Unspeakable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between children

On the first day of the first full week of the new school year, the BBC reported that cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ had doubled over a period of two years. In 2016-17 the police in England and Wales recorded just under 8000 incidents where both the abuser and the victim were minors; in 2018-19 the figure was over 16,000. During the pandemic the number fell, but there were still more than 10,000 cases recorded in 2020-21. And since these figures include only cases which were reported to the police, they almost certainly understate the true extent of the problem.  

This news would, of course, be shocking whatever words were used to report it; but I couldn’t help being struck by the phrase ‘sex abuse between children’. This formula seems to have originated with the BBC (the statistics were compiled for its long-running current affairs programme Panorama). But it soon became ubiquitous: as so often happens in contemporary news reporting, the language used in the original source got picked up and recycled by other media outlets with minimal or no alteration. The Times’s headline, ‘Sexual abuse between children more than doubles in two years’, was almost identical to the one that appeared on the BBC website (‘Reports of sex abuse between children double in two years’). The Mail Online had an expanded version, ‘Reports of sex abuse between children doubles [sic] in two years to 16,000 cases in England and Wales – with 10% of youngsters accused aged 10 or under’. The Sun was an outlier, diverging from the ‘between children’ formula and going with ‘Reports of children sexually abusing other kids DOUBLE in a year to almost 16,000 cases’.

One thing that’s notable about all these headlines is their use of gender-neutral/inclusive terms like ‘children’, ‘kids’ and ‘youngsters’. That pattern continues in the body of the reports, and in quotes from named sources like the psychologist Rebekah Eglinton, who said that unwanted touching and being pressured to share nude photos had become ‘a part of everyday life for children’. There were also quotes from politicians who affirmed their commitment to ‘keeping children safe’ and ‘creating a safe learning environment for children’.

In most contexts this would be unremarkable—neutral/inclusive terms are the default choice—but in this case it’s striking because the issue under discussion is by no means gender-neutral. In the words of the BBC’s report, ‘a big majority of cases involved boys abusing girls’. Later the report spells out what ‘a big majority’ means: around nine out of ten abusers were boys, while eight out of ten victims were girls (figures which suggest that there must have been as many cases of boys abusing other boys as there were of girls abusing anyone). The framing of sexual abuse as something ‘children’ do to other ‘children’ glosses over this enormous imbalance. Apart from the BBC, most media outlets treated it as an incidental detail: the Times and the Sun each devoted one sentence to the information that most abusers were boys, while the Mail didn’t mention the issue at all.  

But when I first heard ‘sex abuse between children’, what caught my attention wasn’t primarily the word ‘children’. In the headlines, at least, I found the choice of ‘children’ understandable: the point, I assumed, was to flag the topic of the story as cases where both abuser and abused were under 18, as opposed to cases where children are abused by adults. Still, to my ear there was something not quite right about the phrase–and on reflection I concluded that the problem was ‘between’.

My guess is that ‘between’ was chosen for the same reason as ‘children’—to emphasise that the report dealt with cases where both the perpetrators and the victims were minors. More familiar phrases like ‘sexual abuse of children’ wouldn’t have made that clear. But ‘between children’ is jarring, because it tends to imply that what’s being described is in some sense a joint activity. That’s how ‘between’ works in phrases like ‘a quarrel between neighbours’ or ‘a fight between rival gangs’. The activities referred to are inherently adversarial, but they are nevertheless understood to require reciprocity. You can’t quarrel or fight with someone who isn’t also quarrelling or fighting: if your adversary doesn’t reciprocate you’re not having a quarrel or a fight, you’re just ranting at them or beating them up.

‘Sexual abuse between children’ is apparently constructed in the same way, but it doesn’t fit the template, because reciprocity is not part of the meaning of ‘sexual abuse’. You can see this even more clearly if you turn the nouns (back) into verbs. If it’s true that ‘the Jets fought the Sharks’ then it’s also true that ‘they fought [each other]’; but ‘Jack sexually abused Jill’ does not entail that ‘they abused [each other]’. Sexual abuse, by definition, is something one person does to another without their consent, let alone their active involvement. That’s what makes ‘sexual abuse between children’, and indeed any reference to ‘abuse between Xs’, so peculiar.  

As I’ve already said, I don’t think whoever came up with ‘sexual abuse between children’ actually intended to convey the idea of mutuality or reciprocity. It’s more likely they just didn’t notice that implication. But I still think it’s a problem, as is the consistent preference for gender-neutral or inclusive terms. These linguistic choices are part of a larger pattern—one I’ve commented on in several previous posts about the representation of both sexual violence/abuse and sexism/sexual harassment in schools.

In commentary on these issues there’s a persistent tendency to present coercion or exploitation as mutual engagement. One way in which this is often done is by exaggerating girls’ maturity, agency and power. You see this a lot in court cases involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of children by adults, where it is clearly intended to minimise the adult’s culpability. By presenting the girl as an autonomous agent who voluntarily engaged in a relationship with an older man, defence lawyers hope to persuade jurors, judges and/or public opinion that the so-called ‘abuse’ was in reality no such thing: though her age makes it technically illegal to have sex with her, her precocity makes that a victimless crime, and the verdict or punishment should reflect that.

The idea of female precocity can also be invoked in cases where the abuser is a minor rather than an adult. Boys, the argument goes, mature later than girls both sexually and socially, and this is a reason to cut them some slack: they’re not really bad, just clumsy and impulsive (and easily manipulated by more sexually sophisticated girls). Both versions of this discourse represent girls as more grown-up, and more equal in their relations with boys and men, than most really are, or than they tell researchers they feel.

In relation to schools there is also a persistent tendency to frame sexism and sexual harassment in terms of an eternal ‘battle of the sexes’ which ‘naturally’ expresses itself in conflict between boys and girls. In 2015, when the Institute of Physics issued some guidelines for combatting sexism in schools, commentators regretted that this po-faced political correctness might bring an end to (in one Telegraph writer’s words) ‘the days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake”’. Like the ‘between children’ formula, ‘baiting each other’ implies reciprocity: the combatants are by implication positioned as equals, ‘cheerfully’ engaged in the mutual ‘baiting’ which has been a feature of playground culture since time immemorial.

The IoP made it easier than it should have been for the media to take this line. Though its intervention was prompted by concern about the way sexism affects girls, its guidelines made a point of being inclusive, treating sexist insults directed to boys, like ‘sissy’ and ‘man up’, on a par with those directed to girls (most of which are far more degrading than ‘sissy’). Other reports published since 2015 have taken a similar approach: though they invariably report that both verbal and other forms of harassment are experienced far more frequently by girls, they end up paying disproportionate attention to the minority of cases where boys are targeted. Presumably this even-handedness is meant to counter accusations of anti-male bias; but when the evidence shows clearly that sexism in schools affects girls far more commonly and more seriously than boys, a representation which suggests otherwise is itself biased.

The same bias is apparent in comments like the one I quoted earlier from the psychologist who said that unwanted touching and pressure to share nude photos had become ‘part of everyday life for children’. It is overwhelmingly girls for whom those things are ‘part of everyday life’, just as it is girls who make up the great majority of victims in cases of ‘sex abuse between children’ (while boys are an even larger majority of abusers). In both our language and our actions we need to face up to the reality of that difference, and of the power imbalance that underpins it. We will never solve the problem of sexual violence and abuse if we habitually use linguistic formulas that obscure what the problem really is.   

The fall of Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned this week, following the publication of a report which found he had ‘sexually harassed a number of current and former New York State employees by, among other things, engaging in unwelcome and nonconsensual touching [and] making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women’.

The part of this story that caught my attention was Cuomo’s repeated protestations that what had happened was not harassment, it was ‘miscommunication’. Referring to a complaint made by his executive assistant Charlotte Bennett, he told the investigators that Bennett had ‘processed what she heard through her own filter. And it was often not what was said and not what was meant’. At a press conference after the report was published, he again insisted that Bennett had ‘heard things I just didn’t say’.

This didn’t get my attention because it was novel or unexpected. We’ve heard it before and we’ll undoubtedly hear it again. So, this may be a good time to take a closer look at the ever-popular ‘miscommunication’ defence.

There are several reasons why this defence is useful to men like Cuomo. One is that it stops short of calling the complainant a liar: that’s also popular, of course, but for a liberal politician with a lot of female supporters there’s something to be said for a less overtly woman-blaming approach. It also has the advantage of resonating with beliefs about communication which are part of our cultural common sense. Cuomo suggested that some of the complainants had misinterpreted his actions because of cultural differences (he’s Italian-American, he touches everyone); he also mentioned generational differences (he’s 63, you have to make allowances). And lurking in the background was the idea that men and women routinely misunderstand one another because they’re from different planets, speak different languages, and process reality through different ‘filters’.

The claims made in self-help books about ‘male-female miscommunication’ are not, in fact, supported by credible evidence. But the miscommunication defence contains a core of truth which makes it difficult to refute conclusively. Because humans are not mind-readers, and language is not a rigid code in which every utterance has only one possible interpretation, there’s always room for doubt about what someone really meant by what they said.

When Andrew Cuomo says of Charlotte Bennett that she ‘heard things I just didn’t say’, he’s describing what all of us do all the time in our efforts to understand other people. We have to ‘hear things they didn’t say’, because not everything we need to make sense of an utterance is in the words a speaker uttered. Some of it we have to supply ourselves, using contextual information, background knowledge about the world, and our ability to reason about how everything fits together.

If someone says to me ‘it’s cold in here’, is that a statement or is it an indirect request to close the window? To decide, I have to put the words together with other relevant information. If we’re two strangers sitting in a public building (where neither of us has the authority to go round closing windows, or the obligation to make other visitors comfortable), I’ll probably treat it as small-talk and respond in kind (‘yes, it’s freezing’). But if the speaker is my boss who’s just walked into my office, I might well take it as a request and respond by closing the window. In which case, clearly, I will have heard something my boss didn’t actually say.

Because she didn’t actually say it, however, it could turn out that I got it wrong. Maybe when I move to close the window she’ll say ‘oh no, don’t do that, I like it cold’. It’s always open to the speaker to deny that what you inferred was not what she intended. And to complicate matters further, when she denies saying A and meaning B, that could be because she genuinely didn’t mean B, but it could also be a strategic denial: she did in fact mean B, but it’s in her interests to say she didn’t.  

Men accused of sexual harassment have an obvious interest in denying they meant what the complainant took them to mean. And this will often be made easier for them by the nature of the communication whose meaning is in dispute. While some forms of verbal sexual harassment may be direct enough for their meaning to be indisputable, others are very indirect, relying on the hearer to ‘read between the lines’. In this respect, sexual harassment is not unlike another linguistic practice through which sexual interest may be communicated: flirting.

Flirting has been defined by the linguist Scott Kiesling as ‘an off-record negotiation and recognition of interpersonal desire’. ‘Off-record’ means that the participants don’t put their cards on the table: they leave things inexplicit, vague or ambiguous. It’s been suggested that this element of uncertainty is part of what makes flirting fun–it keeps the participants guessing and prolongs what’s been called ‘the excitement of possibility’. In the case of sexual harassment, however, inexplicitness serves less benign purposes. Uncertainty about the harasser’s intentions only increases the victim’s discomfort (is she misjudging the situation? If she objects will she be being unfair?), and in the event of any challenge it gives the harasser ‘plausible deniability’.

In 2003 the conversation analyst Liisa Tainio published an analysis of a phone conversation in which a Member of Parliament in Finland sexually harassed a 15-year old girl (he was later convicted of attempting to sexually abuse a child). This was the second call he had made to the girl: after the first she decided, with the help of her family, to arrange another call and record it. Tainio’s transcript confirms that inexplicitness is a key feature of the harasser’s talk. At no point does he explicitly mention any recognisably sexual activity: his proposition to the girl, which he repeats in various forms no fewer than 15 times, is that they should ‘go for a ride’. At one stage he mentions the possibility of going to a hotel: that might hint at a sexual intention, but since there are other, non-sexual things one could do in a hotel, it remains ambiguous and deniable.

However, Tainio points out two other features of the call that support an interpretation of it as harassment. One is the repetition of the proposition. Issuing the same invitation 15 times in a single conversation is highly marked behaviour. Analysis has shown that if someone is going to accept an invitation they will normally do so promptly; if they hesitate or hedge that will be heard as declining, even if it isn’t followed by a direct refusal (refusing by ‘just saying no’ is in reality very rare). The girl does hesitate and hedge (‘I don’t know’… ‘I’m very busy’), but the MP ignores this, and keeps re-issuing the invitation. By normal standards he is badgering her, and that’s one piece of evidence suggesting harassment.

The other piece of evidence that he’s harassing her is the fact that he tries to blackmail her. He informs her that he knows (because he’s been spying on her) that she has had a boy in the house in her father’s absence, and then says:

Listen, I know more about you than you think. I won’t ever tell these things to your Daddy, y’know …cause I do know your Daddy… I won’t gossip, I won’t do that, I’m nice enough …but I know a lot about you

This is a good example of an utterance whose intended meaning differs from its apparent meaning. On the surface he’s promising not to tell the girl’s father what he knows, but by implication he is threatening to tell unless the girl co-operates.   

Despite the creepiness of this man’s behaviour—spying on an adolescent girl and calling her at home to ask her out—Tainio tells us that the police and the press were initially reluctant to treat it as sexual harassment. That may be because, as she says, ‘there is no one single feature of the talk which could be “typical” of sexual harassment’. In particular, the MP makes no explicit and unambiguous sexual propositions. Tainio’s analysis picks out several different features (the badgering, the hesitant or hedged responses, the veiled threats), and suggests that it’s only when you put them all together (along with the information that this is an adult man talking to a 15-year old girl) that the case for sexual harassment becomes compelling.

Could we make a similar analysis of the interaction which prompted Charlotte Bennett to accuse Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment? Not quite, because we don’t have a recording of the interaction; but we do have a detailed narrative account of Bennett’s testimony, which is included in the report I linked to earlier. Here’s an extract:

the Governor asked her how long it had been since she hugged someone, and complained that he had not hugged anyone in a long time. Ms Bennett understood that the Governor did not seem to be asking about platonic hugs, because when she responded that [he] could hug his daughters he responded with something like “No, no, not like that–a real hug”. Ms Bennett testified that the Governor then said he was lonely and that he wanted a girlfriend in Albany. In the same series of conversations, the Governor asked her if she had ever been with older men and whether she thought age mattered in relationships. According to Ms Bennett, while she was trying to figure out how to answer…he cut her off and said “I don’t think [age differences] matter”. [He] then said that he would have a relationship with someone who was “22 and up” or “over the age of 22”. Ms Bennett noted that earlier the same day she and the Governor had discussed the fact that she had recently turned 25. The Governor also asked Ms Bennett if her last relationship had been monogamous.

From this Bennett concluded that Cuomo was expressing a sexual interest in her—something he strenuously denied, saying she had ‘processed what she heard through her own filter’ (i.e., her interpretation was not grounded in any plausible reading of what he said to her). To assess these competing accounts, we need to reconstruct the process Bennett might have gone through to get to her conclusion. Were her inferences, as Cuomo suggested, unwarranted, or were they, in context, reasonable?

We can begin by acknowledging that Cuomo didn’t explicitly say he wanted a sexual relationship with Bennett (if he had there would be nothing to argue about). He did, however, introduce the topic of sexual relationships into a conversation that took place at work, and you would expect someone in Bennett’s position to treat that as meaning something. You would also expect her, in pondering what it might mean, to take account of who was talking to whom (sex-talk addressed by a man to a woman has a different range of potential meanings from the same kind of talk between two male colleagues, for instance). Of course, the fact that he broached the subject does not, in itself, license the conclusion that he was hitting on her (though it doesn’t rule out that possibility either); but there were other clues in the details of what he said. For instance, he mentioned wanting a girlfriend in Albany (he knew Bennett was living in Albany); then he asked if she’d had relationships with older men (he’s an older man himself, nearly 40 years older than Bennett), and followed up by saying he’d have a relationship with anyone older than 22 (Bennett was 25 and that had been mentioned earlier in the day). Finally he asked if her previous relationship had been monogamous (a question that could be heard as probing her openness to casual or illicit sex).

As in the Finnish case, you can’t point to any single thing Cuomo said as definitive: you have to put it all together and consider the cumulative effect. That’s evidently what Charlotte Bennett did, and while we can never know with 100% certainty whether the conclusion she ultimately came to was right (in the sense of reproducing exactly what was in Cuomo’s mind), I think we can reject the claim that she simply imposed an interpretation which the evidence did not support. She did have to read between the lines, but those lines weren’t just figments of her imagination. 

Cuomo, of course, disputed that. He claimed that his reasons for broaching the subject of sex were related either to his responsibilities as Governor (e.g., his comments about hugs expressed a general concern about the emotional impact of Covid restrictions on New Yorkers) or to his role as Bennett’s mentor (he said he’d asked her about her experience with older men because he’d heard rumours she was involved with someone older and he wanted to give her a chance to talk about it). Once again, we can’t be 100% certain these explanations are untrue, but we might think they’re less convincing than the one Bennett constructed from the same evidence. That appears to have been the view of the investigators, whose report describes Cuomo’s account as ‘unpersuasive’.  

Am I saying that there are no circumstances in which it would ever be legitimate for someone like Cuomo to claim that miscommunication had occurred? No: clearly people can and do misunderstand one another. But I don’t think just saying someone misunderstood you is sufficient to make the case, and I also don’t think communication between men and women has some special propensity to go awry. In fact, I believe that so-called ‘male-female miscommunication’ often doesn’t involve misunderstanding at all; what’s presented as a misunderstanding is actually a conflict.

There’s a famous line in the 1967 prison movie Cool Hand Luke, spoken by the prison warden after Luke has escaped and been recaptured: ‘what we’ve got here is failure to communicate’. They both know communication is not the issue. Luke doesn’t defy the warden because he doesn’t understand him. His defiance is a challenge to the warden’s authority. It’s a conflict, not about what words mean, but about who gets to impose their will and who is obliged to submit.

Back in the days when sexual harassment, in Gloria Steinem’s words, ‘was just called life’, women on the receiving end of behaviour like Andrew Cuomo’s had little choice but to submit. They might complain about it privately, but it was difficult to challenge the prevailing view of harassment as just normal male behaviour. Harassers didn’t need to justify themselves, because they didn’t expect their behaviour to have consequences. The courts agreed that employers could not be expected to regulate this kind of behaviour, since, in the words of one US judgment quoted by Gillian Thomas in her history of Title VII,

The attraction of males to females and females to males is a natural sex phenomenon and it is probable that this attraction plays at least a subtle part in most personnel decisions.

Today things are different. Sexual harassment has been named and defined as a problem; workplaces have policies that prohibit it, procedures for reporting it, and sanctions for those who perpetrate it. In practice we know this hasn’t solved the problem. But it has had some consequences, and in my view the popularity of the miscommunication defence is one of them. This defence is a weapon in the ongoing conflict between men who still feel entitled to harass women, and women who’ve been emboldened to challenge that.  

In this case the conflict was resolved in favour of the women. But the struggle isn’t over. Though it didn’t prevent the fall of Andrew Cuomo, the miscommunication defence remains an obstacle to justice, and feminists must continue to point that out.   

Speakin while female

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us not praise famous women

I’ve just finished reading a 650-page book called Women in the History of Linguistics. It introduced me to all kinds of women I’d never heard of before, from Ban Zhao, a scholar in Han Dynasty China, to Ekaterina Dashkova, President of the Imperial Russian Academy under Catherine the Great.  Even the parts about the early 20th century—the tradition of linguistics I was educated in myself—featured numerous women I knew almost nothing about.

This isn’t just a linguistics thing. Most of us know little about the women who came before us. And most of us don’t have the time or the opportunity to fill in the blanks by reading a weighty academic tome. What we do have today, though, is the internet, which was meant to democratize knowledge and make it possible for anyone to educate themselves about anything. What would I find if I did simple online searches for some of the women in Women in the History of Linguistics?

I started with Ann Eliza Worcester Robertson (1826-1905), who is mentioned in the book as the first US woman ever to receive an honorary doctorate. Robertson was a missionary who worked with the Creek Nation in Oklahoma: she studied the Creek language primarily so she could translate the Bible into it. However, the quality of her analysis earned the respect of academics too—hence the honorary degree, which she was awarded in 1892. That achievement, however, gets little attention online. It’s mentioned in a biography I found on a website about Oklahoma history, but not in Robertson’s entry in Encyclopedia.com, which describes her simply as a ‘missionary and teacher’–though it does refer to her father, who was also a missionary, as a linguist.  

The next woman I went in search of was E. Adelaide Hahn (1893 -1967). She makes a cameo appearance in Women in the History of Linguistics on a list of women who served on the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) before 1939. The book doesn’t say so, but I learned from the LSA’s website that she would later become the Society’s first woman President. In the hope of learning more, I put her name into a search engine. I found a (short) Wikipedia entry, which records that Hahn was born in New York City, earned a PhD in Classics from Columbia University and taught the subject for many years at Hunter College; later she branched out into Indo-European linguistics, attending seminars at Yale taught by the most famous (male) linguists of the time. But the entry says nothing about her own contribution to linguistics. Instead it informs readers that

Hahn’s distinctive New York accent, forceful way of speaking, and penchant for large feathered hats earned her a reputation as a “character,” a colorful and unforgettable personality.

If you think that’s insulting, try looking up Alice Kober (1906-1950), who like Hahn was born in New York City, studied Classics at Columbia, and spent the rest of her life teaching at another local institution, in her case Brooklyn College. She’s remembered for her extensive work on the ancient and at the time still undeciphered script known as Linear B. It was finally deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, and most early accounts downplay Kober’s contribution, preferring to celebrate the inspired male amateur rather than the woman whose painstaking structural analysis took many years and 180,000 index cards. But the importance of Kober’s work has since been acknowledged, making it easy to find her online: she features on the BBC website as an ‘unsung heroine’, and in a series of retrospective obituaries published by the New York Times to recognize women and people of colour who were not commemorated when they actually died. She also has a Wikipedia entry, which includes a reasonable section on Linear B. But the rest of it knocks Adelaide Hahn’s entry into a large feathered hat. After quoting an ex-student’s physical description (‘Her figure dumpy with sloping shoulders, her chin heavily determined, her hair styled for minimum maintenance, her eyes behind bottle-bottom glasses…’), the entry continues:

Kober never married, and no evidence exists to suggest a rich personal life. [She] lived with her widowed mother and, so far as is known, never had a romantic partner.

(Footnote: the economist Adam Smith also lived with his mother and never married: in his Wikipedia entry those facts are recorded without comment.)

The next woman on my list, Mary R. Haas (1910-1996), was a respected figure in linguistics, and like Hahn she served as President of the LSA. However, I learned from Women in the History of Linguistics that her career nearly ended before it had begun because, unlike Alice Kober, she was married. Her supervisor Edward Sapir thought it unseemly for married women to hold salaried positions, and did not support her efforts to find an academic job. By 1937 she was so frustrated that she divorced her husband (fellow-linguist Morris Swadesh), telling him she wanted to be free to pursue her career. Her moment came when the US entered World War II, and many male academics were drafted. With women suddenly in demand, Haas went to UC Berkeley, where she stayed until 1977. Searching for her online yields a respectable amount of information, including a decent Wikipedia entry.   

I moved on to Lucy Shepard Freeland (1890-1977), who like Haas specialized in the study of American Indian languages. Before reading Women in the History of Linguistics I knew one thing about Freeland: according to the recently-revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, her dissertation The Language of the Sierra Miwok (published in 1951) contains the first known use in writing of the term ‘code-switching’. Online she is elusive, partly because of the perennial problem of women’s names. Freeland called herself not ‘Lucy’ but ‘Nancy’, and she sometimes used the last name of her husband Jaime de Angulo. Her published work appeared under several names, ranging from ‘L.S. Freeland’ to ‘Nancy de Angulo’—and who would guess those two were the same person? But what’s particularly frustrating is that, whichever name you use, you repeatedly find yourself on pages that mention her but are actually about her husband.

Here’s part of an item which kept coming up in my searches. It’s from a project commemorating famous residents of Berkeley, and is headed ‘Jaime de Angulo, Anthropologist, “Erratic Genius” (1887-1950)’.

Born in Paris to a wealthy, devout, expatriot Spanish family, the handsome, brilliant, and charismatic linguist, writer, and ethnomusicologist Jaime de Angulo received a Jesuit education. At age 18 he rebelled and fled to Colorado where he worked as a cowboy. He then travelled on to South America, pursued silver mining in Honduras, and arrived in San Francisco just in time for the 1906 earthquake.

De Angulo subsequently earned a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and married Carey Fink, a fellow medical student and future associate of Carl Jung. After working as a genetics researcher at Stanford, de Angulo dismissed medicine as “a pile of junk” and bought a cattle ranch in Modoc County, where he came in contact with California’s Pit River Indians.

The ranch failed in 1915 and de Angulo homesteaded in Big Sur on a ranch where he would live intermittently for much of the rest of his life. In nearby Carmel he met Lucy Shepard Freeland (“Nancy”), a New Jersey native from a wealthy family who would become his second wife. De Angulo introduced Nancy to linguistics and encouraged her to enrol at U.C. Berkeley.

De Angulo is portrayed as Freeland’s mentor, but their relationship became an obstacle to her professional success. She began living with de Angulo while he was still married to Carey Fink, and her supervisor, who regarded this as ‘scandalous and immoral’, denied her funding to finish her dissertation. When she did finally finish it, he did not take the necessary steps to have her doctoral degree awarded. Without it she was ineligible to apply for academic positions. Her work was later published, but by that time she was in her 60s. Adding insult to injury, when you look her up today you get redirected to her husband, the ‘erratic genius’.  

Finally I turned my attention to Britain, and looked up Barbara M. H. Strang (1925-1982), the woman who first taught me linguistics when I was a student in Newcastle in the late 1970s. She doesn’t feature in Women in the History of Linguistics because her career began after the book’s end-date, but I was curious to see how the information available online would compare with what I already knew about her. Her Wikipedia entry is sparse, though it does offer some irrelevant detail about her husband, ‘a lecturer and the heir apparent to his father’s barony’. After reporting that in 1964 Strang became Newcastle’s first professor of English Language and General Linguistics, the writer remarks that this was ‘a novel appointment’. In fact it was not especially novel: Strang’s specialist field, English historical linguistics, was one that women had excelled in for many years, and taught in various institutions long before 1964 (partly because English was originally seen as a women’s subject, inferior to the classical languages elite men studied).   

Except for Mary Haas, the women I looked up are not well-served by the most accessible online reference sources. It’s possible to do better if you have access to an academic library (or a good public librarian), but if you rely on what’s easy for anyone to find you will be presented with material which is thin, grudging about women’s achievements, overly attentive to the men in their lives (or in Alice Kober’s case, the absence of men), and sometimes downright insulting. It’s true that 20th century women linguists are a niche interest; but catering for niche interests is supposed to be one of the things the internet is good for. Also, we know that my experience would have been similar had I been searching for information about women who distinguished themselves in other ways: this is a woman problem rather than specifically a woman linguist problem.

The Wikipedia part of the problem (which matters because Wikipedia is such a go-to source for students and anyone without access to academic libraries) is well-known, and there have been efforts to deal with it by organizing ‘edit-a-thons’ in which entries for missing women are added. But this approach has limitations. It’s implicitly based on the assumption that women have been overlooked inadvertently, and that attempts to correct the record will be welcomed. But some recent research by Francesca Tripodi casts doubt on that assumption.

Tripodi’s research focused on the issue of ‘notability’, which Wikipedia uses as a criterion for deciding which individuals should get an entry. In itself that’s not unreasonable: you don’t want hundreds of entries for people nobody would ever look up. But on Wikipedia, a collective, ‘democratic’ project, anyone can challenge any entry, and propose that it should be deleted, on the grounds that its subject isn’t ‘notable’. Tripodi found this strategy is disproportionately used to target women. Biographical entries for women make up less than 20 percent of all biographical entries on Wikipedia, but they consistently account for over 25 percent of the items nominated for deletion. Women aren’t just missing because they’ve been accidentally overlooked; they’re being actively and deliberately erased.

This is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1982, Dale Spender wrote a book entitled Women of Ideas (and What Men Have Done To Them) in which she showed how women’s ideas and achievements had been repeatedly erased from the (printed) record, and argued that men’s control over the dissemination of knowledge was fundamental to the maintenance of patriarchal power. Among other things, it deprives women of information about their predecessors, leading each new generation to believe that women in the past achieved far less than they actually did. It shouldn’t surprise us that the digital revolution hasn’t changed this. There is no technological fix for sexism: the problem is political, and the solution must be too.     

The illustration shows Alice Kober and a Linear B tablet.

If you’d like to read my (academic) review of Women in the History of Linguistics use this link

Hit or Miss

This post is about a longstanding feminist bone of contention: the use of the terms ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ to address teachers in UK schools. According to Project Britain, a website about British life and culture,    

Teachers in primary schools (4-11 year olds) are always addressed by their surname by parents and pupils alike, always Mr, Mrs or Miss Smith.…. In secondary schools (11-16 years), teachers are usually addressed as Miss or Sir.

This is a bit of an overgeneralisation: there are primary schools where ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ are used, and secondary schools which prescribe other forms of address, most commonly ‘title + name’ (i.e., ‘Mrs/Ms/Miss/Mr Smith’). When I put out a call to teachers on Twitter asking what terms were used in their schools, most reported either ‘Miss/Sir’ or ‘title + name’, but some reported the use of first names (especially in private schools and sixth form colleges where students are over 16), and some worked in schools where the prescribed form for women was not ‘Miss’ but ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’am’.

This variation isn’t new. At the girls’ grammar school I attended in the early 1970s we were strictly forbidden to call teachers ‘Miss’ (or ‘Sir’, though since we had almost no male teachers that issue rarely arose). We had to call them ‘Miss/Mrs X’. That wasn’t because of any feminist objection to ‘Miss’. It had more to do with class snobbery. Saying ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’ was ‘common’, something the kids at the local Secondary Modern did. This prejudice seems to have been quite widespread. One woman who answered my question on Twitter commented that when she was at school her teacher used to say ‘don’t call me Miss, you’re not at Grange Hill’ (the name of a fictional comprehensive school in a popular children’s TV series).  

It’s ironic that my school regarded ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ as low-class and vulgar, because ‘Sir’, at least, seems to have originated—like so many British educational customs—in the public schools that educated the sons of the privileged in the 19th century (note for Americans: ‘public’ here means what you’d call ‘private’, i.e. fee-paying; your ‘public school’ is our ‘state school’). Calling teachers ‘Sir’ was like calling your father and other senior male relatives ‘Sir’—not uncommon at the time—or like calling a superior officer ‘Sir’ in the army: it was a mark of respect for and deference to authority in a hierarchical and highly regimented institution.

The story of ‘Miss’ is different. It’s not clear that pupils at elite girls’ schools addressed their teachers as ‘Miss’ (as opposed to ‘Miss X’). You don’t see it much in early 20th century schoolgirl fiction: at Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, for instance, only the French teacher is ‘Mam’zelle’, while other teachers are addressed as ‘Miss Potts’ or ‘Miss Williams’. Both in fiction and in life, however, their title was always ‘Miss’, the conventional marker of a woman’s unmarried status. Though the law had been changed in 1919 so that women could enter professions that had previously excluded them, many employers, including the local authorities that employed most teachers, continued to limit women’s access to employment by operating a ‘marriage bar’. They refused to hire women who were already married, and required those who married later to resign. In theory this policy was illegal, but challenges to it failed repeatedly, because of the widespread view that, as an Appeal Court judgment put it in 1925,  

It is unfair to the large number of young unmarried teachers seeking situations that the positions should be occupied by married women, who presumably have husbands capable of maintaining them.

The marriage bar in teaching lasted until 1944, and this is thought to be the reason why ‘Miss’ became the female analogue of ‘Sir’ in British schools.

But times have changed since 1944, and most women teaching in Britain’s schools today probably aren’t, in any other situation, ‘Miss’. In any case, the problem feminists have with ‘Miss’ isn’t just about the title itself, it’s also about the lack of parity between ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’.

In other contexts the female address term analogous to ‘Sir’ is not ‘Miss’ but ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma’am’: though ‘madam’ has undergone some semantic derogation (it has acquired the specialised meaning ‘woman in charge of a brothel’), as an address term it retains a higher degree of formality and gravitas than ‘Miss’. That’s presumably why the related form ‘Ma’am’ has become the standard address term for senior female officers in the armed forces and the police. ‘Miss’ does not suggest deference to someone senior: though it originated as an abbreviated form of ‘mistress’, which did historically denote a woman in authority, its modern associations with youth and what you might call ‘juniority’ mean it can easily come across as belittling or trivialising. Even if you don’t find it belittling, it’s less deferential than ‘Sir’. As the feminist linguist Jennifer Coates commented in 2014, ‘Sir is a knight, but Miss is ridiculous–it doesn’t match Sir at all’.  She added:

It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status.

But this critical view of ‘Miss’ is not shared by all women teachers, or even all feminist teachers; and the reasons for that are complicated.

One complicating factor is our old friend the sociolinguistics of status and solidarity. The non-reciprocal use of any title marks the existence of a status hierarchy (if you call me ‘Professor’ and I call you ‘Susie’ it’s a safe bet that I outrank you), and feminists tend to be ambivalent about that, caught between resenting the way respect-titles are often withheld from women when men get them automatically, and feeling we shouldn’t care, because after all, we believe in equality. In that egalitarian spirit, some of the people who answered my question on Twitter said they’d prefer to be called by their first names. Though these commenters were critical of ‘Miss’, their objection was more to status-marking in general than to the sexism of ‘Miss’ in particular. This brought them into conflict with other people who were more interested in levelling up (ensuring that women teachers got the same respect as men) than levelling down (flattening the hierarchy by eliminating titles). The most-liked comment made by anyone in my thread was an uncompromising defence of hierarchy:

Miss or Sir is appropriate. Teachers are educators and advocates. They are not, nor should they be ‘bessie mates’ with their students. Titles establish boundaries. Boundaries help children as they grow into adults.

You could, of course, defend the use of titles without endorsing the specific titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Sir’, but evidently this tweet’s author didn’t pick up on the issue of sexism. She wasn’t the only one. It’s true that I phrased my opening tweet in a deliberately general, open-ended way—‘are [Sir and Miss] used at your school? Does that bother you? Why or why not?’—but since I’m a feminist who tends to attract other feminists as Twitter followers I was surprised by the number of respondents who either didn’t appear to have noticed any problem with the Sir/Miss pairing or who explicitly said they hadn’t thought about it before.

Others had thought about it, and had decided they didn’t mind being ‘Miss’. The main reason they gave for not minding was that they didn’t believe ‘Miss’ either was, or was intended to be, disrespectful. Calling women teachers ‘Miss’ was seen as, in one teacher’s words, ‘accepted practice, really’: it’s just what children do in school. Another teacher compared ‘Sir / Miss’ to a pronoun, a proxy for the teacher’s full name (which students may not know or remember), adding, ‘I don’t personally receive it as in any way derogatory’. Several respondents said that as long as students weren’t overtly disrespectful they didn’t care what address terms they used. What mattered was not the language but the quality of the relationship.

Some teachers at schools which prescribed other modes of address, either title + name or an alternative title like ‘Ma’am’, commented that pupils often reverted to ‘Miss’, which was entrenched, along with ‘Sir’, in the oral culture of their peer-group. Others also remarked that it’s primarily an oral form, and that in writing many students replace it with ‘Mrs’ or ‘Ms’. This is an interesting observation sociolinguistically: it may help to explain the longevity of a form which has its origins in the conditions of the fairly distant past (i.e., the period before the lifting of the marriage bar). While some aspects of the language of children and adolescents evolve rapidly (teenage slang is an obvious example), others may be very resistant to change, and particularly to attempts to impose it from outside.

‘Miss’ did have some feminist advocates. Two contributors to the thread cited the argument made by the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy in her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me:  

Miss: I have heard so many professional people express distaste for that name, but never a working teacher. Usually the grounds are sexism, but real children in real schools don’t use ‘Miss’ with any less (or more) respect than ‘Sir’. ‘Miss’ grates only on the ears of those who have never heard it used well: as it grated on me, a middle-class Scot, thirty years ago. No longer: Miss is the name I put on like a coat when I go into school; Miss is the shoes I stand in when I call out the kids in the corridor for running or shouting; Miss is my cloak of protection when I ask a weeping child what is wrong… Miss seems to me a beautiful name, because it has been offered to me so often with such love.  

Clanchy thinks the distaste of ‘professional people’ for ‘Miss’ reflects a combination of class and gender prejudice. She points out that teaching has historically been both a profession open to women (albeit not always on the same terms as men) and ‘the profession of first resort for graduates from working-class backgrounds’. Those facts contribute to the perception of it as a low-status profession; in that context, criticisms of ‘Miss’ may be just another way to put teachers, and especially teachers of working-class children, in their socially inferior place. I can’t help feeling Clanchy has a point here. I also agree with her that ‘Miss’, uttered by schoolchildren, is neither more nor less respectful than ‘Sir’–though the fact that a term is used with the intention of showing respect, or being polite, does not prevent it from also being sexist (the word ‘lady’ is a case in point).

However, I can’t agree with Clanchy’s suggestion that working teachers don’t find ‘Miss’ distasteful. Some of the working teachers who responded to my tweet made their distaste for it crystal clear. For some the problem was its generic, depersonalising quality. ‘I’m not a fan…I’d prefer to be Mrs ____’. This complaint was also made by men about ‘Sir’. ‘I always hated it’, wrote one: ‘I have a name’.  For others, what they disliked wasn’t being addressed by a generic label, it was being addressed, specifically, as ‘Miss’. ‘I’m not a “Miss” and wouldn’t want to be called that’. ‘I’m a “Ms” and always have been’. Several women who had worked in schools where the prescribed female address term was ‘Ma’am’ contrasted it favourably with ‘Miss’. ‘Ma’am’, said one, ‘felt genuinely respectful, whereas “Miss” always feels demeaning’. ‘I miss the Ma’am’, wrote a woman who had moved to another school, adding ‘Really dislike Miss’. A man whose wife was also a teacher said that both of them were troubled by the disparity between ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’. ‘She receives a less flattering term of address – one that creates a child-like impression’.

This echoes some of my own feelings about ‘Miss’. One commenter suggested that the idea of it as demeaning is based on a lack of understanding of where it comes from: it’s a shortening of the ‘mistress’ in ‘headmistress’ and ‘schoolmistress’, and those are not demeaning terms. Well, maybe; but language change has obscured the connection. ‘Schoolmistress’ is now archaic (though while writing this I discovered that schoolmistresses do still feature in porn, where their main job is administering corporal punishment); ‘headmistress’ is going the same way, as schools increasingly shift to the gender-neutral ‘head teacher’. Today the most salient associations of ‘Miss’ have less to do with authority and more to do with immaturity. It’s telling, perhaps, that one woman in my Twitter thread said she preferred ‘Miss’ to ‘Ma’am’ because ‘Ma’am’ made her feel old. That points to another complicating factor: our culture views ageing in women so negatively, many women feel more flattered than demeaned by terms that imply youth.

I should acknowledge, of course, that you don’t get a representative sample of the teaching profession by canvassing your followers on Twitter. But the diversity of views expressed in my small and unrepresentative sample suggests there is no consensus on ‘Miss’. Which might also suggest there’s no great impetus for change. Though you’ve probably gathered that I’m not a fan myself, I do think ‘Miss’ is a survivor: the debate about it has been going on for years, and I doubt it will be settled any time soon.

Thanks to everyone who responded to my questions on Twitter.

Who’s to be mistress?

On April 13, the Associated Press Stylebook’s Twitter account issued a reminder:

Don’t use the term mistress for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like companion, friend or lover on first reference and provide additional details later.

I call this a ‘reminder’ because the rule isn’t new: it was added to the stylebook last year. Nevertheless, the tweet got a reaction: people were variously puzzled, irritated and–in the case of the usual suspects–outraged by this latest manifestation of political correctness gone mad. ‘The word “mistress”’, declared the Daily Mail, ‘is CANCELED’.

Many responses queried the suggestion that ‘mistress’ could be replaced by ‘friend’ or ‘companion’: weren’t those euphemisms rather than synonyms, and as such potentially misleading? The AP conceded that these alternatives ‘fell short’, but insisted they were ‘better than having one word for a woman and none for the man, and implying that the woman was solely responsible for the affair’.

By this point I was confused myself. Is that really the problem with ‘mistress’? And if it is, can it be solved by simply substituting a different word? I couldn’t help feeling that the AP was missing the point—or at least, that it was only skimming the surface. So, in this post I want to take a closer look at a word with a complicated history.

Borrowed from French in the middle ages (the earliest example quoted in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the early 14th century), ‘mistress’ was originally just the feminine form of ‘master’, and its core meaning was ‘a woman having authority or control’. ‘The mistress’ could be the female head of a household, or its the highest-ranking female member; she could also be a female boss, in charge of workers, apprentices or servants (it has the same sense in compounds like ‘schoolmistress’ and ‘postmistress’). The female respect titles ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’, which are still in use today, are both abbreviated forms of ‘mistress’–and what they originally marked was not marital status, but simply status.  

But of course, word-meanings can change—and when the words refer to women, they have a tendency to change for the worse. Back in 1975, Muriel Schulz named this tendency ‘the semantic derogation of woman’, explaining that

again and again in the history of the [English] language, one finds that a perfectly innocent term designating a girl or women may begin with totally neutral or even positive connotations, but that gradually it acquires negative implications. 

Schulz drew attention to several male/female word-pairs, including ‘Lord/lady’, ‘governor/governess’ and ‘master/mistress’, where the two forms, originally parallel, had diverged in their meaning over time. In each case it was the masculine term which preserved its original association with authority and status, while the feminine term acquired a less exalted meaning. For instance, while ‘Lord’ still denotes a male aristocrat, ‘lady’ can now describe a woman of any social rank. ‘Governess’, originally a direct equivalent of ‘governor’ (in the 16th century Queen Elizabeth I could be described as ‘the supreme Majesty and Governess of all persons’, meaning that as monarch she ruled over all her subjects), came to refer to a woman who earned her living teaching other people’s children. US states still have ‘governors’ (as do prisons in the UK), but where women have occupied those positions they have invariably adopted the masculine form rather than styling themselves the ‘governess’.

‘Mistress’ is a similar case, with the added problem that it exemplifies what Muriel Schulz considered the archetypal form of semantic derogation, where in addition to being downgraded in status, a word referring to women acquires a specifically sexual derogatory meaning. Often it ends up as yet another synonym for ‘prostitute’. ‘Mistress’ has stopped short of that final destination, but it’s certainly in the same ballpark: Schulz glosses it as ‘the woman with whom a man habitually fornicates’, while the AP’s rule proscribing the word alludes to the idea of the mistress as a ‘kept woman’, financially supported by the man in the relationship.

To understand this history we need to consider the larger context in which words are used—which in this case means examining the economic, social and cultural conditions that have shaped relationships between men and women. If we have, as the AP suggests, ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’, that’s not a random accident; it has a logic which is rooted in past and present realities.

In fact, though, we do have words for the man. Leaving aside the informal and pejorative ones (like ‘cheat’ and ‘love rat’), the most obvious one is ‘lover’. I was taught at school (I know, weird) that if Mary Jones is John Smith’s mistress, then John Smith is Mary Jones’s lover. ‘Lover’ is also the traditional term for a man in an illicit relationship with a more powerful women, as in the Boney M song about Rasputin (‘rah rah Rasputin/lover of the Russian queen’). The pairing of ‘lover’ with ‘mistress’ has a literary pedigree, going back to the mediaeval courtly love tradition in which a knight dedicated his life to the service of the lady he loved, but who was forever out of reach because she was married, often to a higher-ranking man (e.g. Sir Lancelot loved Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur). This is where we get another sense of the word ‘mistress’, ‘a woman who is loved and courted by a man’. That usage remained common in literature for several centuries, but there’s a note in the OED explaining that by the late 19th century writers had started to avoid it. They feared readers would interpret the word as referring to the morally suspect ‘kept woman’ rather than the idealised love-object of the past.  

We also have at a word for a ‘kept man’: ‘gigolo’, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a man who is paid by a woman to be her lover and companion’. But a gigolo is different from a mistress, in ways that reflect some basic facts about patriarchal societies. To begin with, fewer women than men have the resources to pay someone for sex and companionship. Also, men are not encouraged to view economic dependence on women as desirable, or even acceptable, nor to treat their own sexuality as a marketable commodity. That’s why ‘gigolo’ is—I would say—a more pejorative term than ‘mistress’. Of course, nobody tells women in so many words that they should treat their sexuality as a commodity, but historically that has often been their best or their only route to economic security. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women’s earning opportunities were limited and their rights almost nonexistent, feminists often drew parallels between marriage and prostitution, pointing out that both were exchange-relationships–sex for money, or for upkeep—which women entered into by necessity. The mistress as a ‘kept woman’ also had a place in this structure. The gigolo does not: like his female employer he is an anomaly.

Would calling a man a gigolo imply, as the AP thinks ‘mistress’ implies, that he was ‘solely responsible for the affair’? My feeling is that it wouldn’t, and indeed that we wouldn’t describe this relationship as an ‘affair’. ‘Affair’ tends to imply mutual desire (even if there’s also a financial element), but the gigolo is understood to be in it for the money, not the sex—if his employer were desirable she wouldn’t need to pay. The gigolo isn’t like Whitney Houston’s character in ‘Saving All My Love’, lamenting that she can only share ‘a few stolen moments’ with her lover because his family comes first; nor is he Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the flame-haired temptress and homewrecker. He’s a paid employee, a sort of cross between an escort and a personal assistant.

There’s no way of knowing if the women in the songs are mistresses in the ‘kept woman’ sense, or just single women in relationships with married men. Do ‘kept women’ even exist any more? The economic element doesn’t seem to be central to the current meaning of ‘mistress’ for most English-speakers, who seem happy to use the word for women who have well-paid jobs and/or husbands to support them (Camilla Parker-Bowles, for instance, was referred to as Prince Charles’s mistress during the period when both of them were married to other people). I remember, back in the 1980s, being told about a senior academic who had allegedly asked a woman he met at a conference to become his mistress, presenting her with a draft contract in which he undertook to pay all her expenses if she gave up her job and devoted herself to his needs. We found this both shocking and hilarious: what professional woman in the late 20th century would be remotely interested in such a proposal? (Today I’d have another question: what man would feel obliged to make it?)

But if the ‘kept woman’ is disappearing—if women no longer need or want to be her and men no longer feel an obligation to compensate her—why do we go on using the term ‘mistress’ for women in sexual relationships with married men? Without the element of financial dependence there’s surely nothing distinctive about these relationships: anyone–man, woman, straight or queer–can get involved with someone who is cheating on their spouse. So, why not abandon ‘mistress’—which is sex-specific, presumptively heterosexual and, in its ‘kept woman’ sense, increasingly archaic—and adopt a single label that covers all the possibilities? If we don’t like ‘friend’ or ‘companion’, we could go with the AP’s other suggestion, ‘lover’. We use it for men, so why not for women too?  

But the responses to the AP’s tweet suggested that some people do think a mistress is different from a lover. And this does seem to be connected with the question of responsibility, though I don’t see the connection in exactly the same way as the AP. To my mind, the issue isn’t that we have ‘one word for the woman and none for the man’—that she gets blamed because (only) she is named. Arguably it has more to do with the historical baggage ‘mistress’ carries, a lot of which is about female power. The mistress may no longer be a powerful woman in the original (social and economic) sense, but what she does still have, in our collective imagination, is sexual power: she uses her lover’s desire for her to gain authority and control over him.  

That view of the mistress was visible in some comments both on the AP tweet and the Daily Mail article. They tended to come from women whose husbands had had affairs, and who wanted to push back against the idea that it’s unfair to women to use a word that ‘implies the woman is responsible for the affair’. Their point was that wives are women too, and it isn’t unfair to hold mistresses responsible for behaving in ways that harm other women. Some conceded that the mistress wasn’t solely responsible—‘I know it takes two’—but they clearly blamed her more than they blamed their cheating husbands.

One reason for that may be simply that it’s easier and less painful to blame the one we don’t love. But also in the mix is the idea that when it comes to sex men are weak and gullible creatures: they can’t help themselves, whereas a woman in a relationship with a married man ‘knows exactly what she’s doing’ and could choose, if she had any decency, not to do it. In essence this is the ‘Jolene’ story, where the salient power differential is not between men and women, but between the wife and the woman who threatens to ‘take her man’ (an interesting phrase, since it reverses the usual pattern by making a woman the agent and a man the object).

The connotations ‘mistress’ has acquired over centuries of use make it particularly well-placed to serve this woman-blaming/man-excusing purpose. Yet it is clearly possible to express the same ideas in other words. As an illustration, consider a recent Spectator article in which Douglas Murray aired his concerns about the power wielded by Carrie Symonds, the partner of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Murray doesn’t call Symonds a ‘mistress’: though their relationship began while Johnson was married, it would be a strange term to use now she is living with him and their child in Downing Street. Instead he refers to her as Johnson’s ‘girlfriend’ or his ‘companion’. The AP Stylebook would presumably approve–except that what follows is exactly the kind of woman-blaming the ban on ‘mistress’ was meant to counter.

Murray points out that in Britain by convention we don’t assign a political role to the ‘first lady’ (or gentleman): we think the only people who govern us should be the ones we actually elected. But as he sees it Carrie Symonds is not abiding by that convention: she is using her position to gain undeserved political influence. He also suggests that many of Johnson’s problems since 2019 have arisen because of the ‘sway—even terror—his younger companion seems to exert over him’. She is said to be responsible for a number of misjudgments: for instance, she ‘persuaded the PM to stop a badger cull’, and ‘made him stop a COBRA meeting at the height of the Covid crisis’.

Here, once again, we have the female agent/male object pattern, presenting Symonds as the powerful one and Johnson as her puppet. Yet even if he did cancel an important meeting to placate her, that was still his decision, his action, his responsibility. He’s the Prime Minister, FFS: ‘she made me do it’ is the excuse of a four-year old. Granted, it’s not Johnson himself who’s making that excuse, but Murray isn’t the only person making it on his behalf. Dominic Cummings recently claimed that Johnson tried to prevent an inquiry he feared would cause ‘trouble with Carrie’; and more or less everyone blames her for the current ‘cash for cushions’ scandal. (And no, I’m not suggesting Johnson cares about cushions—just that he’s the one who ultimately decides what will or won’t be purchased for his official residence.)

Times may change and words may change, but what doesn’t change is the story of the ambitious, manipulative woman and the man whose desire for her makes him putty in her hands. You can give her whatever name you want: terminology, in this case, is a symptom of a deeper problem. Though I’d be happy to see the back of ‘mistress’, we shouldn’t imagine that cancelling the word will stop people blaming women, or making excuses for men.

Toy stories

This week the world said goodbye to Mr Potato Head. Hasbro, the company that makes the popular plastic tuber, announced that in future it will be adopting the more inclusive name ‘Potato Head’, so that everyone can feel ‘welcome in the Potato Head world’.

This news was greeted by the usual suspects in the usual manner–with either rapturous applause or thundering condemnation. The LGBT organisation GLAAD congratulated Hasbro on helping kids to ‘be their authentic selves outside of the pressures of traditional gender norms’; Piers Morgan complained that ‘woke imbeciles’ were ruining everything. But then Hasbro issued a clarification:  

While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the `MR.’ I yam proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD.

So, apart from some minor tweaks to the toy’s packaging (moving the ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ names from the top to the bottom of the box) the Potato Head world remains unchanged. You will still be able to create the familiar figures of Mr Potato Head and Mrs Potato Head (who hasn’t even become a Ms, let alone reverted to her unmarried name, Maris Piper), and the resources provided for that purpose will still be a set of stick-on bits and pieces that include a luxuriant moustache, eyes with or without long mascara’d lashes, a bowler hat, heeled red shoes, heavy black spectacles and a pink handbag. Of course, if you want to mix things up by teaming the bowler with the heels or sticking the moustache and the mascara’d eyes on the same potato-face, you will now be totally free to do so. EXACTLY AS YOU WERE BEFORE. 

Hasbro’s ‘rebranding’ of Mr Potato Head is an example of what’s been dubbed ‘woke capitalism’, where corporations seek to associate themselves with progressive political causes in the hope of burnishing their public image on the cheap. We see this every year when International Women’s Day rolls around, and big companies start putting out feelgood messages about women’s empowerment—last year, for instance, the energy company Shell temporarily rebranded itself ‘She’ll’—even if their Boards are 95% male and their gender pay-gap hasn’t shifted since the last time they made this gesture.

Often these corporate messages are bland and uncontroversial, but sometimes they’re designed to manufacture controversy. Hasbro’s announcement looks like a case in point: the company must have known that its ‘Potato Head goes gender-neutral’ message would immediately get dragged into the ongoing culture war around gender, generating thousands of words of free publicity. It worked like a dream: the announcement made headlines around the world. Yet all Hasbro had done was make a formulaic statement about its commitment to ‘gender equality and inclusiveness’. The product itself remains as gender-stereotyped as ever (not to mention as plastic as ever, and as dependent as ever on overseas manufacturers whose labour practices have raised questions).

But even if Hasbro really had decided to phase out the titles ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ and call the toy simply ‘Potato Head’, what impact would that have had on the way it was perceived and used? In my opinion, none. Whatever the characters were called on the box, I’m betting that most kids would still (a) use the pieces provided to make the traditional Mr and Mrs, and (b) treat the male version as the default or prototypical version. The world they inhabit, and are actively trying to make sense of, is one where both gender differentiation and androcentrism are the norm. You don’t have to give a toy a clearly gendered name for kids to impose a gender on it. Of course, if you want to change this, it makes sense to pay attention to language, but we shouldn’t think of language-change as a panacea. Gender-neutral terms, though undoubtedly useful in some contexts, are not a sure-fire way of eliminating bias.

In 1973, two researchers set out to investigate this question by asking students to suggest visual illustrations for a fictitious sociology textbook. Half the students were asked to find images to illustrate chapters with titles like ‘Urban Man’ and ‘Economic Man’; the other half were given alternative titles like ‘Life in Cities’ and ‘Economic Behavior’. The question was whether the use or avoidance of ‘man’ would influence the students’ choice of images. The researchers found it did have an influence. Nearly two thirds of the ‘man’ group’s suggestions were images that showed only men. But while women were better represented in the other group’s selection, they still only featured in around half of the suggested images. Both groups, in other words, showed a tendency to treat men as the human prototype; this tendency was strengthened by using androcentric language, but avoiding androcentric language did not eliminate it. The bias isn’t just in language, it’s ingrained in the way we’ve learned to think about the world.

This point about ingrained ways of thinking was dramatized in another story about toys that appeared this week, though it got far less attention than Mr Potato Head. Toni Sturdivant, a researcher based in Texas, has done a quasi-replication of a 1947 study which used dolls to investigate Black children’s ideas about race. The children who took part in this famous study had been presented with Black and white dolls, and asked questions like ‘which doll is the nice doll’? They showed a strong preference for the white dolls over the Black ones. The study’s findings were later used in the 1954 court case that paved the way for school desegregation in the US—Brown v. Board of Education—and they were also one inspiration for Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye.

Several decades later, Toni Sturdivant set out to investigate the perceptions of Black pre-school children by looking at their spontaneous interactions with a diverse selection of dolls. She didn’t want to repeat the original study’s somewhat unnatural and potentially stress-inducing design by quizzing her subjects directly; rather she provided four different dolls—one white, one Latina, and two Black (one with lighter and one with darker skin)–and observed how the children (in fact, girls) played with them. Here’s how she describes her observations.

The girls rarely chose the Black dolls during play. On the rare occasions that the girls chose the Black dolls, they mistreated them. One time a Black girl put the doll in a pot and pretended to cook the doll. That’s not something the girls did with the dolls that weren’t Black.

When it came time to do either of the Black dolls’ hair, the girls would pretend to be hairstylists and say, “I can’t do that doll’s hair. It’s too big,” or, “It’s too curly.” But they did the hair for the dolls of other ethnicities. While they preferred to style the Latina doll’s straight hair, they were also happy to style the slightly crimped hair of the white doll as well.

The children were more likely to step over or even step on the Black dolls to get to other toys. But that didn’t happen with the other dolls.

In 1947 the finding that Black children preferred white dolls to Black ones was put down to the effects of segregated schooling. Toni Sturdivant’s study, however, suggests that the root of the problem isn’t so much what kind of schools children attend as the messages they absorb from a culture pervaded by racism. Her findings also raise questions about the idea that the self-esteem of children who differ from the cultural prototype—Black and brown children, children with disabilities, gender non-conforming children—is automatically enhanced by giving them toys which look like them, and which they will therefore (it’s assumed) identify positively with. This diversification may be a necessary part of trying to create a more equal world, but on its own it clearly isn’t sufficient: it doesn’t override all the other messages kids are getting about what, and who, their society values.  

Stripping Mr Potato Head of his gendered title (while leaving him his hat, his moustache and his handbag-toting wife) will not override those messages either. It’s ridiculous to present this as striking a blow for equality and inclusiveness, or enabling children to ‘be their authentic selves outside the pressure of traditional gender norms’ (has the GLAAD spokesperson who wrote those words ever looked at Mr and Mrs Potato Head?) And it’s even more ridiculous to suggest, as some conservative commentators appeared to be doing, that a gender-neutral Potato Head will somehow mislead children about the nature of reality. If that were in any way a reasonable concern then the toy should surely have been banned years ago for blurring the natural distinction between humans and root vegetables.

This is what happens when the goodness or badness of of gender-neutral/inclusive language becomes a tribal article of faith instead of a question to be assessed on its merits, which will vary with the context and the case. People talk embarrassing nonsense, and the result is to create an even more hospitable climate for cynical PR stunts like Hasbro’s.

‘You have no authority here’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘In contrast’, the article goes on,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pussy riot

Last week was Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and the NHS-approved myGP app used its Twitter account to suggest that women could raise awareness about the importance of regular screening by using the hashtag #myCat to share ‘an image of the cat that best reflects your undercarriage/flower/bits (technical term, vulva!) current look’. The accompanying image of three cats–long-haired, hairless and short-haired–was captioned ‘Bushy, bare or halfway there’.

What, we might ask, do pubic hairstyles have to do with cervical cancer prevention? An answer eventually surfaced: in a survey of over 2000 women, a third of the respondents said they would avoid going for screening if they hadn’t waxed or shaved their ‘bikini area’. So, #myCat is intended to address a real issue. But it’s an odd way to go about it: who, confronted with this survey finding, would think, ‘I know, let’s reassure these women that no one’s going to judge them by running a campaign that invites them to share the current state of their pubes on social media, through the ever-popular medium of a cat pic?’

The ‘no one’s going to judge you’ message has been conveyed in other ways too. In verse, for example: ‘The nurse isn’t fussed/ if you haven’t had a trim/ She’s looking at your cervix/ not your lovely hairy quim/ The nurse don’t care if it’s jungle or fluff/ It’s about saving lives/ not a nice neat muff/’.

As well-intentioned as all this may be, it points to a serious problem with the language of health messaging on this subject. In an effort to make the messages more ‘relatable’, their creators persistently resort to language which is either vague and euphemistic (‘undercarriage/flower/bits’) or overtly sexualised-slash-pornified (‘quim’, ‘muff’). #myCat manages to be both at once: ‘cat’ is being used here as a euphemism for ‘pussy’, which may have originated as a euphemism itself, but is now a sexualised term not only for women’s ‘bits’, but also for women themselves, imagined as men’s collective prey (‘he spends his life chasing pussy’).

To many women (as their Twitter responses made clear) this language, in the context of a cancer prevention campaign, is not relatable, it’s offensive. Are men ever addressed in such a coy and cutesy way? One woman on Twitter, @iseult, addressed that question with a male-oriented riff on #myCat:

Share an image of the chicken that best reflects your chicken tenders, beanbags, gangoolies (technical term testicles!) current look. Use the Hashtag #myChickenBalls. Tell and tag your friends to let them know

@Iseult is right: It’s hard to imagine this getting onto, let alone off, the drawing board.

But as I pointed out back in 2015, men and women aren’t in the same position when it comes to talking about their ‘bits’. Large numbers of people are profoundly ignorant about female sexual anatomy: one of the studies I discussed in my earlier post (conducted in 2014) found that 50% of women under 35 could not locate the vagina on a diagram. In another study, 65% of respondents said they avoided using the words ‘vagina’ and vulva’, which they regarded as embarrassing or offensive. Yet another study suggested that most words for female sexual organs are perceived to be degrading (the main exception was ‘vagina’). And there is little agreement on what nonclinical terms like ‘pussy’ and ‘fanny’ actually refer to.

These findings do pose a problem for health messaging, in that the language health professionals might prefer to use may be unacceptable, or unintelligible, to the women they are trying to reach. With men this is less of an issue: they might not know what or where their epididymis is, but they’re not going to confuse their penis with their testicles, or be too embarrassed even to utter those words.   

It might seem that the solution is straightforward: education. No girl (and actually, no boy either) should leave school without having learned both the relevant anatomical facts and the associated terminology. And I do think that’s important, but it’s not as simple as it sounds, and on its own I don’t think it’s enough.

The underlying problem here—the root cause of the ignorance, the reticence, the retreat into vagueness and euphemism—is shame. And school is often where that starts. Research has found that girls in school are routinely subjected to body shaming and sexual shaming, which–to quote one girl who was interviewed for a recent report–they ‘just have to put up with, because no one thinks it’s a big deal’. A teacher who was quoted in the same report specifically referred to boys harassing and shaming girls with intrusive questions about their pubic hair—how much they had and whether they shaved it. Is it any wonder young women feel the anxieties which the poem I quoted earlier decries as trivial?

Perhaps it’s to myGP’s credit that they don’t pile shame on shame by simply castigating young women for their stupidity; but what they’ve chosen to do instead is not much better. The suggestion that women should tell the world (in cat-code) if their pubes are ‘bushy, bare or halfway there’ has something in common with the kind of harassment I’ve just mentioned: in both cases women are being sexualised in a context where that’s incongruous and unwelcome. Seriously, did no one at myGP see how weird this is? If someone’s actual GP commented on her ‘bushy undercarriage’ she’d have grounds to make a formal complaint, and I don’t think the doctor would get very far by saying ‘well, I’d heard that a lot of women are self-conscious about their pubic hair, so I was just trying to be reassuring’.

MyGP is not, of course, an actual GP, but it does represent the NHS, and its mode of address to women should reflect that. I’m not saying that public health messaging has to be rigidly factual, humourless, and couched exclusively in coldly clinical language. But women are not children, and the cancers which affect them are not cute, sexy or a joke. I don’t know if #myCat will raise awareness about cervical cancer, or persuade more women to turn up for screening; but it has certainly made me even more aware than I was before of the sexism that still pervades both our language and our institutions.