Women, a tour of the misogynist subcultures of the online manosphere (incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs (‘men going their own way’) and other assorted men’s rights activists), Laura Bates explains that what prompted her to investigate these subcultures was hearing their language and their talking-points parroted by boys she met when she went into schools to talk about sexism. This hadn’t been a thing when she first started visiting schools, but two years ago she began to notice a change:

[Boys] were angry, resistant to the very idea of a conversation about sexism. Men themselves were the real victims, they’d tell me, in a society in which political correctness has gone mad, white men are persecuted, and so many women lie about rape. In schools from rural Scotland to central London, I started hearing the same arguments. The hair rose on my arms when I realised that these boys, who had never met each other, were using precisely the same words and quoting the same false statistics to back up their claims. …These [online misogynist] groups have dug their claws into teenage boys across the country.

Laura Bates is among the feminists who place the ideas and activities of online misogynist groups in the conceptual frame of terrorism (this is a framing I have some reservations about, but in this post I’ll leave them aside). She is concerned that teenage boys, most of them more confused and lonely than violent and hateful, are being radicalised online, and recruited into an extremist movement which bears comparison with white nationalism or radical Islamism. Education, she believes, has an important role to play in countering this radicalisation, just as it does in the other cases. She suggests that schools could make use of the expertise that already exists in organisations like White Ribbon and the Good Lad Initiative, run by ‘men who hate men who hate women’.  

My own feelings about this proposal are mixed. I don’t dispute that some of the young men who are drawn to the manosphere are struggling with personal and social problems; but the thought that kept coming into my mind was ‘what about the girls?’ If schools are pushed into doing something about misogyny only because it’s been added to the list of extremist ideologies that can lead to acts of terrorism—and if what they do focuses on boys as potential victims of radicalisation—what does that say about our priorities? Where does it leave the victims’ victims?

I think that what schools most urgently need to address is the sexism of the ‘hidden curriculum’—what students are learning, not from explicit instruction, but through participating in the daily routines of school. It’s no use teaching formal lessons about the evils of sexism and misogyny if students’ whole experience outside those specific lessons shows them that in practice ‘no one thinks it’s a big deal’. In many schools, if the studies I’ve linked to are anything to go by, that’s exactly what their experience shows them. How much can sexism and misogyny matter if boys can verbally abuse girls with impunity, and girls’ only refuge is silence?

The most general lesson girls are learning from the experiences described in study after study is that their needs, rights and feelings are not important–or at least, not important enough to justify curtailing boys’ freedom. Until we as a society decide that this is intolerable, we will doubtless be presented with many more reports which highlight the same problems, make the same recommendations, are met with the same brief flurry of concern, and are then left to gather dust.

She Speaks

Three years ago, to mark the political party conference season, I wrote a post about Great Political Speeches—or rather, Great Male Political Speeches. On most Anglophone lists of the best speeches of all time you will find just one token woman, or if you’re really lucky, two. British list compilers typically select from a field consisting of Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret Thatcher; their US counterparts, who (still) can’t choose a female president, tend to go for Susan B. Anthony or Sojourner Truth.

Of course, it’s not surprising if the female speechmakers of the past can’t compete with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In addition to being gifted orators, these men were leaders of global stature, speaking at key historical moments on subjects of grave import. Until recently very few women, however gifted, were in a position to tick any of those boxes. But even today, as the Labour MP Yvette Cooper says in the introduction to her recent anthology of women’s speeches She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices, ‘public speaking can still feel like a man’s world’. Though women are no longer banned from the podium, they still have to contend with various ancient sexist prejudices.

By way of illustration, Cooper quotes the introduction to an anthology of great speeches produced in the 1990s, where the editors offer three justifications for the near-absence of women. The first is the point I’ve just made myself, that women were historically excluded from the ‘great stages’. The second is that women ‘wanted no part in the macho game of domination by speech’ (really? In that case why did they spend much of the 19th century fighting for their right to speak in public without being denounced as unnatural and immoral?) But it’s the third justification that really grates: ‘women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough’. Though Cooper rightly calls it ‘ludicrous’, the prejudice against female voices is still alive and well: witness the complaints about Hillary Clinton’s ‘shrillness’ during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the outrage provoked by the BBC’s decision to let a woman commentate on the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

But in any case, these justifications begin from a false premise. They’re answers to the question ‘why haven’t women made speeches?’, when in fact women have made speeches: there’s a tradition of female oratory that goes back at least to the early 19th century. By the 1990s it wasn’t even true that there were no women speaking from ‘the great stages’. The anthology Cooper criticises was published, as she points out, in the same year Hillary Clinton made her ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing, and Benazir Bhutto addressed the UN as the first woman elected head of an Islamic state.

She Speaks is Cooper’s attempt to redress the balance. Her introduction makes clear that what inspired the project wasn’t just her irritation with male-dominated anthologies, but also her concern about recent developments in our public discourse. Whether it’s the casual misogyny of populist leaders like Donald Trump or the rape and death threats which any woman with a public platform can now expect to receive (Cooper reminds us that her colleague Jo Cox MP was murdered by a man who took exception to her views), she believes that women are being silenced, and she wants to encourage them to resist. ‘The women in this book wouldn’t stay quiet’, she writes. ‘Their words live on after their speeches and will live on after they have gone’.

So, who are the women in this book? There are 35 in all: about half of them are British, including political leaders (Boudica, Elizabeth I, Prime Ministers Thatcher and May), politicians (Eleanor Rathbone, Barbara Castle, Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman, Jo Cox, Cooper herself) and campaigners (Josephine Butler, Emmeline Pankhurst, Alison Drake, Emma Watson). Another fairly well-represented category is non-British female heads of state like Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard (yes, the ‘misogyny speech’) and Jacinda Ardern. 

Predictably, the largest single group of non-Brits are American: political figures (Sojourner Truth, Michelle Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), writers (Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde) and performers (Lupita Nyong’o, Ellen DeGeneres). There are also two young activists with global profiles (Malala Yousefzai and Greta Thunberg), two Nobel laureates (one a physicist, the other the first African to win the Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai), a disability activist, a trans activist and a Holocaust survivor; there’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ TED talk, and a speech by Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. The sequence is chronological, and in each case we get some contextualising discussion followed by the (sometimes abridged) text of the speech itself.

As exemplars of Great Speechmaking I’d say Cooper’s selections are a mixed bag.  I did feel that quite a lot of her choices were based less on the quality of the speeches themselves than on her view of the speaker and/or her life-story as inspiring. I thought that was a pity: since great male speeches are usually remembered for both reasons, it risks recycling the conventional wisdom that women lack men’s rhetorical skills.

This problem was most evident in the British politicians’ speeches. Cooper’s own contribution, urging Parliament to do for refugees fleeing war in Syria what Britain had done for those fleeing Nazism in the 1940s, is one of the better examples, rhetorically speaking. Apart from the two Tory Prime Ministers, her other choices are all women of her own party, many of them her colleagues and friends; she obviously admires them as people and as politicians, but they aren’t all great political speakers. In current British politics I don’t think there are many outstanding speakers of either sex; but I was surprised Cooper passed over one senior female politician who really does stand out for her rhetorical skills: the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Among the non-British politicians, I was most impressed by Jacinda Ardern (speaking after the terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: both have the ability to fit their words to the occasion in a way that seems not merely apt, but uplifting. Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic Convention speech also gets high marks: it’s one of the few that contains a genuinely memorable line (‘when they go low, we go high’).

This example points to a perennial problem with anthologies of speeches: some of the qualities that make a speech great may be lost in the transition to print. In 2017 I praised Michelle Obama for the way she connected with her audience; her speech is still pretty good on the page, but it was her embodied presence and her rapport with the people in the hall that made it so compelling in its original, oral form.

Another case where some of the original magic has been lost in transcription is Julia Gillard’s famous ‘misogyny’ speech. If you watch her performance on video it’s electrifying, but as a text it’s surprisingly flat: the first part is still memorable, but the energy of the rest of it was more in the righteously angry delivery than in the language itself. (I do like this musical setting, however.) Similarly with Malala Yusefzai and Greta Thunberg: both hold your attention when they speak, but the written version of Malala’s ‘Education First’ speech to the UN is a more highly-crafted text, and thus more rewarding to read.

The biggest revelation, for me, was Kavita Krishnan excoriating the authorities after the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus. It’s a remarkable feminist speech–as Yvette Cooper says, both impassioned and forensic. It uses plain language in the service of a sophisticated argument, a skill which is all too rare. Here’s part of the last section by way of illustration:

Women have a right to freedom. And that freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.

I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much (…)

Women know what ‘safety’ refers to.

It means—you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe.

A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it.

The Delhi police is running an ad campaign… [with] a Hindi film actor exhorting people, ‘Be a man, join me in protecting women’. I want to ask, what about the brother who cuts his sister’s head off when she dares to marry into a different community? Is he not playing the role of a male protector too?

This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women; it is, in fact, the root of the problem. This is what we need to understand.

For all that we live in a multimedia age, speeches like this one, delivered to the crowd at a protest, show that our oldest political communication technology has not lost its power. And it’s important that women can harness that power on equal terms with men. 

Of course, just celebrating female speakers doesn’t remove either the structural barriers or the cultural prejudices that still prevent or deter women from speaking publicly; efforts to address those issues must continue. But we should also remember that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls and women need to know that people like them not only can speak, but have spoken— powerfully, persuasively and movingly—on all kinds of subjects and in all kinds of situations. That’s where anthologies of women’s speeches have a part to play; I might quibble with some of Yvette Cooper’s choices, but her aim is one I think feminists should applaud.