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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the article’s author Shannon Keating explained,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The illusion of inclusion

My blog and I have been in the news this week. After the Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey complained about the use of ‘hi guys’ as a greeting for mixed-sex groups , a number of news outlets picked up the story, and several of them linked to this 2016 blog post in which I explained why I don’t think ‘hi guys’ excludes women.

This made me briefly very popular with bookers for talk radio, where language peeves of all kinds are the gift that keeps on giving, as is any public difference of opinion between two feminists. But other reactions were less positive. On Twitter I had people telling me to ‘stop invisibilising women’ and suggesting that instead of defending ‘guys’ I should be using my influence to promote other, more inclusive address terms.

Sadly (or maybe not), I don’t have that kind of influence. Changes in everyday usage are very much a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing: linguists can describe and try to explain what’s going on, but what they say will rarely if ever affect the overall direction of travel. What I was hoping to influence when I decided to start this blog was not the language itself so much as the way feminists think and talk about linguistic issues. And in that spirit, I want to revisit the issue at the centre of the argument about ‘guys’: inclusiveness.

Feminists (and other progressive types) talk a lot about ‘inclusive language’, and it’s generally assumed that we’re in favour of it. But what exactly is it? What makes a word or an expression ‘inclusive’? And are feminists’ purposes always best served by inclusive terms?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists criticising conventional usage rarely talked about ‘inclusive’ (or its antonym, ‘exclusionary’) language: we talked much more about ‘sexist’ and ‘non-sexist’ language. As the issue became more mainstream, other terms came into use which were seen as less overtly political and thus more palatable to people of moderate liberal opinions. Many included the word ‘gender’: it became common for institutions to formulate policies and guidelines about ‘gender equal’, ‘gender free’ or ‘gender fair’ language.

The concept of ‘inclusive language’ has become popular more recently, and it represents a further move away from the original feminist critique of sexism. ‘Inclusiveness’ is much more general concept: guidelines on ‘inclusive language’ may address concerns about the linguistic representation not only of women, but also of other marginalised groups like ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people. And while most feminists would probably see this broadening as a good thing in principle, some (myself included) might argue that in defining the problem as ‘inclusion versus exclusion’ we have both narrowed the scope of the earlier analysis of sexism and lost some of its more radical insights.

The non-inclusiveness (or as we used to say, ‘androcentrism’) of conventional ‘he/man’ language was a significant concern in early feminist analyses of sexist language, but it was by no means the only problem feminists drew attention to. Many forms of sexist language did not discriminate against women by excluding them or making them invisible, but rather by over-representing them in distinctive and demeaning ways (consider, for instance, how many words are available in English to objectify/infantilise women—‘chicks’, ‘babes’, ‘blondes’—or express sexualised contempt for them—‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’). Even when the issue did concern something we might now call ‘exclusionary’, such as the use of masculine generic pronouns, the older feminist analysis was (as I’ll explain later on) rather different from the one we tend to get now.

So, what is the current analysis? What do feminists mean when they say a word or expression is ‘not inclusive’? Typically, their objection is based on one or more of the following observations:

  1. That the word is formally masculine rather than gender-neutral/unmarked;
  2. That the word originated as a sex-specific term denoting or describing men;
  3. That standard dictionaries describe the word as referring exclusively or primarily to men.

In English (as opposed to languages that make more extensive use of grammatical gender distinctions), particular weight tends to be given to (1). ‘Inclusiveness’ is seen to require the use of ‘neutral’ terms, words which have no overt gender-marking. Jane Garvey, for instance, suggested ‘people’ as an inclusive substitute for ‘guys’. ‘People’ does not invite any of the objections listed above: it is formally unmarked for gender and its dictionary definition makes no reference to sex (according to the Oxford dictionary it denotes ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’). This lack of specificity has also made ‘people’ a popular choice in another context where the goal is to eliminate ‘exclusionary’ language–it’s a common replacement for ‘women’ in expressions which are intended to be trans-inclusive, like ‘pregnant people’.

In this new paradigm, the prevailing assumption could be summarised as ‘gender-neutral = inclusive = good’ and ‘gender-specific = exclusionary = bad’. But I’m going to argue that in practice it’s not that simple. If we turn our attention from the surface forms and dictionary definitions of words to the details of how they’re used in everyday life, it will soon become apparent that neutral terms are not always inclusive, and inclusive terms are not always neutral.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of formally gender-neutral terms being used in ways which are covertly gendered. Here’s a case in point, taken from a report in the Sunday Times:

The lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults around. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the women and the children.

The phrase ‘able-bodied young adults’ does logically exclude most of the groups  described as ‘left behind’: old people aren’t young, disabled people aren’t able-bodied, children aren’t adults. But what logic accounts for the presence of women on this list? The noun ‘adults’, like ‘people’, is formally unmarked for gender: in theory the category of ‘able-bodied young adults’ encompasses both male and female individuals. But in this context, clearly, the writer is using the neutral term ‘adults’ to convey the sex-specific meaning ‘male adults’.

A common variation on the same theme can be seen in these examples:

We cannot tolerate attacks on the wife of an American citizen

A 45-year old man has been charged with assaulting his next-door neighbour’s wife

Saxophone-playing vicar’s wife is the C of E’s first woman bishop

What we’re looking at here is a subcategory of sexism which featured prominently in early feminist critiques. In each example a woman is described as a ‘wife’, despite the fact that she herself is also a member of the category to which the speaker or writer assigns her husband. The woman in the first example was a US citizen, the second lived next door to her attacker, and the third was an Anglican priest–if she hadn’t been she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. The ‘wife’ references are thus superfluous from a purely informational standpoint; the work they do is ideological, reflecting and recycling the belief that women exist and must be seen primarily in relation to men rather than as individuals in their own right.

One by-product of this (still fairly common) pattern of representation is that the nouns denoting categories other than ‘wife’—in these examples, ‘citizen’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘vicar’—become covertly gendered (i.e., masculine). This has nothing to do with the characteristics of the words themselves: they are all formally unmarked for gender, and dictionary definitions would not restrict their reference to men. You might argue that ‘vicar’ is more likely to refer to a man because until recently only men were permitted to occupy that role; but that’s not an argument you could make about the other two. There would be nothing unusual or jarring about a sentence like ‘Sue has applied to become a British citizen’, or ‘my neighbour asked if I could feed her cat while she’s away’. On the criteria I listed earlier, these are perfectly inclusive terms. So, how do we explain the prevalence of patently non-inclusive uses like the ones in my examples?

The feminist writer and theorist Monique Wittig once observed that

…there are not two genders. There is only one, the feminine…For the masculine is not the masculine but the general.

One obvious example of this is the way formally masculine terms get used as generics (as with the use of ‘man’ to mean the human species). But Wittig’s point is also illustrated by the opposite phenomenon, the treatment of apparently generic, formally neutral terms as if they only referred to men. The examples I’ve reproduced—all cases where the writer or speaker’s own words make clear that the reference to ‘adults’ or ‘citizens’ is in fact a reference to male adults/citizens—are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when a writer or speaker does intend a formally neutral term to be inclusive, hearers and readers may still interpret it as sex-specific.

This is a manifestation of the ‘default male’ principle. It’s not that we don’t know that ‘adult’ and ‘neighbour’ might in theory refer to a person of either sex, but in practice, if the person’s sex is not specified, we are liable to default to a male reading. This tendency is most marked where formally gender-neutral words are strongly associated with maleness for historical and social reasons (e.g. ‘soldier’), but it is also apparent with words that have no such associations (e.g. ‘neighbour’). If nothing in the context suggests a female referent, we will tend to visualise a male one.

The evidence from actual usage, then, suggests that merely replacing gender-marked with gender-neutral terms does not guarantee inclusiveness. Conversely—and this takes us back to the argument about ‘guys’—the use of masculine terms does not guarantee that women will be, or feel, excluded. Just as neutral terms can be gendered, gender-marked terms can be de-gendered in use.

‘Guys’ is a case in point. It clearly originated as a sex-specific term: lexicographers agree that the original ‘guy’, who gave his name first to men of low and ragged appearance and later to men in general, was Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Gunpowder Plotter whose likeness is burned in effigy on English bonfires each November. But lexicographers also agree that ‘guy’ is no longer uniformly sex-specific. The plural form, ‘guys’, has become gender-inclusive in one subset of its functions—when it is used as a vocative, as in ‘hi guys’, or more broadly to address people in the second person, as in ‘what are you guys doing tonight?’

This de-gendering hasn’t (yet) spread to all the word’s forms and functions. Though some younger speakers might disagree, for me third-person references, both singular and plural (‘that guy over there’, ‘those guys we saw in the coffee shop’) can only be interpreted as masculine. But that doesn’t undermine the claim that ‘guys’ as a second-person address term is perceived by those who use it as gender-inclusive. Shifts in the meaning of a term very often affect some of its uses before others.

‘Guys’ isn’t the only English address term which is undergoing this shift. As I explained in my earlier post, ‘dude’ in the US is increasingly being used by and to women as well as men; in Australia, ‘mate’ (which, though not formally masculine, has historically had strongly male connotations) appears to be following a similar path; in Ireland, ‘lads’ is commonly used as a collective and gender-inclusive address term.

Research suggests that the key factor driving this trend is the uptake of the terms by young women, who are not just passively accepting them in mixed-sex talk, but actively using them in interactions with each other. In the case of ‘dude’, for instance, a study of college students in Pittsburgh found that its most frequent users were, as expected, men talking to other men, but the next-most frequent users were women talking to other women. Overall, I find the evidence quite compelling that these masculine address terms really have been de-gendered for younger speakers. If young women didn’t think they were being addressed when they heard ‘hi, guys’ or ‘listen, lads’, it’s possible they would put up with it from their male friends, but less likely they would adopt it enthusiastically in all-female interactions.

But what’s behind the enthusiasm? Some feminists see it as evidence of internalised sexism, a need to be accepted or approved of by men that leads young women to ‘talk male’, or at least accommodate to male linguistic preferences, in mixed peer-groups. To me this is unconvincing, not least because it overlooks the point that women aren’t just using the terms in mixed groups. It also discounts their own understanding of the terms: women under 30 consistently tell researchers that they regard ‘guys’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’ as inclusive terms, available equally to address both sexes.

The explanation I prefer (and which I laid out in more detail in my earlier post) can be related to Monique Wittig’s assertion that ‘the masculine is not the masculine but the general’. I would argue that women are appropriating ‘guys’ and its ilk, not to be seen as masculine, but to be included in the category of ‘the general’. They are adopting these address terms to express the same attitudes and feelings men have traditionally used them to express, like camaraderie, solidarity and ‘mateship’. The fact that these attitudes and feelings have historically been associated with men does not mean they are inherently male (any more than historically male-dominated endeavours like science and sport are inherently male). Rather they are part of the repertoire of human attitudes and feelings.

The desire of women to be included in the general category of humans, rather than confined to a subcategory of ‘feminine’ (aka Other and lesser) beings, has often led them to reject female-specific terms. In the case of occupational labels, for instance, they have rejected marked forms like ‘authoress’ and ‘lady doctor’ and demanded to be referred to instead with the unmarked forms ‘author’ and ‘doctor’. This has never prompted accusations of ‘aping men’ or ‘making women invisible’.

‘Of course not’, I hear you say: ‘the two cases are quite different. A woman who prefers “author” to “authoress” isn’t giving herself a male label like “guys”, she’s just swapping an unnecessary and demeaning gender-marked term for something neutral and inclusive’. But if you take the long view, that difference disappears.  .

Words like ‘author’ and ‘doctor’ may always have been (in English) formally unmarked,  but they were not always ‘neutral’ and ‘inclusive’. For much of their history they were sex-specific, applied to men and not to women. To the extent that they have now become inclusive, that’s a historical achievement; they were made inclusive by the efforts of the women who laid claim to them and used them and demanded that others should use them too. That is also what is happening now with address term like ‘guys’, ‘lads’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’. Women are laying claim to them and their meanings are changing as a result. It’s possible that in a hundred years’ time only language historians and etymology buffs will know that the ‘guys’ in ‘hi guys’ once meant ‘men’.

But I said ‘to the extent that they have now become inclusive’ because even today, as I’ve already pointed out, it can’t be assumed that generic references to ‘the author’ or ‘a doctor’ will automatically be interpreted as including women. In fact, there are no words which cannot be used or understood in a non-inclusive way: even ‘people’ can be covertly gendered (usually in line with the default male principle, though I did once overhear a woman saying she wouldn’t want a rattan coffee table because ‘people might snag their panty-hose’). Where the neutral/inclusive term is the same term that refers specifically to men (a common pattern in many languages, as Monique Wittig points out), there will always be room for doubt about whether women are really included. In that respect, ‘guys’ is no better and no worse than ‘adult’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘doctor’. None of these terms makes women visible as women, and all of them are liable to be interpreted as masculine by default.

The problem of sexism in language isn’t caused by a lack of inclusive terminology. It’s a structural problem, the product of assumptions and habits of thought which have seeped into our culture and our language over centuries, and which would colour the use of any set of terms we might come up with. If we want our language to produce more than the illusion of inclusion, what we really need to change is not our vocabulary, but our ingrained and largely unconscious habit of treating men as the prototypical humans.

A brief history of ‘gender’

In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.

Fast forward again to October 2016, when Pope Francis, during a pastoral visit to Georgia, denounced ‘gender theory’ as a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The correspondent who reported his comments explained:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

I thought: ‘I remember when gender theory threatened the teachings of the Church by suggesting that women’s traditional roles were not ordained by God and nature’. I also thought: ‘OK, this is the tipping point’.

I’m not going to lament the fact that ‘gender’ means different things to different people (though clearly it does, and one consequence is a lot of arguing and talking at cross-purposes). Like everything else in language, word-meaning varies and changes: always has, always will. The question I’m interested in is how we got to where we are. Where did the two competing senses of ‘gender’ come from? When did they start to be used, by whom and in what contexts?

I’ve had many conversations about this, and I’ve often felt as if the world is divided between people who think gender as a theoretical concept was basically invented by Judith Butler in 1990, and people who hold Butler (or queer theorists) responsible for undermining the feminist analysis of gender and distorting the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I’ve never been satisfied with either of these views, and I wanted to see what light I could shed on them, using various sources of information about the history and usage of English words.

One key source I used is the Oxford English Dictionary: fortunately for me, its entry for ‘gender’ has been revised very recently, so it’s as close to fully up to date as historical dictionaries get. I also made use of large text corpora–in this case, collections of American English texts, because the usages I’m interested in were first recorded in the US. I used COHA, a historical corpus which covers the period from 1810 to 2010, and COCA, a contemporary corpus which covers 1990-2015. Dictionaries and corpora typically aim to represent ‘general’ usage, and their coverage of non-mainstream sources can be sparse. So, I also used some 20th century feminist texts to provide supplementary evidence about the way feminists used ‘gender’.

I discovered some things I was expecting, and others that surprised me. For instance: it wasn’t feminists who first made the sex/gender distinction (actually it took a while for them to adopt the term ‘gender’ consistently), and it wasn’t queer theorists who first defined the concept of gender identity. The ‘identity’ meaning of ‘gender’ has only recently become mainstream, but it isn’t new: it’s been around for approximately the same amount of time as the one it now competes with, and both of them were in use well before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

I’ll come back to these points, but first let’s take a very quick look at the earlier history of the English word ‘gender’. You may have heard that it started out as a grammatical term, used in the description of languages where nouns are classified as masculine, feminine and neuter. The usual story is that this grammatical sense got extended later to talk about the distinction between male and female persons. ‘Later’, however, is a relative term: in Norman French, which was where English got the word from, gendre was already being used to mean ‘the quality of being male or female’ by the second half of the 12th century. The first record in the OED of the English form ‘gender’ being used with the ‘male or female’ meaning is dated 1474—a reference to ‘his heirs of the masculine gender’. In short: the ‘male or female’ meaning of ‘gender’ goes back a long way. People have been using it in a way feminists often complain about–that is, as just a fancy word for ‘sex’–for more than 500 years.

When did the sex/gender distinction first get made in English, and who made it? You might imagine its first appearance would be in some feminist text from the late 1960s or the 1970s. But in fact the OED’s earliest illustrative quotation for the relevant sense (‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones’) comes from an article published in 1945 in an academic psychology journal:

in the grade school years, too, gender (which is the socialised obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarcation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

The same journal is the source of the next quotation [1], dated 1950:

it informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine roles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of ‘gender’ which depends on an explicit or implicit contrast with biological sex was first used by academics in social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. The quotations I’ve reproduced suggest that this usage was initially confined to a fairly narrow group of specialists: even when writing for their fellow-academics, the authors evidently didn’t expect all readers to be familiar with it (hence the parenthesis in the first example and the inverted commas in the second).

The earliest quotation in the OED which doesn’t come from an academic source, or treat ‘gender’ as a piece of obscure jargon, is from a 1968 issue of Time magazine. That might imply that by the late 1960s the social scientific concept of gender was beginning to move into the mainstream. But the historical corpus data show that even in the 1960s ‘gender’ (used in any sense) was still an uncommon word. In COHA it is recorded from the 1830s, but until the end of the 1950s its frequency remains low—under one occurrence per million words of text. In the 1960s the frequency rises to (just) over one use per million words, and there’s a further very slight increase in the 1970s. It isn’t until the 1980s that there’s a larger jump to more than five uses per million words.

Does this mean that the story about feminists before 1990 having no theoretical concept of gender might be true after all? That question raises the somewhat tricky issue of what the relationship is between theory and terminology. My reading of early second-wave feminist texts suggests that ‘gender’ during this period (that is, the late 1960s and 1970s) was still largely an academic term: it’s common in feminist academic writing (Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article ‘The traffic in women’, which I quoted earlier, is one example), but it seldom appears in writing by feminists who were politically active outside the academy [2]. However, that doesn’t mean the activists made no distinction between biology and culture: often it’s clear they had the concept of gender, they just expressed it using other terms.

Here’s an example taken from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970):

Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Firestone doesn’t use the term ‘gender’, but she does differentiate between the biological markers of sex and what she calls ‘the sex distinction’, by which she evidently means something like Rubin’s ‘socially-imposed division of the sexes’. It’s this, she argues, that feminism aims to eliminate. After the revolution there will still be ‘genital differences between human beings’, but they will ‘no longer matter culturally’.

Shulamith Firestone acknowledged a debt to Simone de Beauvoir, whose observation that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ has often been hailed as the founding statement of modern anti-essentialist feminism. Beauvoir didn’t use the word ‘gender’ either. In 1949 when The Second Sex first appeared, and indeed for some decades afterwards, French-speakers did not make a linguistic distinction equivalent to the English one between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (though some have recently adopted the term genre to fill the gap). But that obviously didn’t stop French feminists (or feminist speakers of other languages that lacked the distinction) from rejecting biological determinism and developing an analysis of women’s subordination as the product of social forces.

What about the ‘identity’ sense of ‘gender’? When does that start to turn up in the texts sampled for dictionaries and corpora, and what kinds of texts do you find it in? The answer is that it first appears in the 1950s, in texts dealing with the clinical treatment of what were then called ‘hermaphrodites’ (i.e., people with intersex conditions) and ‘transsexuals’. It isn’t entirely clear whether this medical usage developed in parallel with the social science usage or directly from it, but in any case the clinicians soon began to produce a distinctive body of knowledge, which included proposals about the definition of ‘gender’.

There are two names which turn up repeatedly on quotations illustrating the medical usage of ‘gender’ in the mid-20th century. One is that of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who was associated from the mid-1950s with the Gender Identity Clinic at UCLA. He was the author of a 1968 book called Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, and he is often credited with introducing the term ‘gender identity’, meaning more or less what it means in current usage.

I say ‘more or less’ because Stoller’s ideas about gender identity weren’t exactly the ones we’re most familiar with today. He believed there was a biological basis for what he called ‘core gender identity’—defined as an innate sense of being male or female which is normally fixed by the second year of life—but he also wrote extensively about the influence of nurture. As well as having a medical degree, he was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, and he was interested in the idea that an individual’s sexual desires and behaviours, particularly those defined at the time as ‘perversions’ (including homosexuality, sadomasochism and transvestism), develop in response to childhood events which threaten the individual’s core gender identity.

The other name is that of John Money, the psychologist who founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money was an influential proponent of the view that gender is learned rather than innate: his clinical observations showed, he claimed, that children acquire the gender they’re raised in, even when it’s incongruent with their natal sex. The case study he relied on most heavily to support this claim was later discredited, damaging Money’s reputation and the credibility of his theories. But the work done at Johns Hopkins made a significant contribution to the history of gender—both the concept and the word.

In a 1955 research report, Money and two of his colleagues explained their concept of ‘gender role’, which they defined as

all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. …Gender role is appraised in relation to: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry.

‘Gender role’ is conceptualised here in a similar way to gender identity today–as an internal characteristic of individuals, ‘disclosed’ in their behaviour and what they say about themselves. The missing element of the current meaning is the idea that gender isn’t a binary division: this early definition acknowledges only two categories (‘boy or man, girl or woman’). Stoller, too, assumed that a person’s ‘core gender identity’ must be either male or female. The more recent emergence of alternative categories (including ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderfluid’ identities) may reflect the influence of queer theory; but in all other respects, arguably, today’s understanding of gender as a form of identity owes more to the medical model elaborated by people like Money and Stoller.

I can’t claim to have produced an exhaustive account of the history of ‘gender’, but I’ve still found the exercise revealing. Knowing that the two competing senses have developed from different intellectual traditions (one sense has its roots in the social scientific study of human culture and behaviour, while the other is rooted in the theory and practice of clinicians working with gender-variant individuals) makes it easier to understand why they conflict in the ways they do. And the conflict is profound: if I use ‘gender’ to mean ‘a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex’, and you use it to mean ‘an innate sense of identity linked to the sex of a person’s brain’ (a now-common understanding which derives from the medical tradition), we may be using the same word, but our conceptual frameworks have almost nothing in common (for instance, your ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of my ‘gender’ is that it doesn’t).

This situation particularly annoys those feminists who feel they’ve lost ‘their’ word. But it might be asked how much we really need that word. It didn’t originate in feminist political analysis or grassroots activism: it belonged to an academic register (and is still, according to the corpus evidence, used predominantly in academic contexts). Many classic feminist analyses of the social condition of women (like Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex and Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class) do not use it at all.

In recent years I’ve become more careful about when and how I use ‘gender’, since in some contexts and for some audiences I know it might not be clear which sense I’m using it in. Now I’m asking myself if there are any contexts where I really couldn’t manage without it. As I’ve said, plenty of feminists in the past did manage without it. Maybe what was good enough for Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis should be good enough for me.

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NOTES

[1] The ‘it’ referred to in this quotation is the work of the US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead herself did not use the term ‘gender’, but in her books Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949) she gave an account of the variability of men’s and women’s qualities and social roles across cultures which prefigured, and in some cases directly influenced, later discussions of gender among social scientists and feminists. (If you read French, there’s a good short account of Mead’s contribution to this history here).

[2] One academic book which examined both the concepts of sex and gender and the associated terminology in some detail was the sociologist Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972 and now considered a feminist classic (this year it was reissued in a new edition with a retrospective introduction by the author). The book discusses Margaret Mead’s work, as well as the work of Robert Stoller and John Money. Oakley’s new introduction also briefly alludes to Mathilde Vaerting, a German near-contemporary of Mead who was writing about the way societies constructed men and women as both different and unequal as early as 1921. (There’s some information on Vaerting here.)

The pronominal is political

‘Pronouns’, announced a writer on Mashable last year, ‘are a big deal—and rightfully so’. The writer wasn’t talking about pronouns in general, but specifically about English third person singular personal pronouns. And her point was even more specifically about the central role these pronouns play in the contemporary politics of gender identity. But today’s trans and genderqueer activists are not the first people to make pronouns a political issue. If we want to understand the present state of play, it’s useful to know something about the pronoun politics of the past.

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Third person singular personal pronouns have been a big deal for English-speaking feminists since the earliest organized campaigns for women’s legal and civil rights. In the 18th century, prescriptive grammarians had decreed that the masculine was ‘the worthier gender’, and that ‘he’ should be used in generic references to mixed-sex categories (‘when a child goes to school, he…’). The principle that ‘the masculine imports the feminine’ was written into British legislation by the 1850 Interpretation Act, and the same formula was subsequently adopted by many other institutions around the English-speaking world. In practice, though, ‘he’ did not always include ‘she’. When anti-feminists wanted to stop women from voting, running for office or entering the legal profession, it was not uncommon for them to argue that the law referred to voters or candidates or lawyers as ‘he’, and so rendered women ineligible.

What Wendy Martyna dubbed ‘he-man language’ was also an issue for feminists of the second wave. By the end of the 1960s generic masculine pronouns were no longer being used to deny women basic civil rights, but they were seen as part of the ideological apparatus which naturalized the treatment of men as the default humans, while women remained ‘the (second) sex’. Generic ‘he’ was not the only target of feminist campaigns against sexist language, but both the campaigners and their opponents accorded it particular symbolic significance. In 1971, a TV Guide writer complained about ‘women’s lib red-hots’ with their ‘nutty pronouns’.

The linguist Robin Lakoff thought this focus on pronouns was misguided. In her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place, she argued that feminists should concentrate on other targets, because ‘an attempt to change pronominal usage will be futile’.

Certain aspects of language are available to the native speaker’s conscious analysis, and others are too common, too thoroughly mixed throughout the language, for the speaker to be aware each time he [sic] uses them. It is realistic to hope to change only those linguistic uses of which speakers themselves can be made aware, as they use them. One chooses, in speaking or writing, more or less consciously and purposefully among nouns, adjectives and verbs; one does not choose among pronouns in the same way.

Whereas nouns, adjectives and verbs are ‘open’ word classes—they contain a large number of items, and it’s always possible to add new ones—pronouns, like articles and prepositions, are a ‘closed’ class, containing a finite set of items which alternate in predictable ways. They aren’t what high school teachers call ‘vocabulary words’, they’re words with essentially grammatical functions. That’s why, as Lakoff says, they don’t prompt the same ‘conscious and purposeful’ deliberation as nouns, adjectives and verbs. A native English-speaker might ponder whether the adjective she wants is, say, ‘enormous’ or ‘gigantic’, but she won’t need to think about whether the article she wants is ‘a’ or ‘the’. Asking people to change their pronoun usage is asking them to restructure part of their internalized grammatical system. And Lakoff didn’t think that was a realistic demand.

She later came to believe that she had been unduly pessimistic. In an annotated edition of Language and Woman’s Place, published in 2004 to mark the book’s 40th anniversary, she wrote:

Today, the extant choices (like pluralization, passivization, ‘he or she’) are the norm: writers who choose the ‘neutral’ ‘he’ are the ones who have explaining to do. …We are apparently more flexible, and more well-intentioned, than I believed back then.

My own view is somewhere in between. I agree with the later Lakoff that consciously modifying your grammar is not impossible if the motivation is there, but I also think the earlier Lakoff was right to point out that there are limits. In fact, some evidence suggests that the system has been more resistant to change than her later comments imply.

The language historian Anne Curzan used COHA, a historical corpus of American English, to investigate the effect of non-sexist language campaigns on pronoun use in the late 20th century. She found that the use of ‘he or she’, rather than just ‘he’, increased sharply during the 1970s and continued to rise through the 1980s and early 1990s. But by the end of the century it had begun to decline again. As I’ve noted elsewhere, virtually all the university students I teach—the majority of them born in the 1990s—use the generic masculine unselfconsciously in their writing; they don’t seem to feel they have any ‘explaining to do’.

Even at its peak, the shift to ‘he or she’ was uneven. In the COHA data it was most pronounced in academic writing, and far less evident in writing for mass audiences, or in speech. But in those contexts there was another option: so-called singular—or as I’ll call it from now on, ‘epicene’—‘they’ (in relation to language, ‘epicene’ describes a form that refers to both sexes).

When the linguist Laura Paterson looked at third-person generic references in a sample of British newspapers, she found that the balance was roughly 56% ‘they’ to 44% ‘he’. But this isn’t most plausibly explained as the result of people changing their habits because of feminist objections to generic ‘he’. Though ‘they’ was stigmatised as ‘ungrammatical’ (and therefore avoided in the most formal writing), it was common in speech, and in less formal written genres, long before pronouns were a feminist issue. In some contexts—for instance, after words like ‘any’, ‘each’ and ‘every’—it’s clearly  favoured over ‘he’ and ‘she’, even when the reference is sex-specific, as in these examples from newspapers.

Like any girlfriend with someone they care about serving on the front line, her emotions were all over the place

For any woman, waiting to hear whether or not they have breast cancer is an extremely stressful and worrying time

These examples illustrate Lakoff’s original point that we don’t usually choose our pronouns consciously. ‘She’ would be considered more ‘correct’ in both these sentences, but our decisions aren’t based on the prescriptive rules we learnt at school, they’re based on principles we worked out during the process of first language acquisition. Laura Paterson examined interactions between young children and their adult caregivers to see what input children get while they’re acquiring the English personal pronoun system. She concluded that children analyse ‘they’ in much the same way they analyse ‘you’, as both a singular and a plural form.

The fact that it’s acquired naturally gives ‘they’ an advantage over all the other epicene pronouns that English-speakers have invented over the years. The linguist Dennis Baron maintains a list of these creations going back to the 19th century. He calls the list ‘The Word that Failed’, because none of the deliberately coined items that appear on it (for instance, ‘thon’, ‘ve’, ‘se’, ‘per’, ‘na’ and ‘heesh’) has ever been widely adopted.

In 2004, Robin Lakoff also remarked on the failure of invented epicenes:

The more florid suggestions have vanished, as I thought they would, without a trace. …I was right to suggest that neologisms like ‘ve’ and its colleagues would never survive.

But since she wrote those words, invented epicenes have returned, as part of a new campaign to change third person pronoun usage. The activists spearheading this new movement do not always acknowledge (and may not even know) the history of the forms they are trying to revive. Once again, though, I think it’s instructive—as well as interesting—to look back to some of the earlier feminist debates.

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It isn’t entirely fair to categorize all invented epicenes as ‘words that failed’, since in many cases they were not designed to be real-world competitors for ‘he’ and ‘she’. Rather they were literary devices, used in feminist speculative and utopian fiction. ‘Na’, for instance, comes from June Arnold’s lesbian separatist novel The Cook and the Carpenter (1973). ‘Per’ is the gender-neutral pronoun used in Mattapoisett, one of the alternative future societies visited by the protagonist of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In both these texts (and many more like them), invented pronouns were used to challenge both conventional ways of using language and conventional ways of thinking about gender.

One speculative fiction writer who wasn’t so keen on this strategy was Ursula Le Guin. In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin chose to refer to the ambisexual inhabitants of the planet Gethen as ‘he’, on the basis that ‘he’ was generic as well as masculine. Later she was persuaded by the feminist argument that ‘he’ was not a true generic: in a 1985 screen adaptation of her novel she substituted ‘a’, and in 1995, in a 25th anniversary edition, she added a version of the opening chapter rewritten with the pronoun ‘e’. But she remained ambivalent about invented pronouns, fearing that the repeated use of unfamiliar forms would ‘drive the reader mad’.

That fear also led Le Guin to reject ‘they’. As she told the linguist Anna Livia in the mid-1990s (Livia quoted their correspondence in her book about literary experiments with gendered language, Pronoun Envy),  ‘they’ might be familiar, but it was only natural-sounding when the reference was indefinite (e.g. ‘has anyone lost their phone?’); it was not a natural way to refer to a unique individual (e.g. ‘has Lee lost their phone?’)

But this is one aspect of pronoun usage that does appear to be changing. Facebook has permitted formulas like ‘Lee changed their profile picture’ for some years, and recently this use of ‘they’ has also been officially recognized by some older media institutions. At the end of 2015 the editor responsible for the Washington Post’s style guide noted that ‘they’ can be ‘useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female’.

Which brings me back to the subject I began with—the place pronouns have come to occupy in the new politics of gender identity.

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Feminists objected to the use of ‘he’ to refer to people in general, which made women as a class invisible. The new politics of gender identity, by contrast, is concerned with the way pronouns are used in reference to specific individuals. As the writer I quoted earlier explains, pronouns are ‘a big deal’ because

They’re the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender in everyday conversation.

The principle that underlies this assertion is that individuals have a right to be referred to with the pronouns which, in their own view, most appropriately reflect their gender identity. It should not be assumed that everyone is either ‘he’ or ‘she’: individuals who identify as trans, non-binary, agender or genderqueer may prefer an alternative, epicene form. ‘They’ is one of the available options, but sources which aim to document non-traditional pronoun use exhaustively, like this tumblr, list scores of other possibilities.

The acceptance of this principle has produced a new form of linguistic etiquette: announcing one’s ‘preferred pronouns’ and taking steps to ascertain the preferred pronouns of others. Some universities now invite students to register their pronouns: at Harvard around half the student body so far have availed themselves of this option (though only about 50 students out of 10,000 have specified a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’). And the New York City Human Rights Commission recently issued legal guidance which made clear that an employer or landlord who failed to use an employee or tenant’s preferred name, title and pronouns would be guilty of unlawful discrimination.

The use of preferred pronouns is often presented as a matter of basic courtesy, like using people’s actual names rather than just addressing everyone as ‘John’ or ‘Susan’. But this analogy points to a practical difficulty. If each individual is entitled to specify their own pronouns, pronouns in effect cease to be a closed class—a finite set of items which alternate in predictable ways—and become more like personal names, which have to be learnt individually. Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that English can’t accommodate a non-binary third-person singular pronoun. We know it can, because it already has one: ‘they’. The current extension of ‘they’ from indefinite/generic to specific reference is a logical development which has every chance of becoming embedded in mainstream usage, because it isn’t a huge leap from what most English-speakers already do. But the preferred pronoun principle, which requires speakers to use whatever forms a given individual specifies, is a different matter: it’s where the reservations expressed by Lakoff in 1975 become difficult to dismiss. Asking people to change their pronoun usage in a way that makes such significant demands on memory and attention will in most cases be asking too much. In other words, there’s a trade-off: if you want non-binary pronouns to become mainstream, you can’t also insist on the sovereignty of individual choice.

I’m aware that some people may find this view offensive, a denial of what they take to be the absolute right of every individual to define their own identity and have it recognized by others. But at the risk of offending those people further, I want to ask: is it actually true that pronouns are, or have to be, ‘the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender’?

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It’s easy to see why monolingual English-speakers might think so. In modern English, third-person singular pronouns stand out as a rare case in which gender-marking is non-optional. But English is unusual in this respect. For speakers of most other languages, pronouns do not play a ‘definitive’ role in indexing (pointing to) a person’s gender.

In a large percentage of the world’s languages, pronouns play no role in gendering people at all, because there are no gendered pronouns equivalent to English ‘he’ and ‘she’. Rather there is a single epicene third-person pronoun referring to all humans (or sometimes, animate beings). Languages in this category include Finnish, Hungarian, Malay, spoken Mandarin, Persian, Swahili, Turkish and Yoruba. And they make clear that the social recognition of gender does not depend on the use of gender-specific pronouns. The absence of gendered pronouns has never prevented Finnish or Turkish speakers from acknowledging the existence of men and women, or from expressing identities as men and women. And there is nothing to prevent them from expressing other, less traditional gender identities.

The world’s languages also include a fairly large number that mark gender much more extensively than English does. In these languages, pronouns are not ‘the definitive way’ in which a person’s gender is acknowledged: a much more pervasive form of gender-marking is through inflections on nouns, adjectives, articles and in some cases verbs. Languages in this category include the Romance group (French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, etc.), German, Slavic languages like Polish and Russian, and Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew.

Speakers of these languages can’t escape the gender binary just by adopting novel pronouns. In some of them it’s not too difficult to come up with an extra set of gender inflections (though that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get people to use them, since once again, this involves restructuring a system which native speakers use without conscious reflection). In Spanish, for instance, where the standard masculine and feminine inflectional endings are –o and –a, non-binary speakers have introduced parallel forms ending in –e. (There are also forms with –x, @ and other symbols, but these are either unpronounceable or not easy to deduce the pronunciation of, so they are more useful in writing than conversation.) But in other cases the adjustments required are complicated. In Slavic languages, for instance, past tense verbs are gender-marked, and nouns are marked for case as well as gender, which means you need several alternative word-endings rather than just one.

Another language where gender-marking is pervasive is Hebrew, and in this case there has been some research on the linguistic practices of genderqueer speakers. In interviews with the Israeli researcher Orit Bershtling, six of these speakers described their strategies for ‘queering Hebrew’. One of these was alternating between masculine and feminine forms for the same person in the same sentence (e.g., using a masculine subject noun with a feminine verb). Another was gender ‘doubling’, putting both masculine and feminine endings on the same word (like ‘transimot’, meaning ‘trans people’, where the word ‘trans’ is followed by two plural endings, the masculine –im and the feminine –ot). Alternatively, speakers could select forms which allowed them to avoid the issue. Sometimes, for instance, they would speak about their present activities in the future tense, because Hebrew first-person future tense forms, unlike their present tense equivalents, do not have to be marked for gender.

Bershtling was an outsider to the community she studied, and by her own account she found it extremely difficult to use the ‘noncustomary sex-marked forms’ her interviewees preferred. Some of their comments suggested that they did not find it easy themselves. They reported that it was hard for them to sustain a long conversation without making ‘errors’ (i.e., reverting to standard Hebrew gender-marking). They also acknowledged that certain strategies, like using the future tense to describe actions in the present, could cause the message to come out ‘a bit garbled’. Bershtling concluded that queering Hebrew

demands concentration and juggling, restricts self-expression and so produces silence. This silence stems from the impossible intersection between two linguistic functions: to express identity and to communicate with others.

Linguists don’t usually think of this as an ‘impossible intersection’. Language has always had the two functions Bershtling mentions, and people have generally found a workable balance between them. What’s unusual about the speakers in this study is the extent of their commitment to identity-expression, apparently at the expense of communication. But perhaps the two functions aren’t so much ‘intersecting’ as ‘intertwined’. The politics of gender identity is, in the political theorist Nancy Fraser’s terms, a ‘politics of recognition’: the central demand is that others should ‘acknowledge and respect [an individual’s] gender’. Using unconventional linguistic forms to express identity is, at the same time, a way of communicating your demand for recognition to other people. At least, that’s true if you speak Hebrew. If you speak English, the situation is rather different.

Unlike Hebrew, English requires gender-marking only on third person forms which do not express the identity of the speaker (people don’t generally talk about themselves in the third person). So, when an English-speaker says ‘my pronouns are X and Y’ or ‘I use the pronoun Z’, they aren’t really describing what they themselves do, they’re describing what they want other people to do. Which might sound a bit high-handed—until you ask yourself another question about the way pronouns work. How often, in face-to-face spoken interaction, do we use third person pronouns to refer to other participants?

I haven’t seen any proper research on this question, but recently I did try a small experiment, tracking the use of pronouns and personal names in a seminar group consisting of ten students and me. Overall, I found the most frequently-used pronouns were first person ‘I/we’ and second person ‘you’. As the person leading the discussion, I addressed individual students much more often than I referred to them. When I did refer to someone in the third person, I invariably used their name rather than a pronoun (e.g. ‘could we go back to what Ellie said?’), and then switched to ‘you’. I only used third-person pronouns when referring either to one of the academics whose research we were discussing, or to class-members who weren’t actually there (e.g. ‘we’re just waiting for Tom. Does anyone know if he’s coming?’)

I also analysed a small sample of extended, multi-contributor Facebook threads to see if there’s a similar pattern when interactions are conducted in writing rather than speech. I found that ‘you’ was much less common on Facebook, and personal names were used in a slightly different way (less to refer back to previous contributions and more to tag a particular person as the main addressee for a particular comment). But once again, all the third person pronouns I found referred to individuals who weren’t directly involved in the interaction. They included some journalists, a couple of dead philosophers, several former Eurovision song contest winners, one dog and two cats.

I don’t have enough evidence to know if this is typical of group interaction generally. But if it is, in fact, unusual to make third-person references to people who are part of the same conversation, that might suggest that the actual use of preferred pronouns is not a frequent-enough occurrence to function as ‘the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender’. To me it seems possible that what actually does this job is the act of announcing what your pronouns are, and (in face-to-face contexts) having that announcement acknowledged by others. Like other social rituals in which people introduce themselves or greet one another, this isn’t just about exchanging information (in this case, about what pronouns people prefer and by extension how they define their gender identities). It’s a symbolic affirmation of the parties’ intention to conduct their subsequent dealings in good faith and with mutual respect.

If it’s the display of good faith that really matters, perhaps we don’t need to worry so much about the practical problems I mentioned earlier. And if we put the practicalities to one side, we can turn our attention to the politics. When we argue about pronouns, what, at a deeper level, is the argument really about?

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In the 21st century, the obvious answer to that question is ‘identity’. But there is usually more at stake in arguments about pronouns than just identity, especially if what you mean by that is the identities of individuals. I would say that the way personal pronouns are used both reflects, and gives concrete expression to, a community’s beliefs about personhood: what defines a person, what kinds or categories of people there are, and what status different kinds of people have in relation to one another. All of which, especially the last, are political questions. The problem first and second-wave feminists had with generic masculine pronouns was not about gender in the sense of identity, but about gender as an axis of power: the question was why ‘he’ outranked and subsumed ‘she’, and it mattered because that usage mirrored the actual social fact of women’s legal and political non-personhood.

Speculative fiction is an arena where writers can play with ideas about the politics of personhood, inviting us to reflect critically on our everyday assumptions by imagining alternative worlds. Feminists have often made gender the focus of these thought-experiments, asking questions like: what if women were the dominant sex-class? What if there were only one gender? What if there were no gender at all?  In most feminist utopias gender is less rather than more significant than it is in the non-fictional world: the invented pronouns are epicene forms like ‘na’ and ‘per’, which simply mark their referents as people.

Contemporary gender identity politics can be seen as doing something comparable, though the main arena for its thought-experiments is not fiction, but rather the online communities and social networks created by digital technology. And the ideas it explores are very different from the older feminist ones. Rather than imagining a world without gender, or one where gender is a less important aspect of personhood, what this kind of politics imagines is a world where gender is all-important and comes in infinite varieties. The pronouns are individualized rather than one-size-fits-all.

The conflict between these approaches to gender is a recurring theme in a recent work of science fiction, Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (2013). And Leckie, like many of her predecessors, uses an unconventional pronoun-choice as a defamiliarising device. In this case, though, the unconventional pronoun is neither invented nor (for English-speakers) epicene. Rather, the novel’s narrator and main protagonist, Breq, uses ‘she’ as her default, neutral pronoun:

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. The language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that the cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.

To Breq, the gender cues that other people treat as obvious are like an impenetrable secret code: where others see meaningful differences, she sees only similarities.

Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.

As a feminist of a certain kind (and vintage), I feel I have a lot in common with Breq. Like her, I understand gender as a set of externally-imposed and often arbitrary social norms. I don’t subscribe to the alternative model in which gender is an innate, essential and defining quality of individual persons.

That doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to use the pronouns an individual prefers. But I will do it as a matter of courtesy rather than conviction; and if I fail to do it, I’ll consider that an oversight rather than a crime. Pronouns may be a big deal, but they’re not a matter of life and death.

Things not to say

Since time immemorial, experts have taken it upon themselves to instruct women in the art of conversing with men. Here’s an example from Emily Post’s The Blue Book of Social Usage, one of the most popular etiquette manuals of the early 20th century:

Another helpful thing, if you are a woman talking to a man, is to ask advice. ‘We want to motor through the south. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’ In fact, it is sage to ask his opinion on almost anything.

In the 1920s, apparently, you broke the ice at parties by asking the nearest man to mansplain something. At home with your own husband, though, you could just sit back and listen. According to a mid-century ‘guide for brides’, ‘once or twice in an evening is quite sufficient for a wife to introduce a topic of her own’. (This is the kind of literature being parodied in Harry Enfield’s sketch ‘Women, Know Your Limits!’*)

When British Cosmopolitan celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1992, it poked fun at this ancient wisdom.

It used to be so simple. Men paid, drove and made the first move. Women dressed up, pretended they liked the restaurant, got the bubbles up their nose and said ‘Really…how interesting’ a lot. …Dinner was never spoilt by women saying, as you hit the foyer, ‘well damn me, but that was the worst bit of cinematography I’ve seen in a long time’. Women didn’t say that. Women said, ‘What did you think of the film?’

The theme of the piece was how much things had changed during the two decades of Cosmopolitan’s existence. Women in the 1990s were no longer expected to keep their opinions to themselves. But a new wave of advice was already gathering momentum. 1992 was the year when John Gray published Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus—a book about communication for heterosexual couples that would remain on the bestseller list for most of the next ten years.

Men are from Mars has been described as ‘new age psychobabble’. But underneath the new age veneer, the advice is surprisingly old-school. Here’s a top tip on how to ask your male partner to do things around the house without coming across as a nag:

You want him to make dinner, but you never ask. You sense he resists cooking. What to say: “Would you help me cut the potatoes?” or “Would you make dinner tonight?” If he says no, then graciously and simply say “OK”.

Ask politely, and be ‘gracious’ if he refuses. It’s not a million miles from the 1950s guide for brides.

But in today’s fast-paced, hi-tech world, people no longer have time to wade through pages of anecdotes and cod-psychology in search of nuggets of practical wisdom. And so a new advice-giving format has been invented, which condenses what you need to know into a series of short, numbered bullet points. I refer, of course, to the listicle—and specifically to a subgenre of listicles headed ‘things not to say to Xs’.

‘Things not to say’ lists are like etiquette manuals for the Buzzfeed generation. They’re all over the internet: if you put the sequence ‘things not to say to’ into Google you’ll find office humour versions (’7 things not to say to a graphic designer’), support group versions (‘5 things not to say to a person suffering from chronic pain’), identity politics versions (‘12 things not to say to lesbian and gay couples/trans people)—and, inevitably, dealing-with-the-opposite-sex versions.

The dating site eHarmony.com offers a list of ‘Ten things women should never say to their men’. Item one is the expression ‘man up’: ‘this emasculating phrase is never ever appropriate’. At number six we have ‘are you really that stupid?’ ‘Be careful’, the text warns, ‘not to use language that emasculates and belittles your guy. Treat him with respect, even when you’re angry and disappointed’. Number seven is ‘I’ll do it myself’ (‘don’t dismiss offers of help from your man’), while number eight, on the face of it rather inconsistently, is ‘I can’t live without you’. The text explains: ‘use desperate language with caution, and stay clear of phrases that sound clingy… Let him take the lead when it comes to commitment and promises of a future together’.

We might wonder how many women actually do say these things to their boyfriends, but that’s not really the point. The list of ‘things not to say’ is only a device, a pretext for talking more generally about the way men and women are and the attitudes they should adopt towards one another. According to eHarmony, the correct attitude for a woman to adopt is deferential. She should ‘treat him with respect’ and ‘let him take the lead’. She should not make emotional demands by being too ‘clingy’, nor threaten his self-esteem by subjecting him to ‘emasculating’ criticism.

The word ‘emasculating’ makes clear that what’s being recommended here is not just ordinary good manners. ‘Are you really that stupid?’ is undoubtedly a rude and hurtful thing to say, but that would be no less true if a man said it to a woman, or if either of them said it to another person of their own sex. In those contexts, though, it would not be described as ‘emasculating’. What’s emasculating isn’t being told you’re stupid in and of itself, but being told that you’re stupid by a woman, a member of the sex that is supposed to look up to men rather than down on them. To big them up, not belittle them. Like Emily Post, eHarmony is saying that when women talk to men, their job is to make men feel important.

Ours being an age of equal opportunities, there are also lists of things for men not to say to women. They make an instructive contrast with eHarmony’s list. For instance, one item on a list of ‘the top ten things you should never say to a woman’ is ‘anything that hints at a future’.

She might say she loves Thai food, so you say, “Wow, so do I. We should go get Thai food sometime.” Stop, stop, stop, stop! While this sounds good in theory, you must remember that women not only want but need a man who is somewhat of a “challenge.” If partway through the first date you are talking about hanging out again and again and again, she knows that you are really into her, which means the game is over and she has won.

So much for ‘letting him take the lead when it comes to commitment and a future together’.

The view that men should strive to keep the upper hand is a recurring theme in this top ten. Readers are warned, for instance, that they should never say to a woman, ‘can I take you out on a date sometime?’ This is far too tentative: ‘women want to be with a man who is a leader and in control’. The right thing to do is presuppose her interest and say something ‘confident’ like ‘we should hang out. What’s your number?’

But the absolute top no-no is asking a woman ‘can I kiss you?’

Asking for a kiss goes against everything a woman is looking for in a man. You may as well just tell her right there that you are a boy. Her answer might be “yes” if she’s being polite, but her attraction meter on the inside will read a firm, “no!”

Consent isn’t sexy: requesting permission before engaging in intimate acts makes a man look like a wimp, which is the opposite of what women find attractive. It’s an argument straight from the PUA playbook.

I’m not suggesting that people (or at least, most people) live their lives and conduct their relationships according to lists of rules they find on websites. Historians and social scientists don’t study advice literature to find out about people’s actual behaviour. What it gives us is an insight into the beliefs, assumptions, social norms and social anxieties which preoccupied people (or which people were told they ought to be preoccupied with) in a given time and place. Studying it over time is one way of tracking changes in social norms. For instance, the proliferation of lists of ‘things not to say’ to various minority groups is an indicator of our current preoccupation with issues of ethnic and sexual/gender identity, which did not feature prominently in advice texts even 20 years ago, let alone 100.

But in the case of advice on how to talk to the opposite sex, what we learn from ‘things not to say’ lists is that our norms haven’t changed as much as we might think. Our technology would be unrecognizable to Emily Post; our ideas about men, women and language would not.

*Thanks to Melonie Fullick for reminding me of this comic gem.