Joking aside

Do you use humour at work? Have you ever cracked a joke to liven up a boring meeting, or kicked off a presentation with an amusing anecdote? Would you agree that the ability to make people laugh is a useful professional skill?

If your answer to these questions is ‘yes’—and if you also happen to be a woman—then I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you. According to a recently-published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology, using humour at work enhances men’s status, but for women it has the opposite effect. Whereas men’s humour is seen as ‘functional’, a tool for producing all kinds of positive outcomes (defusing tension, reframing problems, bonding team-members), women’s is more likely to be seen as ‘disruptive’, a sign that they’re lightweights who lack focus and dedication.

How, I hear you ask, did the authors of the article reach that conclusion? The answer is that they conducted an experiment: they recruited a sample of judges and asked them to evaluate a presentation made by a store manager named Sam (in fact the presenter was an actor and the presentation was scripted). Some judges watched a male Sam, others a female one; in each case half of them saw a presentation in which no use was made of humour, while the other half saw a version of the same presentation that included five humorous statements. Their article doesn’t specify what these were, but in a write-up for the Harvard Business Review they do reproduce the first one:

So, last night, my husband/wife gave me some good advice about this presentation. He/she said, whatever you do don’t try to be too charming, witty, or intellectual… just be yourself!

It’s not exactly side-splitting stuff, but subjects did judge both versions of Sam funnier when their presentations included it. However, those who had watched the female Sam rather than the male one were more likely to agree with statements like ‘the humor distracted from the purpose of the presentation’. And when they were asked about Sam’s career prospects (‘in your opinion, how likely is it that Sam will advance in the organization?’), the judges gave higher scores to the funny male Sam than either the non-funny male Sam or the funny female Sam. Female Sam did better on these questions when she was not funny (though she still did less well than her unfunny male counterpart). When she was funny, the judges accused her of, as one put it, trying ‘to cover up her lack of real business acumen by making little jokes’.

The authors explain their findings as the product of gender bias: their study shows, for the n millionth time, that even if the behaviour of men and women is identical, it is liable to be interpreted in different ways and judged by different standards. He is ‘direct’ and she is ‘abrasive’; he uses humour to get things done and she uses it to ‘cover up her lack of real business acumen’. That’s why, as I have pointed out in other posts about language in the workplace, advising women to imitate men’s behaviour is unlikely to solve their problems. These researchers agree, warning that

The potential for women to advance in the workplace may be harmed by the use of humor. Thus, recommending the use of humor to women leaders may in fact reduce their perceived effectiveness and opportunities for career advancement.

But this is not very helpful either, because avoiding humour also has costs. The humourless, po-faced boss or co-worker is not, generally speaking, a popular figure; if she’s female, her refusal to lighten up is likely to prompt the judgment that she is arrogant, or—that cardinal female sin—’unapproachable’. It seems women are damned whatever they do: if they’re funny they’re seen as disruptive, but if they aren’t they’re seen as unlikeable.

The authors say they’re not suggesting women should stop being funny at work, they’re just drawing attention to the problem in the hope  that ‘increased awareness of prejudice can help to reduce its occurrence’. I can’t say I share their optimism: many people have raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions based on this principle, like unconscious bias training.  As with all discussions which start by asking how women’s behaviour might be holding them back at work, I think the main effect of ‘increased awareness’ will probably be to make women even more anxious and self-conscious than they are already. It’s predictable, depressing and infuriating—but before we throw up our hands in despair and look for new careers as self-employed spoon-whittlers, we should pause to ask if this study tells the whole story about gender and humour.

As the authors themselves acknowledge, their methodology had some obvious limitations. If you ask subjects to judge a scripted presentation delivered by a person they have never seen before, you are maximizing the probability that their judgments will rely on stereotypes: what else, after all, have they got to work with? In real life we usually have information about people that goes beyond obvious characteristics like sex, race and age. Also, in our real working lives our judgments aren’t abstract and decontextualized: rather we assess behaviour in relation to the whole situation—one which we are not just observing at a distance, but are actively involved in ourselves. The question arises, then, of whether the reactions of the judges in the experiment tell us anything very useful about real workplace situations.

As it happens, the use of humour was one of the issues examined in a large qualitative study of gender and workplace talk that Janet Holmes and her colleagues carried out in New Zealand. This study found that although the amount and type of humour people used varied in different workplaces, humour itself was a ubiquitous feature of working life, and its uses were similar for employees of both sexes. In Holmes’s words, ‘Both women and men crack jokes, exchange jocular abuse and tell funny stories at work’. Her account did not suggest that engaging in these behaviours reduced women’s perceived effectiveness. In fact, it suggested that women could use humour as a means of asserting or maintaining their status.

One function of humour is to soften criticism (and other acts that might cause hurt or offence) and reduce the risk of provoking conflict. Making a joke of something renders it both less overtly threatening and more difficult to take issue with (since if you object you risk coming across as humourless). This is what makes humour such a useful resource for sexists: when women protest about jokes or comments they find offensive, they can be met with the time-honoured ‘just banter’ defence (‘we weren’t being serious–can’t you feminists/PC-types take a joke?’) In the New Zealand data, however, there were cases where women used humour as a resource for either contesting sexism or turning the tables on men. For instance, at one project team meeting a woman initiated a humorous exchange that traded on a well-known stereotype of male incompetence:

Clara: he wants to get through month’s end first. He’s –  he can’t multi-task
[Other women laughing]
Peg: It’s a bloke thing
[General laughter]
Clara: [laughs] yeah yeah

The ‘softening’ effect of humour can also make a woman’s authority more palatable. Clara is noted for her direct, decisive and not especially collaborative management style; but one way in which she maintains good relationships with colleagues is by taking it in good part when they jokingly refer to her as ‘Queen Clara’. This nickname, which likens her to a monarch issuing commands to her subjects, is itself evidence of the way women are judged by a sexist double standard. I did once know a man whose workplace nickname was ‘King X’, but he wasn’t just direct and decisive, he was a tyrannical megalomaniac whose subordinates lived in fear of him. But Clara’s willingness to go along with the joke serves a pragmatic purpose: she gets what she wants from her team, while also deflecting the criticism to which all powerful women are vulnerable, that she’s an overbearing stuck-up b****.

The New Zealand study presents evidence that workplace humour is a complex phenomenon which serves a range of different purposes, and that in real-life work situations gender is only one of many factors that shape its use and interpretation. Other contextual variables, such as the culture of the organization, the roles of individuals and their relationships with colleagues, are more significant influences than gender in and of itself. By stripping out all that other stuff, the experimental study almost certainly amplified the gender difference it was investigating, potentially leading women to overestimate the risk that using humour in the workplace would harm their careers.

Methodological limitations aside, studies like this one also prompt the more basic question of why a certain issue is being investigated in the first place. The researchers didn’t pluck their hypothesis from thin air: there’s a long tradition of scientific (or ‘scientific’) discourse on gender and humour, and its starting point has always been that there’s something anomalous about women being funny.

When feminists took up the subject in the 1970s, one of their goals was to challenge the sexism of previous accounts, both scientific and popular, which essentially argued that being funny was a guy thing and women were just no good at it. They were either seen as innately humourless (an accusation commonly levelled at feminists, and even more frequently at lesbians), or else as too dim and ditzy to do humour well. If they tried to tell a joke they’d get confused and forget the punchline; if they embarked on a funny story they’d keep going off at tangents until their listeners lost interest. This thesis came in various theoretical flavours: Freud was popular in some quarters, Darwin in others (the Darwinian argument—that men use humour to attract mates, whereas women don’t need to be funny, they just need to be physically attractive—survives to this day).

One possible response to this argument was to call it out as sexist bullshit. Another, however, which was popular among some feminists, was to say that men didn’t find women funny because they defined ‘being funny’ in a way that excluded women’s distinctively female style of humour.

Descriptions of this style will remind anyone who knows the work of Deborah Tannen of her ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, which posits a fundamental contrast between status-oriented and competitive men and rapport-building, collaborative women. Well before Tannen popularized it, this contrast had been invoked to make generalizations about the kinds of humour that were typically favoured by women or men. For instance: whereas men compete to top each other’s contributions, women collaborate to produce intimacy through shared laughter. Whereas men like jokes that climax with a punchline, women prefer less structured personal anecdotes. (If this one reminds you of another much-discussed sex-difference, I can only say you’re not alone.) And whereas men tend to make others the butt of their humour, women are more likely to poke fun at themselves.

A number of linguists I respect have used this framework, and I don’t dispute their observations about the way humour was used by the women and men they studied. But it’s a mistake to generalize about half of humanity from such a limited body of evidence–one that’s heavily skewed towards a particular subset of women, often talking in contexts where you’d expect to see collaborative, rapport-building behaviour (e.g. long-established female friendship groups, feminist ‘rap groups’, and support groups for mothers with young children). Even in the 1970s there were cases that didn’t fit this template—such as Rayna Green’s 1977 study of women’s bawdy talk in the US South, which included one woman’s riposte to a comment from her granddaughter on the sparseness of her pubic hair: ‘grass don’t grow on a racetrack’.* Some later research noted that both women and men used different kinds of humour in single-sex and mixed-sex groups. The New Zealand workplace study documented both ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ styles of humour, but it didn’t find that either style was used by one sex exclusively.

The more examples of humour we look at from different communities and settings, the more difficult it becomes to argue that there are clear-cut gender differences. As usual, there’s a gap between the actual behaviour of men and women, which shows more overall similarity than difference (along with a lot of variation inside each of the two gender groups), and our cultural beliefs about their behaviour, which are much more consistent—largely because they’re not derived from observations of what men and women do, they are expressions of our deeply-held convictions about what men and women are or should be like.

The authors of the study I began with suggest that what’s behind the prejudice against women being funny at work is our belief that men are more agentive, rational and goal-oriented than women. That’s why men’s workplace humour is interpreted as functional, deployed by rational agents as a way of achieving their goals, while women’s is seen as disruptive, signalling a lack of dedication to the business at hand. But this doesn’t really account for the fact that the prejudice isn’t confined to situations like the workplace where humour can be seen as ‘functional’ or ‘goal-oriented’. I can’t help thinking it skirts around some much more general points about humour, gender, sex and power.

Being funny is, in a number of key respects, incompatible with conventional femininity. For one thing, it involves putting yourself centre-stage: when you embark on a joke or a funny story you’re saying ‘pay attention to me’, and when you finish you’re expecting some sort of acknowledgment, like laughter or applause. That kind of attention (and the feeling of power you get from it) is still widely seen as a male prerogative: women who usurp it are not only displaying a lack of feminine modesty, they are also failing to play their prescribed role as supporters and cheerleaders for men. (Some studies have reported that women laugh more at men’s jokes than vice versa; and anecdotally it’s been suggested that when men advertise for a female partner with a good sense of humour, what they’re looking for isn’t a funny woman, but a woman who will tell them they’re funny.)

For another thing, it’s fairly difficult to make people laugh while also projecting the kinds of feminine qualities our culture defines as sexually alluring—like elegance and glamour, or innocence and grace. Funny women and sexy women are frequently presented as different ‘types’. That’s why so many films and TV shows pair a sexually attractive female protagonist with a less attractive best friend/sister/roommate: the sexy woman gets the guy, while the plain, fat or dowdy one gets the laughs. Behind this division of labour is the old idea that humour unsexes or de-feminizes women, and that those who make a speciality of it are trying to compensate for being ugly and unattractive.

Nevertheless, women persist in being funny—and so they should, whatever studies show. What studies mostly show is that women can be criticized however they behave, particularly in the workplace. And if the critics are never going to like what you do, you might as well just do what you like.

 

*I haven’t linked to Green’s study, ‘Magnolias grow in dirt’, because the source isn’t available if you’re searching from a location in the EU–but it’s discussed in this generally useful review of 20th century gender and humour research. 

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Radical notions

Occasionally on this blog I take a moment to look back at some of the feminists who concerned themselves with language in the past. I’ve written about Suzette Haden Elgin, the linguist and science fiction writer who created the women’s language Láadan, and about the feminists who produced alternatives to what Mary Daly dubbed the ‘dick-tionary’.  This post is about someone whose contribution I only discovered recently: the writer and editor Marie Shear, who died at the end of 2017.

You may not know her name, but you’re probably familiar with at least one thing she wrote: it was Shear who defined feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She came up with that definition in 1986, in a review of Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler’s A Feminist Dictionary. And for years it was Kramarae and Treichler who got the credit: people assumed Shear had just been quoting them, when in fact the words were her own. Such was her enthusiasm for the dictionary’s woman-centred approach, her review (which she herself described as a ‘toast’), took the form of a list of her own alternative definitions, including

men: people who think toilet paper grows on the roll.

overqualified: a job applicant who is not dumb enough for the work reserved for ‘girls’.

pocket envy: women’s unfulfilled yearning for practical clothes.

Though the error persists in some sources, others have now acknowledged Shear as the creator of one of the most memorable feminist slogans of the 20th century. Yet she remains, to use her own sardonic description, ‘a widely unheralded writer’. Much of her writing was done before the digital age, for ‘alternative’ publications like New Directions for Women, a New Jersey-based feminist newspaper whose ‘Media Watch’ feature she wrote for many years (this was also where her review of A Feminist Dictionary appeared). These pieces can still be found, but you have to know where to look: they won’t just pop up in a Google search*. Nor will much information about their author. While writing this post I was surprised to discover that the woman whose words have appeared on T-shirts, badges and bumper stickers around the English-speaking world had no entry in the English-language version of Wikipedia (though I’m happy to say that one has since been created by a reader of this blog).

My own quest to find out more about Marie Shear began when I quoted her definition of feminism in a book, and was therefore obliged by the laws of my profession to go hunting for the full bibliographical details (‘no, you can’t just cite a T-shirt, we need a page number’). As I searched through the records of her published work, I realized her review of A Feminist Dictionary wasn’t the only thing she’d written that I might be interested in. Language, and the problem of sexism in language, was a theme that recurred in her articles, book reviews and columns. It was also the subject of what her obituary singled out as the piece of writing many people would remember her for, ‘”Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’.

Sexism in language first became an issue in the 1970s, and lot of early work on it was practical rather than academic: it aimed to define the problem and offer workable solutions, most commonly in the form of guidelines for writers. The first non-sexist writing guidelines were produced by publishers for in-house use (the pioneer was the educational publisher McGraw-Hill, which adopted guidelines in 1973), but over the next 15 years many examples of the same sort of advice were published in book form for a wider audience. In 1984 Marie Shear reviewed a selection of these publications for the Women’s Review of Books. The titles she discussed included one that is still in use today, Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, along with the same authors’ earlier book Words and Women, Bobbye Sorrels’s The Non-Sexist Communicator, and Merriellyn Kett and Virginia Underwood’s How To Avoid Sexism. Shear was well placed to assess these texts because of her own involvement, as an editor, in the enterprise they represented–though her influence was mainly exercised behind the scenes, in discussions with and writing for her fellow-professionals. But her interest in the problem–and her writing about it–went beyond the issues addressed by guidelines .

Most non-sexist writing guidelines published between the mid-1970s and the end of the millennium presented the issue of sexism in a bland, depoliticizing way. The goal was to persuade a mainstream audience of the benefits of adopting non-sexist language, and writers did so, in part, by emphasizing how moderate and unthreatening their proposals were. Really, they seemed to be saying, it was just a question of moving with the times. The problem was that English usage had not kept up with the onward march of progress: conventions that had served writers well enough in the past (like the generic use of ‘he’ and ‘man’) were now outdated, inaccurate, misleading and insensitive. Once this had been pointed out, people would immediately want to change their ways: their problem would be purely technical, a matter of not knowing exactly how to do it. Guideline-writers were there to help by suggesting accurate and unbiased alternatives to outmoded sexist terms.

As an editor who both dealt with and sometimes wrote about the technical challenges of avoiding sexism, Marie Shear also had a foot in this liberal camp. But when she wrote about language for a feminist audience her analysis of the problem was much more radical. She wrote vividly, often angrily and sometimes very personally about what lurked beneath the surface of linguistic sexism, and about the damage she believed it did to women.

It’s these qualities that make the piece I mentioned earlier, ‘“Little Marie”: The Daily Toll of Sexist Language’, so memorable. It was published in 2010, when Shear was 70, and it begins with this arresting vignette:

I am lying on a gurney in a hospital hallway, alone, waiting to be rolled into the O.R. for the first of two operations. The surgeon approaches and greets me: “It’s Little Marie!” he exclaims. …Fortunately, I don’t realize until later that a man named Richard who calls a woman “little” invites a reply that minimizes his most cherished protuberance: It would have been imprudent to say, “Hello, Little Dick!” moments before he stuck a sharp knife into my carcass.

Eventually, the same surgeon will address me as “kiddo” and “the little chippie.” A chippie, of course, is a prostitute. He tells the friend who has accompanied me to the exam that he is using the phrase “to bait her (– meaning me –) because I know it gets her goat.”

What’s striking about this is the contrast Shear makes us see between the person she is to herself–an intelligent adult who considers herself the surgeon’s equal–and the inferior, powerless child he turns her into with his familiar use of her first name and his insistence on infantilizing her further by calling her ‘little’ Marie (an unmistakable sign of sexism, since it’s impossible to imagine him greeting an adult male patient as ‘little Donny’). This vignette gives the lie to the liberal account in which well-meaning people inadvertently use sexist language because they don’t understand why it’s offensive. As the surgeon later confirms, there is nothing inadvertent about it. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and what he’s doing, by his own admission, is baiting her. She refuses to interpret this as just light-hearted ‘banter’ or friendly ‘joshing’. For her, this way of speaking to women can never be taken lightly:

Examined with an analytic eye and a diagnostic ear, sexist language reveals an underlying social disease — contempt for and fury at women. Being literally communicable, the disease both reflects and perpetuates our degradation.

It’s this ‘communicable’ quality which leads Shear to treat sexist language as a serious, even a fundamental, political issue. The words are like the rats that carry the fleas that spread the plague: they may not be the cause of sexism, but they are its privileged vehicles, and their ubiquity ensures that we will all become infected.

Everywhere we turn on an ordinary day — to politics, greeting cards, stand-up comedy, New York Times crossword puzzles, the dentist, the mail, the florist’s messenger and the TV pontificators — we meet words that demoralize and flay us.

These continual verbal reminders of the contempt with which the world regards women have not only an immediate effect, but also, and more insidiously, a cumulative one. Though many individual instances may be minor, the constant, relentless exposure wears women’s resistance down, inducing shame, self-consciousness and self-policing. Even—or perhaps especially—when it’s presented as a joke. ‘As a means of social control’, Shear remarks, ‘ridicule is second only to rape’.

‘Little Marie’ illustrates something else I appreciate about Shear’s analysis. She understands sexist language as a weapon used against all women, but she also recognizes that it is used differently against different groups of women:

Bigots switch instantly from one category of bias to another, compounding sexist condescension with ageist usage … Misogyny also interlocks with usage disparaging people who aren’t thin or physically decorative and parallels usage that insults people who aren’t white.

Though many second-wave writers on sexist language made analogies with other kinds of bias, few took the further step of drawing attention to problematic patterns of usage that resulted from the combination of sexism and other prejudices. (For instance, it was common for guidelines to warn against stereotyping (white) women with hair-colour terms like ‘blonde/ brunette/ redhead’, but I can’t remember any analogous discussion of the skin-colour clichés (‘her skin was like ‘ebony/ mahogany/ rich chocolate’) that pervade descriptions of Black women). Shear was aware of this gap: in the 1984 book review mentioned earlier she discussed not only a selection of non-sexist guidelines but also some addressing other problems like ableism, ageism, heterosexism and racism. ‘Literature like this’, she commented, ‘ought to grow’:

More extensive, authoritative guides to all kinds of stereotypes are needed. A thorough treatment of anti-lesbian gibes, for example, would point out that they often do double duty, simultaneously slandering the lesbian and the uppity straight woman for their wit and grit. Indeed, every group whose members are habitually derided can benefit by instructing the public at large about biased words and images.

This was also a theme in the media columns she wrote for New Directions for Women, where she frequently criticized representations that excluded, stereotyped or insulted Black women, lesbians, older women and women with disabilities.

By the time she wrote ‘Little Marie’ Shear herself was old enough to have become acutely aware of the particular forms of condescension that are routinely directed to older women:

A bus driver watching me haul myself laboriously up his stairs says, “Take big-girl steps.” (Kiss my big-girl Aunt Fanny.) …The sidewalk coffee vendor calls me “dear” twice and calls the male customer behind me “sir.” Reporting for jury duty, I hear a guard at a metal detector greeting every female who arrives with “young lady”; he welcomes no male with “young gentleman.” …The moment I enter a magazine shop in Manhattan, a customer asks, “What are you looking for, darlin’?” I turn and look at him, speechless. Mistaking my incredulity for incomprehension, he rephrases his question: “What are you looking for, sweetheart?” I draw myself up to my full, if negligible, height, assume my 5’10” voice, and tell him sternly, “Don’t call me ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’! It’s patronizing!” Without missing a beat, he replies, “I was just trying to be nice to an old lady.”

The older a woman gets, the more she will be addressed by men in a way that reflects not only the usual sexist presumption of familiarity (any man in any situation may address any woman as if the two of them were intimate, or at least sufficiently well-acquainted to give him an automatic claim to her attention) but also the idea that older women are mentally incompetent, requiring the same verbal accommodations as small children. All women past the first flush of youth are expected to regard ageing as a source of shame, from which it follows that you can always brighten their day with some jocular, faux-gallant comment on how young they look. Age may have withered their bodies, but their vanity is assumed to be indestructible. And any complaint about any of this will be met with that familiar refrain, an aggrieved ‘but I was only being NICE’. (Or that other familiar refrain, ‘no need to be such a bitch’.)

Marie Shear didn’t mince words, and she wasn’t afraid to direct the un-minced kind towards the most exalted of gatekeepers. In her 1984 book review she contrasted the various guidelines she was reviewing with the hopelessly muddled and inconsistent approach that still prevailed in most sections of the press. She saved her finest display of her signature snark for this assessment of the New York Times:

Its stylebook is laden with mugwumpery: elaborate distinctions between “comedian” and “comedienne”; a requirement that ships, but not countries, be called “she”; confusing directives about “coed”; the acceptance of “councilwoman” and the rejection of “chairwoman.” Best of all, there are 24 paragraphs on “Mrs.” and “Miss” –a remarkable tangle of Byzantine niceties and exceptions to exceptions.

Another thing Shear didn’t do was let things drop. She mentions in ‘Little Marie’ that she wrote to the NYPD seven times over a period of five years to demand an apology for an incident in which an officer addressed her as ‘babe’ (it seems she got one in the end). She didn’t stop talking about sexist language when it became unfashionable in the 1990s, and she made no apology for repeating herself, though she was evidently exasperated by the need for repetition:

Women spend our lives explaining the obvious to the uneducable. In the face of daily indignities and humiliations, why must we explain that we are neither prigs nor prunes — just people?

A radical notion, indeed.

*************

 

* Marie Shear’s writing for New Directions for Women can be found by searching Independent Voices, an open access digital collection featuring ‘periodicals produced by feminists, dissident GIs, campus radicals, Native Americans, anti-war activists, Black Power advocates, Hispanics, LGBT activists, the extreme right-wing press and alternative literary magazines during the latter half of the 20th century’. Thanks to the linguist Alice Freed and the reference librarian Fran Kaufmann at Montclair State University for tracking down this excellent, publicly accessible and free resource. The Women’s Review of Books, another publication Shear contributed to regularly from the 1980s on, has its own digital archive, but to use it you will probably need access to an academic library.  

 

Unreasonable doubt

Content note: This post deals with the reporting of sexual violence, and contains details of a very distressing case.

In the first week of 2019, news media around the world reported that a woman in a healthcare facility outside Phoenix, Arizona, had unexpectedly given birth to a baby boy. This was not a happy event. The woman had been in a vegetative state since suffering brain damage many years earlier (some reports said ‘over a decade’, others 14 years; later it was suggested she had spent as long as 27 years—by implication, most of her life—in full-time medical care, relying on others to take care of her most basic needs. Yet her pregnancy went unnoticed until, alerted by her moaning, a staff member realized she was in the advanced stages of labour.

Clearly, there are all kinds of questions that need to be asked about this horrific case. And while it isn’t the most important or the most urgent, one of those questions concerns the way it was reported by the media.

Criticism of the media’s coverage of sexual violence often focuses on the twin problems of victim-blaming and ‘himpathy’, the tendency to make excuses for men or to present them as victims themselves. In this case those problems did not arise. But there was another problem with the language used in reports, as you may notice if you look at these examples:

  1. The police in Phoenix have opened an investigation into allegations that a woman in a vegetative state at a private nursing facility was sexually assaulted and gave birth to a child last month (New York Times)
  2. An Arizona health care facility is investigating what it calls a “deeply disturbing incident” that a local television station has said involved the alleged sexual assault of a patient in a vegetative state (People)
  3. Local news outlet KPHO-TV reports that the Phoenix Police Department began investigating the incident as a possible rape case after the woman gave birth on Dec. 29. (Huffington Post)
  4. Police in Phoenix, Arizona, are investigating a possible sexual assault after a woman in a vegetative state gave birth at a healthcare facility on Saturday (Insider.com)
  5. Woman in vegetative state gives birth after apparent assault (ABC News)
  6. She gave birth on December 29 after apparently being raped at the facility some months earlier. (Mail Online)

A fancy name for what concerns me about these examples is ‘epistemic modality’—the expression of meanings relating to certainty or uncertainty, belief or disbelief. Suppose I’ve lost my keys and you ask me when I last had them. I can convey the same basic information—that I had them yesterday—in a range of different ways that communicate different degrees of confidence in the truth of that proposition. I might say, for instance (though there are many other possibilities):

It must/ might/ may/ could have been yesterday
I know/ think/ guess I had them yesterday
It was definitely/ probably/ possibly yesterday
I’m absolutely/ quite/ pretty/ almost sure it was yesterday

I’ve deliberately used a banal example to make the point that we all do this all the time. But in some contexts it’s particularly important to pay attention to this aspect of language. News reporting is one example. In a genre where, proverbially, ‘facts are sacred’, reporters must choose their words to make clear whether a proposition is being presented as a fact, a theory, a belief, a rumour, a supposition, a speculation or an opinion.

In news reports on the Arizona case, the proposition that the woman who gave birth had been sexually assaulted or raped (Arizona’s state law uses the term ‘sexual assault’ for both) was persistently worded in a way that implied a lack of certainty. In the first two examples reproduced above, the assault is said to be ‘alleged’ or an ‘allegation’, i.e. a claim someone has made that could be either true or false. The next two refer to a ‘possible’ sexual assault or rape. In the last two we get ‘apparent(ly)’, which suggests a higher degree of confidence, but stops short of full commitment (‘we don’t know for sure, but this is how it looks’). In everyday talk ‘apparently’ is often used to indicate that a proposition is hearsay, second-hand information whose truth the speaker can’t vouch for independently (e.g., ‘she’s broken up with her girlfriend, apparently’).

I didn’t make a full survey of the coverage, but this was the dominant pattern in the sample of reports I looked at. Among those which did not fit the pattern, most avoided taking any position at all (for instance, by reporting only that the woman had given birth and the police had launched an investigation). I found only one report, in the Washington Post, that expressed a high degree of confidence a crime had been committed:

The birth — and the sexual assault of a vulnerable individual that must have preceded it — has cast a harsh glare on conditions at a nonprofit organization that bills itself as a leading provider of health care for Phoenix’s medically fragile.

By using the modal verb ‘must’, this report presents the proposition that the woman was assaulted as something we are logically obliged to treat as certain. Even if there were no witnesses (or more exactly, none capable of making a statement), there is no other explanation for what some people did witness, the birth of a child to a woman who had been in a vegetative state for (much) longer than the duration of her pregnancy.

To me, and I imagine most readers of this blog, the conclusion drawn by the Post is self-evidently the correct one, while the caution displayed in other sources is excessive. If ‘sexual assault’ is understood to mean sex without consent (which is how Arizona’s legal code defines it), then there is no doubt that this woman was assaulted. Her pregnancy is evidence of sex (or in a hypothetical alternative scenario involving artificial insemination, of a bodily intrusion that would also count as assault by Arizona’s definition), and because of her vegetative state we can be certain that she did not consent, nor do anything that could have been construed as consent. In any case, under Arizona law a person affected by ‘a mental disorder, defect, drugs, alcohol or any type of impairment’ lacks the capacity to consent to sex.

In this case there really are no ifs, buts or maybes: what was done to this woman was a criminal assault. Why couldn’t the media just say so, without all the hedging and equivocating? The impression their language gave was that they didn’t understand either the legal definition of sexual assault or the concept of consent. The hedging invited readers to look for reasons why this might not have been rape, potentially reinforcing well-worn myths like ‘it’s not rape if he doesn’t use force’ and ‘it’s not rape if she doesn’t resist’.  Or in this situation, ‘it’s not rape if she’s in a permanent vegetative state’. (Yes, it’s a horrible thought–but there are men who think it’s not rape if a woman is asleep.)

On Twitter, I saw a number of comments suggesting that cautious language had been used for legal reasons (‘they can’t say it’s rape when it’s still being investigated’). In some cases, it’s true, the legal presumption of innocence obliges the media to remain non-committal on the question of whether a rape occurred. If the defendant in a case is denying he raped the complainant and claiming it was consensual sex, then the complainant’s account of it as rape cannot be presented as factually true, or even as more credible than the alternative, because that would be prejudicial to the defendant, presupposing his guilt before it has been proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ (the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction). Unless and until there is a conviction, the complainant’s statement can be presented only as an ‘allegation’. And most rape cases where the disputed issue is consent do not result in a conviction. The arguments made by defence lawyers and the conclusions drawn by jurors reflect the attitudes of the wider culture, which is not only predisposed to doubt women’s accounts, but willing to accept almost any argument for doubting them as ‘reasonable’.

But in the Arizona case it should have been obvious that these considerations did not apply. No police officer or lawyer will ever question this woman; no jury will ever be asked to determine whether she consented, or whether she lied. If there’s a trial, it will be all about the DNA. How, in these circumstances, could anyone have thought it was necessary, or indeed accurate, to report that the police were investigating an ‘alleged’ assault? Who is supposed to have made the ‘allegation’? Clearly not a woman who is unable to communicate. And if it’s the staff at the facility, what they did was not ‘allege’ something but report something some of them had directly witnessed. As for ‘possible’ assault, when you describe something as a ‘possible X’, you’re saying it might turn out that either nothing happened or that what happened was something other than X. In this case, what would that have been? Abduction by aliens? A miracle?

What were the people who wrote this stuff, or passed it for publication, thinking? One answer to that question might be quite simply that they weren’t thinking: they just reached for the conventional formulas on autopilot, without stopping to ask themselves whether in this situation the result would be inaccurate and misleading. Like the political writers George Orwell criticized in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, they were stringing together stock phrases in the manner of ‘a prefabricated henhouse’.

Feminist efforts to change the language of rape reporting have often assumed that this thoughtless recycling of outdated formulas is the central problem, and that the solution is a combination of awareness-raising—getting people to notice what’s implied by the language they habitually use—and offering practical alternatives. That’s the approach taken in, for instance, this checklist for journalists produced by Canada’s Use the Right Words project , which touches on the question of epistemic modality: it notes for instance that ‘allegedly’ may be necessary in certain contexts but warns against over-using it, and recommends that complainants’ statements should be framed using neutral verbs (e.g., ‘she said’) rather than verbs that imply doubt or blame (like ‘she claimed’ or ‘she admitted’).

But while this kind of advice can be helpful to those who are disposed to take it, the problem it can’t address is that which words are ‘the right words’ depends on what story you’re using them to tell. What if the media use the words they do strategically, because they are in fact the ‘right words’ for the narrative being constructed? Is the problem the words themselves, or is it the narrative?

In a 1992 article entitled ‘The linguistics of blame’, Kate Clark analysed the vocabulary and grammar used in the Sun newspaper’s reporting of violence against women,  and found that different patterns were associated with two contrasting narratives: one in which an innocent victim—a child, a chaste young woman or a good wife and loving ‘mum’—was attacked by a man described as a ‘monster’, a ‘beast’ or a ‘fiend’, and another in which a bad woman—a negligent or frigid wife, a provocative ‘Lolita’ or promiscuous ‘blonde divorcee’—was held responsible for provoking whatever had happened to her. In addition to being a standard-bearer for sexism, the Sun was a staunch supporter of right-wing ‘law and order’ policies: cases of violence against ‘innocent’ women could be used to advance that part of its political agenda. More recently we’ve seen some sections of the press eschewing the usual scepticism and victim-blaming where that enables them to construct a racist narrative in which ‘our women’ [i.e., white women and girls] are being exploited and abused by non-white, foreign or Muslim men.

In the Arizona case it seemed the media had no strong or consistent narrative. We might have expected this to be, in the Sun’s terms, an ‘innocent victim abused by a monster’ story, worded to express outrage rather than caution. But the outrage was noticeably muted (‘a deeply disturbing incident’ was as strong as it got). Though the victim’s ‘innocence’ was not in question (many reports contained obfuscation and needless scepticism, but none engaged in actual victim-blaming), there did not seem to be much empathy for her either. As this comment piece notes, abusers of women with disabilities (who as a group suffer disproportionately high levels of sexual violence) can exploit not only their victims’ inherent vulnerability, but also their cultural invisibility. The mistreatment of disabled people in institutions is hidden from public view, and the media that might bring attention to it are, as one disability activist quoted in the piece puts it, ‘still largely uncomfortable seeing disabled people as, well, people’.

Even if they are deemed ‘innocent’, some victims may still be treated as less deserving of our sympathy and concern than others. Race, class, age and (dis)ability all influence the ranking. (Another pertinent example recently in the news is the way the media covered R. Kelly’s marriage to 15-year old Aaliyah in the 1990s, described in this piece as a ‘collective shrug’ which resulted from a combination of celebrity-worship, himpathy and misogynoir.)

I am not suggesting feminists shouldn’t criticize the media’s use of specific words, stock formulas or linguistic strategies (something I’ve done myself in this post), but I do think we need to recognize that the problem here goes far beyond language. The language of rape reporting is more a clue to the problem than a cause of it: it reflects the narratives the media construct around sexual violence, the culture of disbelief those narratives spring from, and the male dominance which that disbelief protects. Those things, ultimately, are what we have to change.

Update: since this post was written a man who worked at the Arizona facility as a practical nurse has been arrested on charges of sexual assault and vulnerable adult abuse. 

 

2018: the year of the war of the W-word

At the beginning of December I promised I’d be back at the end of the month with my traditional round-up of the year in language and feminism. But I missed that self-imposed deadline, and I’ve ended up writing something a bit different from my previous efforts–longer, less list-y, and noticeably shorter on jokes. That’s partly about the timing (the festive season being well and truly over), but it’s also a reflection of what went on during the year I’m looking back at.

With a few exceptions (like the vote to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland) it wasn’t a great year for feminism. If 2017 was a year of hope, a moment when women came together to expose injustice and express their collective rage, 2018 was a year of disappointment and frustration, when we were often made to feel that nothing we said or did made any difference. Men continued to behave badly, and often with the same impunity that #MeToo was meant to have put an end to.

In the US, Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he had sexually assaulted her in high school (I wrote about this in November, but unlike the many commentators who dissected Ford’s style of speaking and its impact on her credibility, I focused on the language of the men). In Canada, minutes after posting a message of support for ‘the Incel Rebellion’ on Facebook, Alek Minassian killed ten people and injured 14 more by driving a van into a crowd of pedestrians (I wrote about this event too, and the debate it sparked on whether mass killings inspired by misogyny should be discussed in the language of terrorism). ‘Incel’ was among the words Oxford Dictionaries put on its shortlist for the Word of the Year—though ultimately it lost to ‘toxic’, as in ‘toxic masculinity’.

Several of the other news stories I blogged about were variations on the theme of ‘men being pissy about women treading on their turf’. A trivial but telling example was the reaction of the football-watching public to the women who were allowed, for the first time in history, to commentate on the men’s FIFA World Cup. Did these women have the Right Stuff, or were their voices just too shrill? Earlier in the year there had been a brief flurry of concern about the ‘unattractiveness’ of women swearing; later there would be a row about the ‘immodesty’ of women with PhDs who wanted to be referred to with the title ‘Dr’. Forceful speech, authoritative speech and expert speech continue to be treated as male preserves, on which women trespass at their peril.

But the theme I returned to most often this year was was our current preoccupation with ‘inclusive’ and ‘exclusionary’ language, a perennially contentious issue which was at its most divisive in arguments about the use or avoidance of ‘woman’. Conflict about the W-word isn’t new: it was already simmering when I started this blog nearly four years ago. But this was the year when it came to a rolling boil. Between June and November a series of well-publicized incidents dramatized a clash between two opposing tendencies: on one hand, increasing pressure to adopt altermatives to ‘woman’, and on the other, a growing resistance to that pressure.

In June, Cancer Research UK ran a campaign promoting cervical cancer screening for ‘everyone aged 25-64 who has a cervix’. This avoidance of the W-word was not without precedent in the field of reproductive health: ‘pregnant people’, for instance, has been widely adopted. But this time the complaints were louder, and less easily dismissed as just the usual reactionary grumbling about ‘political correctness’ or language change in general.  ‘Hi Cancer Research’, tweeted one critic: ‘people who have cervixes are called women. Please stop erasing us. Thanks’. Others accused the organization of caring more about virtue-signalling than about clear communication, pointing out that some people who have a cervix may not be familiar with the word ‘cervix’.

In July there was controversy about a commemorative plaque in York that described Anne Lister, a 19th century landowner most famous for the coded diary in which she detailed her romantic relationships with women, as a ‘gender nonconforming entrepreneur’. The main objection to this phraseology was that it failed to identify Lister as a lesbian, but some critics also suspected that the group responsible for it had wanted to avoid specifying her sex. This apparent projection of contemporary gender identity politics into the relatively distant past (Lister died in 1840) prompted so many complaints (and so much media interest), the York Civic Trust opened a public consultation on whether the plaque should be reworded.

In September, activists campaigning against a proposed change in the law (if enacted it will allow individuals to be legally recognized as men or women on the basis of self-identification) sponsored a billboard displaying a dictionary definition of the W-word: ‘Woman. Noun. Adult female human’. This was immediately reported as transphobic hate speech; the company that owned the billboard took it down, and the message was subsequently removed or pre-emptively banned from several other sites. While the campaigners’ response (‘how can it be offensive to quote the dictionary?’) was disingenuous—they must have known that what offended their critics was not the quotation but the political statement they were using it to make—to many onlookers it did seem extraordinary that feminists could be threatened with prosecution for expressing the belief that only female humans can be women. Offensive though others may find that belief, the idea that its expression should be prohibited or criminalized raises questions about what we mean by ‘hate speech’ (this isn’t the place for a full discussion, but the recent broadening of this term/concept is something I’ll return to at a later date).

In October the Guardian reported on a survey that had asked ‘menstruators’ about their experiences of period pain at work.  Many readers complained, and on investigation it turned out that the researchers whose work was being reported hadn’t used the offending word themselves: they had referred to the survey respondents as ‘women’, and someone at the newspaper had ‘corrected’ them. The report was duly amended, with a mealy-mouthed footnote explaining that this had been done ‘to more precisely link the language with the survey it describes’.

The menstruation debate continued in November, when Sheffield Hallam University hosted a workshop featuring Chella Quint, the founder of the #periodpositive project and creator of what she wittily describes as a ‘flow chart’ about the language of ‘queeriods’. The project does useful work (for instance, taking up the issue of period poverty and urging the makers of menstrual products to stop using shame as a marketing tool), and the linguistic dos and don’ts on the ‘queeriods’ chart are mostly, in my opinion, sensible. No feminist I know would disagree with Quint’s suggestion that we should stop talking about ‘feminine hygiene’ products and referring to menarche as ‘becoming a woman’. These expressions aren’t just trans exclusionary, they are twee, archaic, and recycle ancient sexist beliefs (e.g. that menstruating women are ‘unclean’). They should have been binned long ago. But does the W-word really have to go into the bin with them, to be replaced by alternatives like ‘menstruator’ (Quint’s recommendation) and ‘bleeder’?

As the responses to the Guardian article showed, a lot of women find these terms both peculiar and offensive. And in this it appears they may not be alone. One interesting contribution to a discussion of ‘queeriods’ on Twitter came from someone who works with young trans people, and who reported that the trans men in her group also hated ‘menstruator’: one had said it ‘sounds like a Victorian gynaecological torture device’. ‘They like to be included’, she continued, ‘but they don’t mind the word “woman” being used’.

And indeed, why should anyone mind the word ‘woman’ being used in discussions of menstruation and pregnancy? There is something deeply irrational about the insistence that inclusiveness requires nothing less than the total avoidance of the W-word. If the point is to include everyone who menstruates or gets pregnant, that could surely be achieved by using one of the simplest tools in the linguistic box, the word ‘and’. Just as people talking about the armed forces have learned to say ‘servicemen and women’, people discussing reproductive rights or providing reproductive health services could say ‘pregnant women and trans men’. Why is it necessary to treat ‘women’ as a taboo word, a threat that must be countered by substituting arcane neologisms or obscure circumlocutions?

November was also the month when the Wellcome Collection got an unwelcome response to its publicity for an event designed for ‘womxn’. For many people this was their first encounter with ‘womxn’, a form whose X-spelling is meant to signify that it refers not only to women, but also to trans, nonbinary and queer individuals. And for the most part they were not impressed. Caroline Criado-Perez spoke for many when she commented, bracingly,

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**.

Taken aback by both the volume and the vehemence of the complaints, the organizers announced that they would revert to ‘women’.

All this might seem like a long-winded way of saying that nothing changed in 2018.  The familiar battle continued, and the familiar tropes were repeated. But however subtly, I think something did change. As the conflict escalated, both sides were forced to confront the reality that changes in the meanings and uses of words have to be negotiated: they can neither be imposed by fiat nor prevented by appealing to some higher authority. Nor can change be accomplished overnight: it takes time for new words to bed down, and for old ones to shed their historical baggage.

That last point was dramatically illustrated in December, when the W-word featured in a different kind of political controversy. During Prime Minister’s Question Time, as Theresa May addressed the House of Commons, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made an inaudible remark which may or may not have been ‘stupid woman’ (he maintained that it was ‘stupid people’, and we can’t be certain it wasn’t because speech-reading, which was the basis for the ‘woman’ claim, cannot distinguish related sounds (like the labial consonants p and m) with 100% reliability).

What followed—May’s supporters gleefully denouncing the Labour leader’s sexism, while his own colleagues accused them of manufacturing their outrage–was as unedifying as most of what has passed for Parliamentary debate during the past 12 months, but it did raise an interesting linguistic question. What makes the phrase ‘stupid woman’ sexist? ‘Stupid’ is obviously an insult, but it’s not specifically a sexist insult; and May is, after all, a woman. Why is calling a female politician a ‘stupid woman’ perceived as more pejorative than simply calling her ‘stupid’—or than calling a male politician a ‘stupid man’?

Pondering this, I was reminded of Ana Deumert’s account of a landmark judgment in the South African Constitutional Court. The case concerned a white man who was fired from his job for using racially offensive language in a workplace dispute about parking. Finding he had insufficient space to park his own vehicle, he demanded the removal of an adjacent vehicle to which he referred as ‘that Black man’s car’. He didn’t dispute that he used those words, but he did dispute that they were racist, and sued his employer for unfair dismissal. Two lower courts accepted his claim that ‘that Black man’ was a purely descriptive phrase. But the Constitutional Court overturned their judgment, arguing that in a society with South Africa’s history of institutionalized racism, a white man’s reference to a Black colleague’s race could not be considered neutral: in context it was liable to be heard as an expression of contempt for an inferior Other. As Deumert explained,

The performative nature of language – its ability to cause effects – is rooted in its history, in the circulation and repetition of words and phrases across time. […] Words mean because they have meant before, and …wound because they have wounded before. There is no escape from history, from the meanings we inherit.

That women as a class are stupid is another proposition that has been endlessly repeated over time, and this has consequences for the way we react to verbal formulas like ‘stupid woman’. Whereas ‘stupid man’ will be heard only as an assertion that the individual in question is both stupid and a man, ‘stupid woman’ (especially when said by a man) can easily be taken to imply that the individual is stupid because she is a woman. Like the racism of ‘that Black man’, the sexism of ‘stupid woman’ isn’t in the words themselves, but in the cultural presuppositions we bring to bear on their interpretation, and which, as Deumert says, we inherit from history.

‘But hang on a minute’, a sceptic might interject, ‘I’m confused. First you said it was sexist for the Guardian or Cancer Research to avoid the W-word, now you’re saying it was sexist for Jeremy Corbyn to use it. Surely you can’t have it both ways!’

Actually, I can, because sexism in language is complicated. As I explained in another of last year’s posts, it manifests itself in two apparently contradictory ways. One is the exclusion/erasure of women, as with the pseudo-generic use of masculine forms like ‘he’ and ‘man(kind)’. The other, however, is the over-use of feminine gender-marking, gratuitously drawing attention to a woman’s sex in contexts where it’s irrelevant and where the effect is demeaning or derogatory (for instance, calling Jane Austen an ‘authoress’). These are different surface manifestations of sexism, but at a deeper level they reflect the same basic assumption–that men are the default humans.

This is one aspect of the traditional gender order that seems to have survived: we are seldom if ever exhorted to replace ‘man’ with terms like ‘mxn’, ‘ejaculator’ and ‘everyone who has a penis’. That’s another reason why some feminists resist analogous W-word substitutes like ‘womxn’ and ‘menstruator’. Whatever else it may be, a gender revolution that does not challenge the default status of men is not a feminist revolution.

I’d like to think that in 2019 both sides in this debate will turn the heat down, and put more energy into finding mutually acceptable solutions to practical linguistic problems. For some purposes I think we do need inclusive terms (as well as, not instead of, the W-word), but ideally they’d be less clunky, obscure and needlessly offputting than the ones we’ve been presented with so far. We can surely improve on words like ‘menstruator’, which no one seems to find satisfactory: why not follow the lead of the Twitter commentator mentioned earlier by asking trans men how they would prefer to talk about their periods? And before they dream up any more formulas like ‘everyone who has a cervix’, organizations like Cancer Research could try emulating the approach their scientists use when developing new treatments, by testing their proposals on a sample of the target audience.

But to make these suggestions is to treat the issue as a technical problem of language planning, when of course it is much more than that: like most verbal hygiene debates, this is an ideological and political conflict played out in the arena of language. So, I predict that the struggle over the W-word will continue, and that the conflict may become, at least in the short term, more rather than less intense.

That’s not, I acknowledge, the happiest note on which to end this review of 2018. Nevertheless (and with apologies for the lateness), I wish all readers of this blog a happy new year. Here’s to courage, strength, and hope for better times ahead.

The illustration shows part of Gillian Wearing’s statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett, which was unveiled in Parliament Square in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of (some) women in Britain gaining the right to vote. The words ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’ come from a speech Fawcett made in 1913 following the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby. Davison had been a suffragette, a member of an organization whose tactics Fawcett criticised; but despite their political differences, she spoke of Davison in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect.  

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.

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.