Call the fishwife: thoughts on sex, class and swearing

Do men find women who swear unattractive? This old chestnut of a question recently popped up on social media after it was posed by Britain’s leading litter supplier, the Metro.  On my own timeline, by far the commonest answer was ‘who gives a fuck?’ But outside the feminist bubble, there was no shortage of young men expressing more conventional opinions.  Men like Hugh, 25, who told the Metro:

I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears. I feel it makes them seem more masculine… I’m more used to men swearing more.

If you asked 100 randomly-selected English speakers which sex swears more, the great majority would probably say ‘men’. For most of the last 100 years that was also what linguists thought. Otto Jespersen commented in 1922 on women’s ‘instinctive shrinking from coarse and gross expressions’. Half a century later Robin Lakoff suggested that the shrinking was not instinctive, but rather the result of social pressure. Women who expressed themselves forcefully were liable to be criticised for their ‘unladylike’ behaviour; among other things, this meant that they avoided ‘strong expletives’, and were more likely than men to use inoffensive substitutes like ‘fudge’.

But there was not much hard evidence to back up these claims. When researchers began to look more closely, they also began to suspect that, like many beliefs about the speech of men and women, this one had more to do with prescriptive gender norms than with the facts about our actual linguistic behaviour.

In 2005 the corpus linguist Tony McEnery published Swearing in English, a book whose first section, ‘How Brits Swear’, contains a systematic analysis of the use of swear words in the spoken component of the British National Corpus (BNC)—a sample of 10 million words transcribed from recordings made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Part of the sample consists of speech recorded at meetings or from radio discussions; the rest is informal conversation. Male and female speakers are represented in approximately equal numbers, and the corpus also includes speakers from a range of age groups and socioeconomic categories. This allowed McEnery to see how the frequency of swearing was affected by age, sex and social class.

So, what did he find? Well, age made a difference, along the lines you’d probably expect. The most prolific swearers were people under 25; after that age there was a steady decline. Class also had an influence, but it wasn’t a straightforward case of ‘the lower the class, the more people swear’. The highest frequencies were indeed found in the lowest socioeconomic strata, but the next most frequent swearers were the highest-status group, the professional middle class. (The BNC probably doesn’t include many representatives of the aristocracy, but they’ve never been shy about swearing either: some members of the Royal Family, like Prince Philip and Princess Anne, are famous for it.) In Britain it’s the people in the middle who swear the least.

What about sex? I’ve left it until last because unlike age and class, it turned out to have no effect on the overall frequency of swearing. If all types of swearing and all swear words were considered, there was no significant difference between men and women.

But if it isn’t true that men swear more, why do so many people insist that swearing is ‘unfeminine’? Hugh, 25, for instance, finds women who swear unattractive because ‘it makes them seem more masculine’. What’s the connection between swearing and masculinity?

One answer might be that we understand swearing as a form of aggression—a trait we think of as masculine, and find less acceptable in women. Recently, a book called Swearing is Good For You has popularised the theory that swearing evolved as a kind of safety valve, a way of ventilating negative emotions that stopped short of physical assault. I’m unconvinced by this argument. For one thing, swearing and physical violence often go together (the former may also precipitate the latter). But more importantly, a lot of swearing isn’t motivated by aggression. It’s common among friends (and particularly among same-sex friends) for the same reasons banter and gossip are common among friends: because the communal breaking of a social taboo (whether it’s gossiping about others’ business or uttering words you’re not supposed to say in public) is a symbol of intimacy and mutual trust.

Is it men who do the ‘aggressive’ swearing while women prefer the ‘solidary’ kind? Well, no, not really: the evidence shows that both sexes do both kinds. It may not match our preconceptions, but the historical record provides abundant evidence of female verbal aggression, very often directed against other women (and sometimes accompanied by physical violence).

The social historian Jonathan Healey describes an incident in Winchester in 1544, when two women started fighting in the street. According to witnesses, the first woman’s daughter came out of her house and subjected her mother’s adversary to a tirade of verbal abuse:

thow meseld faced [‘measle-faced’] hore, thow camest to towne with a lepers face & a skalled hed, And I defye thee utterly, for I wold thow knewist yt that the fowlest place of myn arse ys fayrer then thy face.

Another historian, Laura Gowing, cites a case from 1590, in which one London woman was heard to tell another,

thou art a whore an arrant whore a bitche yea worse than a bitche thou goest sawghting up and downe the towne after knaves and art such a whott tayled whore that neither one nor two nor ten nor twenty knaves will scarce serve thee.

This wasn’t just friendly joshing: the reason there’s a record of these altercations is that the parties ended up in court. We know from court documents that such aggressive exchanges between women were not rare.

Later on, though, the belief took hold that respectable women were incapable of swearing. In the early 1920s a Littlehampton woman named Edith Swan sent a large number of anonymous letters to her neighbours which were full of obscenities like ‘You bloody fucking flaming piss country whores go and fuck your cunt’. The first time she was prosecuted, the judge more or less directed the jury to acquit her because he could not believe that a woman of her appearance and demeanour would ever have used such indecent language. The person who got the blame was a less outwardly respectable woman, Rose Gooding, who was twice found guilty of libel before forensic evidence conclusively proved that Edith Swan was the author of all the letters.

This story points to another connection between swearing and masculinity. Recall Hugh’s assertion that ‘I find it quite vulgar if a woman swears’. The idea that swearing is ‘vulgar’ (in the modern sense of ‘impolite’ or ‘unrefined’) seems obvious enough, but etymologically ‘vulgar’ means ‘of the common people’—it has connotations of low social status. A similar concern was evident in the comments made by another man who was quoted in the Metro.  Jodel, 23, explained that he doesn’t swear himself, and doesn’t like anyone—male or female—swearing in his presence. However, he ‘doesn’t find it appealing when girls speak in certain dialects, for example, a colloquial regional slang’.

What these comments show is that forms of language which are associated with working class speakers (including swearing, street slang and regional dialect), are also perceived as ‘masculine’. A ‘feminine’ woman keeps it classy: she doesn’t soil her mouth, or men’s ears, with ‘vulgar’, low-status and nonstandard speech.

This mapping from class to gender (working class = masculine, middle class = feminine)  doesn’t only work for language, as you’ll know if you ever watched the reality TV show Ladette to Lady, in which young working class women were sent to finishing school to learn to behave like upper-class ‘ladies’. ‘Unfeminine’ was a word their teachers used repeatedly to describe every aspect of their self-presentation, from their speech to their deportment to their fashion choices. This wasn’t because they looked or acted like men: it was just that their understanding of what a woman should look or act like was more Bet Lynch than Elizabeth II. And that doesn’t match our cultural template for ‘proper’ femininity, which is based on the upper- or middle-class ‘lady’.

By contrast, our template for ‘proper’ masculinity is not the effete upper-class gentleman, it’s the set of working-class male archetypes parodied by the Village People—the cowboy, the construction worker, the sailor. These ‘real men’ are tough, they don’t mind their manners (or their grammar) and they swear like the proverbial troopers. That’s why, when Donald Trump talks about ‘shithole countries’ and ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’, his supporters don’t find it objectionable: like his baseball cap and his junk food diet, it’s seen as evidence that this over-privileged millionaire is really a man of the people. Female populist politicians have to be more careful, as Sarah Palin discovered in 2016 when she told an audience of Trump supporters that their candidate would ‘kick ISIS’s ass’–and was immediately criticised for her ‘profanity’.

Though the BNC data show women and men swearing with equal frequency, Tony McEnery (like Robin Lakoff) thinks the gendered double standard does have an effect, in that it leads women to avoid the ‘strongest’ words. His statistical analysis revealed that while both sexes had the same basic vocabulary, men were significantly more likely than women to say ‘fuck/fucking/fucker’, ‘jesus’ and ‘cunt’; women, by contrast, were significantly more likely than men to say ‘god’, ‘bloody’, ‘hell’, ‘shit’, ‘arsed’, ‘pig’, ‘piss/pissy’, ‘bugger’ and ‘bitch’. He also noted that some words were more frequently used to or about one sex than the other. For instance (and I’m guessing this won’t surprise you), it was women who got called ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’, while it was men who got called ‘wanker’ and ‘gay’. It was also men who were most often addressed or referred to as ‘cunts’. The word was sometimes applied to women, but its commonest use was from one man to another.

In more recent research with newly-collected data, McEnery has found that women no longer lag behind men in the frequency with which they use ‘fuck’. But in any case, the distinction between ‘strong’ and ‘mild’ swearing is one that will bear closer examination. Can offensiveness be treated as a constant, an inherent property of individual words, or does it vary in different contexts and social groups?

The offensiveness ranking McEnery used, originally produced for the British Board of Film Classification, is a typical example of what you get if you give people a list of offensive words and ask them to rate them on a five-point scale. It classifies ‘cunt’ and ‘motherfucker’ as ‘very strong’, ‘fuck’ as ‘strong’, ‘whore’—along with ‘bastard’ and ‘wanker’—as ‘moderate’, ‘arse’ and ‘bitch’ as ‘mild’, and ‘bloody’, ‘crap’ and ‘damn’ as ‘very mild’. Other surveys of this type have produced similar results, suggesting a high degree of consensus among English-speakers on the relative strength of various words. But these surveys ask people to judge words in isolation, whereas in real life our judgments of offensiveness are affected by the specifics of the situation. It won’t be irrelevant who is using a word to whom, or what message they are using it to communicate.

To see what I’m getting at, let’s go back to the 16th century cases in which one woman called another a ‘whore’. According to the BBFC ranking, this would count as a ‘moderate’ insult rather than a ‘strong’ one. But in context there was nothing moderate about it. Historically, calling a woman unchaste was the way you impugned her honour: it was an attack on her reputation which could have serious social consequences. ‘Whore’ and its synonyms were therefore regarded by women as extremely offensive and provocative words. In some communities they still are. One study conducted with working class women in Salford in the 1990s found that they viewed ‘slag’ as the most serious insult, closely followed by ‘slut’ and ‘prostitute’.

That wasn’t because they shied away from ‘strong expletives’. According to the researcher Susan Hughes, these were women who swore habitually and unapologetically: ‘their general conversation is peppered’, she reported, ‘with fuck, twat, bastard, and so on’. When she asked about the reasons for this, the women told her it was just ‘part of our way of talking’. They didn’t see it as anything special, and that’s consistent with the historical evidence that swearing has always been part of working class women’s linguistic repertoire. (Nor should we assume that it was totally absent from the repertoire of middle class women: while they may have avoided swearing in public, there is no reason to think they never swore among themselves.)

Yet it seems to be virtually an article of faith that women today swear more than previous generations. For those commentators who defend women’s right to swear (including both the writer of the Metro article and the author of Swearing is Good For You), this supposed change is a sign of progress—it shows how far women have come in the past half-century. Commentators who are critical of women swearing agree that it’s a sign of changing times, but they don’t think the change is for the better. Some argue that modern ideas of sex-equality have forced women to adopt ‘masculine’ behaviour in order to compete with or be accepted by men. Others suggest that women are doing it to shock, or because feminists have convinced them that it’s cool to be unfeminine and vulgar.

These arguments are (ironically) not new. Since the late 19th century, every increase in young women’s public visibility and independence has prompted comments on their alleged new enthusiasm for swearing (as well as for slang, smoking, drinking, ‘mannish’ clothes and ‘rowdy’ behaviour). The same observations were made about the ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, the ‘munitionettes’ who worked in munitions factories during World War I, and the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s. And there were similar debates on whether these women’s prolific swearing symbolised a new era of female freedom, or whether it was simply vulgar, unfeminine and immoral.

cropped-billingsgate-eloquence-by-james-gillray-published-by-hannah-humphrey-26-may-1795-national-portrait-gallery1.jpgWhether her behaviour is judged positively or negatively, the woman who swears is always seen as behaving like a man: it’s assumed, in other words, that there is no authentically female tradition of swearing. But in that case, how do we understand the 16th century women yelling insults like ‘measle-faced whore’, or the 20th century Salford women whose conversation was ‘peppered with fuck, twat and bastard’? What do we say about the fishwives pictured in this post, whose swearing was so legendary, their occupational title acquired the secondary sense of ‘foul-mouthed woman’? These women weren’t competing with men, nor rebelling against middle-class norms of femininity (which, as Susan Hughes says in her discussion of the Salford women, were completely irrelevant to their lives). They were doing their own thing, and in the communities they belonged to it was a thing women had done for generations.

Asking whether women should swear is a bit like asking whether women should have children out of wedlock, or weigh more than seven stone: it’s a question designed for no other purpose than to allow people to air their prejudices. And those prejudices are, in most cases, socially selective. If a single mother on benefits peppers her discourse with ‘fuck, twat and bastard’, people say she’s ignorant, unable to express herself in any other way.  If a stand-up comedian who went to public school uses the same words in his act, people say it’s edgy and subversive. Men like the Metro’s Hugh take their selective prejudices into their personal relationships, reserving the right to swear themselves while saying it’s a turn-off when women do it.

It’s depressing to witness 25-year old men recycling opinions in 2018 that were already clichés in 1918. My message to them is simple: ‘yes, women swear. They always have and they always will. Get over it. Move on’.


Rhetorical questions

With the annual round of party conferences in full swing, it’s peak season for old-fashioned political speech-making, with speeches crafted in advance to be delivered in person to a live and often boisterous audience. I say ‘old-fashioned’ because in the age of TV, Twitter and TED talks, the traditional art of political oratory is often said to be in decline: there’s little doubt that it’s become less important as other genres and media have become more so. But ‘great’ political speeches still have an iconic cultural status, as Phillip Collins, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, reminded Times readers last week when he published a list of his all-time top ten. They were:

  1. Winston Churchill, ‘This was their finest hour’ (1940)
  2. Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream’ (1968)
  3. Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address (1863)
  4. Queen Elizabeth I, speech to the troops at Tilbury (1588)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘A tryst with destiny’, speech greeting India’s independence (1947)
  6. Nelson Mandela, ‘an ideal for which I am prepared to die’, speech to the South African Supreme Court (1964)
  7. John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, Inauguration speech (1961)
  8. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
  9. William Wilberforce, ‘Let us put an end to this inhuman traffic’, anti-slavery speech in Parliament (1789)
  10. Barack Obama, ‘I have never been more hopeful’ (2012).

This list (though limited to speeches made in English—lest we forget, other languages are available) is in many ways traditional and predictable. It obeys, for instance, the unbreakable rule that any ranking compiled for a British publication must put Churchill in first place (whereas the US equivalent will always give that honour to an American). It includes a number of speakers who turn up on just about every list of this type—not only Churchill, King and Kennedy but also Lincoln, Mandela and–increasingly–Obama. And as is also traditional, there are not many women on it.

In fairness to Phillip Collins I should say that two women is actually a higher number than most list-compilers manage. Trawling through a sample of other ‘greatest speeches of all time’ lists reveals that most of them feature just one token woman, while some contain none at all. Elizabeth I, Collins’s first female choice, quite often fills the token woman slot, despite the fact that she may never have made the speech in question (the text we are familiar with–the one about having the heart of a King in the body of a weak and feeble woman–appeared in a letter written nearly 40 years after the event). Other popular picks include the ‘iron ladies’ Margaret Thatcher (‘the lady’s not for turning’) and Golda Meir. The more progressive list-compilers sometimes award the prize, as Collins does, to a suffragist/suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, or occasionally Sojourner Truth.

It is not surprising that men predominate in the historical canon of great speeches. The speeches we remember as ‘great’ are typically delivered by someone in a position of authority (six of the speakers in the Times top ten spoke as the monarch, president or prime minister of their country), often on some solemn national occasion (like the moment preceding or following a battle, the inauguration of a president or, in Nehru’s case, a new independent state) and in an august public setting (like the courtroom for Mandela, or Parliament for Churchill and Wilberforce). With few exceptions, until the 20th century, women were excluded from most of the roles and many of the public forums where this kind of ‘high’ oratory was practised.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s immediate predecessors, the abolitionist and suffragist women of the 19th century, fought a prolonged battle for their right to advance their causes through public speaking. The problem they faced was that women’s public speech, particularly if the audience was mixed and the subject political, was not merely disapproved of, it was considered scandalous, and condemned in much the same terms as adultery and prostitution. In the 1830s, Congregationalist ministers in the USA issued a letter warning that a woman who presumed to give lectures, or address a political meeting, would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour in the dust’. This attitude provoked considerable anger among politically active women. In 1848, when delegates assembled in Seneca Falls for the first Convention on Women’s Rights, they adopted two tartly-worded resolutions hitting back at their critics and insisting on their right to a public platform:

Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in the feats of the circus.

Resolved, therefore, That, …it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held.

But that was 170 years ago. Today, though women continue to be attacked for speaking out (the contemporary weapons of choice being rape and death threats rather than warnings of infertility and eternal damnation), they do now have a voice in all the forums which once excluded them. They speak in courtrooms, to congregations, in Parliament and at party conferences. So why don’t they feature in lists of great speakers from the late 20th and 21st centuries? Do we really have to go back to 1908, let alone 1588, to find a truly memorable speech by a woman?

The Centre for Women and Democracy (CWD) says ‘of course not’. They point out that there’s a vicious circle: women don’t get included in the standard lists and anthologies of great speeches, so their words aren’t preserved and studied, and that just reinforces the idea that women don’t do oratory. To redress the balance, the CWD website offers its own list of thirteen outstanding political speeches by women. It includes most of the usual suspects (no Elizabeth I, but we do get Emmeline Pankhurst, Sojourner Truth and Margaret Thatcher), along with notable speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, Barbara Castle, Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton (her Beijing ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech), Bernadette Devlin, Indira Gandhi, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Mary Robinson, Anita Roddick and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There are many more of these ‘alternative’ lists of great speeches by women. A blog about women and public speaking called The Eloquent Woman has an index which runs to 262 entries, and a series of lists (with links to transcripts, video clips and expert commentary) organised by theme, genre and type of speaker (the selection includes speeches made by activists, athletes, entertainers and scientists, as well as politicians). Some of the historical choices were new to me (I hadn’t previously come across Nellie McClung, a Canadian suffrage campaigner who staged a debate on the question ‘Should men vote?’ in 1914); others were useful reminders about the oratorical skills displayed by women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and Eleanor Roosevelt. And there is also a decent selection of speeches by contemporary women activists like Malala Yousafzai and Caroline Criado-Perez.

Interest in this subject is not confined to educational and political websites. In March this year Marie Claire magazine published its own all-female top ten, which featured Virginia Woolf, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton, Sojourner Truth, Nora Ephron, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem’s 1971 ‘Address to the Women of America’Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny speech’ and Maya Angelou’s performance of her poem ‘On the pulse of morning’ at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Many of the same selections turn up in most of the all-female lists I’ve looked at, suggesting that in effect there is a parallel ‘women’s canon’.

The fact that such a thing can be constructed must surely give the lie to the (still widespread) belief that women are less skilled in the art of oratory, or that they are simply not very interested in it (an idea which has been promoted both by evolutionary psychologists, who argue that flashy verbal performances of all kinds are an evolved male strategy for attracting mates, and by some feminists, who contend that women prefer collaborative forms of exchange, or that they are less concerned with orating and more concerned with getting shit done). Of course, it’s true that not everyone is equally good at public speaking: truly gifted performers are relatively rare, and there are many people who find any kind of public utterance a hideous ordeal. But I don’t think there’s a clear-cut male-female divide here. It does women no favours to suggest that there is something inherently male about the ability to use language to persuade, inspire or move an audience.

But in that case, you might ask, what keeps all but a tiny handful of women speakers off ‘all-time greats’ lists like the one in the Times? If they’re really as good as men, why do they need to be separated off into a parallel canon of their own?

This is, of course, a question which has also been asked in the past about art, literature, philosophy and science, and the answer usually turns out to be at least partly about sexism and double standards. In the case of public speaking, one thing that works against women is the ingrained cultural resentment of female authority which I’ve written about here, and the associated tendency to judge women’s linguistic performance negatively, using criteria which are not applied to men (those shrill voices! That grating tone! And just look at that face/hair/pantsuit/those tits!) Not only does this kind of criticism lead to an unjust downgrading of women’s actual verbal skills, anticipating and trying to pre-empt it can affect the quality of their performance, by making it more difficult for a female speaker to feel at ease when addressing an audience.

I also think there’s another kind of sexism which comes into play when people are choosing great political speeches. It’s clear when you look at the lists that greatness isn’t just about the speaker’s (or the speech-writer’s) rhetorical skill. ‘Great’ speeches are also remembered for defining a historical moment, while at the same time expressing an idea or a sentiment which transcends its time and place to convey some more universal human truth. Here, women—and more especially feminists, whose subject is their own and other women’s condition—encounter a version of the more general ‘default male’ problem: whereas men’s political concerns are seen as universal, women’s are seen as particular to women. It’s striking in this connection that over half of the speeches selected by the Centre for Women and Democracy are specifically about women’s rights—even though many of the speakers (politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Barbara Castle and Hillary Clinton) made speeches on other subjects too. It seems women speakers are most likely to attract attention when they stay in their allotted female lane, but at the same time it is held against them that they are ‘only’ talking about ‘women’s issues’. Even something like Hillary Clinton’s ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing (ironically, since the whole point of it was to assert women’s equal claim to the status of human beings) gets relegated to the category of the non-universal, and therefore the not-really-great.

In the end, though, does it really matter how many or how few women appear on lists of great orators? These lists may make good clickbait, but in the end they’re surely meaningless: real politics is not a varsity debating competition in which Churchill faces off against Lincoln, King takes on Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst competes with Sojourner Truth. These were different individuals responding to different situations (on three continents over a period of 200 years), and ranking them against each other is absurd.

It might also be argued, as I said at the beginning, that this particular genre—the set-piece formal speech—has ceased to matter much at all. Eloquence is not the valuable commodity it once was: today’s most successful politicians are not the ones who can deliver a fine oration, but the ones who know how to use contemporary media to put their messages, and their personalities, across. Just look at the present occupant of the White House, perhaps the least eloquent US president of all time. Then again, it’s only about a decade since the US first elected Barack Obama, whose eloquence the list-compilers now compare to Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s–and whose inspiring way with words was clearly a major asset in his campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, too, though not in Obama’s league as an orator, has shown with his packed public meetings and rallies that there is still something very powerful about the live, unmediated connection between a political speaker and the audience which has come together to hear them.

So, I don’t think it’s true that speeches no longer matter. They aren’t the only form of political communication that matters, but they remain part of our political culture, and indeed of our culture more generally (tweets and memes have not replaced speeches at weddings, funerals, retirement dos and the like). And if the ancient tradition of speech-making still has a place in modern life, then it does matter whether women are acknowledged in the record of that tradition. The inclusion of a single token woman on every list does not do their contribution justice. Aficianados of political oratory could learn a lot from some of the items in The Eloquent Woman‘s index–beginning with the fact that they exist.


Postscript: I asked readers to nominate inspiring women/feminist speakers, and here are some of their suggestions.

The earliest speech anyone mentioned was Helen Keller’s call to ‘Strike against war’, from 1916. The main thing most people know about Helen Keller concerns the way she learnt to communicate after a childhood illness left her deaf and blind; but as an adult she was a committed socialist who campaigned actively for workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and world peace. This stirring speech, made in Carnegie Hall in New York City, attacked the then-ongoing campaign to prepare Americans for war, on the grounds that war would sacrifice workers’ lives to protect the interests of capitalists.

Moving on to the second half of the 20th century, several readers nominated Angela Davis as a powerful and compelling speaker (‘even when I don’t agree with her’, added one). Here’s a speech Davis made in 1969–a call to resist war abroad and fight oppression at home which has something in common with Helen Keller’s oration more than 50 years earlier. And here you can watch Davis speaking at this year’s Women’s March in Washington DC. That event was prompted by the election of Donald Trump; another memorable attack on Trump, which several readers mentioned, was made during the campaign, in a speech delivered by Michelle Obama in New Hampshire last October. (Of all the recent speeches I watched while writing this postscript, this was the one which I thought displayed the most impressive ability to connect with an audience both intellectually and emotionally.)

But it wasn’t all about women from the US. Among British politicians, readers nominated Green MP Caroline Lucas, and Labour’s Emily Thornberry, as skilful and inspiring speakers. Some also reminded me that many excellent women speakers have been trades unionists, citing Unite’s Julie Phipps as a contemporary case in point. And one reader drew my attention to the speech made at this year’s Labour’s conference by 16-year old school student Lauren Stocks. Her impassioned performance–and the ovation it received–underlines my earlier point that the art of speech-making is still alive, still relevant, and still capable of reaching people in a way other forms of communication do not.


The clue’s in the name

The lawyer Miriam González Durántez was unimpressed this week when she was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event by someone who addressed her as ‘Mrs Clegg’ (she is married to the MP and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg).  The Daily Mail deplored her ‘aggressive feminism’,  while below the line its readers, inevitably, complained about bloody foreigners with no respect for British traditions.

Meanwhile, in the House of Commons, Emily Thornberry MP–who is not a foreigner but rather the Shadow Foreign Secretary–protested to the Speaker after Theresa May called her ‘Lady Nugee’ (Thornberry’s husband, it transpires, is Sir Christopher Nugee).  Whereas ‘Mrs Clegg’ seems to have been a careless mistake, ‘Lady Nugee’ was evidently a deliberate taunt. Even as May apologised, she found it necessary to inform the House that she herself had been known by her husband’s name for the last 36 years.

You might have thought that if there was one thing we could all agree on in the year 2017, it would be the right of every individual to be referred to by the personal name of their own choice. English law affirms that right: as long as you aren’t trying to defraud anyone, you may go by whatever name you like. So why is there still so much controversy about what married women choose to call themselves?

Let’s begin, logically enough, at the beginning. In her informative and readable account of the history of marital name-changing, Sophie Coulombeau explains that hereditary surnames were brought to these shores by the Normans who conquered England in the 11th century. (Or to put it in Mail readers’ terms, by bloody foreigners with no respect for Anglo-Saxon traditions.) The Normans also introduced the doctrine of ‘coverture’, according to which wives were vassals, with no legal existence independent of their husbands. It followed that when a woman married she would ‘lose every surname except “wife of”’.

A few hundred years later, this originally alien custom had come to be considered an English tradition. Writing in 1605, William Camden described surnames as the foundation ‘whereon the glory and credit of men is grounded, and by which the same is conveyed to the knowledge of posterity’. Women from wealthy and powerful families shared this view, and over the next two centuries a number of them would petition the King or Parliament for the right to take action to prevent their names from dying out. (Frances Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia is a fictional exploration of this theme, featuring an heiress who can only inherit if her husband takes her name.)

These women’s motivations were more dynastic than feminist, but in the 19th century surnames did become a feminist concern. Probably the best known of all campaigners on this issue was the American abolitionist and feminist Lucy Stone. At her wedding in 1855 the minister read a statement announcing that she would keep her own name, and criticising the laws that

refuse to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being, while they confer on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority, investing him with legal powers which no honorable man would exercise, and which no man should possess.

Soon afterwards she challenged the authorities who refused to register a land purchase in the name ‘Lucy Stone’, and was told by a lawyer that, in the US as in England, the prohibition had no legal basis. Later on, though, a number of US states would enact laws to make married women’s access to official documents like drivers’ licenses, and in some cases even the right to vote, conditional on their using their husband’s surname. It was not until the 1970s that these laws were overturned. At that point, women on both sides of the Atlantic were both legally and socially free to choose whether to keep or change their names. That did not, however, put an end to the argument; it only marked the beginning of a new phase.

As with titles (‘is that Miss, Mrs, Ms or Mx?’), and pronouns, the introduction of choice into a previously rigid system makes all the options politically non-neutral. If you stick with tradition you can no longer say you’re doing it because there’s no alternative: you’ll be indicating that your attitudes to marriage are traditional. Rejecting tradition conveys the opposite message. Whatever your reasons for wanting to be called, say, ‘Miriam González Durántez’ rather than ‘Miriam Clegg’ (you might just hate the name ‘Clegg’, or you might want your name to symbolise your Spanish national origins), your preference will be interpreted as a feminist statement. For many women, who are neither die-hard traditionalists nor militant feminists, this situation creates a dilemma. How have they negotiated it over the past 40 years?

All research on English-speaking women’s marital naming choices since the 1970s shows that the introduction of choice has not produced a wholesale shift away from tradition. Both in the US and the UK, the great majority of married women have continued to take their husbands’ names. The size of the majority has fluctuated over time. The percentage of name-keepers increased sharply in the 1970s, rose to a peak in the 1980s, and then held steady for several years before declining noticeably in the 1990s. By 2010 one US study reported that 94% of native-born married women used their husband’s names. More recently it’s been claimed that ‘maiden names’ (an expression I’d like to ban) are on the rise again. If so, though, they are rising from a pretty low baseline.

Married women who keep their original names are not just a minority, they’re a minority of a minority–they are heavily concentrated in the elite professional class. Name-keeping is strongly correlated with having at least one degree, and you’re most likely to be a keeper if both you and your husband have more than one. Another strong correlation is with the woman’s age at marriage. Women who marry in their early 20s are more likely to change their names than those who marry later (a group that overlaps significantly with the category of highly-educated women). Economists have argued that this need not be because the women concerned are feminists. If a professional woman marries when she’s already established a reputation (aka ‘made a name’ for herself), then—regardless of her political beliefs—it makes sense for her not to change her name.

But there are other factors which have been shown to influence women’s choices, and which do seem to be related to social and political attitudes. For instance, religious believers are more likely to change their names than non-believers, and so are women who grew up in small towns rather than big cities.

There are also some racial and ethnic differences. African American women, including those with higher degrees, are more likely to be changers than white women; other women of color, by contrast, are more likely than white women to be keepers. (It’s been speculated that the African American pattern may reflect the historical knowledge among Black women that their enslaved ancestors were denied the right to marry—name-changing in this group may be more meaningful as a symbol of (Black) emancipation than of (female) subservience.)

One study conducted in 2011 investigated the connection between attitudes to marital name-changing and attitudes to gender issues more generally. On the naming question its findings were depressing: a large majority of respondents agreed that it is usually better for a woman to take her husband’s name than to keep her birth name, and a significant minority thought it would be a good idea to revive the old state laws requiring this. The responses are also revealing about what’s really behind one of the commonest arguments for name-changing: ‘everyone in a family should have the same name’. Presented with the statement ‘It’s OK for a man to take his wife’s name when he marries’ (a strategy which would be equally compatible with the ‘one family, one name’ principle), over half of the respondents disagreed, and just over 30% disagreed strongly. Coverture may be legally defunct, but its cultural traces evidently linger on (‘a husband and wife are one person, and that person is the husband’).

When respondents were asked to explain why they thought name-changing was or wasn’t preferable to name-keeping, supporters of the traditional practice tended to express what the researchers labelled a ‘collectivist’ rather than ‘individualist’ view of women’s role: they believed it was the responsibility of a wife to put her family first. Not surprisingly, this view was strongly expressed by the most conservative respondents, including some who cited Biblical pronouncements on the authority of husbands over wives. But it was also expressed by some women who considered themselves feminists (though these women did not really explain how it serves the collective good for all family members to share, specifically, the husband’s name).

I found this aspect of the study interesting, because most discussions treat the decision to keep or change one’s name as a purely individual choice, made on the basis of a woman’s personal convictions. Yet when I hear the married women I know discussing their own decisions, I’m always struck by how much of what they say is about other people’s attitudes or feelings. I’ve heard women who kept their names say things like ‘I’m lucky, my husband wasn’t bothered either way’; I’ve heard feminist friends who changed their names say things like ‘I didn’t want to, but it was really important to my parents/in-laws’. Part of what it means to be a woman in our society is that you can’t just disregard others’ feelings—or at least, not without being harshly judged. So in many cases it’s an oversimplification to treat a woman’s choice as a direct reflection of her political beliefs. Her husband’s and both families’ attitudes may be at least as relevant as her own.

As someone who came of age in the mid-1970s, though, I do find it remarkable how controversial this issue has remained. I’d thought I would never blog about this hoary old chestnut of a subject; I’d thought the days were over when even the Daily Mail could make a fuss about a couple of high-profile women not using their husbands’ names. And if I’m honest, despite what I’ve just said about the pressure women feel to consider others, I’m always both surprised and a little disappointed when a student, or a younger colleague, asks me to start calling her by a new, married name.

In my own youth, just keeping the name you’d always had was quite a long way from the cutting edge of ‘aggressive feminism’. I knew several women in the early 1980s who regarded surnames in general as offensively patriarchal, and who had substituted their mother’s given name, or something new-age-y like a colour-term or the name of a tree. I knew one woman who had changed her given name and dropped her surname entirely (though I doubt the resulting nom de guerre will have survived the age of the computer and the tyranny of the drop-down menu). I knew of a commune where all the children had the same last name, ‘Wild’, which belonged to none of their various parents. Does any of this still go on now, or is name-keeping (and its slightly less assertive cousin, hyphenating) as daring as today’s young people get?

When people aren’t invoking the ‘one family, one name’ principle to justify sticking with tradition, they’ll most often be shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘hey, it’s only a name. It doesn’t define me as a person’. But while I understand what they mean, I think they’re overlooking something important. The custom of women taking their husbands’ surnames was historically part of a legal and social system that did define women—as non-persons. And the outcry, even today, when a woman chooses a name that symbolises her independent personhood, suggests that the old assumptions are not yet dead. A woman’s name will be ‘only a name’ when no one cares what it is, or has an opinion on what it should be.

‘Language changes, deal with it’

Last October the writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett told her followers on Twitter how her boyfriend had reacted to her new Georgia O’Keeffe print—by complaining that ‘you’ve put a big vagina on our wall’. Then she added:

Ten points for the first pedant who tweets me “it’s a vulva”. Language changes, deal with it.

As you’ll know if you read my post lamenting the state of most people’s female genital vocabulary, when it comes to ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ my feminist heart is with the pedants. But in my linguist’s head I know that Cosslett is right. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. If enough people understand a word to mean X, then X is what it means.

Even pedants, if pressed, will generally acknowledge that language changes, and that the meanings of words are no exception. ‘Silly’ no longer means ‘holy’. ‘Vagina’ no longer means ‘sheath’. But there’s still a strong folk-belief that change (along with its precursor, variation) is undesirable, dysfunctional, a threat to communication. If words mean different things to different people, and if their meanings are constantly shifting, how can we understand each other, or have rational, meaningful dialogue?

In modern liberal democracies there’s a particular fear that the tendency for meaning to change as words are used will be exploited deliberately by the powerful and the unscrupulous. If we don’t stand firm, we’ll be at the mercy of dictators who use language not to communicate, but to obfuscate and manipulate. Since Trump and his gang took office, there’s been a deluge of commentary on this theme. You can hardly open a newspaper or scroll through Facebook without encountering some new complaint about the ‘abuse’ or ‘perversion’ of language.

The case that’s attracted most attention so far is Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’, referring to the false claims made by the White House press secretary about how many people attended Trump’s inauguration. Conway’s lame attempt to defend the indefensible prompted scores of commentators to accuse her of trying to redefine the meaning of the word ‘fact’. In the words of one Huffington Post contributor:

Alternative facts are not facts. They are untruths. They are LIES. Here, look, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what a fact is: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality”.

Merriam-Webster’s intervention (tweeting out the definition of ‘fact’) was widely applauded: the Guardian even hailed the birth of a new superhero, ‘Dictionary Guy’, fighting lies and demagoguery by simply restating the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. Other critics invoked Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, with his absurd delusions of semantic grandeur (‘when I use a word, it means whatever I choose it to mean’), or compared Conway’s rhetoric to George Orwell’s fictional Newspeak, a language designed not merely to restrict the public utterance of inconvenient truths, but to stifle dissent at source by making it literally unthinkable.

The criticism aimed at Conway was richly deserved (ditto the ridicule, in the form of jokes like ‘I’m not drunk, officer, I’m alternative sober’). But there’s a problem with the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. They don’t. If they did, their meanings would never change, and there would never be any argument about them.

It’s true, of course, that some words provoke more argument than others. I’ve never witnessed a heated debate about the meaning of ‘cat’ or ‘trombone’. By contrast, I imagine that most people reading this have at some time been involved in an argument about the meaning of ‘feminism’, or ‘sexism’, or any number of other ‘hot-button’ terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism’, which people with opposing political views define in different and conflicting ways. As the linguist Philip Seargeant recently observed, ‘disputing the meanings of words is always part of political debate’. And it isn’t just the ‘hot-button’ terms:  one current court case, about the the right of parents to take their children on holiday during the school term, has involved hours of legal argument about what ‘regular’ means. Wherever there are conflicts of interest, there will also be conflicts about the meanings of key terms.

Insisting that ‘words have non-negotiable meanings’–and that your meaning is the true meaning whereas your opponent’s is a ‘perversion of language’–is a time-honoured rhetorical move in arguments about disputed terms. But it’s a move that tends to favour  conservatives, because it’s most effective when deployed in defence of an older usage against a newer one. And typically what’s behind that defence is not just resistance to linguistic change, but opposition to whatever social change has produced a new way of using words.

When I first read the complaint about ‘alternative facts’ which I quoted earlier from the Huffington Post, I had a feeling of déjà vu, as if I’d seen it somewhere before. Eventually I realised what it reminded me of:

A same-sex marriage is not a marriage. It’s a parody of a marriage. It’s GROTESQUE. Here, the dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what marriage is. ‘Marriage is the union of a man and a woman’.

This phraseology is mine, but I didn’t invent the argument. Opponents of marriage equality really did say all these things. They repeatedly invoked the non-negotiable meaning of the word ‘marriage’ as a reason why the law could not be changed, citing the dictionary almost as often as the Bible.

If you’re as old as I am you may also remember when conservatives routinely appealed to the ‘real’ meanings of words to resist feminist demands for non-sexist or gender-inclusive terminology (‘etymologically, “man” just means “person”’), and to protest against the ‘hijacking’ of ‘gay’ (‘don’t let sexual deviants deprive us of a word which—according to my dictionary—means “cheerful or brightly coloured”’). These doughty defenders of the language were also fond of invoking Orwell: they rarely missed an opportunity to equate the linguistic innovations they labelled ‘political correctness gone mad’ with Newspeak, or to describe the ‘PC brigade’ as a new thought police, intent on eliminating not just the words they found offensive, but any worldview opposed to their own.

For decades, the argument that words have non-negotiable meanings has been used by the Right as a stick to beat the Left with. Feminists, anti-racists and campaigners for LGBT rights have all been accused of perverting language and destroying meaning. Now it’s the Left that levels these charges against the Right. Of course it’s important–and urgent–to  resist the new regime in the US, and the rise of the far right elsewhere. But is using the Right’s own (bad) arguments the best way to go about it?

You might answer that question with another: what is the alternative? Am I suggesting we should just shrug our shoulders, and say ‘language changes, deal with it’? The short answer to that is ‘no’. We do have to deal with the fact that language changes–meaning is always in the process of being negotiated–but we should also remember that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The things which can influence the way words are used, and therefore what people will take them to mean, include social changes, technological changes, and–sometimes–political interventions.

As a concrete historical example, consider the word ‘rape’. The earliest meaning of ‘rape’ recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the act of taking by force, especially the seizure of property by violent means’. It subsequently developed a more specialised use, referring specifically to the taking of women by force: it was applied to the practice of bride abduction, as well as to sexual assaults committed without the intention to marry the victim. The framing of rape as a crime, in either case, was still about taking what did not belong to you: a woman could not be raped by her husband (or in the case of an enslaved woman, her master), since he was already her legal owner.

There are still places in the world where rape is treated as a crime of property, but in the part of the world where I live this has changed. Today, English law defines ‘rape’ as an act of penile penetration to which consent has not been given (or to which it cannot validly be given because the person concerned is underage or incapacitated). There are still, as we know, many arguments (and myths) about what constitutes consent, but it’s generally agreed that consent is what’s at issue. And while this shift in the meaning of ‘rape’ reflects a long term historical shift, both in attitudes to violence and in the legal status of women, it also reflects the more specific influence of feminist campaigns, which explicitly challenged the definitions found both in expert (e.g. legal) sources and in everyday talk.

Another form of political intervention that can influence the way words are used involves appropriating your opponent’s words, reinflecting them to express a meaning that’s at odds with the original intention, and circulating the result as widely as possible. The ‘alternative X’ jokes mentioned earlier, which ridicule Kellyanne Conway’s attempt to rebrand lies as ‘alternative facts’, are one example; another is the way some of the government agencies Trump has gagged have adopted ‘alt’, as in ‘alt-right’, in naming the unofficial social media accounts they’ve set up in defiance of the gag (for instance, the National Park Service’s new Twitter handle is @AltNatParSer).

Most recently there’s been a feminist intervention, reacting to reports that women working for the Trump administration had been ordered to ‘dress like women’. The illustration at the top of the post is an example of the most common response: posting photos of yourself, or other women, wearing anything from a tux to a spacesuit. Other responses employed words to undermine the intended meaning (‘dress in a feminine manner’) by refusing to accept its sexist premise (‘there’s a certain way women should dress’) and recasting it as a vacuous tautology. Several tweets offered step-by-step instructions like (1) Be a woman. (2) Put on any clothes you like. (3) That’s it.

This kind of ‘rapid response’ intervention differs from a campaign to change the way people understand the word ‘rape’. The stakes are lower, and the effects will be more limited. It’s unlikely, for instance, that being ridiculed on Twitter will make the people responsible for the ‘dress like a woman’ edict feel obliged to reverse their policy (though I do think humour has its uses when you’re dealing with people this self-regarding–they’d almost certainly prefer fear and anger, which make them feel powerful, to mockery and disrespect). But the trick is to keep doing it: keep contesting the credibility of what they say, keep disputing their assumptions and their logic, keep showing that there’s more than one way to define what’s ‘alternative’ or what it means to ‘dress like a woman’. Keep puncturing the illusion–because it is an illusion–that the powerful, like Humpty Dumpty, can just decide what words will mean for everyone.

Feminism has a long history of trying to change the way words are used. We’ve invented new words and we’ve redefined old ones. We’ve argued about what words mean, both with our opponents and among ourselves. Arguments about meaning–and attempts to influence it–play a role in every kind of politics. If that’s an abuse of language, then all of us are guilty.


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.



[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.)

Personally speaking

Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

The amazing disappearing ‘women’

September began with some good news: Purvi Patel, the woman sentenced to 20 years for ‘feticide’ by an Indiana court, was finally released from prison after her conviction was overturned. But the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood warned that the fight wasn’t over. ‘People’, it said, ‘are still being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’. The organisation had already commented on another welcome development, New York State’s decision to stop levying sales tax on sanitary products. Once again, though, there was a hitch: not all drugstores had implemented the change, and some ‘menstruators’ were still being charged.

Planned Parenthood is not alone in its careful avoidance of the word ‘women’. Last year the Midwives’ Alliance of North America rewrote its core competencies document using ‘inclusive’ terms like ‘pregnant individuals’, to acknowledge that some of the individuals in question do not identify as women. And let’s not forget the UK Green Party’s brilliant solution to the same problem—putting women, trans and non-binary people into a single category of ‘non-men’.

Expressions like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘non-men’ are controversial among feminists, not only because the political issue they relate to is controversial, but also because the terms themselves are still relatively new. With vocabulary it’s novelty that breeds contempt, while familiarity promotes acceptance: the more frequently we encounter a term, the less we stop to think about its implications.This makes it easy to overlook what isn’t new about expressions like ‘pregnant people’. These particular terms are of recent origin, but they exemplify two tendencies with a much longer history: the tendency to prefer inclusive to gender-specific language, and the tendency to avoid the word ‘women’.

Back in the 1970s, when feminists began campaigning for institutions like publishing houses, universities and local councils to adopt non-sexist language policies, one argument that was often used against them was that their proposals would just replace one form of bias (against women) with another (against men). In English-speaking communities, this concern about avoiding bias against either sex often led to a preference for gender ‘neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ terms which could, in theory, apply equally to both.  For instance, one set of 1980s guidelines proposed replacing ‘maternal instinct’ with ‘parental instinct’, on the basis that it was sexist to suggest that men had no natural urge to nurture their children. ‘Parental instinct’ didn’t catch on (perhaps because it misses the point about why ‘maternal instinct’ is sexist), but other expressions using the inclusive ‘parent’–notably ‘parenting’–have now become so normalised, it’s strange to think that they were once regarded as awkward ‘PC’ neologisms.

Some of the inclusive terms that were introduced between the 1970s and the 1990s are less familiar to the average English-speaker because they belong to a more technical or bureaucratic register. An example is the term ‘gender-based violence’, which is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organisations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella-term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’.

If the two phrases are just synonyms, though, why prefer the gender-inclusive formulation to the more specific wording?  One organisation which attempts to explain this is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The relevant section of its website says:

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms that are often used interchangeably as most gender-based violence is inflicted by men on women and girls. However, it is important to retain the ‘gender-based’ aspect of the concept as this highlights the fact that violence against women is an expression of power inequalities between women and men.

But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?)  Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being.

That’s also how it seems to be interpreted in some of the more recent official definitions. For instance, the guidelines published in 2005 by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an international co-ordinating body for humanitarian groups) say that

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.

I don’t think most people reading this definition would conclude that ‘gender-based violence’ means the same as ‘violence against women’.

You might think this is all just semantic hair-splitting: what difference does it make if the terms are specific or inclusive? One common answer to this question is that inclusive terms are problematic because they misrepresent the facts. Arguments about this become wars of statistics, with each side challenging the other’s claims about how many ‘pregnant people’ do not identify as women, or what proportion of ‘gender-based violence’ is perpetrated by women against men. But for the purpose of choosing linguistic labels, I don’t think the numbers are the point. Terms like ‘violence against women’/‘gender-based violence’ are not just labels for statistical trends we observe in the world, they’re conceptual categories we use to understand the world. From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual.

Feminists conceptualise male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women—including those who will never experience an actual assault—have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis.

As one feminist remarked on Twitter, there’s a parallel here with the self-serving faux-inclusiveness of ‘All Lives Matter’, a slogan adopted by some white people in response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The substitution of ‘all’ for ‘Black’ is an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s focus on institutional racism by presenting it as narrow and exclusionary. ‘Why do you only care about Black lives?  Shouldn’t we affirm the value of every human life?’  It’s neutralising the political challenge by reframing a specific problem as a universal one. ‘All lives matter’. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We don’t need feminism, we need humanism’. The effect is to make a problem of structural inequality–racism or class privilege or male dominance–disappear.

When feminist organisations adopt inclusive terms, their motives are different: they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control—and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behaviour of women. Inclusive language obscures that: as Katha Pollitt has argued,

Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.”

The proliferation of inclusive alternatives to ‘women’ has the cumulative effect of making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. If I can’t get an abortion I’m being oppressed as a ‘pregnant person’; if I don’t get a job because the employer knows I have young children I’m being discriminated against as a ‘parent’; if I’m paying tax on tampons the state is profiting from my status as a ‘menstruator’. Maybe we’ll soon be urged to refer to women who earn less than men with the same qualifications as ‘underpaid people’. Lots of people are underpaid, after all: why would we only care about some of them? Let’s not be so vulgar, so unreconstructedly essentialist, as to point out that certain forms of unjust treatment don’t randomly happen to ‘people’, and they certainly don’t happen to men: they happen to women, because they are women.

Why is it so difficult to say ‘women’? The objections I’ve focused on so far are political ones, to do with the exclusionary and essentialising nature of ‘women’ as a category label. But I can’t help wondering if those objections are the whole story, or if the avoidance of ‘women’ might also be connected to something much older, and less ‘politically correct’.

The first post I ever published on this blog was about the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. I recalled learning as a child that ‘lady’ was the ‘polite’ word, whereas ‘woman’ was disrespectful: it implied low social status, a lack of respectability and a failure to display proper femininity. Analysis of the contexts in which ‘lady’ and ‘women’ are most likely to appear reveals another reason for the impoliteness of ‘woman’: its association with the gross and unmentionable functions of the female body.

What this implies is that ‘polite’ substitutes for ‘women’ (like ‘ladies’, or ‘the fair sex’) function as euphemisms: like ‘elderly’ and ‘plus-size’ (aka ‘old’ and ‘fat’), they enable speakers to acknowledge the sensitivity of a taboo subject or concept by avoiding the word that refers to it most directly. That’s why an earlier generation of feminists were so insistent on being referred to as ‘women’. It wasn’t just that they disliked the alternatives: what they really disliked was the assumption that alternatives were necessary. They saw the avoidance of the plain word ‘women’ as expressing a kind of squeamish distaste for femaleness, and they saw that distaste as one expression of a more general cultural misogyny. To them it seemed important to challenge this attitude, even if people thought they were being petty when they snapped ‘I’m a woman, not a lady’ at someone who was only trying to be polite.

Yet today it’s feminists themselves who are treating ‘women’ as a taboo word. Katha Pollitt suggests this may reflect women’s ‘long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt [others’] feelings’. ‘We are raised’, she observes, ‘to put ourselves second’. But that doesn’t entirely explain the historical U-turn. It is not a small demand to make of a political movement that it should renounce the term which, more than any other, has defined its constituency and its purpose throughout its history. Is feminism not, by definition, a women’s movement, a movement that fights for the rights or the liberation of women?

Some feminists today would answer that question in the negative. Feminists like Laurie Penny, who complained last year that ‘feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary’. Once upon a time, complaining that feminism focused on women would have seemed as odd as complaining that a baker’s shop sold bread. But what’s behind it is the belief that the old feminist goal–liberating women from the oppressive structures of patriarchy–has become outdated and politically reactionary. What feminism should be about in the 21st century is freeing individuals from the oppressive constraints of binary gender.

To people who think ‘feminism’s focus on women’ has no relevance to the politics of the 21st century, I say: try telling that to the Pope. Or to Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate, who was responsible, as Governor of Indiana, for the law that was used to persecute Purvi Patel. Those guys don’t care how you identify, but they do still believe in women; they also believe in using their considerable power to ensure women are kept in their subordinate place. A feminism that can’t talk about that has nothing to say to most of the world’s oppressed people. It is living in a bubble, and talking to itself.