The dangers of purity

‘I wish’, someone said to me yesterday, ‘that people who call themselves feminists would stop telling me what I’m not allowed to say’. It turned out she’d been on Facebook, looking at feminists’ reactions to the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 49-year-old judgment in Roe v Wade. I’d been doing the same thing on Twitter, so I knew exactly what she meant. Though the news prompted a range of responses from feminists, from learned legal analysis of the judgment to practical advice for women living in states where abortion is now a crime, one surprisingly prominent theme in posts and tweets was what words and images we should or (more often) shouldn’t be using.

One predictable bone of contention was the word ‘women’. There were many reminders to use inclusive language, bearing in mind that women weren’t the only people the judgment affected. There were also many statements of the opposite view, that inclusive language was a distraction: the judgment needed to be named for what it was, an attack, specifically, on women’s rights.  

Then there were tweets castigating the authors of other tweets for referring to supporters of the judgment as ‘pro-life’. As critics of it pointed out, that’s their own preferred term, which they worked hard to get others to use because it paints them in a positive light. It’s also, however, a lie, insofar as the only ‘life’ these people are ‘pro’ is the life of the as-yet unborn: the minute an infant leaves the womb it becomes a matter of indifference to the ‘pro-lifer’ whether it has adequate food and shelter, or whether it goes on to be killed in a school shooting, etc., etc. Their political opponents should not play into their hands by using this terminology.

Visual imagery also came under scrutiny. One much-liked and retweeted message took issue with people who were using an image of a wire coat hanger to signal their opposition to the Supreme Court judgment. The coat hanger has a long history of being used as a symbol in the struggle for reproductive rights (it was carried, for instance, at a demonstration in Washington DC in 1969): it’s a reference to the desperate methods women employed to induce abortions before abortion was legalized (as one ob-gyn who was around in those days told the LA Times, coat hangers were only one tool that was used: others included ‘knitting needles and radiator flush’). But people who had added this venerable symbol to their profiles were told off for promoting something so gruesome, stigmatising, outdated and inaccurate. Did they want women to think that the life-endangering coat hanger was their only recourse, when they could and should be using mifepristone and misoprostol? As one commentator observed, ‘a five-pack of pills may not be as striking as the coat hanger, but it’s a far safer and more accurate image to promote’. 

If this kind of thing bothers me, it’s not because I don’t think our communicative choices are a legitimate topic of discussion. I certainly have views on them: I do try to avoid ‘pro-life’ (I prefer ‘anti-abortion’), and for reasons which I’ve discussed in a previous post, I think it’s important to use the word ‘women’ in relation to attacks on reproductive rights (though I also think that in many contexts it should be ‘women and’). But while discussing the implications of your linguistic choices may be a good feminist practice (one that’s helped me clarify my thoughts on many occasions, and has sometimes changed my views more radically), ultimately I don’t think any feminist can claim the authority to tell other feminists what they’re ‘not allowed to say’.

One problem with this kind of policing is that it often owes more to the latest viral hot take than to any deep understanding of the way language and communication work. Consider, for instance, the criticism that the coat hanger image is outdated and inaccurate, and should be replaced, in the interests of accuracy and up-to-dateness, by an image of a pack of pills. This argument implies that the image makes a quasi-factual statement–something like ‘this is what people use to perform illegal abortions’. But of course, that’s not what it does: the coat hanger is a symbol, standing in for the general idea of illegal and unsafe abortion (regardless of the method used). It was chosen for that purpose because it’s gruesome. And symbols like this don’t become ‘outdated’ as times change, they just acquire new layers of meaning. In this case, the combination of the coat hanger’s gruesomeness and its association with the era before Roe vs Wade enables it to convey a point which was made by the dissenting Justices Kagan, Sotomayor and Breyer–that the Supreme Court’s decision takes us back to a less enlightened age. Today’s young women have fewer rights than their grandmothers, and will be forced to fight the same battle an earlier generation fought. The hanger can convey this complex set of meanings because of its history as a political symbol; they would not be conveyed by an image of a pack of pills.

Another problem with this genre of criticism is that it comes across as one-upping and/or talking down. The person who tells you not to use the coat hanger image because it’s ‘inaccurate’ is never saying she herself would mistake it for literal information on what to do to end a pregnancy: she’s always worried about the potential for some other, less smart or less well-informed woman to misinterpret it. She’s also implicitly claiming the moral high ground (‘I care more than you do about those less privileged than myself’)—a move I might find less annoyingly smug if I thought her concerns were justified. Of course, not all the women who might need abortion drugs will know about them (or how to get them without risking arrest): disseminating that information will be an important political task. But it can surely be done without suggesting that some women are too stupid to recognize a political symbol when they see one.  

I’ve been talking about specific examples, but what really troubles me is the strength and pervasiveness of the general phenomenon. Why, in a political emergency, did so many feminists choose to engage in self-righteous point-scoring about words and symbols? And how can this obsession with political and linguistic purity be anything but an obstacle to the concerted action an emergency demands? It’s dividing feminists when they need to stand together (and on an issue where there’s actually a high degree of unity), and deterring others from getting involved (most people are reluctant to speak up if they fear being scolded or shamed for using the wrong words). At times, scrolling through what feels like an endless stream of disapproving comments, I’ve found myself wondering what kind of political messaging (if any) some of these online critics would find acceptable, and whether they have any interest in actually winning political battles.

Too many recent feminist campaigns have been plagued by disputes about ‘problematic’ symbols, from the wearing of the pink pussy hat on women’s marches against Trump to the use of the coat hanger symbol and imagery from The Handmaid’s Tale in protests against the Supreme Court decision. Almost any symbol that ‘works’, in the sense that large numbers of people recognise it, understand it and feel a connection to it, will sooner or later be denounced for being exclusionary, or stigmatising, or appropriating someone else’s historical suffering–in short, for not being ‘pure’. But that kind of purity is an impossible dream, and the quest for it can derail our politics. Though in progressive circles it’s a truism that language matters, there are times when other things are more important.

A tale of two politicians

This week I’ve been thinking about two women politicians who have featured prominently in recent news stories. One is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French far-Right Rassemblement National, who faced Emmanuel Macron—and lost to him—in the second round of the Presidential election last Sunday. The other is Angela Rayner, the Deputy leader of Britain’s Labour Party, who became the subject of a story alleging that she was in the habit of deliberately crossing and uncrossing her legs (like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct) to put Boris Johnson off his stride during their occasional encounters at the weekly Parliamentary ritual of Prime Minister’s Questions.

These were obviously different kinds of stories—one about a real and serious political event, the other a piece of media-confected froth—about two politicians who have little in common beyond their sex. But both tell us something about the situation of women in politics. Regardless of who she is and what she stands for, a female politician’s sex is (still) an issue in ways a man’s is not. She may be able to use this to her own advantage, or it may be used against her by her political opponents, but either way it will be an element of the discourse that she is in some way obliged to negotiate.

I don’t think Le Pen’s failure to become France’s first female President had much, if anything, to do with her femaleness. But I do think her campaign—the most successful of her career so far—showed her awareness of what it takes for a woman leader to be electable. It also underlined a paradox that has often been commented on–that this may actually be easier for women on the Right of the political spectrum. Though conservatives (with a small as well as a large C) have a general problem with female authority, centuries of patriarchy have produced a set of cultural archetypes through which it can be made acceptable—most notably the ‘Iron Lady’ and the fiercely protective Mother, personae which are more appealing to right-wing authoritarians than they are to feminists and other progressive types.

Le Pen seems to have made a conscious effort to exploit that appeal. Her campaign posters drew attention to her sex by calling her ‘Femme d’état’ (‘stateswoman’), and shortly before the final vote she declared to the voters of Saint-Rémy-sur-Avre (and more importantly, the French media) that she would ‘lead France like the mother of a family, with common sense [and] consistency’. In line with this pledge, her campaign had emphasised cost of living issues and their effect on ordinary families (something that also worked well for Margaret Thatcher, who was fond of comparing the UK economy to a household budget). Of course, Le Pen isn’t really an ordinary housewife and mother; the point is rather that as a woman of a certain age and social type she can plausibly adopt that persona when it suits her. Whereas ‘femme d’état’ invites direct comparison with Macron, ‘mère de famille’ lays claim to qualities he would never be suspected of possessing.

Superficial or cynical as all this may sound, opinion polls suggested it made some difference: many people found the 2022 Le Pen less aggressive and more ‘relatable’ than the 2017 version. Le Pen still didn’t win, but she showed how a female candidate can control the narrative around her femaleness by choosing her own gendered persona from the limited selection on offer and then performing it consistently. This is something women on the Left are often more reluctant to do, both because they believe their sex shouldn’t be an issue and because they’re uncomfortable with the traditional archetypes. But refusing to play the woman card carries the risk that your opponents and/or the media will do it for you, and that you won’t be able to control the results.

That’s essentially what happened to Angela Rayner when the Mail On Sunday (with the assistance and encouragement of Conservative politicians) chose to identify her with another familiar archetype of female power: the Seductress who uses her sexual allure to manipulate men and bend them to her will. Investigations have since suggested that Rayner herself may have been the original source for the Basic Instinct comparison: several witnesses claim she joked about flashing Boris Johnson in an informal exchange among smokers on the terrace of the House of Commons. But she presumably didn’t intend the joke to become a national news story. Once that happened she was forced onto the defensive, describing it as a ‘perverted, desperate smear’.

It did smack of desperation, not least because it wasn’t clear how Boris Johnson benefited from a story which implied that a woman crossing her legs in his vicinity rendered him instantly incapable of thinking about anything else. Didn’t that just reinforce the already widespread perception of him as both easily distracted and an incorrigible lecher? And did it not risk making Rayner look like the better politician, skilfully exploiting her opponent’s known weaknesses?  Well, maybe, but then again no. When a woman is accused of using her sex for political, professional or financial advantage it is always a putdown—a re-statement of the ancient patriarchal principle that women are only good for one thing, and that they use that thing as a weapon because it’s the only kind of firepower they can muster. As one Tory MP told the Mail On Sunday:

She knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks.

This snide comment targets Rayner’s class origins as well as her sex: it’s a thinly-veiled way of saying that girls who went to northern comprehensives (and in Rayner’s case left school at 16) can’t cope with the rhetorical demands of a high-profile role in the House of Commons, so they compensate by acting like the slags they are. A similar tactic was used by the right-wing press during the 2015 General Election campaign in an effort to undermine another female politician with working-class roots—the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. In her case it would have been hard to argue that she couldn’t match the boys’ debating skills, since it was her impressive performance in the TV election debates that had got the Tories rattled; but their media pals still devoted considerable energy to portraying her, verbally and visually, as the archetypal Seductress, or her low-rent sister the Slag.    

Ironically, the accusation ‘she uses her sex because it’s the only weapon she’s got’ is most often resorted to when it’s the only weapon the accuser’s got: faced with a female opponent who is as smart and as skilled as he is, he reaches for a crude sexist insult in the hope she will be humiliated (and depressingly, this tactic has a good chance of working, since there are few women for whom it doesn’t reopen old wounds or play on persistent insecurities). But it’s still remarkable that anyone can get away with deploying the ‘she doesn’t have his rhetorical skills’ argument about, of all people, Boris Johnson. Mail readers may have forgotten some of Johnson’s earlier triumphs of oratory—like the time he called Jeremy Corbyn a ‘big girl’s blouse’—but how could anyone forget the much more recent occasion when he treated the UK’s business leaders to several minutes of waffle about Peppa Pig? It’s hard to imagine a less convincing advertisement for the benefits of an ‘Oxford Union debating training’, but (as so often in matters of language) prejudice apparently still trumps evidence.

The Mail on Sunday story was froth, but while we were all busy frothing about it, another story was blowing up. It had broadly the same theme—sexual (mis)behaviour in Parliament—but in this story the offenders were not women like Angela Rayner, but men like the Tory MP Neil Parish, who had been seen in the debating chamber watching porn on his phone. (He has since resigned, calling the incident ‘a moment of madness’.) The Tories, however, are not alone here. Currently, no fewer than 56 MPs (including representatives of all the main parties) are being investigated following complaints of sexual harassment. Assuming that all or nearly all of these alleged harassers are men, that’s roughly one in every eight male members. These numbers suggest a pervasive culture problem—both a specific problem with the institutional culture of Westminster and a more general problem with Britain’s political culture.

The Angela Rayner story is part of that problem. Though it wasn’t intended to distract us from the ongoing scandal of sexual harassment at Westminster (more likely it was meant to distract us from Partygate and other scandals involving Boris Johnson), what links it to the issue of harassment is the use of sexualised language and behaviour to put women (back) in their place. Whether this is done by harassing them or, as in Rayner’s case, by accusing them of distracting men, the message to women is clear: ‘don’t delude yourself that we think of you as equals: we haven’t forgotten—and won’t let you forget–that sex is what you are and what you’re for’.

It may not be a coincidence that this message has become more strident as the number of women at Westminster has increased. They now make up 35% of all MPs, which is just above the proportion some political theorists have defined as a ‘critical mass’, meaning that women are present in sufficient numbers to make a difference to the overall culture. What proponents of this theory envisaged was a positive cultural shift, but what we are seeing in this case looks more like a backlash: women are now a large enough minority to be seen by some men as a threat to their dominance. On the positive side, though, however, women are pushing back against unacceptable male behaviour. When forty of them met last week to discuss their concerns with the Chief Whip, reports described them as ‘on the brink of mutiny’. They expressed anger not only about the Rayner story and the porn-watching MP (who at the time had not yet been named), but also about the lower-level sexism they experienced on a daily basis: the gratuitous comments on their clothes and appearance, the sniggering from male colleagues when they spoke in debates, the whips who routinely referred to them as ‘girls’.  

I find it interesting that Conservative women have been so vocal on this issue. Not all of them, of course: some of them are handmaids who can always be counted on to defend the indefensible, but others, including senior women like Caroline Nokes, Andrea Leadsom and Theresa May, have been highly critical of the ‘laddish’ turn they feel the party has taken under Johnson. Maybe this is another situation where women of the Right have some advantages over their Leftist sisters. Conservative women don’t, on the whole, aspire to be ‘cool girls’, or to be seen as ‘one of the lads’; they feel no need to display their sex-positive credentials by being relaxed about pornography in the workplace. If a Guardian columnist calls them pearl-clutching prudes, it’s water off a duck’s back: the constituents who elected them don’t care what Owen Jones thinks.

Labour women, on the other hand—especially those who, like Angela Rayner, are seen as high-fliers and potential future leaders—do have to care, and arguably that makes it more complicated for them to address their own party’s lad culture problem. When the question of Rayner’s role in the creation of the Mail story surfaced, she explained the reports of her ‘laughing and joking’ by pointing out that women confronted with sexism often go along with it to save face, though in reality they’re mortified and disgusted. Many women (me included) will recognise this account of their behaviour–though if it’s true that Rayner joked about her ‘ginger growler’ that sounds more like actively engaging in laddish banter than just passively going along with it. But if you’re serious about challenging sexism, don’t you at some point have to say enough is enough, even if it makes you unpopular?        

Women who worry about the consequences of challenging sexism are not wrong to fear the backlash, but they shouldn’t think appeasement will protect them either. No successful female politician of any party can entirely escape from sexism and misogyny, because the issue isn’t how she behaves, it’s simply that she’s a woman trespassing on what (some) men still consider their turf. Those men will always resent her, and will relieve their feelings by doing and saying things which are meant to remind her where she really belongs. That’s why cartoonists represented Theresa May as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix, and Marine Le Pen has been depicted as a streetwalker in fishnets taking money from Vladimir Putin. But at least the Le Pens of the world can cast themselves in other roles, like the matriarch or the resourceful housewife. I understand why women on the Left reject those female archetypes, but one of the lessons we could learn from this week’s events is that they urgently need to find alternatives.  

Body language

At the girls’ grammar school I attended in the early 1970s, most of my peers’ most hated subject was Latin, which was generally considered to be super-hard, super-boring, and of no practical use whatsoever. I too found it pretty tedious, but there were several subjects I hated more, including geography, PE and, above all, domestic science. So I was content, if not exactly ecstatic, to plod on with Latin until O Level, the ancient equivalent of today’s GCSE. The school encouraged us to do this if there was a chance we might go on to university, and especially if we aspired to study medicine. Whenever we complained about the uselessness of Latin, we’d be told that ‘Latin trains the mind’, followed by ‘and you’ll need it if you want to be a doctor’.

Today’s medical students are not expected to have studied Latin, but they still need to learn a technical vocabulary which is heavily reliant on it. In anatomy, for instance, much of the standard terminology dates back to the Renaissance, when Latin was the language of learning across Europe. And sometimes, decoding medical Latin reveals that it isn’t just the language that’s ancient.

Last year the New York Times reported on the experience of Allison Draper, who as a first-year medical student came across a reference to the ‘pudendal nerve’. Not knowing the word ‘pudendal’, she consulted a dictionary of anatomy. She was shocked to learn that it derived from the Latin verb ‘pudere’, meaning ‘to be or make ashamed’, and that ‘pudendum’, a gerundive form meaning, roughly, ‘thing to be ashamed of’, was the standard anatomical term for the outer female genitalia. She decided to write a paper arguing that such terms had no place in modern medicine. Her (male) anatomy professor supported her, though he admitted that before she raised it he had never given the matter any thought.  

Another male anatomist, Bernard Moxham, had already concluded that ‘pudendum’ was a problem. To his mind it was not only sexist but also unscientific, putting moral judgment in place of description. Moxham had previously served as president of the international organisation that oversees the standard reference work on anatomical terms, Terminologia Anatomica, and he proposed that organisation’s terminology group should consider replacing ‘pudendum’ and ‘pudendal’ with more objective, descriptive alternatives.

He was surprised when this proposal met with resistance. Some members of the group maintained that the terms weren’t really sexist: they could be interpreted as referring not to the negative concept of shame but to the ‘positive’ concepts of modesty and virtue (though it’s hard to see what’s positive about locating women’s virtue in their genitals). Others warned darkly of a slippery slope: if ‘pudendum’ went, how many other traditional terms might also have to go because they were scientifically uninformative or out of tune with modern sensibilities?  Eventually the group agreed that ‘pudendum’ should be removed from Terminologia Anatomica, but ‘pudendal’, as in ‘pudendal nerve’, should stay; they were concerned that its removal might cause difficulty for colleagues in other branches of medicine. However, a pain-management specialist who regularly performs the procedure known as a ‘pudendal block’ told the Times she found its survival ‘incredible’. ‘What’, she asked, ‘does that say about the medical establishment and their attitudes to women?’ 

The story of ‘pudendum’ does say something about the sexism of medicine as an institution, but arguably it says at least as much about the culture in which medicine exists. In the 21st century it may seem crassly offensive to label women’s genitals ‘the thing to be ashamed of’, but historically that label served the same purpose which is more often served today by using vague expressions like ‘undercarriage’ or ‘bits’. These are forms of polite avoidance, ways of not directly naming the offensive thing itself. And what’s behind that is not a specifically medical prejudice, but a far more general and culturally pervasive view of female sexuality, and the associated body-parts, as a source of shame and disgust. That view remains widespread among women themselves: surveys have found that many or most of those questioned regard terms like ‘vulva’ and ‘vagina’ as embarrassing and offensive.

But while medical terminology reflects the prejudices of the surrounding culture, the authority and prestige of medicine give its language a particular power to define the realities it speaks of—including the female body and the processes which affect it. Challenging that power, and medical authority more generally, has been an important feminist project more or less throughout the history of the movement. But as the case of ‘pudendum’ shows, it isn’t easy (even for insiders) to shift the norms of a linguistic register whose traditions are so revered and so jealously guarded. How changes happen, when they do, is a complicated question–as we see if we consider an earlier challenge to the language used by doctors about women’s bodies.    

In 1985 the UK medical journal The Lancet published a letter from a group of senior obstetricians calling on the profession to stop using the term ‘abortion’ to refer to both induced terminations of pregnancy and ‘spontaneous’ or involuntary pregnancy loss. The letter stated that in the writers’ experience, women who had experienced pregnancy loss found the use of ‘abortion’ distressing and offensive. It proposed, on ‘humanitarian grounds’, that non-induced cases should instead be called by women’s own preferred term, ‘miscarriage’.

Research has shown that ‘miscarriage’ did subsequently become more common in medical usage. But there has been some debate on the role played by the Lancet letter. Was it the letter that changed doctors’ attitudes, and thus their linguistic choices, or was a gradual shift from ‘abortion’ to ‘miscarriage’ already happening in response to external pressure? Patient-led groups and women’s health activists had established a clear preference for ‘miscarriage’ before 1985: in 1982, when a charity was set up to support affected women, its founders named it the Miscarriage Association. Might these ongoing developments, led by women outside the profession, have played a more important role than the letter in shifting the professional consensus over time?      

That question has recently been revisited in an article by the corpus linguist Beth Malory, who investigated the use of ‘abortion’ and ‘miscarriage’ in the titles of articles published in three UK medical journals (The Lancet, the British Medical Journal and the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology) between 1975 and 1995. Using a statistical modelling technique called ‘change point analysis’, which is designed to identify sudden (rather than gradual) changes in an established pattern, she found that in this case there had been a moment when the pattern abruptly changed, and there was an 85% probability that this occurred in 1986—within months of the publication of the Lancet letter. In Malory’s view this is strong evidence that the letter played a pivotal role in the shift towards ‘miscarriage’.

That doesn’t mean external pressure played no role: the letter was, by its authors’ own account, a response to the concerns expressed by patients and organisations representing them (the letter cites a survey conducted by the Miscarriage Association in which 85% of respondents opposed the then-current medical use of ‘abortion’). But it does seem likely that the effect of the letter reflected the authors’ status as eminent members of the medical profession, which enabled them to make the case for ‘miscarriage’ more authoritatively than the women they spoke for could have done. So, in this case as in the case of ‘pudendum’, the moral of the story seems to be that changing the language of medicine is not something sisters can do for themselves: they may be instrumental in preparing the ground, but ultimately they need the support of high-ranking insiders. (Who will often, as in these cases, be men.)    

Nearly 40 years have passed since the Lancet letter, but the issue it addressed hasn’t gone away. ‘Miscarriage’, once recommended as a compassionate and respectful choice, is increasingly under fire itself. And this time women are voicing their objections from a platform that didn’t exist in the 1980s.

In 2020, after the model and media personality Chrissy Teigen shared the news of her recent pregnancy loss on Instagram, the response quickly spread across social media, and then to mainstream publications like Glamour magazine, which ran an article headed ‘Women are calling for the word “miscarriage” to be banished for good’. The article reproduced a Twitter exchange in which a woman expressed her appreciation for Teigen’s use of the term ‘pregnancy loss’, observing that ‘“Miscarried” is such an awful description…it’s like you did something wrong’. Other women agreed: ‘miscarry = mishandle’, tweeted one, while another added, ‘you’re so right…it’s no wonder so many women carry feelings of shame and guilt after their loss’. Many women commented that the term ‘pregnancy loss’ was new to them, and said they planned to start using it instead of ‘miscarriage’.

This change already had some professional support. In 2011 the US journal Obstetrics and Gynecology published a paper entitled ‘Nomenclature for pregnancy outcomes: time for a change’ (note: no question-mark), which argued that new terms were needed to reflect both advances in scientific knowledge and what it called ’emotional considerations’. The authors’ own list of suggested terms contained several that included the word ‘loss’ (e.g. ‘embryonic loss’ and ‘early pregnancy loss’). ‘Pregnancy loss’ also appeared in some of the article titles in the paper’s bibliography, showing that some specialists had already adopted it.

Though it hasn’t happened yet, it wouldn’t surprise me if ‘pregnancy loss’ became the dominant term in the not-too-distant future. Personally I think it’s a good term: it’s straightforward, transparent and acknowledges what the experience means to those affected by it. But it’s still striking, as Beth Malory also comments, how fast and how far ‘miscarriage’ has fallen. The responses to Chrissy Teigen suggested that it is now widely seen as a woman-blaming term (in the words of the tweet quoted earlier, ‘miscarry = mishandle’). That isn’t just a lay view, either: in 2015 a doctor writing in the Toronto Globe & Mail argued that ‘miscarriage’ was a harmful term because the ‘mis-’ prefix leads women to believe their pregnancies have ‘gone wrong’ (when in reality it’s more likely they were never viable) and that this must be because of something they did wrong.

This argument implies that the negative associations of ‘miscarriage’ are–and always were–an integral part of its meaning. Yet if we look back to the 1980s, there is no reason to think it was perceived as negative. In those days it was championed by feminists, patient groups, charities and eventually doctors; it was presented as the term women themselves preferred. One of the advantages it was said to have over ‘abortion’ was that it didn’t carry a stigma, or make women feel they were being blamed. Evidently that’s changed during the last 40 years; but what has happened to change it?   

The short answer is that changes in word-meaning may reflect changes in the surrounding culture, and in this case I can think of two developments which might be relevant. One is the increasingly aggressive promotion of the idea that individuals are responsible for their own health, and the associated tendency to blame any problems on people’s own unhealthy choices; in the case of pregnant women, whose choices also affect their unborn children, this attitude is particularly punitive (think of all the total strangers who feel entitled to intervene if they see a pregnant woman drinking alcohol). The other is the rise in popular culture of a new ideal of perfect motherhood, embodied by celebrities and social media influencers who plot an exemplary and very public course from conception (which happens exactly as planned) through a radiantly healthy pregnancy to birth (ideally ‘natural’), after which they have no trouble bonding with the baby, and quickly shed any excess weight. For the great majority of women (maybe all of them) this ideal is unattainable, but that doesn’t stop them feeling guilty for falling short.

Of course it’s true that pregnant women in the 1980s—and for that matter the 1880s—were nagged about their health and presented with unrealistic images of motherhood; it’s also true that women who lost a pregnancy were always susceptible to feelings of shame and guilt. But I’m suggesting that the pressure on prospective mothers to be ‘perfect’ has been massively ramped up in recent decades, and that this may at least partly explain why ‘miscarriage’ has taken on more negative, judgmental or accusatory overtones. It’s a projection of our feelings about the thing onto the word that names it. And one question that might raise is whether changing the word will solve the problem.

Critics of this kind of change are fond of pointing to cases where terms which were introduced to replace a stigmatising label rapidly became pejorative themselves, necessitating a further change in the approved terminology (‘handicapped’ replaced ‘crippled’, and was replaced in its turn by ‘disabled’; ‘lunatics’ became ‘insane’ and then ‘mentally ill’). New terms are corrupted by the persistence of old attitudes, turning the project of reforming language into an endless game of whack-a-mole. My response to this is ‘yes, but…’. Changing linguistic labels may not eliminate social stigma, but that’s not an argument for sticking with terms that have become pejorative. You wouldn’t tell someone suffering from chronic headaches that they shouldn’t take a painkiller today because it won’t stop them getting another headache tomorrow. Temporary relief is still relief.

But when feminists get involved in debates about medical terminology, we should be clear about what renaming can and can’t achieve. Terms which were targets of feminist criticism in the past, like ‘hysteria’ and ‘frigidity’, may no longer appear in doctors’ diagnostic manuals, but they live on as everyday sexist insults (also, how enthusiastic are we about replacements like ‘female sexual dysfunction’, which arguably just repackage the old sexist ideas under a new, blander label?) What we’re ultimately fighting is not a war on words, but a battle against oppressive beliefs and practices. Language can play a part in that, but it isn’t the only thing we need to change.

I’m grateful to Beth Malory for sending me her article (which I hope those of you with access will read for yourselves), but she should not be held responsible for the opinions expressed in this post.

Assertiveness: just say no

This month a feminist classic was reissued: Anne Dickson’s A Woman In Your Own Right, first published in 1982. Back in the 1980s virtually every feminist I knew owned a copy; I can still visualise the shiny silver cover. The 40th anniversary edition looks different, with a sunshine yellow cover and a new subtitle (the original one, ‘Assertiveness and You’, has been replaced by ‘The Art of Assertive, Clear and Honest Communication’). The content has also been updated: it’s not being presented as a historical document, but as still-relevant, practical advice.

Is it still relevant? As Dickson says in her new introduction,

It is tempting to believe that the world has changed to such an extent that women no longer have need of the guidance and support this book originally set out to offer.

She goes on to point out that while some things have changed for some women, many basic inequalities have persisted. Women are still expected to do the lion’s share of the unpaid care-work, and they still contend with high levels of sexual and domestic violence. She also cites some newer problems, like the explosion of online bullying and abuse.

No feminist disputes the argument that we still live in an unequal world. But is assertiveness a solution to the problems Dickson mentions? Personally, I have my doubts: as regular readers will know, I’m critical of the idea that the way women communicate is, if not the root cause of their subordinate position, then at least an important contributory factor. I think the assumptions behind communication training for women are linguistically and politically naïve, and there’s little if any evidence that interventions based on them are effective.

In that case, you might ask, why have those interventions been so popular for so long? A cynical answer might be that, like the equally ineffective products of the diet industry, they are lucrative. Training is a profitable business, and AFAIK it’s unregulated: anyone can market their services as a trainer, coach or ‘communication consultant’. Anne Dickson, to be fair, does have expert credentials: she’s not in the same category as the hacks and grifters I’ve criticised in the past. Her model of assertiveness is internally coherent, and there’s more to her advice than the usual finger-wagging bullshit. But that’s exactly why the 40th anniversary of her best-known work seems like a good moment to revisit the reasons why—even at its best—I find this approach misguided.

Assertiveness training (AT) is now quite strongly associated with feminism, but it wasn’t invented by feminists. It originated in the late 1940s as a form of behaviour therapy for people whose dysfunctional behaviour was linked, in the opinion of those treating them, to ‘poor communication skills’. In some cases the problem it was meant to address was the extreme passivity caused by severe depression or long-term institutionalisation; it was also used with drug addicts, teen mothers and homosexuals, whose ‘deviant’ lifestyles were thought to result from low self-esteem and/or inability to resist peer pressure. In other cases the presenting problem was not passivity but its opposite, aggression. AT was used to teach people (including sex offenders and domestic abusers) to verbalise feelings of anger rather than resorting to physical violence.

Trainees were taught a set of guiding principles which emphasised that (a) everyone has the right to their needs and feelings, while at the same time (b) everyone has the obligation to respect the right of others to their needs and feelings. These principles were said to require the adoption of a style of speech which was clear, direct and honest rather than passive, aggressive or manipulative. The strategies taught in AT included using ‘I’ statements, making requests directly without hinting or hedging, and refusing unwanted invitations or unreasonable requests by ‘just saying no’.  

In the early 1970s, American second wave feminists took AT out of the clinic and into the small, self-organised women’s groups which formed the backbone of the Women’s Liberation Movement. These were women who’d grown up in the 1950s, the era of what Betty Friedan called ‘the feminine mystique’; they turned to AT to help them unlearn their ingrained habits of passivity and subservience. In Britain, similarly, Anne Dickson recalls that the women she worked with early on in her career ‘could immediately identify with passive and indirect behaviours, and could readily understand how this put them at a disadvantage’.

Today Dickson thinks women have less of a problem with passivity, but it troubles her that assertiveness has been popularly conflated with aggression. She complains that the phrase ‘an assertive woman’ conjures up a picture of someone ‘authoritarian, domineering and overbearing’, who ‘gets what she wants by any means available to her’ and uses feminism as an excuse for expressing ‘hostility and intolerance, to men especially’. This is not, Dickson insists, what assertiveness means. It ‘teaches us how to maintain directness and clarity and remain authoritative while at the same time avoiding aggression’ (her emphasis).

These remarks underline Dickson’s continued allegiance to the original model of assertiveness, in which aggression was as much of a problem as passivity, but they also illustrate the limitations of the philosophy behind that model (which, to the extent it has any political content, might be described as ‘wishy-washy liberal’). From a feminist perspective the equation of female assertiveness with aggression is a predictable consequence of sexism and misogyny. Any attempt by a woman to assert her rights or her authority directly, and any refusal on her part to defer to others’ wishes, is liable to be construed as illegitimate and hostile—in short, as an aggressive act, which may then provoke a backlash.  

This is implicitly acknowledged in some of the academic literature on assertiveness. Back in the 1990s, when I was researching AT for my book Verbal Hygiene, one of the texts I read included a discussion of a course developed for women in Puerto Rico, where the designers had decided not to include the topic of saying no to your male partner. In Puerto Rico, they explained, the submission of wives to husbands was ‘a relatively intransigent cultural norm’: encouraging women to say no to their husbands would be neither effective nor ‘socially valid’, and it could put the women at risk of violence. This surely underlines the point that AT is not politically radical. It’s not about challenging the prevailing social order, it’s about helping individuals function more effectively within it.

The main tool AT employs for that purpose is a set of rules for using language, which are meant to help trainees achieve the ideal of ‘clear, direct and honest communication’. In the abstract this seems unobjectionable: no one is in favour of obscure, confusing and dishonest communication. But if you delve into the details of what AT means by ‘clear, direct and honest’, you soon discover that the recommended speech-style is linguistically unnatural and socially unrealistic–and as such, unlikely to make communication more effective.

One problem with AT’s advice is its assumption that every speaker in every situation has the same freedom to choose to be ‘direct and honest’, and that what stops many women from making that choice is simply their own lack of confidence or self-belief. In reality, of course, there are other constraints which have more to do with the social context than with individual psychology. Many of the contexts in which women are told they should assert themselves involve power inequalities: standing up to a bullying boss, or a violent husband, may have consequences they are (understandably) unwilling to risk. It’s not a good idea to ‘just say no’ to someone who may take that as a provocation and respond with physical violence.

In fact, empirical research has shown that even in non-threatening situations English-speakers very rarely perform refusals by ‘just saying no’ without apology or explanation. A bald ‘no’ may be clear and direct, but it will also be heard as rude and hostile. But AT handbooks have a tendency to dismiss linguistic markers of politeness as mere ‘padding’, detracting from the clarity of the message without adding any extra information. The point this misses is that communicating isn’t just about exchanging information, it’s also about negotiating the relationship between participants. Politeness plays a crucial role in establishing the necessary level of co-operation and mutual respect. Eliminating it will undoubtedly influence the way your interlocutors perceive you—but not usually in a positive way.    

There’s a good illustration of this in the original AWIYOR: if you’re in a café and you find your cup hasn’t been washed properly you should say to the server, ‘I’d like you to change this for a clean cup’. This is textbook assertiveness: a clear, direct, first-person statement of what the speaker wants, with no superfluous ‘padding’ (like, say, ‘sorry, but could you change this for a clean cup please?’). It’s also brusque to the point of rudeness, making the speaker sound overbearing and self-absorbed.

That’s not just my opinion. Psychologists have done experiments where subjects watched videotapes of people communicating in ‘assertive’ and ‘unassertive’ ways and then rated each speaker for qualities like competence, likeability and aggression. ‘Assertive’ speakers are often judged to be aggressive, rude and unlikeable. And while that’s true for speakers of both sexes, you won’t be surprised to hear that the effect is stronger for women. Because women are expected to be kind and self-effacing, any female behaviour that deviates from that norm attracts more disapproval than the same behaviour in men.  

For me this is the core of the problem with communication training for women. Even when the advice itself isn’t stupid, it doesn’t acknowledge what both research and experience consistently show—that women are judged by a double standard and caught in a double bind. If they conform to gendered expectations they’ll be criticised as weak and ineffectual, while if they flout those expectations they’ll be damned as ‘abrasive’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident‘.

This casts doubt on the assumption the whole enterprise is based on: that women are held back in life by the way they communicate, and the remedy is for them to change their behaviour. But if the new, ‘improved’ behaviour is not acceptable either–it just attracts a different set of criticisms–that might suggest that women’s speech was never the real problem. What really holds women back is systemic sexism: the negative judgments made on their speech are just expressions of that deeper prejudice.

So where does that leave A Woman In Your Own Right? I’ve read a lot of self-help books and training manuals in my time, and as I said earlier, I regard AWIYOR as one of the better ones. Even if I think some of the advice is linguistically misguided, it would be hard to argue that it’s actively harmful.

Considered as an institution, however, I do think assertiveness training—and communication training more generally—has done more harm than good over the last 40 years. Some examples are worse than others, but they all recycle and reinforce the belief that women as a group have a communication problem, and that this is an important reason why they are (still) not equal to men. They’re underpaid because they don’t feel comfortable asking directly for more money. They’re overworked because they can’t say no. They’re overlooked because they don’t speak up, or else they hedge and waffle and don’t protest when they’re interrupted.

This argument is not supported by good evidence, and our continuing receptiveness to it distracts attention from the deeper causes of inequality. It also obscures the nature of the problems women do have with language and communication, which have more to do with a combination of men’s behaviour and widely-held sexist attitudes than with women lacking the confidence to speak or using language that stops people taking them seriously.

So, with all due respect to Anne Dickson, I am not inclined to celebrate the anniversary of A Woman In Your Own Right. To be honest (not forgetting clear and direct), I find its longevity depressing. There was a time when I thought this whole genre was on its way out, but it managed to hang on, and in the last decade it’s produced a new crop of popular texts with titles like The Confidence Code and Girl, Stop Apologizing.

These recent books are part of the rise of what the feminist media scholars Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill call ‘confidence culture’, a depoliticised form of feminism which, in their words, ‘exculpate[s] social structures and institutions from responsibility for gender injustice, laying it squarely at women’s door’. Rather than exhorting women to demand their rights and improve their material conditions through collective political struggle, it calls on them to empower themselves by improving themselves. As A Woman In Your Own Right demonstrates, this is not a new idea. It wasn’t the solution to our problems forty years ago, and it isn’t the solution to them now.

Cartoon by Angela Martin, 1994

What are words worth? Thoughts on the pardoning of witches

Last month the Scottish government gave its support to a proposal to grant a posthumous pardon to people who were executed as witches. The campaign group Witches of Scotland estimates that between the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563 and its repeal in 1736, almost 4000 people were accused; around two thirds of them, more than 2500 people, were subsequently convicted and executed. As well as a pardon, the campaigners want an official apology and a public memorial to those who died.

In Scotland as elsewhere, a large majority of the victims of witch-hunting—around 84 percent of them—were women, and the campaign has been seen as a feminist issue. For some supporters its significance goes beyond the purely historical: it’s been suggested that the righting of this centuries-old wrong will also, in the words of Scottish Parliament member Natalie Don, ‘have an impact in challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes in [present-day] society’. All of which raises some interesting questions about history, politics and (for reasons I’ll come to shortly) language.  

There are other cases where a pardon has been granted to a group of people who are considered, in retrospect, to have been criminalized unjustly. In 2016, for instance, the UK Parliament passed legislation pardoning anyone who had been convicted under the various laws that once prohibited consensual sex between men. Lord Sharkey, who proposed the relevant amendment, said that ‘a pardon is probably the best way of acknowledging the real harm done by the unjust and cruel homophobic laws, which thankfully we’ve now repealed’.

Not everyone agreed. George Montague, a gay man who was convicted of gross indecency in 1974, told the BBC he wanted an apology, not a pardon. ‘To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty’, he said. ‘I was not guilty of anything. I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time’.

The Scots lawyer Andrew Stevenson has made the same point about the pardoning of witches:  

One pardons a wrongdoer, not the party wronged. Yet by means of a pardon conferred by statute the state is granting, not seeking, forgiveness. A pardon (of witches or anyone else) does not quash a conviction. It actually reaffirms its existence.

Pardoning is an example of the type of speech-act the philosopher J. L. Austin called a ‘performative’, meaning that the utterance of certain words actually performs, as opposed to just reporting, a specific action. Whereas statements like ‘it’s raining’ describe a state of affairs that exists independently of the speaker’s utterance (or doesn’t: I can check by looking out of the window), performative utterances like ‘I bet you £5 it rains today’ or ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ are, in themselves, enactments of the bet or the oath. They bring a new reality into being—or at least, they do if they’re performed properly. Performatives don’t have truth conditions, but rather ‘happiness’ or ‘felicity’ conditions which must be met if the performance is to have the intended effect. In the case of pardoning those conditions include the prior existence of a crime or a wrong for which the person being pardoned was responsible. Consequently, Stevenson argues, pardoning the witches cannot achieve the intended effect: it will not bring into being a new reality in which they were never guilty of anything.

But while this argument may be legally correct, for most people in modern Scotland it is surely beside the point, since they already take the witches’ innocence for granted. Witches are a different case from gay men: a pardon is not being proposed because of a change in society’s attitudes to what they do (people used to think witchcraft was wrong, but that has now been recognized as an unjust prejudice), but rather because we now reject the idea that witchcraft is, or ever was, a real phenomenon. To us it is self-evident that the accusations made against witches—for instance that they had killed their neighbours’ cows with curses, transformed themselves into owls or cavorted on beaches with Satan—were false: no one could have been guilty of such absurd and impossible crimes. In that sense you could argue that the wrong has already been righted, to the extent it ever can be. But in that case, what is a pardon meant to accomplish? 

A cynical answer might be that it’s ‘performative’ not (just) in Austin’s sense, but in the now-popular pejorative sense: an ostentatious but superficial display of concern intended mainly to boost the performer’s claim to the moral high-ground. That criticism has sometimes been made about the formal apologies other governments have offered for more recent wrongs like the removal of indigenous children from their families in Australia, or the abuse of women in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The problem isn’t necessarily that they’re insincere (I’m sure the Scottish government does genuinely believe it was wrong to execute people for witchcraft). But if the regret politicians express for the way certain people were treated in the past is not accompanied by any concern about the injustices those people still suffer in the present, their performances may be dismissed as just self-serving, empty words.

What about Natalie Don’s assertion that revisiting the history of witch-hunting in Scotland will serve the purpose not only of atoning for past sins, but also of ‘challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes’ in the present? This argument is often made about the commemoration of atrocities: we should remember the Holocaust or the Atlantic slave trade not only as a mark of respect to the victims, but also as a way of educating ourselves, and so preventing comparable horrors in future. Painful though it may be, we can only learn from history if we face up to what really happened and why.  

The witch-hunts of the early modern period have not generally been commemorated in this way: they’ve been mythologized and trivialized by the entertainment and tourism industries. In the English town of Lancaster, the site of the 1612 Pendle witch-trials (in which ten women and two men were convicted and executed), the historian Rachel Hasted reported in 1984 that

The local tourist bureau has just launched an advertising campaign headlined The Magick of Lancaster, with a 17th century woodcut of several women being hanged…Tourist shops all over the county sell little black-hatted figures on pipe-cleaner broomsticks and guide-books to ‘the witch country’ with lurid accounts of their doings.

A quick online search confirmed that some tourist attractions in the area are still presenting Lancashire’s witch-hunts (aka the torture and killing of human beings) as if they were quaint local traditions on a par with cheese-rolling or dancing around the maypole.

As Silvia Federici argues in her 2018 book Witches, Witch Hunting and Women, the lurid tales and tacky souvenirs both sensationalize and sanitize history: they recycle an image of the witch that was originally constructed by her persecutors, while glossing over the reality of her persecution. Federici would presumably applaud Scotland for facing up to that reality. But exactly how to present ‘what really happened and why’ remains a complicated question. Historians, including feminists, hold different and sometimes conflicting views.       

Back in the 1980s, Rachel Hasted took issue not only with the crass pop-history in tourist guides, but also with what she dubbed a ‘new myth of the Witch’ popularized by feminists. This account posited that the witches were ‘wise women’ and healers, dispensing plant-based natural remedies to the people of their peasant communities, and (in some versions of the story) holding on to ancient pagan beliefs. Witch-hunts were said to have occurred when these long-established activities, and the traditional knowledge that underpinned them, began to be seen as a threat to the authority of the church and the interests of the men who controlled the emerging medical profession.

But in Hasted’s view the Lancaster records did not support this interpretation. The Pendle women were pious Christians who neither laid claim to nor were accused of using any knowledge of medicinal herbs. In Scotland, too, it seems that few women tried for witchcraft were known in their communities as healers. These cases might fit better with an alternative account in which women were victimized not because the authorities felt threatened by their power, but on the contrary, because they were so powerless.

Some research suggests that accusations of witchcraft were disproportionately made against individuals who were already marginalized because they were old, disabled, or without regular employment, and consequently so poor that they would sometimes beg or steal from their neighbours. It wasn’t a coincidence that many of them were women: the exclusion of women from many kinds of work made them vulnerable to poverty, especially if they were single. But in this account what made them targets was not their sex in itself, but the perception of them as troublesome and undesirable. The implication is that accusers were motivated less by fear of witchcraft than by a desire to see people they disliked, disapproved of, or had some kind of quarrel with, punished by the authorities.

That desire has existed in every age, and been exploited by authoritarian regimes of all kinds. We now know, for instance, that in both Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany, many people who informed on their neighbours, workmates or fellow-students did so for personal rather than ideological reasons, to settle scores with their enemies or gain an advantage over their rivals. Recently there has been some discussion of this in Scotland, in relation to a controversial new hate-crime law which was finally passed last March. One concern expressed by critics of the legislation was that it would encourage zealots and grudge-bearers to drag the state into their personal or political feuds.   

The Scottish witch-pardon might also invite questions about the complacency of a society that condemns past abuses of women while tolerating comparable abuses in the present. When I say ‘comparable’, I obviously don’t mean that women in Scotland are still being executed for witchcraft. But many of the same things that were said about witches are still regularly said about women in modern courtrooms—for instance that they are liars, manipulative, vengeful and sexually predatory.

The actual language of witch-hunting is not dead either. In 2020, after the trial of former SNP leader Alex Salmond on multiple sexual assault charges ended in his acquittal, commentators in the Scottish media used it to attack some of the women journalists who had covered the case. A programme fronted by Kirsty Wark was said to have featured a ‘coven’ of women who were likened to the three witches in Macbeth; one of them, Dani Garavelli, was also described as ‘the Rapefinder-General’. The sexism of this rhetoric, which recasts women, the original witch-hunt victims, as persecutors of innocent men, is not, of course, unique to Scotland. But nor does Scotland have any special claim to have moved beyond it.

I’m not suggesting that feminists should oppose the pardoning of witches (or formal apologies or memorials to them, which IMHO might be apter choices), but I do think we should consider what we want these performances to accomplish. If all they accomplish is to distance the living from the superstitious beliefs of their long-dead ancestors, that’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s nothing especially feminist about it. For the gesture to ‘have an impact in challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes’, it would need to go beyond saying ‘look, we’re not like our ancestors, we find what they did abhorrent’, and address the ways in which—regrettably—we are still like them.

2021: mixed messages and weasel words

When I last did an annual round-up we were nearly a year into the pandemic. 2020 had been grim, but it seemed possible 2021 would bring a gradual return to something more like normal life. It didn’t: though the government in England declared ‘freedom day’ in July, as I write in late December normality still seems a long way off.

Living through this pandemic has something in common with living as a feminist. In each case you’ve always got to be prepared for some new horror, while at the same time knowing (a) that the underlying problem is the same one you’ve been shouting about forever, and (b) that the response of the people with the power to do something about it will be the same mixture of arrogance and incompetence, excuse-making and victim-blaming, which has failed on every previous occasion. Spin and disinformation will abound, and large sections of the media will amplify them.

In Britain, and particularly in England, the pandemic has been, among other bad things, an object lesson in how not to do public communication. One reason for that, though not the only one, is that the Communicator-in-Chief, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is a man who has never been renowned for his clarity, honesty, seriousness, grasp of detail or commitment to any kind of public service. It’s hard to think of anything he has said since about March 2020 (when he announced the first full lockdown by saying ‘you must stay at home’) that has not been evasive, confusing or misleading.

By the end of 2021, as evidence surfaced of Johnson and his colleagues drinking and partying while the rest of us were forbidden to socialise or even visit dying loved ones, the public’s patience began to wear thin. But the media had spent the year making excuses for ‘Boris’, if not explicitly then implicitly, by using language that echoed his own carefully cultivated image as an unruly schoolboy forever getting into ‘scrapes’, and in some cases blaming his poor decisions on the malign influence of his partner Carrie. And yes, this is about sexism. Though I don’t think feminists should idealise women leaders (which was something of a trend in 2020), at least women in positions of authority generally make some effort to look and sound like competent adults. No woman could get away with Boris Johnson’s naughty schoolkid act.

For British feminists—and many women who might not think of themselves as feminists—perhaps the galvanising horrific event of 2021 was the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March. There were many other killings of women by men this year (by December 18 there were 136 known cases), but this one stood out because the perpetrator was a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, who had used both his police ID and the circumstances of the pandemic to entrap his victim (he told her he was arresting her for breaching the public health rules in force at the time). It also emerged that his predatory attitudes to women had been known to his colleagues for years, and that he had been reported more than once for exhibitionism—reports which his fellow-officers apparently did not follow up on. The case thus highlighted not only the extent to which women’s freedom is restricted by their well-founded fear of male violence, but also their inability to trust the police.

Violence against women in general is a subject on which mis- and disinformation is rife, mainly because of the constant repetition of ancient but demonstrably inaccurate and misleading stories about why it happens and who is (or is not) responsible (‘he just snapped’; ‘she rejected him and he couldn’t live without her’; ‘an isolated incident’, etc., etc). But in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder what we got from the authorities, as well as assorted experts and pundits, was gaslighting on a grand scale—a sustained attempt to persuade women that when they described the realities of their own lives they were being irrational and even ‘hysterical’.  

My most-read post of 2021 was an analysis of the discourse in which the mass outpouring of women’s anger was dismissed as an overreaction to something (the killing of a woman by a male stranger) which was, mysteriously, both an inevitable fact of life and at the same time ‘incredibly rare’. (So, maybe one or two cases a decade then? No: according to the UK Femicide Census they account for about one in every twelve cases. Applied to this year’s figures that statistic would translate to roughly one every month.) Think-pieces in the media asked why women are so afraid of men; few asked why so many men habitually behave in ways that make women fearful. And in a bravura display of missing the point, it was suggested that any lone women stopped by a male police officer could call a police station to verify that he was legit. This advice entirely ignored the reason why the question had been raised in the first place—that when Wayne Couzens stopped Sarah Everard he was not impersonating a police officer, he actually was one.  

The anger this case provoked among women gave a boost to the ongoing campaign to extend current legal provisions on hate crime to offences motivated by misogyny. For a moment it seemed as if the government would seize on this apparently popular demand, but in the event they decided to pass. I did not share some feminists’ disappointment: I’m no fan of the government (see above), but I am nevertheless a ‘misogyny hate-crime’ sceptic, for reasons I wrote about in March. Apart from my doubts about whether ‘hate’ is the right frame for most violence against women and girls, I agree with those feminists who have argued that the main problem for victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse is the failure of the criminal justice system to enforce the laws we already have. One issue here is how poorly resourced the system has become after years of public spending cuts. But another is the endless excuse-making and victim-blaming complainants continue to encounter within a system that is itself institutionally sexist and misogynist.

The criminal justice system is not alone here. A number of schools responded to incidents of girls being upskirted by boys by telling the girls to wear ‘modesty shorts’ underneath their uniform skirts. Perhaps the teachers who came up with this policy weren’t aware that upskirting became a criminal offence in 2019. Or perhaps making new laws is just a futile symbolic gesture if you don’t also make efforts to tackle the attitudes which both underlie the behaviour you’re concerned about and ensure that most instances of it will continue to go unreported and/or unpunished.  

This year brought more evidence that UK schools are struggling to deal with endemic sexual harassment and rising numbers of sexual assaults, including a growing number involving children aged under 11. On this issue disinformation took another common form—using language that obscures who’s doing what to whom. The vast majority of sexual assaults recorded in schools are perpetrated by boys against girls, but the statistics which contained this information were reported in virtually all media sources using the studiedly gender-neutral (and reciprocity-implying) phrase ‘sexual abuse between children’. We do need to talk about the way early exposure to a highly sexualised popular and online culture is affecting both girls and boys—but without implying that the effects are the same for both.

There’s a lot of muddled thinking in this area, though, and in 2021 it produced some strikingly mixed messages. On one hand there were repeated expressions of concern about the effects of social media in ramping up the objectification of teenage girls and the attendant dissatisfaction many feel with their bodies. In January, for instance, a report was published which found that heavy use of social media was associated with lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem for adolescents generally, but girls experienced a steeper decline than boys from the age of 14 (with one in three girls reporting negative feelings about their appearance). Yet in the same month a public health campaign to increase the take-up of cervical cancer screening among young women suggested they should encourage their peers to get screened by posting coded references to the state of their pubic hair (‘bushy, bare, or halfway there?’) on social media.

While objectified female bodies are hyper-visible, women’s voices continue to be silenced and disparaged. Examples that made the news in 2021 included the story of the man in charge of the Tokyo Olympics, who defended the near-absence of women in his organisation by saying that women would cause problems with their incessant talking, and a study which revisited some 40-year old findings about who speaks in US university classrooms and reported that not much had changed (men in this study talked 1.6 times as much as their female peers). My post on this topic was inspired, however, by a more positive story, about a woman whose response to being told to stop talking by a man in a Zoom meeting was swift, uncompromising and highly effective: she expelled him. I refer of course to Jackie Weaver, who became a national celebrity after a recording of the Handsforth Parish Council meeting went viral.  

In summer, reading an academic history of women’s contributions to language study before World War II made me wonder how many of the women discussed had an entry on Wikipedia. I discovered as I expected that many of them did not, but I was also shocked by the sexist and sometimes downright insulting content of the entries I did find. I also discovered a study which found that feminists’ efforts to redress Wikipedia’s well-known gender imbalance are being undermined by a persistent tendency for entries about women to be nominated for deletion because, allegedly, their subjects are not sufficiently ‘notable’.

We had a topical illustration of women’s non-notability in December, when the Sunday Times ran a piece about the data scientists who’ve become popular celebrities during the pandemic. All the individuals featured were white men. The i-Paper swiftly countered by profiling a selection of what it mockingly dubbed ‘the female “data lads”’. ‘Men’, the writer observed, ‘have indeed been at the forefront of Covid number-crunching, but because the pandemic did start a long time ago but not as far back as the Dark Ages, swathes of women have been doing it too, also amassing thousands of online followers’.

In October and November this blog took a backseat to my day-job, and I only returned to it as the end-of-year festivities approached. Not that I was feeling the seasonal goodwill: a rant about the portrayal of ‘Nana’ in Christmas ads was as festive as it got. It could have been a lot darker, though. Shortly before Christmas I stumbled across a tweet whose author had collated no fewer than four versions of a family Christmas card in which Dad, Mum and 2+ kids posed for the camera wearing Christmas jumpers or Santa hats—and in the case of Mum and the kids (or in two cases, just the daughters), a strip of duct-tape fixed firmly over their mouths. This delightful scene was captioned ‘Peace on Earth’. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not reproducing these photos because they contain degrading images of children too young to have given informed consent to their public circulation.)

When the depiction of gagged women can become a humorous Christmas meme, we are a long way from where feminists might have hoped we’d be in the third decade of the 21st century. And this wasn’t the only point in the year when I wondered if we were going backwards. In April the death of Prince Philip unleashed a global wave of commentary so overtly patriarchal it could easily have been composed 100 years ago. Its main theme was Philip’s difficult position as a man forced to walk in his wife’s shadow—though we were repeatedly assured that in private he ‘wore the trousers’. An Italian newspaper approvingly remarked that ‘he was the only one who could tell the sovereign to shut up’.

Telling women to shut up was one of the recurring themes of this year. But so was women refusing to (be) shut up. Those who featured directly in my posts included not only Jackie Weaver, but also the women who organised and attended vigils for Sarah Everard despite attempts to stop them, and the female employees whose testimony led to the downfall of New York state Governor (and serial sexual harasser) Andrew Cuomo. In this second Plague Year, when so many women were so overburdened with extra work and worry, the fact that they continued to raise their voices was cheering, even if the events they were responding to were not. Thanks to everyone who read this blog this year, along with all the researchers whose work I made use of; let’s hope things get easier in 2022.

Sherry for Nana?

If you’re looking for examples of banal sexism, Christmas TV ads are the gift that keeps on giving. At the beginning of this year’s Christmas ad season I was especially struck by Lidl’s evocation of Christmas Future (exactly like Christmas Past and Present except that Dad carves the turkey with a laser while Mum asks the visiting relatives how they’re finding life on the moon). Then I saw Majestic Wine Warehouse’s contribution to the genre, in which one of the staff members who’ve been helping families pick their festive drinks has a last-minute thought. ‘Sherry for Nana?’, he offers, thrusting a single bottle of the brown stuff into a grateful customer’s hands.

Now, I’ve got nothing against sherry: I learned to appreciate it by drinking it with friends in Spain, where it’s not reserved for old ladies (sorry, I probably sound as pretentious as the woman in the Waitrose Christmas ad banging on about how great sprouts are if they’re cooked with enough pancetta). Yet in Britain that perception is so strong, attempts to promote sherry to more discerning drinkers almost always begin with some variation on ‘it’s not just your granny’s Christmas tipple’. The use of the word ‘tipple’ appears to be compulsory in this context; you can even buy a personalised sherry glass inscribed with the words ‘Gran’s Little Tipple’.

On a website called ‘The Sommelier Chef’, a 2015 post entitled ‘Grannies’ tipple’ starts by acknowledging that ‘it has a stigma, Sherry: sweet, sticky, associated with grannies at Christmas’. The writer explains this unfortunate association with a bit of social history:

In granny’s earlier years it was thought unladylike for a female to drink hard liquor, and wine usually came in the form of claret that was drunk in very small amounts at dinner. Champagne was expensive and there was little alternative outside of port (thought a more manly choice) or sherry. So, it became acceptable for females to drink a small tipple of sherry for those special occasions.

But wait a minute, whose granny is she talking about? According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age for becoming a grandparent in the UK is currently 63. I’m also currently 63, and what is said here certainly doesn’t describe my ‘earlier years’. It’s more applicable to my own grandmother, who was born just after Queen Victoria died—if she were still alive she’d be almost 120—than to me, a baby-boomer who came of age in the late 1970s.

Grandma rarely drank alcohol (though some of her contemporaries clearly did: when I asked my partner if her grandmother drank sherry, she laughed and said ‘no, she drank sidecars’). But my generation of young women drank whatever we felt like drinking, including beer, wine, and many varieties of hard liquor. The only disapproval I remember this attracting was occasional comments from men in pubs who thought it was unladylike for women to order a pint of beer rather than a half. ‘Are you one of those women’s libbers’, they would ask—to which the answer was ‘yes, are you one of those male chauvinist pigs?’  

The Sommelier Chef’s account of ‘granny’s earlier years’ is an example of something which, for want of a better label, I’ll call the concertina-ing of women’s history. A great deal of popular wisdom, and for that matter popular feminism, seems to operate on the tacit assumption that the current cohort of women under 50 are the first to have experienced certain problems or enjoyed certain freedoms. Any woman born before a certain cut-off point (one whose exact timing is vague and elastic) gets consigned to some generic pre-feminist Dark Age, in which today’s grandmothers—women who were young during the heyday of the second wave—become indistinguishable from their own grandmothers, born before women in most places had the right to vote. In that sense, feminism’s imaginary older woman is a bit like ‘Nana’ in the adverts, forever drinking her thimbleful of Christmas sherry while knitting up a packet of Shreddies: she’s not just a stereotype, she’s a stereotype that’s got stuck in a time-warp.

Though ageing remains an unavoidable fact of life, what it means to be old has changed over time. Women in their 60s and 70s today may or may not be handy with the needles (I’m not knocking knitting), but they no longer look or sound like the Nanas in the Shreddies ads, with their quavering old lady voices and their 1950s perms. Today many or most women in their 60s still have jobs (in Britain the female state pension age is now 66, and is set to rise further); if she makes it to 65 a woman in the UK can expect to live, on average, for another 21 years.

This woman may be a grandmother, but she’s a long way from the stereotype of Nana as a kind, innocent old lady, skilled in the traditional domestic arts but unfamiliar with such newfangled inventions as the internet and feminism. She could be your teacher, your boss, or even the leader of your government. Maybe that’s one reason why the outdated stereotype persists—it’s an expression of nostalgia for a simpler time when, supposedly, women didn’t have that kind of power.

The Nana stereotype is overtly positive rather than negative (that’s what makes subversions of it, like the foul-mouthed Nan character created by comedian Catherine Tate, funny), but it’s also an example of what’s sometimes called ‘benevolent sexism’, representing women in a way which is backward-looking, sentimental and deeply patronising. We love Nana, of course we do, but her ideas are old-fashioned, her tastes are a bit naff, and there’s a lot about modern life that she just doesn’t understand. We love her but we don’t see her as an equal–even if we’re the same age, we don’t recognise ourselves in her. That’s partly because, as I’ve already said, she’s a stereotype from a bygone age; but it’s also because of the stigma attached to ageing, which leads many older women, including even ardent feminists, to emphasise how unlike Nana they are.

In La Vieillesse (‘Old Age’), Simone de Beauvoir observed that in capitalist societies old people, like women, are treated as Other, different and inferior. This affects men as well as women, and for men Beauvoir suggests it may be even harder to deal with, because the loss of status takes them by surprise. I thought of this when I read about a Christmas ad that went viral in Germany this year:

The two-minute commercial follows a grandfather who, isolated by the coronavirus pandemic, starts his own solo fitness quest with nothing but a kettlebell. The elderly man struggles and groans but motivates himself with a photo in a frame of somebody the audience can’t see. It’s revealed in a moment that will melt even the iciest of hearts, just what the grandfather has been training for over his lonely year. As he finally meets with his family for Christmas, he picks up his granddaughter, and is strong enough to lift her up to put the star on top of the Christmas tree.

Could this ad have featured the little girl’s grandmother as its protagonist? In practical terms we might think the answer is yes: fitness regimes are not just for men. But symbolically it strikes me as very much a male narrative, about an old man’s resistance to the loss of status Beauvoir talks about. Rather than passively accepting his situation, he makes heroic efforts to overcome his physical frailty so he can play, when the time comes, an active and visible role in the family Christmas celebrations. The ad is undoubtedly sentimental throughout, but it does take the viewer on an emotional journey: while we may start out feeling pity for Grandpa, by the end we’re admiring his grit and determination. This is not a story I can imagine being told about Nana.

It’s true, of course, that advertisers don’t always portray older women as Nana: it depends what they’re selling and to whom. Nana works well in Christmas ads for food and drink, with their cosy ‘happy families’ vibe; but when it’s her money they’re after they’re more likely to go for a different stereotype, the ‘Glamorous Gran’. In ads for Voltarol or incontinence pants we see her lifting weights at the gym or getting dressed up to go dancing; in ads for anti-ageing products we see her ready for her close-up, perfectly groomed and still enviably attractive—even when, like Jane Fonda, she’s in her 80s.

Maybe this is the female version of refusing to capitulate to the indignities of old age: grandpa strengthens his muscles with a kettlebell, Gran battles her wrinkles with L’Oreal. But that comparison only underlines the point that ageism is inflected by sexism. Men are valued for what they do, whereas for women what matters most is how they look. The message of ads featuring the Glamorous Gran is that if we make enough effort and buy the right products, we too can remain acceptable to the male gaze. This is touted by the beauty industry as ‘empowering’ older women, but arguably it’s just another reminder that women’s power is dependent on their sexual allure.

For me, the choice between Glamorous Gran and Nana is like the choice between Babycham and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. I find both of them equally unpalatable, and equally remote from my actual life as a 60-something woman. You may feel similarly, or you may not: either way, I hope that all the glasses you raise this Christmas contain the drink of your preference, whatever that may be.

A very naughty boy

This week Fox News broadcast a bizarre exchange between Tucker Carlson and Britain’s own Nigel Farage. After Farage criticised Boris Johnson’s recent performance, Carlson offered a theory to explain what had gone wrong: ‘getting Covid-19 emasculated him, it changed him, it feminized him, it weakened him as a man’. He added that this was a general property of the virus, which ‘does tend to take away the life-force…it does feminize people’.

This proposition is nonsensical, to the point where even Farage appeared reluctant to entertain it. But Carlson’s obsession with male potency (aka ‘the life-force’) and his fear of feminisation is something he shares with many men–including, as it happens, the British Prime Minister. I’ve commented before on the peculiar turns of phrase through which Johnson expresses this ancient but still prevalent form of sexism: his fondness for the word ‘spaff’, for instance, and his penchant for insulting (male) rivals using expressions that imply emasculation, like ‘girly swot’ and ‘big girl’s blouse’.

These expressions are also notable for their childishness and their archaic quality. ‘Big girl’s blouse’ was a popular playground insult when I was at school; ‘girly swot’ sounds like something you might have heard at St Custard’s, the fictional prep school in Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books (first published in the 1950s, a decade before Boris Johnson was born). It isn’t, perhaps, immediately obvious why an ambitious 21st century politician would want to sound like a character in a 1950s school story. But arguably this persona has served Johnson well.

This week, as scandals piled up around him, the media reached for the same school-story register to assess what kind of trouble he was in. Anne McElvoy described the situation in the Evening Standard as ‘his most precarious jam yet’. Others were more sanguine: the host of ITV’s Last Word pointed out that he was always ‘getting into scrapes’ (a word that’s been used about him since at least 2007), while the Washington Post also alluded to his ‘Teflon-like ability to survive these sort of scrapes’.  Jams and scrapes are what schoolboys get into, not because they’re incompetent or corrupt, but because of their youthful impulsiveness and propensity for mischief. Applied to Boris Johnson these are trivializing terms: ‘He’s not the Prime Minister, he’s a very naughty boy!’  

Another thing that recurred in media coverage was references to ‘grown-ups’–a category to which 57-year old ‘Boris’ axiomatically does not belong. For Conservatives who support his leadership on the grounds that he wins elections, a much-canvassed solution to his current problems is to put some actual grown-ups into his team. Allegra Stratton, the spokesperson who resigned this week after a recording was leaked of her making joking references to the Downing Street Christmas party that supposedly never happened, was apparently brought in to be one of these grown-ups. But she appears to have struggled with what Anne McElvoy describes in the Standard as ‘a laddish, “don’t give a f***” culture’ among staffers still loyal to her predecessor.  

If this description is accurate, it exemplifies a common pattern in many groups, organisations and even families. It’s accepted that boys will be boys, or ‘lads’, but women are expected to be grown-ups, reining in men’s bad behaviour and imposing order on their chaos. ‘Men are children, women are grown-ups’ is such a mainstream idea, it served as the premise for one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Men Behaving Badly. And though I don’t dispute that it’s insulting to men, it also creates problems for women, precisely because men are not in fact children, and they often resent being bossed around by women. Managing this contradiction is a difficult balancing act. I once suggested that the Tories’ ideal woman would be Mary Poppins, a nanny whose magic powers allow her to control her charges without appearing too nannyish.

The two women who have led the Conservative party in reality were both quite nannyish, and both of them were resented for it. But they were, incontrovertibly, grown-ups. They did not get into ‘scrapes’; they were not described as ‘shambolic’; they did not appear in public with uncombed hair. They were, as they had to be, serious, disciplined and hard-working. The same could be said of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton. No female politician could adopt the persona of an overgrown schoolgirl and be indulged by her party, or the media, or the public.     

Another reason why men like Boris Johnson can get away with it is our willingness to see feckless or chaotic men as clever or even brilliant, whereas competent and conscientious women are dismissed as pedestrian plodders. This also has a ‘schoolboy’ connection. When people say of Johnson that he ‘isn’t interested in details’, I’m reminded of an educational theory that was popular when I was young. If girls did well in school, that was not because they were intellectually gifted but because they were good at detail, dutifully memorising and reproducing what they’d been taught (in super-neat handwriting). Boys were lazier and more slapdash, but also more intelligent and less conventional in their thinking.

This was generally presented (and in some quarters still is) as a ‘natural’ sex-difference. But as the feminist scholar Mary Evans points out in her book about life in a 1950s girls’ grammar school, the education system actively cultivated it, in that the curriculum prescribed for girls placed great emphasis on tasks that required attention to detail. At Evans’s school, for instance, pupils spent a year of domestic science lessons smocking a pinafore by hand. She refers to this as ‘education in the thankless task’, arguing that its purpose was not to teach the specific skill of smocking, but rather to inculcate more general attitudes, including a high tolerance for work which demanded prolonged concentration but was also tedious, repetitious and low in status. Since that kind of work was what most girls would end up doing, both in their homes and (if they entered it) the workplace, the school was essentially preparing them for what it saw as the realities of female adult life.

Today there is less sex-differentiation in either education or the middle-class professions. Yet the belief still apparently persists that attention to detail is for women, or the lower-status men who are labelled nerds, geeks and wonks. Alpha-males like Boris Johnson not only don’t but shouldn’t have to waste their superior intelligence on minutiae. Johnson’s frequent holidays and his eagerness to delegate work to others suggest that he also subscribes to the old belief in the effortless superiority of white upper-class men: a gentleman should not be seen to try too hard. We might be tempted to blame this on his patrician education, but in fact the young Johnson’s belief in his own superiority was too much for even his housemaster at Eton, who told his father in a letter that ‘Boris sometimes seems affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception’.

But in his later, political career Johnson has been able to use his ‘overgrown schoolboy’ persona to insulate him from the kind of criticism he received when he was actually at school. That’s not to say he avoids all criticism, but from his point of view it’s far better to be portrayed as impulsive, ‘shambolic’, a hapless fool or an attention-seeking clown (his recent ‘Peppa Pig’ speech to the CBI has been voted the year’s funniest moment by readers of the Beano) than to be held to account for more serious shortcomings like gross negligence, dishonesty and lack of integrity.

So I really don’t understand why even his critics in the media reproduce the image he has chosen to project by repeatedly using language that reinforces it. Not turning up to COBRA meetings in the middle of a pandemic isn’t like bunking off Latin; holding parties at your workplace during a lockdown when other people aren’t even allowed to visit their dying relatives is not like organising an illicit midnight feast. Stop indulging him–and distracting us–with these references to ‘scrapes’ and ‘jams’. Stop laughing at his stunts, or his ‘gaffes’; stop saying he needs some grown-ups around him. He’s not a naughty schoolboy, he’s the Prime Minister, FFS.

Unspeakable

September was an eventful month in the ongoing War of the W-Word. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tweeted out an edited version of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s words defending a woman’s right to choose, in which the words ‘woman’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ were replaced with ‘person’, ‘they’ and ‘their’. The medical journal The Lancet published a cover informing readers that ‘Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected’. And a series of British politicians publicly tied themselves in knots about whether it’s permissible to state that ‘only women have a cervix’.

‘Bodies with vaginas’ caused particular offence, but as the science writer and editor Sue Nelson pointed out, The Lancet had taken the phrase out of context. The statement on the cover was what’s known in the trade as a ‘pull-quote’, lifted from an article discussing an exhibition about menstruation at London’s Vagina Museum. Not only did the article mention women, it did so in the very sentence the quote was taken from:

Historically the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected—for example, the paucity of understanding of endometriosis and the way women’s pain has been seen as more likely to have an emotional or psychological cause, a hangover from centuries of theorising about hysteria.

The article does connect the treatment of ‘bodies with vaginas’ to the fact that vaginas, on the whole, belong to women. But the cover obscures that through selective quotation. Sue Nelson described this as ‘deliberately provocative’, adding that it was ‘clickbait…virtue-signalling, or both’.

What is it, though, that makes ‘bodies with vaginas’ so provocative? Many critics complained that the phrase dehumanised women by referring to them as ‘bodies’, but I’m not convinced that ‘bodies’ is the problem. I don’t think The Lancet would have been deluged with complaints if its cover had called attention to the historical neglect of ‘the anatomy and physiology of women’s bodies’, or ‘female bodies’, or ‘the female body’. On the cover of a medical journal, in a sentence about anatomy and physiology (‘the study of the structure and functions of bodies’) those phrases would not have seemed out of place.

In my view the provocation had less to do with the words The Lancet did use than with the word it conspicuously avoided. Whatever else they communicate, expressions like ‘bodies with vaginas’ (see also ‘menstruators’, ‘pregnant people’, ‘anyone who has a cervix’) signal that the speaker or writer has made a conscious decision not to use the word ‘women’. Particularly when it’s repeated across contexts and over time, this intentional avoidance implies that ‘women’ is taboo: it belongs to the category of words whose offensiveness makes them ‘dirty’ and publicly unspeakable.    

At this point you might be thinking: but this isn’t about avoidance, it’s about inclusion. It’s a way of acknowledging that some individuals who have vaginas/periods/abortions do not identify as women, but rather as trans men or nonbinary people. Is this not the same argument 1970s feminists made when they objected to the pseudo-generic use of masculine terms like ‘chairman’? I agree that there are parallels; but there are also, if you look closer, differences.     

1970s feminists looking for alternatives to ‘he/man’ language had a number of strategies at their disposal. One of these was ‘doubling’, conjoining terms with ‘and’, as in the phrase ‘servicemen and women’, now routinely used by politicians paying tribute to the armed forces. Feminists don’t complain about the continuing presence of ‘men’, who are still the majority of those who serve. But when the problem is the word ‘women’, and the issue is including people with other gender identities, there’s a tendency to shy away from the ‘add on’ approach (e.g. ‘we provide advice and support to pregnant women, trans men and nonbinary people’). The preferred strategy is to substitute a word or phrase that does not contain the word ‘women’—even if the result is bizarre (‘bodies with vaginas’), circumlocutory (‘anyone who has a cervix’) or unclear (e.g. the ACLU’s use of ‘person/people’ in a context where the reference is not to all people but specifically to those who can become pregnant). If you’re just looking for ways of referring to a category which includes but is not limited to women, why is it so important to avoid the word entirely?  

Another piece of evidence that we are dealing with avoidance is that the substitution rule only applies to ‘women’. As critics of the Lancet cover pointed out, a few days earlier the journal had tweeted something about prostate cancer which referred to those affected by the disease as ‘men’. If inclusiveness were the sole concern, the same considerations should apply to prostate cancer as to cervical cancer. In both cases, some patients in need of screening or treatment may identify as trans or nonbinary. But texts about cancers which only affect male bodies do not talk about ‘people with prostates’ or ‘bodies with testicles’. That can’t be because ‘men’ is more inclusive than ‘women’; the difference is that ‘men’ is not taboo.      

The English word ‘taboo’ means a kind of avoidance which reflects our notions of polite or socially appropriate behaviour. It covers such injunctions as not swearing in certain contexts (in front of your grandparents, or at a job interview), and not speaking plainly about certain subjects (e.g. death). The word ‘woman’ was once considered impolite (as a child I was taught to call say ‘lady)’, and avoiding it to be inclusive is also, to some extent, about politeness—being sensitive to others’ feelings and trying not to offend or upset them. But some aspects of the way this avoidance plays out might remind us of taboo in the more technical, anthropological sense.

The anthropological use of ‘taboo’ reflects the way it was observed to work in the Polynesian societies which originally gave English the word. In those societies, ‘tabu’ (or ‘tapu’ or ‘kapu’) is connected to the concept of ‘mana’, a form of power which all things are believed to possess, and which is dangerous if not correctly channelled. The danger is managed through the observance of ritual prohibitions, like not eating certain foods, or not bringing objects that serve one purpose into a space reserved for another, or not uttering the names of gods, rulers, or the recently deceased. Taboo-breaking is understood to be both dangerous and shameful: offenders may be shunned, and in extreme cases even killed.      

The avoidance of ‘women’ among contemporary English-speakers is not motivated by fear of supernatural forces, but it does sometimes seem to be rooted in another kind of fear—the fear that if you don’t observe the rules you will be publicly shamed and ostracised. When politicians were asked about ‘only women have a cervix’, it was striking how many of them could not explain why, in the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s words, ‘it is something that should not be said’. Some of their responses were like the answer James Cook got when he asked why it was forbidden for Tongan men and women to eat together: ‘it is our custom’, they told him, ‘and the custom is right’. A taboo does not require an explanation.     

Even in modern western societies, linguistic taboos retain an element of the ancient belief in word-magic. An obvious example is swearing, where the effect depends on harnessing the power attached to a specific word: if you substitute a synonym (e.g. say ‘copulate off’ rather than ‘fuck off’) the effect is completely lost. And quite similar ideas about the potency of certain words inform some common recommendations for making language more inclusive.

The psychologist Carol Tavris drew attention to this phenomenon in a piece about some new guidelines produced by the University of California at Irvine (UCI).  Noting that the guidelines recommended avoiding ‘hearing impaired’ and replacing it with ‘hard of hearing’, she wondered why one was considered preferable to the other. The answer is that guidelines often proscribe terms that include the word ‘impaired’ on the grounds that it is negative and therefore stigmatising. But is ‘hard of hearing’ any less negative just because it doesn’t contain ‘impaired’? (One piece of evidence which might suggest otherwise is the existence of the joke-expression ‘hard of thinking’, meaning ‘stupid’.)

Even if they’re not efficacious, we might think these avoidance-based rules are harmless. But as Tavris says, for the average language-user, who is not steeped in the discourse of diversity, equality and inclusion, they make talking about certain issues into what can easily appear to be a minefield. They also create a gap between the approved language of inclusion and the everyday language used by most people most of the time. The mismatch is apparent in another of UCI’s recommendations—to avoid the phrase ‘homeless people’ and substitute ‘people experiencing homelessness’. If most ordinary English-speakers don’t follow this advice, is that because they don’t believe homeless people are people? Or are they just reluctant to use such wordy, convoluted jargon? Maybe they think ‘people experiencing homelessness’ is a patronising euphemism—like when doctors ask if you’re ‘experiencing discomfort’ when you’re actually in excruciating pain.   

Disregarding the views of ordinary language-users is a mistake language reformers have made repeatedly. When the ACLU substituted ‘person’ for ‘woman’ in its edited quote from Ruth Bader Ginsburg, many objections took the form of mockery—repeating the same substitution in a context where it was clearly absurd, like ‘When a man loves a person’, or ‘feminism is the radical notion that persons are people’. Something similar happened in Britain after the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to use gender-specific terms in job advertisements. With the many jobs whose title had traditionally contained ‘-man’ there were two options: you could either use paired terms like ‘servicemen and women’, or find a gender-neutral variant to cover both. One result was a crop of new compounds like ‘chairperson’, ‘salesperson’ and ‘spokesperson’. Another was an endless stream of jokes about ‘personholes’, ‘personagers’ and whether in future diners would have to ask the ‘waitperson’ for the ‘people-u’.

To begin with this looked like a predictable backlash which would die down as the new terms became familiar. But there were other problems with -person. One was our old friend ‘the illusion of inclusion‘. Outside job ads, person-terms were frequently used not as generic substitutes for ‘man’, but as euphemisms for ‘woman’. Women were ‘chairpersons’, while men continued to be ‘chairmen’. It also became evident that replacing ‘man’ with ‘person’ often produced real terms that sounded like jokes. Soon after the law came into force I got a job in a local hospital, where my wage-slip informed me I was a ‘laundrywoman’. I found that term archaic, but on reflection I could see why it hadn’t been replaced with the ludicrous-sounding ‘laundryperson’.

‘Person’ once appeared to be the obvious substitute for ‘man’, but in hindsight we can see that it failed. Today almost none of the old -person compounds survive. But over time people converged on more acceptable solutions to the problem of making job-titles inclusive (e.g. ‘chair’, ‘sales assistant/associate’, ‘firefighter’). What they rejected was not the basic principle of inclusion, but the imposition of terms they found unnatural or ridiculous.    

The very public controversies of the last few weeks suggest that the kind of inclusive language that requires the avoidance of ‘women’ may be encountering similar resistance. It wasn’t just a certain kind of feminist who criticised ‘bodies with vaginas’. There were other Lancet-readers who were not so much offended as just bewildered that a medical journal would go to such lengths to avoid the W-word.

But many women were angry, and that isn’t hard to understand. Erasing one group of people as a way of including others sends a clear message about who matters and who doesn’t. And replacing the word a group of people use to name themselves with terms that many of them find alien and insulting makes it clear that women’s own preferences are irrelevant. This isn’t new: for millennia, all kinds of names have been imposed on women against their will. In that respect, terms like ‘menstruator’ and ‘birthing person’ are not so different from ‘slut’ and ‘slag’. Men like Keir Starmer and the editor of The Lancet would deny that they think of women as subordinates–yet they apparently feel entitled to tell women what it’s acceptable for them to say about their own bodies. They need to understand it isn’t up to them to decide, and let women speak, in their own words, for themselves.                    

The naming of dogs

On a Zoom call last week I realised that every dog-owning north American I know addresses their dog as ‘buddy’. At least, they do if it’s a male dog: they probably wouldn’t use ‘buddy’ (a form of ‘brother’) as a familiar appellation for a female dog. But anyone might say ‘buddy’ to an unfamiliar dog: the way we talk to/about animals in general is strongly influenced by the default male principle. And dogs, at least in Anglo-American culture, are imagined as prototypically male (whereas cats are prototypically female). As one Internet Sage explains,   

Dogs are considered masculine because they smell bad, shit great quantities on everything, and are forever poking their noses into crotches. Cats are considered feminine because no matter what you do on their behalf, it is never good enough.

This is one example of the way human gender-stereotypes get projected onto our closest non-human companions. And the same tendency is apparent in the names we give to dogs.

‘Buddy’, it turns out, is not just a common appellation for male dogs, but in many cases their actual name. According to a list I consulted, which was compiled using data sourced from several English-speaking countries, Buddy ranks fourth among the current top ten male dog-names—behind Bailey, Charlie and Max, but above Cooper, Jack, Toby, Bear, Scout and Teddy. The corresponding list of popular female dog-names has Bella, Molly, Coco, Luna, Lucy, Poppy, Daisy, Ruby, Lily and Becks.

These lists might remind us of the now-commonplace observation that companion animals in affluent societies are regarded as part of the family, with a status not unlike that of human children. Almost all the dog-names I’ve just listed could as easily be given to a child, and many have featured on recent lists of the top 100 baby-names. In the UK in 2020, for instance, Lily was the fourth most popular girl’s name; Poppy came in at 17; Bella, Molly, Luna, Lucy, Daisy and Ruby were all in the top 100. Charlie and Jack were among the top ten boys’ names, while the top 100 also included Max, Teddy and Toby.  

Since historical dog-name records are hard to come by, it’s difficult to say if this convergence between child and dog names is a recent phenomenon, but in my own recollection there used to be less overlap. When I was a child, the dogs owned by families in my street were called Prince (a black Labrador), Lad (a German Shepherd), Snowy (a white poodle) and Wag (a corgi). And yes, I know people can be called Prince and Lad (though I’ve yet to hear of a person called Wag), but those were not recognisable people-names in 1960s Yorkshire.  

That’s not to say dogs never had people-names. The sheepdogs on the TV show One Man and His Dog [sic] often had names like Bess, Jess or Tess; my favourite fictional dog was called Toby. But only some people-names were acceptable dog-names, and their status as dog-names could raise questions about their use for people. My mother had strong opinions on this topic. Whenever I complained about my own name, Debbie, she would remind me that if I’d been a boy, my father had wanted to call me Bruce, a name she regarded as only suitable for dogs. Today that distinction has evidently disappeared. All kinds of people-names can now be dog-names, and they’re seen as the unmarked choice: websites tell new puppy-owners they can make their pet stand out by not giving it a human name.  

But while there’s significant overlap between currently popular dog-names and baby-names, the two sets are not identical. The three most popular names for baby girls in 2020—Sophia, Olivia and Amelia—do not appear anywhere in the dog top 100. That could be because they’re too long: I’m told that for the purpose of calling a dog you want a name no longer than two syllables (in the current top 100 lists only four names have more than two). There are also cultural constraints. My brother-in-law, who was raised Catholic, was told as a child that you couldn’t give a dog a saint’s name. And it’s no surprise that Muhammad, one of the commonest baby names in Britain, does not feature on the list of popular dog-names.  

Interestingly, however—and despite the dearth of dogs named Sophia/Olivia/Amelia—the list of popular female dog-names is closer than the male one to the corresponding list of popular baby-names. To explain why that’s interesting, I need to revisit some points from an earlier post about gendered patterns of human personal naming in English-speaking societies over the past 100+ years.

Research in this area has consistently found that parents are more conservative when naming boys. Girls’ names (rather like their clothes) are both more varied and more influenced by fashion, so that the rankings change more rapidly over time. One historically important reason for this—the tradition of naming boys after their fathers or other close relatives—is perhaps less relevant today; but there’s still a widespread view that ‘fancy’ names, meaning anything unusual, complicated, trendy or ‘decorative’, are more appropriate for daughters than for sons.   

Another consistent finding is that English-speaking parents prefer names that clearly indicate their child’s sex, especially if the child is male. Some trendwatchers are now predicting a surge in the popularity of ‘androgynous’, ‘unisex’ or ‘gender-neutral’ names, but historically these have never comprised more than about 2% of the names in circulation, and over time they almost invariably morph into girls’ names (historical examples include Beverley, Dana, Evelyn and Shirley). What’s behind this is a form of status anxiety, reflecting the fact that gender in patriarchal societies is a hierarchical system. For girls, androgynous names are seen as status-enhancing, but for boys the opposite is true. So, as a name becomes more common among girls, it will start to be avoided by parents naming boys, until eventually it ceases to be androgynous.

What’s interesting about the dog-names is that they don’t replicate these patterns: rather they reverse them. There’s more variation among names for male dogs, and more of the male names are androgynous.    

These two patterns are related, in that the lack of ambiguity in the female list reflects, in part, the lack of variety. A large majority of the top 100 female dog-names—82 of them—are conventional (human) girls’ names like Molly, Lucy and Lily. The 18 items that don’t fall into that category include eight less conventional people-names which are either female (Dakota, Piper, Harper, Meadow, Willow, Summer) or androgynous (River, Storm), and five female endearment/respect terms used as names (Honey, Sugar, Lady, Missy and Princess). The remaining five items are Bramble, Pepper, Sage, Snickers and Ziggy—names you’d be unlikely to give a child, but could probably give a male dog. On this list, then, androgynous names are marginal, both few in number and low in rank (the highest-ranked androgynous name, Bramble, only just makes it into the top 50).    

What about the male dog-names? Once again, a clear majority of the top 100 are conventional (human) boys’ names, but they’re a smaller proportion overall (66 items rather than 80+), which means that other kinds of names make up a third of the list. Within that third, the largest subgroup, containing about a dozen items, consists of androgynous people-names (I classified them as androgynous if a combination of personal experience and online searching identified at least one male and one female person with the name in question). Androgynous names are not only more numerous on the male list, they’re also higher-ranked. One of them, Bailey, is right at the top, and several others are in the top 20.

The remaining items on the male list are non-people names, and with three exceptions (Blue, Oreo and Shadow) they can be sorted into four groups. One of these is comparable to the Honey/Lady/Missy/Princess group on the female list: it contains the title Duke and a series of nicknames—Ace, Buddy, Buster, Sparky—which I’d intuitively classify as male, though Ace and Sparky might be somewhat ambiguous. The other three groups, however, are different from anything on the female list.

One group contains names of gods and other mythological figures: Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, Loki and Thor from Norse mythology, the Greek deity Zeus, and—oddly, since she’s a goddess—the Roman Juno. A second subcategory is ‘large wild animals’, in which we find Bear, Koda (the name of a Disney character who’s a bear), Moose, and Simba (the name of the Lion King). Finally there’s a looser group which I’ve labelled ‘Manly Things’, because the names in it allude to stereotypically male roles, activities and objects (such as weapons and powerful motor vehicles): they are Bandit, Diesel, Gunner, Harley, Hunter, Ranger, Remington, and Tank.

Whether or not we find them appealing, the male dog-names are a more inventive collection than their female counterparts—which is surprising, especially if you subscribe to the ‘dogs are the new children’ theory, because for children the pattern is that boys’ names are more conservative. We might expect dog-names in general to be less conservative than baby-names, because dog-namers have a degree of freedom that (responsible) baby-namers don’t: a dog isn’t going to be embarrassed by its name, or bullied by other dogs because of it. But that doesn’t explain why it’s specifically male dogs who get the more unusual names. I can’t claim to have a watertight explanation, but I do think there’s more to say about the difference.

Giving any ‘personal’ name to a dog means treating it as a quasi-human person (dogs themselves don’t use naming to mark individual identity). In theory we could do this without also projecting the human attribute of gender onto dogs, but in practice the names we choose for them suggest we do see masculinity or femininity as an important part of the identities we construct for them. The vast majority of popular dog-names are unambiguously gendered in the same way as most (English) people-names; even the androgynous names only appear on either the male or the female list, not both. I don’t think this way of naming dogs is just a natural consequence of the fact that dogs have a sex. They also have a sex in cultures where they aren’t companion animals, but in those cultures they may have names that are more like labels, chosen simply to distinguish one from another, which reference more visible features like size or colour (e.g. ‘Big Dog’ and ‘Small Dog’, which a friend tells me are common dog-names in Vanuatu).

Do the kinds of gendered dog-names we favour suggest that we imagine male and female dogs differently? The answer seems to be ‘yes and no’. Both lists are dominated by the same type of name, one that could also be given to a male or female child, and that suggests that the gendered connotations of human names are also projected onto dogs. For instance, flower-names like Lily and Daisy are popular choices for girls, but more or less unthinkable for boys, because the qualities they connote (e.g. beauty, delicacy and freshness) are considered feminine/unmasculine. The same rule is applied when naming dogs, though among dogs the sexes are less different in appearance, and neither sex is famous for delicacy and freshness.

Another gendered pattern involves diminutive names, which (in English) typically end in -ie or -y; they connote ‘small, cute, unthreatening, immature’, and they are given more frequently to girls. This pattern does not seem to transfer to dogs. Though there are more -ie/y names in the female top 100 (42 to the males’ 33), many of them, like Daisy and Poppy, aren’t true diminutives (i.e., affectionate forms of another name, like Betty for Elizabeth or Benjy for Benjamin). If we count only the ‘true’ ones, the numbers are almost equal–17 for female dogs and 16 for male ones.

Maybe this supports the idea that dogs’ status within families is similar to that of young children. It’s common for little kids of both sexes to be called by a diminutive form of their name, but as they get older, boys more often shift to using their full name, or a less childish short form. Benjy is more likely to become Benjamin or Ben than Betty is to become Elizabeth. With dogs there is no such difference: both sexes can be given diminutive names on the assumption they will never outgrow them.     

But we shouldn’t forget that about a third of the top 100 male dog-names are not just conventional boys’ names. The male list is more varied than the female one, and the names on it, especially the more unusual ones, suggest that dog-masculinity can be imagined in a wide range of different ways. At one end of the spectrum we have androgynous names like Bailey and Riley: I imagine dogs with these names as dignified and faithful companions, possibly large, but not aggressive or obtrusively masculine. At the other extreme are names like Thor, Simba, Gunner and Tank, which imply power, dominance, strength and aggression. In between are names like Buster and Sparky, suggesting a more boyish, playful or mischievous masculinity.

By contrast, dog-femininity seems to be imagined more narrowly, as either motherly or girlish. Many popular female dog-names (Bella, Molly, Abby et al.) suggest qualities like warmth, kindness and dependability; some (Luna, Willow, Meadow) are a bit fey; few suggest mischief (just Snickers and Ziggy, though Becks might be a bit of a tomboy), and none imply aggression or nastiness. I can’t help wondering if this is related to our culture’s more expansive view of what roles, behaviours or personality traits are acceptable or attractive in boys and men compared with girls and women.

By now you may think it’s me who’s projecting. If so I take your point: merely perusing lists of popular dog-names tells you nothing about what motivated people’s choices. Context, as always, matters: what we think it means to name a dog Thor will obviously be different depending on whether the dog is a German Shepherd or a Yorkshire terrier (and whether its human has some personal connection to the name, like being the descendant of Vikings or an expert on Norse mythology). Without contextualisation, any patterns we see in lists of popular dog-names will only be interpretable in very general terms, and the rest–like the last two paragraphs–will be speculation. Nevertheless, I find it interesting that there’s apparently so much consensus on how female dogs should be named, whereas our views on naming male dogs seem far more polarised. Still, there is a way around that. If in doubt, just call them ‘Buddy’.

Thanks to Meryl, Miriam and Tim for their insights, and a shout-out to all the Buddies.