Radical notions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A radical notion, indeed.



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


Woman-made language

From time to time in Language: A Feminist Guide, I think it’s good to reflect on the  herstory of feminist linguistic ideas and interventions. A while ago I wrote about the feminist dictionaries which proliferated during the 1970s and 1980s. And this week I want to write about another ambitious project of that era: the creation of a women’s language by the linguist and speculative fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin, who died earlier this year.

Stories about women’s languages—languages used only by a community’s women, and not known by the men—have been told since Europeans first travelled to the Americas, but it has generally turned out that these accounts were misleading. What early observers were noticing wasn’t the existence of completely different male and female languages, but significant variation in the way men and women used the same language: sometimes this resulted from the operation of taboo, with women being forbidden to utter certain words or sounds, and therefore resorting to variant forms or circumlocutions that men had no reason to use. More recently, some popular discussions of the Chinese script called Nushu (‘women’s writing’) have referred to it as a ‘women’s language’, but in fact it isn’t a separate language, it’s a different way of writing Chinese, which women developed at a time when they had no access to education. It’s a tribute to women’s ingenuity, but also a product of their historically subordinate status. The same is true of the fictional women’s language Suzette Haden Elgin developed in the 1980s.

In 1984 Elgin published Native Tongue, the first novel in a trilogy exploring ideas about language, gender and feminism. Rather like The Handmaid’s Tale, which came out the following year, Native Tongue is set in a dystopian future where North American women have lost their civil rights and are subject to the authority of their male relatives. The women whose lives the book centres on are linguists, members of a privileged but hated caste: in a world where Earth’s prosperity depends on interplanetary trade, it is linguists who perform the crucial task of facilitating communication between humans and extra-terrestrials. Linguist women are unlike others in that they work outside their homes as interpreters. At home they are responsible for bearing and rearing the next generation, and when their reproductive lives are over they are sent to the ‘Barren House’ to knit, gossip and drink tea. Or at least, that’s what their menfolk think they are doing: in fact they are planning to overthrow the patriarchy using the language they are busy creating—a new language which, unlike all previous languages, expresses the perceptions of women rather than men.

The theoretical idea which Elgin explores in this narrative was popular among 1980s radical feminists (readers of my own generation may associate it particularly with Dale Spender’s Man Made Language, first published in 1980). It’s a version of what’s commonly referred to as the ‘Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’, after the two American linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who proposed it in the early 20th century. Their hypothesis was that your perception of reality was shaped (or in more extreme versions, determined) by the grammar of your native language. A person who grew up speaking a ‘standard average European’ language would experience even such basic phenomena as time and space differently from one who grew up speaking, say, an indigenous American language like Hopi. The feminist spin on this idea, as implied by Spender’s title, was that language had been created by men, and expressed a male world-view, which women also internalized in the process of learning to speak. To escape from this form of patriarchal indoctrination, and give authentic voice to female experience, women needed to (re)invent language for themselves.

In Native Tongue, Elgin takes this idea both seriously and literally, by having her female linguist characters invent a new language, called Láadan, from scratch. She could have chosen to evoke this imaginary women’s language by simply scattering a few indicative words and phrases through the text, but she decided to take it a stage further by creating a full sound-system, grammatical structure and a basic vocabulary for Láadan. As she explained in an interview in 2007, she conceived of this as a ten-year thought experiment:

My hypothesis was that if I constructed a language designed specifically to provide a more adequate mechanism for expressing women’s perceptions, women would (a) embrace it and begin using it, or (b) embrace the idea but not the language, say “Elgin, you’ve got it all wrong!” and construct some other “women’s language” to replace it. The ten years went by, and neither of those things happened; Láadan got very little attention, even though SF3 actually published its grammar and dictionary and I published a cassette tape to go with it. Not once did any feminist magazine (or women’s magazine) ask me about the language or write a story about it. … My hypothesis therefore was proved invalid, and the conclusion I draw from that is that in fact women (by which I mean women who are literate in English, French, German, and Spanish, the languages in which Native Tongue appeared) do not find human languages inadequate for communication.

What did Elgin think would constitute ‘a more adequate mechanism for expressing women’s perceptions’? In the first place, she thought a women’s language would encode women’s perceptions in its core vocabulary. Her Láadan lexicon includes an elaborate vocabulary for specifically female bodily experiences: for instance, there’s a set of structurally related verbs with meanings like ‘to menstruate joyfully’, ‘to menstruate painfully’, ‘to menstruate early’ and ‘to menstruate for the first time’. There are also words expressing concepts derived from (what Elgin took to be) common female social experiences, like radiidin, meaning ‘a non-holiday: a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much of a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion, especially when there are too many guests and none of them help’; and ramimelh, meaning ‘to refrain from asking with evil intent, especially when it is clear that someone badly wants the other to ask’. It’s not that these ideas are inexpressible in English and other actually existing languages, but they can’t be expressed so economically. One of Elgin’s feminist grievances was that women are accused of ‘going on and on’ when they try to explain what they feel. She designed Láadan to forestall that criticism by condensing complicated experiences into single words.

She also designed the grammar of the language to pre-empt certain kinds of arguments about meaning or intention, which in her view often became an excuse for male hostility towards women (‘hey, don’t get upset, I only said X, I wasn’t being critical/accusing you of anything/telling you what to do!’ or ‘can’t you take a joke?’) In Láadan every sentence begins with a speech act marker indicating that what follows is a statement, question, request or command (Elgin suggests that the last of these should be rare among adults talking to other adults), and the marker has an ending showing how the speech act is intended (e.g. neutrally, angrily, humorously, to teach the hearer something or to tell a story). Sentences end with an ‘evidential’ marker (these exist in some natural languages too) revealing what evidence the speaker has for whatever they have just said (e.g. they know it’s true because they observed it directly, or they believe it because they heard it from a trusted source, or they saw it in a dream—or alternatively they don’t have any evidence). For instance, ‘the woman was weary’ can be expressed in Láadan as

Bíi [speech act marker indicating that what follows is a statement] eril [past time marker] óoha [weary] with [woman] wáa [evidential marker signalling that the information came to the speaker from a trusted source]

In her book about the history of constructed languages, Arika Okrent suggests that these grammatical features have little to do, specifically, with the perceptions of women, and that Elgin, being a linguist, probably included them just because she thought they were neat. That may be the best explanation of why she chose to make Láadan a tone language (not something you’d do if your top priority was getting standard average European speakers to learn it); but I think her grammatical choices probably did have a more political motivation. Apart from her speculative fiction, Elgin was also the author of a linguistic self-help book called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, which was animated by concern about the use of words to hurt, mislead or manipulate others. The grammar of Láadan may have been intended to make those things harder to do. That isn’t exclusively a feminist concern, but it’s in tune with the feminist values that are emphasized throughout her writing—in one critic’s summary, ‘community, communication and faith in the sisterhood of women’.

Elgin’s faith in sisterhood wasn’t always justified by the reception of Láadan. Some lesbian feminists accused her of prejudice on the grounds that the language contained no lesbian terminology. She apologized, and offered to rectify the omission by adding new lesbian vocabulary (she invited her critics to suggest words). But this encounter with the sometimes brutal realities of feminist politics caused her considerable distress. She also found it discouraging that while Láadan languished in obscurity, Klingon—a language constructed to express the worldview of hyper-masculine warriors—thrived. By the time she wrote the third novel in her trilogy, Earthsong, Elgin had concluded that the creation of a women’s language was not the solution to the problem of, as she put it, ‘humankind’s violence on this earth’. In this book Láadan has failed, just as Elgin thought it had failed in the real world, and the linguist women have turned to other forms of resistance. (I’ll say no more than that, since some of you may want to read the trilogy for yourselves–if you do, details are at the end of this post).

Back in the 1980s I loved reading the novels (as both a linguist and a feminist, how could I not), but I was never moved to learn the language: I was always sceptical about the idea of a language ‘expressing women’s perceptions’. Which perceptions would those be, and which women would they belong to? There is no set of perceptions which all women share. Women speak with many voices, in many languages, reflecting our different histories, cultures and political commitments. That doesn’t mean we can’t communicate, or find common ground. It just means we can’t take understanding, let alone sisterhood, for granted. These aren’t natural by-products of being female, but things we have to make an effort to create–accepting that we won’t always succeed.

I also believe that Dale Spender was wrong: just as there is no such thing as a universal language of women, so there is no ‘man made language’. In many times and places men have controlled the means through which speech and writing were publicly disseminated, but that doesn’t mean language itself was their creation. If language really belonged to men, and if it really forced women to perceive the world through a male patriarchal lens, how could Dale Spender have told us so in Man Made Language? How could Suzette Haden Elgin have created Láadan?

Though Elgin was disappointed by the lack of feminist enthusiasm for her creation, she still maintained that the experiment had been worthwhile. Perhaps she hadn’t entirely given up on it: she once said that patriarchal revolutions always failed because their leaders tried to take the quickest route from A to B, whereas a feminist revolution would succeed by being content to meander slowly towards its goal. Apparently she wanted to call the last volume of her trilogy The Meandering Water Tribe (a proposal her publisher vetoed). She compared the power of feminism to the force of water: ‘it wears away resistance gently but inexorably over time, and is almost impossible to withstand’.

The books in the Native Tongue Trilogy—Native Tongue (1984), The Judas Rose (1987) and Earthsong (1994) —were reissued in 2000-2002 and are still available.