A woman’s (shit)work is never done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fishman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who owns words?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X marks the what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earlier this year the blogger Sister Outrider tweeted:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Language and the brotherhood of men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kids are alright

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.

Making words count: a review of Christina Dalcher’s Vox

In 2006, a pop-science book called The Female Brain informed readers that the average woman utters 20,000 words a day to the average man’s 7000. This was the latest in a long line of similar male-versus-female-words-per-day claims. Before 2006, one oft-repeated figure was 7000 words a day for women and only 2000 for men. Other sources suggested 12,000 words per day for men and 30,000 for women, or 25,000 for men and 50,000 for women. All these statistics are still floating around the internet, though none of them is backed up by any credible evidence. It’s obvious such wildly varying numbers can’t all be right, but that hasn’t diminished the popular appeal of the basic point they were all designed to make, namely ‘women utter at least twice as many words in a day as men’.

The general belief that women talk more than men is as ancient as it is inaccurate, but this particular variant of it—what the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman once dubbed ‘the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea’—seems to have originated much more recently. One of the earliest examples Liberman found appeared in a 1993 book about Christian marriage, James Dobson’s Love for a Lifetime, which suggested that God had given men and women different daily word-budgets. The point was (as it usually was in the 1990s, the decade that brought us Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus) that harmonious marital relationships required each sex to accommodate the other’s difference. But there is, of course, another interpretation of God’s wishes in this matter, which is particularly popular among Christian fundamentalists: that a good woman is sparing in her use of words, if not completely silent. And this ultra-patriarchal version of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea has now become the premise for a piece of feminist speculative fiction, Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The narrator and main protagonist of Vox is Jean McClellan, a neurolinguist who has made significant advances in the treatment of aphasia. But when we meet her, her career has come to an abrupt halt, following the rise to power of the Pure Movement, which has turned the US into a Christian theocracy. Women have been stripped of their civil rights, placed under male guardianship and sent home to do their Christian duty as full-time housewives and mothers (or in the case of lesbians and other ‘deviants’, shipped off to do hard labour in prison camps).

If you’re thinking this sounds familiar, you’re not wrong: essentially we’re in Gilead without the fertility crisis. The resemblance to The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t stop with the basic scenario (a near-future USA that’s been taken over by religious fanatics). Vox also features a similar cast of characters: there’s the Offred-style heroine who didn’t care about politics until her rights were taken away, the Moira-like BFF (Jackie, a perpetually-outraged feminist who went to graduate school with Jean), the nice-but-weak husband who’s reluctant to rock the boat, and the daughter our heroine would do anything to protect. It’s hard to quarrel with the reviewers who have found the book a tad derivative (one can only hope Margaret Atwood agrees that emulation is the sincerest form of flattery). But what does distinguish it from Atwood’s classic is the use Dalcher makes of the sex-linked vocabulary allowance idea.

In Vox-world, every female over three months of age must wear a bracelet around her wrist which automatically counts the words she utters. Her daily allowance is 100 words (reduced to zero for those sent to labour camps). If she exceeds it by even one word the bracelet will deliver an electric shock, and the higher her word-count climbs, the more intense the shocks become. She cannot get around this by using sign language, which those who monitor the omnipresent surveillance cameras are instructed to look out for. Nor can she resort to writing: books, pens, paper and computers are all locked away, and only the males in each household have access to them. Girls like Sonia, the youngest of Jean’s four children, are no longer taught to read and write. They are schooled only in home economics—cooking, sewing, and as much arithmetic as you need to manage a housekeeping budget.

There is nothing especially startling about a fictional dystopia where women are denied access to literacy, since this is far from unheard of in the real world. Women are also forbidden to read in Atwood’s Gilead. But the rationing of their spoken output to 100 words per day is a much bolder stroke. voxTo put it in context: in 2007, after Mark Liberman had drawn attention to the popular fascination with unsupported and wildly variable words-per-day claims, a team of researchers in Arizona decided to investigate the issue scientifically. They reported that the mean number of words uttered per day was around 16,000. (There were large differences between individuals, but very little difference in the group averages for the two sexes: the female mean was slightly higher than the male one, but the difference was not statistically significant.) If we take this study’s findings as a rough guide, and if we assume people spend eight hours silently sleeping, the average speaker produces about a thousand words per hour. And if you think that sounds like a lot, a normal rate of (American English) speech is somewhere between 100 and 200 words per minute.

Clearly, 100 words is a negligible number: most of us could get through it in less than 60 seconds of continuous talk. Of course it’s true that most everyday speech is conversation rather than monologue. But an allowance of only 100 words a day would rule out any kind of sustained interaction. There would be no chatting with friends, helping the kids with their homework or arguing with your spouse. If, like Jean, you had a husband and four children, you could easily use up your entire daily ration saying things as banal as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘stop that’ and ‘it’s in the fridge’.  Even then, you’d have to weigh every word with care before you committed yourself to speaking it aloud. When your budgeting could be derailed by a cry of surprise, a false start or a self-correction, spontaneity would soon become an unaffordable luxury. Would this level of self-monitoring ever become second nature, or would women end up feeling that it would be easier not to talk at all?

Though I’d probably have read this book for the same reason I went to see Arrival—just because its central character is a linguist—it was the 100-words-a-day conceit that really piqued my interest. It’s a brilliantly simple ‘what if?’: what if men’s age-old complaints about women nagging and scolding and gossiping and chattering were rendered obsolete at a stroke, using a device not much more complicated than a Fitbit? It raises interesting questions taken on its own terms (how would women cope, and what would the long-term effects be?) while also prompting reflection on our own attitudes to women’s speech. As an idea I still think it’s inspired; I just wish that Dalcher had allowed herself to really run with it.

One theme I think she does handle well is the way women are made complicit by their desire to protect their daughters. Before Sonia is old enough to understand the concept of a word limit, Jean uses behaviourist techniques to train her to stay within it. She models ‘good’ behaviour by speaking minimally or not at all, and systematically rewards the same behaviour in her daughter with praise, affection and treats. But Sonia doesn’t know her mother is trying to spare her the pain of an electric shock. The lesson she is learning is that the less a girl speaks, the more she will be loved. One day she comes home from school bursting with pride because she has won a competition for the pupil with the fewest words on her counter (her tally is a paltry three). She can’t understand why Jean does not seem to share her joy.

There are uncomfortable parallels here with our own world. Our aims may be less explicit and our methods less crude, but as a society we also teach girls to mind their language and reward them for complying with gendered expectations (be quiet, be nice, be a good listener). And while we don’t dole out electric shocks to girls and women who express themselves too freely, we certainly have ways of punishing them, which cover a spectrum from disapproval and shaming to threatened and actual violence.

But other questions you might expect to be explored are either raised and then quickly dropped, or else bypassed altogether. One of these concerns the long-term social consequences of reducing women to near-silence. Following their expulsion from the workforce, women have become, to an even greater extent than before, the primary carers for young children, while conversely fathers have become even less hands-on (getting rid of all the women forces the men to work punishing hours). But normal linguistic and cognitive development does not take place without adequate input, as we know from case-studies of abused and neglected children. How will children acquire language in future if their daily input during the crucial early years is limited to the 100 words their mothers are allowed to utter?  The leaders of the Pure Movement (not unlike most politicians in our own world) overlook the extent to which all functioning societies depend on the unpaid care work done by women, including and especially the work of socializing new humans. Will the attempt to stop women talking end up destroying language itself?

Another question is whether people deprived of articulate speech would develop compensatory strategies and alternative modes of communication. VOX-cover-683x1024The abused child known in the literature as ‘Genie’, who spent her early years in isolation and enforced silence, and whose verbal abilities remained very limited, had a remarkable ability to communicate without words—to the point where total strangers would approach her carers in shops, offering items which they said they had somehow intuited her desire for. The urge to communicate is strong in most humans: it seems odd to me that the women in Vox have not become as adept as Genie at communicating nonverbally, or devised codes exploiting the semiotic resources they do still have access to–like non-linguistic vocalisation (e.g. wordless singing or humming), head movements, or touch.

One reason Dalcher doesn’t follow up on all the questions she might fruitfully have explored is that she doesn’t stick to the conventions of the dystopia genre for long enough. The book gradually turns into a thriller, building up to a climactic showdown between the good guys, a team of scientists led by Jean, and the bad guys of the Pure Movement.  This part of the story begins when the government approaches Jean to work on a secret project that requires her expertise. As the work progresses, she discovers two important things: one is the Pure Movement’s real plan for her aphasia cure (which is, it goes without saying, of the dastardly variety), while the other is the existence of an organised resistance movement. Helped by the latter, she embarks on a mission to foil the former.

The shift into thriller mode is another reason why the book has attracted criticism from reviewers. As the Washington Post commented, the trick with speculative fiction is to maintain plausibility within the parameters of a basically implausible situation, and the final chapters of Vox are not remotely plausible. Characters we thought we knew turn out to have been fooling us all along, unlikely coincidences abound, and science starts to look like magic. I’m not a neurolinguist myself, but I suspect the neurolinguists I know would agree with the Post that ‘Jean’s against-the-clock medical research makes MacGyver look like Francis Crick’.

I’d thought Vox might challenge Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue for the title of Most Memorable Feminist Linguistic Dystopia, but in the event I found it disappointing. Which is not to say you shouldn’t read it: it’s good in parts, and a page-turner even when it isn’t good. It just doesn’t develop its central idea enough to give the reader what I think of as the full dystopian experience–a sense of total immersion in an alternative reality.  As a number of reviewers pointed out, though, the current state of the real world has given this genre a noticeable boost (the Washington Post‘s review was headed ‘Donald Trump has made feminist dystopias great again’). So, while Vox may not have done full justice to its subject, I’m sure it will not be the last word.