The dangers of purity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assertiveness: just say no

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoon by Angela Martin, 1994

2021: mixed messages and weasel words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speakin while female

Remember the summer of 2018, when a woman was allowed to commentate on a men’s football World Cup match, prompting a tsunami of complaints about her ‘shrill’, high-pitched voice? Well, the sport-watching blokes of Britain have been at it again. Halfway through the Tokyo Olympics a man named Digby Jones (in case you’ve never heard of him, he used to run the Confederation of British Industry and was later elevated to the House of Lords) took to Twitter to complain about Alex Scott, the former Arsenal and England footballer who’d been presenting the highlights for the BBC:

Enough! I can’t stand it anymore! Alex Scott spoils a good presentational job on the BBC Olympics Team with her very noticeable inability to pronounce her ‘g’s at the end of a word. Competitors are NOT taking part, Alex, in the fencin, rowin, boxin, kayakin, weightliftin & swimmin

What this tweet draws attention to is something all English-speakers do at least some of the time, whether they’re aware of it or not: pronounce the final consonant in the –ing ending on words like ‘swimming’ with an [n] rather than the [ŋ] Jones thinks it should have. (Neither of these pronunciations contains an actual [g] sound, BTW—though there are some English accents that add one on.) The alternation isn’t totally random: we’re more likely to use the [ŋ] in more formal situations, and the [n], conversely, when we are or want to sound more relaxed (it’s ‘sittin on the dock of the bay’, not ‘sitting’). But the difference between the two pronunciations is also socially meaningful: though virtually everyone uses both, exactly how much we use each of them varies with demographic characteristics like age, ethnicity, gender and social class.

Interestingly, the current social class meaning of so-called ‘g-dropping’ (though that’s a misnomer for the reasons I’ve just explained—and also because speaking is not, in fact, reading from an invisible autocue in the sky) is not the only one it’s ever had. Today it’s understood as a working-class thing, but in the early 20th century it was also associated with the British upper classes, who talked about ‘huntin, shootin and fishin’ (and possibly fencin and rowin, though probably not kayakin and weightliftin). Writers of the time both used the [n] form in the dialogue they gave to upper-class characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey) and sometimes commented on its use explicitly, in a way that makes clear it was a recognized social stereotype.

Here’s an example from Jan Struther’s 1939 novel Mrs Miniver: the setting is a shooting party at Lord and Lady Chervil’s country house.

‘Now take huntin’…’ ‘Oh, bull-fightin’ — that’s quite a different kettle of fish.…’ Italics bred italics. Dropped g’s fell as thick as confetti.

Then as now, ‘dropped gs’ were considered a deviation from the standard pronunciation. But the tone of the disapproval they attracted was rather different when the g-droppers were aristocrats. Middle-class Mrs Miniver finds the sound of the upper-class voices at Lady Chervil’s table ‘musically unpleasing’, but she doesn’t accuse their owners of being ‘lazy’, ‘illiterate’, or in need of the ‘elocution lessons’ Digby Jones prescribed for Alex Scott.

That’s one way we know criticisms of pronunciation aren’t, as those who make them often claim, a case of ‘it doesn’t matter who says it, I just hate the way it sounds’. It does matter who says it: the things people claim to hate the sound of are almost always things they associate with an out-group, a group they don’t belong to themselves. And while they may, like Mrs Miniver, make mildly disparaging judgments on higher-status speakers, they generally reserve their harshest and most public criticism for those lower down the social hierarchy.  

But in 2020s Britain, as Digby Jones would soon discover, you won’t make yourself universally popular by criticising a young Black working-class Londoner for talking like a young Black working-class Londoner. As well as defending herself (‘I’m from a working-class family in East London, Poplar, Tower Hamlets, & I am PROUD. Proud of the young girl who overcame obstacles and proud of my accent’) Scott had heavyweight supporters ranging from London Mayor Sadiq Khan to former rugby international Will Carling. Jones came out looking like, as one tweep put it, ‘a f**kin snob’.

But before we conclude that British accent prejudice has had its day, let’s not forget a very similar incident that sparked controversy less than a year ago. Last September the former Labour spin-doctor Alistair Campbell tweeted about the Conservative politician Priti Patel: ‘I don’t want a Home Secretary who can’t pronounce a G at the end of a word’. He deleted the tweet after Patel’s Conservative colleague Sajid Javid called it ‘blatant snobbery’, but in my own (basically Left-leaning) part of the Twitterverse, the jibes about Patel’s accent continued. And when the row about Alex Scott blew up, I noticed a few people suggesting her case was different from Patel’s: maybe Patel’s g-dropping was less ‘authentic’ than Scott’s, or maybe Patel had less excuse for it.

Sorry, people of Twitter, but that kind of talk just underlines the point that accent prejudice is a proxy for other kinds of prejudice. You don’t like Priti Patel’s politics, so you want it to be OK to criticise the way she speaks (which IMHO is perfectly ‘authentic’ given where she grew up and went to school–according to Wikipedia, at a girls’ comprehensive in Watford)–while simultaneously maintaining that it’s not OK to criticise when the speaker is someone you approve of.

Of course this is a common reaction, and I can’t claim to be untouched by it myself. Boris Johnson has a way of pronouncing the word ‘to’ (with an elongated and heavily-stressed schwa vowel) that irritates me beyond all reason. Others might feel the urge to punch him when they look at his perpetually uncombed hair; for me what does it is hearing him say ‘to’. I can’t control that reaction, but what I can do, and what I think we all should do, is recognise it for what it is (a projection of my feelings about the person onto the way he speaks), and resist the temptation either to broadcast our prejudices or to invent spurious linguistic justifications for them.

For feminists there’s an extra reason to be wary of this kind of criticism. It’s not a coincidence that the two examples of accent-shaming I’ve discussed both targeted high-profile women. As Katie Edwards recalled in a piece about the Alex Scott affair,

When I first started presenting radio I discovered pretty quickly that while it’s all right for Alan Titchmarsh to be ‘nobbut a lad’ as a broadcaster, women with regional accents have a trickier time of it.

She’s right: the policing of nonstandard pronunciation, and other linguistic behaviours which are popularly associated with working-class speakers—for instance, swearing and using slang—is even more intense for female speakers than for male ones. Working-class speech has ‘rough and tough’ connotations, and is therefore perceived as ‘masculine’; in women it attracts not only the usual class-based criticisms, but also the sex-specific judgment that it’s ‘unladylike’. Regardless of her social class, a respectable woman is supposed to act like a ‘lady’; being ‘well-spoken’, as people say in Britain, is part of that. The Yorkshire-accented Katie Edwards was once described as having ‘no decorum’; Faima Bakar has written about the way Black women get told they shouldn’t ‘talk street’ because ‘it’s just not attractive’.

The idea that women should be ‘well-spoken’ is yet another item on the already long list of requirements (like not being shrill, strident or aggressive) that create a hostile environment for female speakers. In the case of Priti Patel that might seem like poetic justice. But when we condone the weaponizing of linguistic prejudice against a woman, whoever she is and whatever we think of her, we make it easier for the same weapons to go on being used against us all.  

‘You have no authority here’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘In contrast’, the article goes on,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tone deaf

A month ago, the psychologist Terri Apter tweeted

“I don’t like your tone,” is something said either to a child or a woman. Could @wordspinster confirm or comment?

@Wordspinster is me, but I didn’t see the tweet straight away, and it’s taken me a while to formulate an answer. The short version, as usual, is ‘it’s complicated’. So in this post I’ll try to dig a bit deeper. 

What prompted Apter’s tweet was a much-discussed exchange in Parliament between Matt Hancock, Conservative Secretary of State for Health, and Rosena Allin-Khan, a Labour MP and shadow minister for mental health who is also a working NHS doctor. Allin-Khan had asked Hancock an obviously critical question (using the third person, incidentally, because the arcane rules of the UK Parliament forbid MPs to address one another directly):

Does the health secretary acknowledge that many frontline workers feel that the government’s lack of testing has cost lives, and is responsible for many families being torn apart in grief?

He replied:

I welcome the honourable lady to her post… I think she might do well to take a leaf out of the Shadow Secretary’s book in terms of tone.

This was clearly intended as a putdown. The ‘Shadow Secretary’ is Jonathan Ashworth MP, who is white, male and senior to Allin-Khan. He is Hancock’s opposite number in the Labour shadow Cabinet, a post he has held for several years, whereas she is a recently appointed junior minister. So, first Hancock drew attention to Allin-Khan’s relative inexperience by welcoming her to her post; then he implied she didn’t know how to conduct herself properly in her new role, and suggested she should take her cue from the behaviour of her senior colleague.

But his strategy backfired: the criticism he directed at Allin-Khan was immediately turned back on him. This was partly because of the perception that his condescension was strongly gendered—as Glamour magazine put it, ‘steeped in micro-aggression and misogyny’.  Harriet Harman, no stranger herself to the gentlemanly sexism of male politicians, tweeted that there was ‘something creepy about a man telling a woman to watch her tone’. Pragya Agarwal, writing in the Independent, called attention to the specific ways in which women of colour get upbraided for their tone, noting that ‘longstanding tropes, such as the “angry black woman”, harm some communities more than others’. 

That wasn’t Hancock’s only miscalculation. Some people who didn’t pick up on the sexism/racism issue were critical of what he said for other reasons. It’s one thing for a Cabinet minister to patronise a more junior member of the opposing party, but another to do it to someone whose experience of actually treating Covid-19 patients gives her a far better claim than the minister to know what ‘frontline workers feel’. His dismissive response struck some as disrespectful not just to Allin-Khan, but to ‘our NHS heroes’ more generally. To many it also seemed irresponsible and petty for a minister presiding over the highest death-toll in Europe to scold a medically-qualified colleague for the tone of her question rather than giving her a serious answer.  

But that, of course, was the point. As the forensic linguist Claire Hardaker has also explained, tone policing (or as I will call it here, for reasons I’ll explain later, tone criticism) is a distraction strategy: it aims to shift attention from the substance of what is being said to the manner in which it is said, while also, as Hardaker notes, staking a claim to the moral high-ground. It’s one of many strategies politicians may use to avoid answering questions or buy time to plan a response; but it needs to be deployed with care, since it can easily give the impression that either you’re too thin-skinned for the job you’re in or else you haven’t got a credible answer. The more powerful a speaker is, in fact, the greater the risk that their criticism of someone’s tone will be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

That was how it went in this case. You could argue that the distraction strategy was partially successful, in that the subsequent conversation did focus more on the tone issue than on the substantive question about testing.  But that wasn’t unequivocally a win for Hancock, because it was his tone, not Allin-Khan’s, that attracted most negative comment.   

Terri Apter’s tweet raised the question of whether remarks like Matt Hancock’s are always or most often addressed to women. In Parliament, at least, the answer is no. A quick search of Hansard, the official Parliamentary record, revealed that references to tone are fairly frequent: a search for all uses of the word in the House of Commons since 2015 yielded 1835 results. I only had time to look closely at the first 100, and in this small sub-sample I found eleven examples of tone criticism directed towards an identifiable individual. Two involved men criticising a woman’s tone; three involved women criticising a man’s tone. The majority, six, were cases of men criticising other men.

Obviously these proportions (which may or may not be replicated in the sample as a whole) must reflect the fact that women are still a minority of all MPs. A more careful, full analysis might hypothetically show that female MPs are more likely than male ones to attract negative comments on their tone. But it’s safe to say that you don’t have to be female to be a target for this kind of criticism. 

It’s also clear that tone criticism isn’t only directed downwards, from more senior to more junior politicians. Backbenchers criticise ministers’ tone as well as vice-versa; and the highest-ranking politicians criticise each other. We had an example last week at Prime Minister’s Question Time, when Boris Johnson responded to a question from Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, by saying ‘I’m surprised he should be taking that tone’. In this case the status differential is slight to non-existent: both are white men, and in terms of rank they are peers (even if Johnson as the leader of the governing party has more real-world power). Their exchange makes it even clearer when and why powerful people resort to tone criticism–and how that move can backfire.

Starmer’s question, which like Allin-Khan’s to Matt Hancock was really a criticism framed in the interrogative, concerned the importance of public trust for managing the Covid-19 crisis. He cited a recent survey which found that trust in the government, and in Johnson himself, had plummeted in the previous week. Though he made no explicit reference to Dominic Cummings, everyone knew this shift in public opinion was connected to the controversy about Johnson’s chief political adviser, who had not resigned or been sacked following what most of the public regarded as gross breaches of the lockdown rules. Johnson knew that too, and since it’s a subject he’s keen to avoid, he reached for the distraction strategy of criticising the questioner’s tone. But what exactly was he talking about? What do people who make this criticism mean by ‘tone’?

This brings me to the reason why I’m talking about ‘tone criticism’ rather than ‘tone policing’. ‘Tone policing’ as I understand it refers specifically to the policing of emotional expression, the classic case being a demand that someone should refrain from making others uncomfortable by expressing their legitimate anger. That’s one kind of tone criticism, and it’s useful to have a term for it, but it’s also important (to me, at least) not to expand that term’s scope too far. I particularly want to avoid the implication that when women are criticised for their tone this is always or usually about them being, in someone’s opinion, too angry or too emotional. Without denying that can be an issue, we shouldn’t assume that it’s invariably what’s at stake.

‘Tone’ in everyday usage can mean a lot of things (which is very convenient for those who want to criticise it without going into the specifics of the alleged offence). Often it has more to do with, in technical language, stance–a speaker’s attitude to the addressee or the topic under discussion–than affect–a speaker’s mood or emotional state. In political discourse many judgments on ‘tone’ relate primarily to what kind of move is being made (e.g. agreement or disagreement, congratulation or criticism), what stance that implies and whether the critic considers it legitimate.  

In the two cases I’ve talked about so far it would be hard to argue that the targets of criticism spoke angrily. It could perhaps be argued that Rosena Allin-Khan used emotive language, in that her question included the phrases ‘cost lives’ and ‘torn apart in grief’; but that can’t be said of Keir Starmer, a former prosecutor whose style is frequently described as ‘forensic’. If you listen to a recording of his question you’ll notice that his delivery is calm and controlled: sometimes he uses heavy stress and a noticeably slow tempo for emphasis, but there’s no shouting or extreme fluctuations in pitch. So when Johnson complained about him ‘taking that tone’, what he seemed to be objecting to was the simple fact that Starmer had adopted a critical stance, as opposed to one supportive of the government.

A number of media commentators thought so too, observing that Johnson’s performance (which did display anger: one sketch-writer described it as ‘defensive and snappy’) showed his inability to tolerate criticism. He treats all non-supportive questions, however they’re delivered, as illegitimate challenges or personal attacks. Matt Hancock has a similar approach, as was demonstrated not only by his treatment of Rosena Allin-Khan, but also by a more recent interview on Sky News, where he laughed uproariously and called it ‘priceless’ when the presenter Kay Burley had the temerity to ask a question about the continuing problems with testing—something most viewers, as she immediately pointed out, were unlikely to regard as a laughing matter.

I honestly don’t know if this behaviour reflects an outsize sense of entitlement-slash-grievance (‘how dare these ingrates pick on me’), or if it is purely cynical. Johnson and Hancock, after all, must know that it’s the job of the Opposition, and of the media, to subject the government to critical scrutiny. That’s the purpose of Prime Minister’s Questions, and the point of interviewing ministers on TV. Complaining about the ‘tone’ of questioning simply because it’s adversarial (especially when it happens in the House of Commons, an adversarial forum by definition) does not make senior politicians look statesmanlike; it makes them look churlish and out of their depth.  

This is a point to bear in mind whenever we’re faced with yet another example of a man criticising a woman’s tone–whether he uses the actual word ‘tone’, like Matt Hancock, or tells her to ‘calm down, dear’ like the former prime minister David Cameron, or reaches for the codewords used recently about the Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis by Daniel Kawczynski MP, who tweeted that he’d declined to be interviewed on the programme because he found Maitlis ‘extraordinarily aggressive, unnecessarily rude, biased & confrontational to point of intimidation’. (If he’d only added ‘strident’ we’d have a full house.) Yes, it’s a putdown, an attempt to embarrass or shame (something women, for all kinds of historical and cultural reasons, are often particularly susceptible to); and yes, there’s often a double standard at work (Boris Johnson doesn’t have to keep calm; Jeremy Paxman was respected for his aggressive interview style). But when we make those points (as we should, every time), let’s not forget to add that this is a strategy used by the insecure and less-than-competent to distract attention from their own shortcomings.

‘I don’t like your tone’ is something powerful people say when they’ve been put under pressure, they haven’t got a winning argument, and they are hoping to silence criticism by other means. But it doesn’t always work and it can easily backfire. Rosena Allin-Khan wasn’t shamed; Keir Starmer wasn’t distracted; Emily Maitlis wasn’t silenced; Kay Burley wasn’t amused. And a large section of the public was on their side. Read the room, guys: if anyone’s got a tone problem, you have.

Slanging match

In 1960 the lexicographer Stuart Flexner declared in his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang that ‘most American slang is created and used by males’.

Many types of slang words – including the taboo and strongly derogatory ones, those referring to sex, women, work, money, whiskey, politics, transportation, sports, and the like – refer primarily to male endeavor and interest. The majority of entries in this dictionary could be labeled “primarily masculine use.”

This view reflected more general assumptions about women, men and language. Forty years earlier the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen had suggested that linguistically as in other respects, the two sexes were complementary. Women’s role in the development of language was to exert a civilising influence through their ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Men, by contrast, were responsible for ‘renewing’ language to ensure that it did not become ‘languid and insipid’. Slang, from this perspective, had two defining masculine qualities: much of it was ‘coarse and gross’, but it was also inventive and continuously changing–a product of the linguistic creativity which Jespersen assumed that men possessed and women lacked.

Feminists, of course, have questioned this account. Like the related idea that women don’t swear, ‘women don’t create or use slang’ sounds suspiciously like a combination of wishful thinking and sexist language-policing (‘we don’t think women should swear/use slang, so we’ll insist that it’s not in their nature’). But in that case, why are dictionaries like Flexner’s so dominated by the vocabulary of men? Does that just reflect the historical fact that slang has flourished most conspicuously in the ‘underground’ subcultures of (for instance) thieves, conmen, gangsters, gamblers, soldiers and sailors—all groups in which women were un- or under-represented? Or is it a reflection of male slang-collectors’ limitations, either their inability to access women’s slang or their insistence on defining slang in a way that excluded female speech?

This long-running debate has recently been revisited by the slang lexicographer and historian Jonathon Green, in a book entitled Sounds and Furies: The Love-Hate Relationship between Women and Slang. Having dipped into it last year, I’ve now (thanks to the current lockdown) had time to digest it properly. At over 500 pages it’s not a quick read, but if you’re interested in the subject it’s full of fascinating detail. It is also (IMHO) a welcome corrective to the nonsense that has been talked for decades about women’s (non)contribution to slang.

Women’s supposed avoidance of ‘coarse and gross expressions’ is obviously a myth, contradicted by evidence about both the present and the past. We have many historical records of the abuse uttered by women during arguments with their neighbours that sometimes landed them in court, not to mention the Billingsgate fishwives whose obscene invective gave their occupational title a secondary meaning of ‘foul-mouthed woman’. However, slang encompasses more than just insults and obscenities: it also includes the informal terminology used by specific in-groups, especially those outside or on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society. On this question Green suggests (though cautiously, since most records of the speech of marginalised groups were written down by outsiders, making it difficult to gauge their accuracy), that what’s often been presented as male in-group slang was most likely known and used by both sexes, to the extent that they participated in the same activities and social networks.

Crime is the prototypical example of an in-group slang-generating activity (the precursors of slang dictionaries were glossaries of ‘thieves’ cant’, which began to appear in England in the 16th century), and it is one that has always involved women as well as men. Some women played supporting roles as men’s wives, girlfriends or accomplices, but others (like Mary Frith, aka ‘Moll Cutpurse’) engaged in daring exploits that made them (in)famous in their own right, or played influential roles behind the scenes. Early writing about these women represents them using the same cant as their male counterparts, and this is hardly surprising—if your business was robbing or conning people, you’d surely know the vocabulary of the trade. Later on, though, the conviction that women didn’t use slang (or obscenities, or nonstandard dialect) would lead writers to clean up the language of both real and fictional female criminals, creating such implausibly ‘well-spoken’ examples as Dickens’s Nancy in Oliver Twist.

One criminalized activity in which women were always over-represented was the sex trade, but some male authorities have gone out of their way to deny that prostitutes have created slang: as one put it, ‘they lack the sophistication to make and acquire an artificial language for themselves’. But the evidence Green reviews suggests, again unsurprisingly, that women who sell sex have developed their own ‘work-specific jargon’—including a list of terms describing their customers as fools, suckers, losers, sexual inadequates, perverts and scumbags. Perhaps they chose not to share this lexicon with the male researchers who sought them out—or perhaps the researchers didn’t ask. A similar point can be made about lesbians, another ‘outlaw’ group who have been said to have no slang of their own. The folklorist Gershon Legman put the dearth of lesbian material in his 1941 glossary of ‘the language of homosexuality’ down to lesbians’ ‘tradition of gentlemanly restraint’, but he doesn’t seem to have had much evidence about the way lesbians talked among themselves.

Slang is not, in any case, the exclusive domain of ‘outlaws’ or people at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Green also discusses family and nursery slang (much of it probably female-coined), the slang of ‘respectable’ female occupations like nursing, and a number of historical cases where young women—not infrequently from the higher echelons of society—were the prime movers in the development of an identifiably female or female-centred form of youth slang. In these cases no one suggested that girls and women were incapable of inventing their own language; on the contrary, their linguistic creativity was used as a stick to beat them with. The Burlington Free Press complained in 1879 that

The poorest, feeblest and most vicious slang….is the fashionable slang which pollutes the lips of young girls. ‘Awfully jolly’, ‘Immense’, ‘Aint he a tumbler?’ ‘He has a great deal of the dog on today’.

This writer was talking about the in-group language of the young middle-class women who were referred to, disapprovingly, as ‘fast young ladies’. The term ‘fast’, applied to men, meant a hedonist who devoted his life to pleasure; applied to young women, however, it meant

one who affects mannish habits, or makes herself conspicuous by some unfeminine accomplishment—talks slang, drives about in London, smokes cigarettes, is knowing in dogs, horses, etc.

The slang-using girl was seen as rejecting femininity, and with it her prospects of future happiness. ‘She thinks she is piquante and exciting’, complained one (male) writer in 1868, ‘and will not see that though men laugh with her they do not respect her, though they flirt with her they do not marry her’. He called for the return of the ‘simple and genuine girl of the past, with her tender little ways and pretty bashful modesty’.

The panic about ‘fast’ girls did eventually fade away, but complaints about young women’s slang lived on, finding new targets in the girls who featured in (and read) the early 20th century boarding school stories of Angela Brazil (‘Right you are, O Queen, it’s a blossomy idea!’) and in the slightly older figure of the 1920s flapper. Frivolous, flighty and ‘loose’, with her trademark bobbed hair and lipstick, the flapper had an elaborate slang lexicon for discussing her main preoccupations, which included dancing, drinking, money and men. Among the expressions she either coined or popularised are some we still recognise, even if we no longer use them—like ‘the cat’s pyjamas’, ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘for crying out loud’ (a ‘clean’ version of ‘for Christ’s sake’: the avoidance of actual obscenity does seem to have been a feature of middle-class girls’ slang).

Flapperdom was the first in a long line of 20th century youth subcultures with a distinctive style that included slang. In some cases this argot was either male-centred or shared by both sexes, but in others, like the ‘Valley Girl-speak’ that emerged in California in the 1980s (‘gag me with a spoon!’), it was created and primarily used by young women—who were promptly criticised, like fast girls a century earlier, for being vacuous, frivolous, pretentious and superficial.

These recurring complaints underline the point that slang is not and never has been an exclusively male preserve. But each generation of critics has presented young women’s slang as if it were a wholly new phenomenon, a worrying departure from the relatively recent past when girls were allegedly ‘genuine’ and modest. As usual with verbal hygiene, there is more at stake here than language. Disapproving of girls’ slang has often been a coded expression of a deeper unease about social change. Whether she was a middle-class flapper or a working-class ‘munitionette’, the slang-using young woman symbolised female emancipation, and as such she was a threat to the patriarchal status quo.

Complaints about young people’s slang have continued into the 21st century: in the past few years a number of British schools have gone so far as to ban slang expressions like ‘peng’, ‘bare’, ‘bait’, ’emosh’ and ‘fam’. But today the anxiety youth slang provokes seems to have more to do with class (and sometimes race) than gender. Girls are no longer accused of ‘affecting mannish habits’, or warned that they are jeopardising their chances of finding a husband. Rather, both they and boys are told that their slang is holding them back academically and damaging their future employment prospects.

Yet the old sexist prejudices have not completely disappeared. Two years ago, when the Metro newspaper asked if swearing made a woman less attractive to men, not only did many men answer ‘yes’, some added that they were also turned off by women who spoke with strong local accents or used ‘colloquial slang’. Two years earlier, Faima Bakar had complained in a piece for Gal-Dem about young men telling young women not to talk ‘street’. Jespersen’s idealised woman (or rather, ‘lady’), with her ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’, lives on in these judgments—as does the idea of slang, along with nonstandard speech, as rough, tough and therefore male by definition.

This view of slang as ‘rough talk’ doesn’t just exclude women as legitimate users of slang, it also excludes certain kinds of in-group language used by women from the category of slang. As the lexicographer Katherine Connor Martin has pointed out, this makes the argument that women use slang less than men entirely circular. A full picture of women’s slang would require researchers to look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ and consult a wider range of sources. One source Jonathon Green looks at is Mumsnet, whose users, predominantly middle-class women with children, are pretty much the opposite of ‘outlaws’; yet they’re prolific creators of in-group terminology, and an excellent source for nursery slang (including terms for both sexes’ genitals: the male slang collector who confidently asserted in 1811 that ‘it is impossible that a female should understand the meaning of “twiddle-diddles”’ evidently hadn’t checked with his mother).

It has sometimes been suggested that women avoid what’s generally thought of as ‘real’ slang not because they’re prudes, but because so much of it is sexist and misogynist. But while that might be a consideration for some of us, there’s abundant evidence that woman-hating language has been weaponised by women as well as men. ‘Whore’ and its many synonyms have been the go-to woman-on-woman insults for centuries. Conversely, women’s in-group slang is often rich in disparaging terms for men. The flappers had various words for men who were reluctant to spend money on a date; contemporary female college students have produced a range of unflattering terms describing men you wouldn’t want to date in the first place—for instance, the unattractive ‘craterface’, the overweight ‘doughboy’, and—my particular favourite—the tedious ‘Mr Dry Guy’.

And what, we might ask, about feminist slang? While I was checking the opening quote from Flexner’s preface, I unexpectedly found myself in the manosphere–more specifically, on the MRA hellsite that calls itself A Voice For Men--where Flexner had been approvingly quoted in a 2017 post celebrating slang as ‘the original voice of men’. The writer points out that men’s rights activism has an extensive slang lexicon–‘cuck’, ‘mangina’, ’emotional tampon’ (no, me neither)–whereas feminists, he says, have only ‘prosaic’, quasi-academic terms like ‘benevolent sexism’ and ‘toxic masculinity’. ‘Feminism’, he comments,

is an ideology, and ideologues are not noted for their sense of humor. Also, wit is a trait only rarely associated with women, though they do excel at making catty remarks.

The supposed nonexistence of feminist slang also shows that feminists are the establishment, whereas the men who invented ‘cuck’ and ‘mangina’ are rebellious outlaws. But hold on a minute, dude, if you’re going to boast about ‘mangina’, how about ‘mansplain’, ‘manterrupt’,  ‘manspread’ and ‘mantrum’? And while you’re waxing nostalgic about the 1960s, may I remind you that the feminists of that decade called men like you MCPs, which stood for ‘male chauvinist pigs’?

The truth is, as Green says in his conclusion, that slang is ‘an equal-opportunity employee’. Though men and women may have different slang repertoires, they employ them for the same basic purposes: bonding with in-group members while excluding outsiders, entertaining their friends and insulting their enemies. Those aren’t just things that men do: for better or for worse, they’re things that humans do.

2019: (not) the end of an era

In a couple of days’ time we’ll be marking not just the passing of another year, but by most people’s reckoning the end of the current decade. All kinds of commentators will be looking back over the last ten years, and many will turn to language (or at least, vocabulary) as a source of insight about what mattered in the 2010s. They’ll remind us this was the decade that gave us ‘Brexit’, ‘fake news’, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘influencers’; it was when ‘climate change’ became the ‘climate emergency’, and when global protest movements formed around the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

This approach to documenting social trends—epitomised by the annual ritual in which dictionaries select a Word of the Year (WOTY)—has its limitations. It doesn’t capture the preoccupations of the speech community as a whole (if I quizzed a sample of my neighbours on the vocabulary items listed in the last paragraph, asking ‘have you come across this expression, can you define it, have you ever used it yourself?’, I suspect that only one item—‘Brexit’—would get affirmative answers across the board). It also imposes artificial temporal boundaries on a much messier reality: though some notable linguistic developments can be tied to specific events and dates, most don’t fit neatly into a single year or even a decade. In addition, the search for zeitgeist-defining terms encourages a focus on what’s new or what’s changed, though arguably it’s no less important (and may even be more revealing) to consider what has stayed the same.

That last point will be reflected in my own attempt to summarise the decade. When I look at this blog’s archive (over 100 posts going back to 2015) I see more continuity than change. The specifics differ from year to year, but the same general themes recur; and I’m sure they would have featured just as prominently if I’d started blogging in 2010. So, in this post I’m going to pick out (in no particular order) my top five recurring themes, using the way they presented themselves in 2019 as a starting point for some reflections on what has—or hasn’t—changed during the 2010s.

1. The return of crass sexism

In January this year, after belatedly learning that she had died, I wrote a post about the writer and editor Marie Shear, who will be remembered for her definition of feminism as ‘the radical notion that women are people’. She was also a sharp and uncompromising critic of sexist language, and the author of a widely-read piece which described what she called its ‘daily toll’: a continual insidious wearing down of women’s dignity and self-esteem whose cumulative effects she thought were too often underestimated.

Shear wrote this piece in 2010, at a time when sexist language had become an unfashionable topic. In the noughties some writers had argued that the overt sexism feminists had criticised in the 1970s was no longer a major issue: it survived only among ageing dinosaurs (like the surgeon in Shear’s opening anecdote) who would not walk the earth for much longer. Attention had turned to the subtler forms of sexism that were said to be more typical of the postmodern, ‘postfeminist’ era. But while postmodern sexism is still a thing (particularly in advertising and branding), the 2010s turned out to be the decade in which crassly sexist and misogynist language returned with a vengeance to the public sphere.

I say ‘with a vengeance’ because the crassness was more extreme this time around. In the past, the norms of mainstream public discourse discouraged the grossest expressions of contempt for women—they were reserved for taboo-busting radio shock jocks and men talking among themselves. But the 2010s saw the rise of public figures–most notably populist ‘strongman’ leaders like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte–whose speech was not constrained by older notions of decorum (or gravitas, or honesty, or any other traditional public virtue). Crude misogyny is part of these men’s brand: I’ll leave aside Trump’s infamous reference to ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption; but think of his comment, made on CNN in 2015, that the journalist Megyn Kelly ‘had blood coming out of her wherever’ (her offence had been to question Trump about his earlier references to women as ‘dogs’ and ‘fat pigs’). In 2019 Britain got its own imitation strongman leader, Boris Johnson, who specialises in the crass sexism of the public school playground, denouncing his (male) opponents as ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girls’ blouses’.

But you didn’t have to be a political leader to broadcast male supremacist messages to a global audience. The internet gave ‘ordinary’ men with a grudge against women—incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs et al—a megaphone for their misogyny (and for the violent fantasies which some of them, like Alek Minassian, would go on to enact in reality, making 2018 the year when mainstream, nonfeminist commentators started to talk about  ‘incels’, ‘misogyny’ and ‘toxic masculinity’). Not dissimilar messages also circulated under the banner of ‘harmless fun’. For instance, one of the items I reproduced in a post about greeting cards this year bore the message: ‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Which brings me to the second major theme of the decade…

2. The linguistic (mis)representation of sexual violence

Any feminist survey of the 2010s will be bound to treat the #MeToo movement as one of the most significant developments, if not the most significant, of the last ten years (the hashtag would be an obvious candidate for the feminist Word of the Decade.) But #MeToo also dramatized what for me was probably the most troubling linguistic trend of the decade: an increasingly marked reluctance on the part of institutions—educational establishments, the criminal justice system and above all the media—to name sexual violence and those who perpetrate it without equivocation, euphemism and overt or covert victim-blaming.

In 2017 and 2018, as #MeToo allegations multiplied, the media converged on a couple of phrases which were repeated ad infinitum: the whole spectrum of abuse, up to and including rape, was now covered (or covered up) by the bland euphemisms ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’. This vague, affectless language was a boon to anyone who wanted to argue that the women making allegations were lying, exaggerating, reframing consensual exchanges of sexual for professional favours as abuse, or simply making a fuss about nothing (‘can’t men even flirt now without being accused of misconduct?’)

In 2019 we saw a similar pattern in reports on the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with child abuse and trafficking (though he killed himself in prison before he could stand trial). Oxymoronic terms like ‘underage women’ were used to describe girls who at the time were 14 or 15; and when attention turned, after Epstein’s death, to the actions of other men the victims had named, the words ‘rape’, ‘assault’ and ‘abuse’ were conspicuous by their absence.

Earlier in the year, most news outlets had even resisted using those words without qualification when reporting on the case of a severely disabled woman who unexpectedly gave birth in the care facility where she had spent most of her life. Though she could only have become pregnant as the result of a criminal assault—her vegetative state rendered her legally and medically incapable of consenting to sex (and also of lying about it)—reporters’ first impulse was still to hedge their statements with doubt-indicating words like ‘alleged’, ‘apparent’ and ‘possible’.

But in the last part of 2019 there were some memorable protests in which feminists harnessed the power of the R-word. In Spain, women who were disgusted by the verdict in a gang-rape case—the perpetrators were convicted only of ‘abuse’, because they had not used physical force against their barely-conscious victim—took to the streets to protest, shouting ‘no es abuso, es violación’ (‘it’s not abuse, it’s rape’). And in Chile on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, women gathered outside the Supreme Court to perform a chant which has since been taken up around the world (its title in English is ‘The rapist in your path’), calling attention to the way individual men’s ability to rape and kill with impunity depends on a larger culture of complicity and victim-blaming.

In acknowledgment of the power of these protests, and because nothing has made me angrier this year than reading about men ‘having sex’ with 14-year olds or police investigating a ‘possible/alleged assault’ on a woman who gave birth while in a vegetative state, I choose ‘rape’ and ‘rapist’ as my words of the year for 2019.

3. Curious contradictions: the case of the authoritative woman speaker

Among the themes which have recurred in each of the four-and-a-half years of this blog’s existence are two that, taken together, embody a stark contradiction. On one hand, women are constantly castigated because their speech allegedly ‘lacks authority’: how can they expect to be taken seriously when they’re forever apologising and hedging every request with ‘just’? On the other hand, women who do speak with authority are constantly criticised for being ‘angry’, ‘abrasive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘bossy’, ‘immodest’, ‘shrill‘, ‘strident’ and generally ‘unlikable’.

This familiar contradiction was on show again this year. We had more of the same old bullshit about ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and other female ‘verbal tics’, and more complaints about high-profile women leaders being ‘strident’ (teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg), bossy and ‘self-righteous’ (Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson), ‘angry’ (Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris) and ‘unlikable’ (every woman in the race for the Democratic nomination).

More unusually, two women—Marie Yovanovitch and Fiona Hill—attracted praise for their authoritative testimony during the proceedings that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is a sign of things to come. The positive reception Yovanovitch and Hill got was linked to their status as non-partisan public servants, and the same courtesy is unlikely to be extended to any of the female politicians who are still in the running for next year’s presidential election. It’s one thing for a woman to have authority thrust upon her, but actively seeking it is a different matter. Powerful and politically outspoken women will still, I predict, be ‘unlikable’ in 2020.

4. Studies show that women are rubbish

The training course where women executives at the accounting firm Ernst & Young learned that women’s brains are like pancakes and men’s are more like waffles (as reported in October by the Huffington Post) almost certainly wasn’t based on any actual science (or if it was, whoever designed the course should get the Allen and Barbara Pease Memorial Award for Neurobollocks). But while science can’t be held responsible for all the sexist drivel that gets talked in its name, it shouldn’t get a free pass either.

In the 90s and noughties we were endlessly told that women were naturally better communicators than men, but in the 2010s there’s been something of a shift: there are, it transpires, certain kinds of communication in which it’s men who are hard-wired to excel. This year, for instance, a widely-reported meta-analytic study put together the findings of 28 experiments investigating the proposition that men are better than women at using language to make others laugh. The conclusion was that men really do have more ‘humor ability’ than women, probably because this ability is ‘correlated with intelligence’, and as such is a useful diagnostic when females assess the fitness of potential mates. (Ah, evolutionary psychology: a 90s/noughties trend which sadly didn’t die in the 2010s.)

It isn’t hard to pick holes in these studies; but while it’s important to interrogate specific claims about why women are rubbish at [fill in the blank], we also need to ask more basic questions about why so much research of this kind gets done in the first place. What interests are served by this unceasing quest for evidence that sex-stereotypes and the judgments based upon them reflect innate differences in the abilities and aptitudes of men and women?

Another study published this year on the subject of gender and humour found that women who used humour in a professional context were perceived to be lacking in competence and commitment. This had nothing to do with their ‘humor ability’: in this study, subjects watched either a man or a woman (both actors) giving exactly the same scripted presentation, complete with identical jokes. But whereas the man’s humour was perceived as enhancing his professional effectiveness, the woman’s was perceived as detracting from it.

What this illustrates is the general principle that the same verbal behaviour will attract different judgments depending on the speaker’s sex. Judgments about women and humour are similar to judgments about authoritative female speakers, and they embody the same contradiction: women are widely disparaged for lacking humour, but those who don’t lack humour are disparaged as incompetent lightweights. What explains this effect–‘heads men win, tails women lose’–isn’t women’s behaviour or their natural abilities: it’s a consequence of sexism, which science too often reinforces.

5. The War of the W-word

In my round-up of 2018 I wrote at length about the increasingly contested status of the word ‘woman’, whose definition, use, avoidance and even spelling prompted heated arguments throughout the year. This isn’t totally unprecedented: as I’ve said before (beginning in my very first post), the W-word has a longer record of causing controversy than many people realise. But its current contentiousness is linked to something that is specific to the 2010s—the rise of a new politics of gender identity, which has also influenced language in other ways. It’s a development that divides feminists, and the kind of conflict we saw so much of in 2018 will undoubtedly continue in the 2020s.

In 2019, however, the most notable controversy about ‘woman’ was much more old-school. It started when the feminist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi was looking for a name for a women’s rights project she was working on. In search of inspiration she typed the word ‘woman’ into Google, and was shocked when her search returned a series of online dictionary entries full of offensive synonyms (‘bitch’, ‘chick’, ‘filly’) and insultingly sexist examples of usage (‘one of his sophisticated London women’; ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’). When Giovanardi started a petition calling on Oxford Dictionaries to change their entry, her intervention attracted extensive media interest, and by September the petition had over 30,000 signatures.

This is a good illustration of the point I made earlier—that the advent of new concerns does not mean the old ones become irrelevant. What Giovanardi drew attention to is one of many examples of the quiet survival of ‘banal sexism’, the kind of tediously familiar, low-level stuff whose ‘daily toll’ Marie Shear warned us not to underestimate. In the past five years I have come to agree with Shear. It’s striking to me that many of the most popular posts on this blog have been about things that would never register on any trend spotter’s radar: old chestnuts like ‘should women take their husband’s names?’, and ‘does swearing make women unattractive?’, which I could equally have written about at any time in the last 40 years, are still significant issues for many women. If feminism had started a linguistic to-do list in 1975, it would certainly be a lot longer now, but very few of the original items would actually have been crossed off.

So am I saying the next decade will look a lot like the last one? Yes: though change is a constant, in language and in life, what we mostly see is evolution, not revolution. That was true in the 2010s, and—barring some catastrophe that puts an end to civilisation as we know it—it will also be true in the 2020s. I know that’s not much of a prediction, and maybe not the happiest of thoughts when you look at the current state of the world, but there it is: we are where we are, and all we can do is keep going. I wish readers of this blog a happy new year/new decade (thanks as always to all the other feminists and/or linguists whose work I’ve drawn on in 2019), and I’ll see you on the other side.

Bullshit: the struggle goes on

When it comes to the way she speaks, a woman’s place is in the wrong. It’s a point I’ve made frequently on this blog, and last week brought a reminder of how true it continues to be. On the same day I published a post inspired by criticisms of Greta Thunberg’s ‘strident’ speech to the UN Climate Action summit (‘strident’ being a code-word for women who express their views in an ‘excessively and unpleasantly forceful way’), the Times Education Supplement published a piece complaining that women don’t speak forcefully enough. It started like this:

“I’m sorry, I’m no expert on this but could we possibly…”

Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?

I certainly have and I cringe to think how I must have come across.

Such phrases can make women appear weak or ineffective to colleagues, which in turn may affect whether they are promoted or tapped on the shoulder for forthcoming opportunities. These phrases are also in stark contrast to the way some men big themselves up.

And such linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This piece is an excellent example of the generic formula I laid out in a 2015 post called ‘How to write a bullshit article about women’s language‘. When I first saw it, I thought: ‘you’ve already dealt with that, let it go’. But then I thought: if the bullshit-merchants have no shame about repeating themselves, their critics shouldn’t either. It’s a bit like the battle to contain infectious diseases: even if you’ve been immunized in the past, you may still need an occasional booster shot. So, here’s a reminder of what makes this article, and others like it, such pernicious nonsense.

Problem 1: do women really talk like that?

‘Have you ever heard yourself say something like this to your team?’ is what my O level Latin teacher used to call ‘a question expecting the answer yes’. But is ‘yes’ the true answer? Do women-in-general really spend their working lives saying things like ‘sorry, I’m no expert, but could we possibly…’?

I ask because the example is clearly invented. It hasn’t been taken from a real-life workplace interaction, it’s been constructed by someone who’s trying to shoehorn the Big Three female deadly sins (apologising, self-deprecation, hedging) into a single utterance. It isn’t, in short, evidence of anything, except our willingness to believe a certain story about the way women habitually talk.

If you’re thinking the evidence will be presented later on, I’m sorry (sic) to have to disappoint you: all we get is an anecdote about a nameless woman-in-a-meeting who allegedly uttered the word ‘sorry’ 32 times in an hour. Even if this is a true story, a single individual is not a representative sample from which to draw general conclusions about half of humanity. And if you feel you recognise yourself or your co-workers in anecdotes like this, remember that your personal intuitions aren’t reliable evidence either—not least because they’ve probably been influenced by reading dozens of pieces just like this one.

Problem 2: do the ways of speaking the writer criticises mean what she claims? 

The people who write these articles take the meaning of the various expressions they castigate women for using to be both obvious and invariant. ‘Sorry’ means you’re putting yourself in the wrong; hedges like ‘could we possibly’ and ‘just’ mean you have no confidence in your own opinion; ‘I’m no expert’ means you’re disclaiming any authority to pronounce on the issue at hand. No wonder, taken together, they make women sound ‘weak and ineffective’!

But this is a massive oversimplification: in reality, the same linguistic form can have several different communicative functions. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, ‘sorry’ and ‘just’ are good examples. ‘Just’ can be used for emphasis, as in Nike’s ‘Just Do It’; the existence of the phrase ‘sorry not sorry’ shows that ordinary speakers understand the potential for ‘sorry’ to be used in thoroughly unapologetic ways (like the snarky way I used it myself earlier on).

The prefatory formula ‘I’m not an expert’ is a similar case. A search for examples on Twitter confirmed that it’s not always used in a genuinely self-deprecating way, to mean ‘ignore me, I don’t know what I’m talking about’. On the contrary, its most common function seems to be (a) suggesting that some previously expressed view is mistaken, and (b) marking the speaker’s own view as obvious common sense. For instance:

I’m no expert in these things but I don’t think people who send death threats tend to write them by hand on monogrammed notepaper

I’m no legal expert but I don’t think Rudy Giuliani is helping his client by going on TV, sweating profusely and voice cracking, saying that he was working on behalf of the State Dept when he pressed Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

I’m no expert, but I don’t think removing UK nationality from UK citizens overseas was on the ballot

Used in this way, ‘I’m no expert, but…’ does not downgrade the speaker’s claim to knowledge; rather it implies that the speaker knows better than whoever came up with the claim she’s ‘politely’ (i.e., sarcastically) contradicting.

Of course, there are cases where speakers do want to emphasise their lack of certainty. In the tweets I looked at, they tended to do that by using ‘I’m no expert’, or some variation on it, not as a preface to an assertion, but in a disclaimer following it. There’s an example in the tweet reproduced below, which was accompanied by a photo of an insect:

X found this beauty under our front porch table. My guide suggests Capnodis, a buprestid (jewel beetle). (But I’m no expert, that might be complete nonsense!)

So, what ‘I’m no expert’ communicates can vary, and one clue (though the pattern isn’t totally consistent) is its position in the utterance. As a preface, especially when followed by ‘but I don’t think…’, it’s unlikely to be heard as self-deprecating and ‘weak’.

Problem 3: if ‘research’ is cited, has it been represented accurately?

At this point you might be thinking: OK, but most people don’t subject everything anyone says to a deep linguistic analysis. They go by first impressions, and according to the TES writer there’s evidence that this works against women:

…linguistic differences have a tangible impact: researchers have found that subjective views of men and women vary enormously, with women far more likely to be described as indecisive, inept and panicky.

This sentence invites readers to infer that research has shown a causal relationship between the propositions on either side of the colon. It implies that women’s ‘linguistic differences’ from men are the basis on which they are judged to be ‘indecisive, inept and panicky’. But if you click on the link the writer provides and read the text it takes you to, you soon discover that the research she’s citing does not show, or claim to show, any such thing.

What you get if you click the link is a piece published in the Harvard Business Review, summarising a study in which researchers compared the words that were used about male and female leaders in a sample of more than 80,000 military performance evaluations. Although men and women scored similarly on various ‘objective’ measures of performance, these more subjective assessments of their strengths and weaknesses showed striking differences, as displayed in the graphic below:


This study belongs to a growing body of work which seeks to uncover covert biases in organisations’ hiring, promotion and funding decisions by looking for sex-differentiated and/or gender-stereotyped patterns of word-choice in (for instance) job advertisements, performance evaluations and grant proposals. The existence and potential significance of this kind of bias is not in doubt; but what does it have to do with women’s alleged use of a ‘weak and ineffective’ speech-style?

The answer is, ‘nothing, so far as we can tell’. Apart from being about language, the claims made by these researchers are entirely unrelated to the contention that women’s style of speaking has a tangible impact on the way others perceive them. As is often the case in bullshit articles about women’s language, the allusion to what ‘researchers have found’ is just window-dressing: at best it’s irrelevant, and at worst it’s downright misleading.

Problem 4: is the writer proposing a workable solution to whatever she’s identified as a problem?  

Articles about women’s language are big on avoidance, and many of the things they tell women to avoid are conventional markers of politeness. The writers seem to think formulas like ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and ‘could we possibly’ are mere fluff: they add nothing of substance and can therefore be dispensed with. But while it’s true they contribute little substantive information, they are crucial to maintaining the interpersonal relationships on which successful communication also depends. Dispensing with them will not make you sound, in the TES writer’s words, ‘courageous and authentic’; more likely it will make you sound uncooperative or even hostile.

This problem becomes evident when you look at the way advice-givers tell women to reformulate utterances containing ‘forbidden’ expressions. In the TES piece, for instance, we get these suggestions:

Change “I would like to…” to “I want to…”
Change “If you get a moment, would you be able to…” to “Can you…”
Change “I know you’re really busy, but…” to “This is urgent.”

So, instead of asking a co-worker for a favour like this:

I know you’re really busy, but I would like to discuss your report with John before tomorrow’s meeting, so if you get a moment, would you be able to make a summary and send me a copy by the end of today?

you should do it like this:

This is urgent. Can you send me a summary of your report by the end of today, because I want to discuss it with John before tomorrow’s meeting.

But from a politeness perspective this is terrible advice. You might be irritated by the obsequious tone of the first email, but you’d surely be infuriated by the brusqueness of the second. Is the writer a human or a robot? If the former, who does s/he think s/he is? And that’s not just my own intuitive judgment. Research done during the heyday of assertiveness training found that if you follow the orthodox recommendations (be direct, don’t hedge, don’t apologise or explain yourself, stick to talking about your own needs and feelings), most English-speakers will think you’re weird, rude and obnoxious.

If you’re a woman, following this kind of advice has an additional cost: you may well find that you’ve just exchanged one stereotypically negative judgment–that you’re ‘weak and ineffective’–for another–that you’re ‘aggressive, shrill and strident’. These two judgments may look like polar opposites, but at a deeper level they’re two sides of the same coin. The logic they follow is one in which (1) whatever men are said to do with language is axiomatically preferable to whatever women are said to do with it, but at the same time (2) any woman who doesn’t behave according to stereotype will be negatively judged for her ‘deviance’.

This is what I mean by ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’. Whatever women do with language is always either too little or too much: too passive or too aggressive, too self-effacing or too domineering, too feminine or not feminine enough. The overall effect is to render women’s speech, whatever it may consist of, less legitimate than men’s. And it’s not just about delegitimising women’s speech: criticisms of women’s language function as post-hoc justifications for sexism more generally.  ‘I can’t vote for her because of her shrill voice’/ ‘we didn’t promote her because she’s always apologising’…these are just coded ways of saying that you don’t think women are up to the job. They’re used to rationalise prejudices the critic already holds, and defend decisions which were really made for other, even less defensible reasons.

Articles like the one in the TES help to justify this kind of sexism by suggesting that it’s a rational response to women’s own linguistic inadequacies. If you don’t talk like a boss, you can’t expect to be treated like one. But what that doesn’t explain is the treatment meted out to women who do sound like bosses. Those women, the Hillary Clintons and Greta Thunbergs, are no less harshly judged: they just get accused of a different set of female deadly sins.

The conclusion I draw is that the advice-givers are reasoning backwards. It isn’t women’s speech that causes prejudice against them, it’s prejudice that leads to the devaluation of their speech. Instead of fighting our own alleged bad habits, we should put our energies into fighting prejudice against women speakers. Because that’s the root of the problem: everything else is just bullshit.