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.

Not unprecedented: 2020

No one, you might think, needs an end-of-year round-up to tell them what 2020 was all about. The word-watchers of the English-speaking world all chose pandemic-related terms as their Words of the Year: Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com selected ‘pandemic’ itself, while the American Dialect Society voted for ‘Covid’ and Collins went for ‘lockdown’. Oxford offered not one word but a whole glossary, including ‘coronavirus’, ‘furlough’, ‘superspreader’ and ‘PPE’—an unusual move for a year which they described, using another word that turned up on several WOTY shortlists, as ‘unprecedented’.

But here at Language: a feminist guide it was a rather different story. Of course the pandemic was omnipresent, and I did write a couple of posts that were specifically about it. But most of the language controversies that caught my eye this year were very much not unprecedented.

Many of them were variations on the old and familiar theme of disrespect for women, especially but not only women in positions of authority. Back in February, in the most-read post I published this year, I analysed a particular form of this gendered disrespect, the ‘gentlemanly sexism’ directed by her colleagues towards Lady Brenda Hale, the now-retired President of the Supreme Court. Gentlemanly sexism is—or appears to be—polite, measured and reasonable, but it conceals a deep resentment of women who are too clever, too outspoken and too critical of the arrangements that make the gentlemen’s power seem natural and benign.

That resentment may also be in evidence when powerful men tell women who challenge them to ‘watch their tone’, as the Health Secretary Matt Hancock did in June to the junior shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan. This tone-criticism is a defensive move, often employed as a distraction when a politician has no substantive answer to the question being posed; in this case it served only to make Matt Hancock look like what he is—over-promoted and out of his depth.  But the 2020 award for self-defeating abuse of a female political opponent should probably go to Rep. Ted Yoho, who called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a bitch outside the Capitol in July, and so provided her with a golden opportunity to demonstrate her own political and rhetorical skills with a hard-hitting speech about sexism to the House.

As the US presidential election campaign hotted up, I turned my attention to another familiar form of gendered disrespect, the interruption of women by men, and the far more punitive treatment of women who interrupt men. Joe Biden’s running-mate Sen. Kamala Harris was very familiar with this double standard: when she questioned former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions in 2017 she was sanctioned by the Chair for her ‘aggressive’ interruptions. In her Vice-Presidential debate with Mike Pence in October it was apparent that she had learned from this experience: she was at pains to present herself as civil and approachable, while also resisting Pence’s attempts to take the floor from her. It was (IMHO) a skilful performance, but it did not prevent her from being criticised as (in one commentator’s words) ‘an insufferable smug power-hungry bitch’.

Another phenomenon Harris encountered during the campaign (and indeed during her debate with Pence, though she waved the moderator’s apology away) was being addressed and referred to as ‘Kamala’ (sometimes mispronounced, or as one Twitter commentator felicitously put it, ‘dispronounced’—i.e., it was deliberate disrespect rather than an ‘innocent’ mistake) when her opponent was ‘Vice-President Pence’. The de-titling of women is a common pattern, but in politics it isn’t always self-evidently an insult. Being known familiarly by a first name or a nickname can sometimes work to a politician’s advantage (think of ‘Maggie’, ‘Boris’, or ‘Bernie’). Outside politics, however, the withholding of women’s titles usually does imply a lack of regard for their authority, status or expertise.

This point was illustrated in December by an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal urging Jill Biden to stop using the professional/academic title ‘Dr’, which according to the 83-year old male writer sounded ‘fraudulent’. Though Biden has made clear that she is not planning to be a traditional, fulltime First Lady, she was clearly being told to get back in her ‘wife of’ box. This year we’ve also seen a series of cases where women scientists, doctors and other healthcare professionals were first-named in media interviews and captions, while the male experts who appeared beside them were ‘doctor’ and ‘professor’. Women who complain about this are often accused—sometimes even by feminists—of being petty and self-regarding: in my post about it I explained why I don’t think that’s the right response.    

You might be thinking: but what about all those articles we read this year which praised women political leaders for the way they were managing the Covid crisis? Didn’t that prove that female authority was finally getting some respect? I did write about this trend, taking the view that a lot of the commentary t was patronising, essentialist fluff. It lumped all kinds of women together (passing swiftly over those who were doing a terrible job, like some US state governors) and praised them in stereotypical terms for their empathy, their rapport with children, and their supposedly natural communication skills. It also glossed over the point that the worst pandemic leaders weren’t just any old men, they were right-wing populist mavericks like Trump, Bolsonaro and Johnson, men who couldn’t, at the best of times, manage their way out of a paper bag.

But in any case, it’s not just women in authority who suffer from the gender respect gap. This year I also wrote about the way girls and young women are treated in educational settings—both in universities, where so-called ‘lad culture’ continues to inspire much hand-wringing and little useful action, and in schools, where the verbal and other harassment of girls by boys has prompted a series of reports suggesting that Something Must Be Done, but somehow nothing ever happens because, as one pupil quoted in the latest report remarked, ‘nobody thinks it’s a big deal’. To my mind it’s a very big deal, one of the most important issues we as feminists need to address: we cannot create a culture of equality and respect if we teach our children from the age of 5—not explicitly but implicitly, through the everyday experience of going to school—that boys’ freedom to do and say what they like matters more than girls’ freedom to live and learn without harassment.

Finally on the subject of respect and its absence, in April I published my second most-read post of the year, about the disrespect to which women are routinely subjected as they age out of the category of desirable and compliant sexual objects. It’s been a terrible year for ageism in general–even as I write, I can see the Usual Suspects on Twitter are back on their ‘why not just let the over-60s die so the rest of us can get back to normal’ bullshit–but the way ageism interacts with sexism (and ageist language with sexist language) tells us a lot about what’s valued, and what isn’t, in women of every age.

Another recurring-and-by-no-means-unprecedented theme of the posts I published in 2020 was violence against women, the stories that are commonly told about it and the linguistic formulas that pop up repeatedly in those stories. In January I criticised the BBC’s coverage of two high-profile rape cases; in July I took a closer look at how the press reports physical assaults on women, and at the use of the cliché ‘an isolated incident’ in cases where women are killed by men. Though posts on this topic are never popular, I’ll go on using this blog to criticise the misleading and harmful narratives peddled by the media. They’re not the root cause of male violence, but they do play a major part in shaping most people’s understanding of it, and that in turn plays a part in licensing our present, patently inadequate response to it.

But I didn’t spend all my time accentuating the negative. One of my own favourite posts of 2020, inspired by Jonathon Green’s Sounds and Furies, a history of women and slang, celebrated the linguistic creativity of fishwives, fast young ladies, flappers, fictional schoolgirls, Valley Girls et al. I also had fun writing about that hardy perennial, gender and colour terms, aka ‘Why Real Men Don’t Know Lavender From Mauve’. And I was glad to be able to bring one of last year’s stories—about the campaign to change the entry for ‘woman’ in the Oxford Dictionary—up to date (a revised entry was published in November).

Meanwhile, as the year wore on, I began to suspect that the pandemic was having at least one unexpectedly positive effect–reducing volume of bullshit advice on how women should or shouldn’t speak. Apart from a brief flurry of corporate nonsense on International Women’s Day, we heard relatively little this year from the purveyors of ’empowering’ top tips. On the minus side, this may be only because they’d found a new outlet for their finger-wagging: instead of banging on about ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ they were busy telling women how to look ‘professional’ on Zoom (wear make-up, get a ring light, and make sure your home workspace contains no domestic clutter, whether it’s a pile of laundry or a stray child). Which is also irritatingly sexist, of course, but happily it falls outside this blog’s remit.

There were other subjects which I did feel moved to write about, and even started writing about, but then abandoned for lack of time (both work and basic life-admin take much longer in a pandemic). But I expect I’ll have opportunities to return to them in future: even in ‘unprecedented’ times, the basic problems faced by women tend to stick around. Meanwhile, as always, my thanks and good wishes to everyone who stuck around to read this blog in 2020.

Don’t drop the doc: Jill Biden and performative outrage

Last week The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein headed ‘Is there a doctor in the White House? Not if you need an MD’ . This header suggested that what followed would be a rehash of the perennial debate on whether ‘Dr’ should be reserved exclusively for medics (cue 300 indignant tweets from academics reminding us that the title was given to the learned when medicine was still the province of barbers and quacks); but while that was certainly in the mix, it turned out to be buried in a steaming pile of sexist condescension aimed at a high-profile, topical target. In case anyone hasn’t seen it, here’s the opening paragraph:

Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? “Dr. Jill Biden” sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic. Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.” A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

Whether women who have doctorates should be permitted to use the title ‘Dr’ is also a perennial question. British feminists may recall the case of the historian Fern Riddell, who was deluged with abuse on social media in 2018 after she expressed the view that she, and other academic experts consulted by the media, should be given their professional titles. Accused of lacking humility, Riddell created the hashtag #ImmodestWomen.

Joseph Epstein, similarly, thinks Jill Biden should ‘drop the doc’. Addressing her as ‘Mrs Biden’, ‘Jill’ and ‘kiddo’, he informs her that her title sounds ‘fraudulent’, though he evidently knows it isn’t, because his next move is to suggest that her degree, an Ed.D from the University of Delaware, is academically worthless. (This disparaging assessment is itself an indirect manifestation of sexism: in the US, more women earn doctoral degrees in education than in any other discipline.) Only then do we get the ‘leave Dr for the medics’ argument, which he attributes—of course—to a ‘wise man’ (though a wiser man might have chosen a different procedure as his litmus test for Dr-worthiness, given how many millions of children throughout history have been delivered without the assistance of an MD).

Epstein’s piece attracted numerous complaints, and two days later the Wall Street Journal responded by suggesting that a campaign had been orchestrated by (Joe) Biden’s media team. The criticism, it noted, had only really taken off following a tweet from Biden press spokesman Michael LaRosa, who called the article ‘a disgusting and sexist attack’. ‘If you had any respect for women at all’, he added, ‘you would remove this repugnant display of chauvinism from your paper and apologize to [Jill Biden]’. The Journal’s line was that the Biden team had seized on this ‘relatively minor issue’ as an opportunity to score culture-war points through a display of performative outrage. Though it came from a different ideological direction, this bullying of the press, it said, was uncomfortably reminiscent of Trump.  

Does this response stand up to scrutiny? I’d say, yes and no. I do think Michael LaRosa’s tweet was an instance of ‘performative outrage’: he must have known that any self-respecting newspaper would resist, on principle, calls from a member of the president-elect’s staff to take down or apologise for an article that criticised the president-elect’s wife. I also have some sympathy for the Journal’s own interpretation of the offending piece: ‘Mr. Epstein criticized the habit of people with Ph.D.s or other doctorates calling themselves “Dr.” as highfalutin, using Jill Biden as Exhibit A’. In other words, the point of it wasn’t (just) to attack Jill Biden. If you can drag your eyes away from the appalling first paragraph, that isn’t an unreasonable summary.

That is not to say, however, that Epstein’s criticism of Jill Biden was incidental or peripheral. It was the peg for his op-ed, which would otherwise have been just a generic rant about falling academic standards and professorial self-aggrandisement that could have been written at any time in the last 60 years. It certainly wouldn’t have generated the kind of controversy which drives lots of extra traffic to a newspaper’s website. In a media economy where outrage pays dividends, the performative outrage of the Biden team was a gift to the Journal, and its complaint about orchestrated bullying was just more performative outrage. And amid all this outrage, we began to lose sight of what’s actually at stake when women are accused of being over-invested in titles like ‘Dr’.

I don’t want to lose sight of that issue, especially since I’ve now seen several feminists online suggesting that even if Epstein made it in a gratuitously insulting way, he actually had a point. Is it not absurdly self-important of Jill Biden to insist on being referred to as ‘Dr’ in any context other than the strictly academic?

I understand where that view comes from—as I’ve written before, the question of titles is one a lot of feminists are conflicted about. On one hand we believe women should be treated with the same respect as men, but on the other we are uncomfortable with the overt marking of status differentials. Many of us (including me, as I admitted in my earlier post) choose not to challenge people who first-name us or call us ‘Ms X’ while addressing our male colleagues as ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’, because we don’t want to be seen as elitist, old-fashioned, vain, insecure or unapproachable.

But there are also good arguments for the opposite approach. After I blogged about #ImmodestWomen, I heard from a number of women with PhDs who said they used ‘Dr’ outside their professional lives—for instance, when filling in forms at the dentist’s surgery or booking flights online—not because they expected their status to get them better service, but because it liberated them from the eternal question ‘is that Miss or Mrs?’ A man with a doctorate who chooses to go by ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’ in private life is not in danger of being treated as someone’s appendage: for women it’s a different matter.

In Jill Biden’s case, anyone who thinks she should use ‘Dr’ only for academic purposes is essentially saying that for all other purposes she should be ‘Mrs’, i.e. defined by her status as a wife. I don’t, of course, know Jill Biden, but it seems fairly clear that she resists being defined in that way. She’s the first US president’s wife in history who has declined to make First Ladyhood her fulltime occupation, instead declaring that she will continue to teach at a community college in Virginia. It’s at least plausible that her preference for the title ‘Dr’ has less to do with intellectual self-importance than with symbolising her commitment to maintaining some measure of independence.

The other thing we should remember before we criticise women like Jill Biden is that even in their professional lives women are frequently denied professional titles. This manifestation of what in an earlier post I called ‘the gender respect gap’ is the subject of many anecdotal complaints among women in academia, and it has been documented systematically in medicine. A study which looked at doctors introducing other doctors at ‘Grand Rounds’ discovered that men introducing women only referred to them as ‘Dr X’ in 49% of cases, whereas the figure for men introducing men was over 70%–and women almost always used the title when introducing colleagues of both sexes.

The media are also regular offenders, persistently addressing or referring to male guest experts as ‘Dr This’ and ‘Professor That’ while their female counterparts are first-named. In this Year of the Plague, when scientists and medics have been constantly on our screens, there has been ample opportunity to witness this tendency in action. Here’s a case in point:

The two people in this image are Donna Kinnair, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Nursing, and Hugh Pennington, a virologist. The caption gives each of them an institutional affiliation, but only Pennington gets the title ‘Professor’. Which would be one thing if he were the only professor in the room, but in fact Donna Kinnair is a professor too. She’s also a DBE: a fully accurate caption would have called her ‘Professor Dame Donna Kinnair’.

This example is particularly bad because it involves captioning, which there is time to check, as opposed to being an error made inadvertently in a live interview. I say ‘error’ because in most cases I don’t believe the media intend to treat men and women differently; I think it’s more likely to be a product of unconscious bias. Or in this particular case, intersecting biases: Kinnair is a woman, she’s Black, and her field is nursing, and all those things are at odds with our cultural prototype of a professor. The older white man beside her, by contrast, fits the prototype perfectly.  

Maybe Donna Kinnair thinks there are more important things to worry about than whether the captioners gave her the correct title, and if so we might think that’s to her credit. But there’s more to the problem of gendered disrespect than just the feelings of the individual women on the receiving end. Every time we tolerate the titling of a male expert and the non-titling of the female expert alongside him, we are effectively reinforcing the beliefs that are the root of the problem—for instance, that professors look like Hugh Pennington and not like Donna Kinnair. And that has knock-on effects. If it’s true that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, then there’s a reason to insist that women’s status should be made explicit which is not just about flattery or self-regard.

I don’t think the answer is performative outrage (in hindsight I regret having performed my own outrage about Joseph Epstein’s piece on Twitter). If the aim is to change things, as opposed to just getting people briefly riled up about them, a better strategy might be quiet, dogged, civilly phrased complaint. ‘Dear TV programme producer, I noticed tonight that your captions identified the two experts in your Covid-19 item as Professor Hugh Pennington and Donna Kinnair. Perhaps you were not aware that Donna Kinnair is also a Professor. I’d like to suggest that in future you adopt a general policy of checking these captions to ensure they provide viewers with accurate information about each guest’s expert credentials’.  

Of course, it’s harder to call out bias when you yourself are at the sharp end, and when the disrespect is coming from your colleagues or your students. That does feel petty and it can feel self-regarding. We all have to choose our battles, and if a woman chooses not to fight this one she’ll get no argument from me—except for the one I’ve made here, and in other posts on this subject, that the granting or withholding of respect titles is not the trivial concern it’s often made out to be. If it’s so trivial, why do so many men become so enraged when a woman expresses the desire to be known as ‘Dr X’?  What impels them to respond with such extraordinary condescension (‘humility, Dr Riddell!’ ‘Mrs Biden—Jill—Kiddo: a bit of advice’)?

At some level I think these men must see the move women like Riddell and Biden are making as an attack on the ‘natural’ (aka patriarchal) order in which men rank above women, and women should defer to men. Hostility towards women who insist on professional titles may also reflect the (conscious or unconscious) belief that whatever else women may do, their most important roles are still the traditional ones of wife and mother. Women who decline to take their husbands’ last names when they marry elicit similarly hostile reactions, and for the same reason. They aren’t just defying convention, they’re challenging assumptions that patriarchy takes for granted. That’s why the gesture isn’t trivial; and that’s why it deserves feminists’ support.     

When Kamala met Mike

Note: all extracts reproduced in this post are taken from the full debate transcript published by USA Today

PAGE: Kamala Harris – Senator Harris, I mean. I’m sorry. 

HARRIS: It’s fine. I’m Kamala.

PAGE: No, no, you’re Senator Harris to me. 

About 14 minutes into last week’s Vice-Presidential debate, the moderator Susan Page apologised for calling the Democratic challenger ‘Kamala Harris’ (first name + last name) rather than ‘Senator Harris’ (title + last name). Harris reassured her: ‘It’s fine. I’m Kamala’. Page (who was herself addressed as ‘Susan’ by both candidates) responded that it wasn’t fine: her role in this formal setting required her both to observe the proper courtesies and to treat the two candidates equally. At no point had she addressed or referred to Harris’s opponent as ‘Mike Pence’. He was always ‘Vice-President Pence’.

Many feminists would agree that it’s not OK to call Harris by her first name while giving Pence a formal title—nor for the media to refer to the two of them in shorthand as ‘Kamala’ and ‘Pence’. I’ve pointed out before that the first-naming and/or de-titling of women in public contexts, when comparable men get last name + title, is a common phenomenon—it’s one manifestation of the ‘gender respect gap’. But as I’ve also pointed out, it’s a bit of a minefield for women with progressive/egalitarian politics. You may recognise the first-naming of women (see also children, domestic servants, and in Jim Crow America, Black people) as a putdown, a case of the familiarity that implies contempt, but you still don’t want to be seen as a self-aggrandising bully insisting that everyone should defer to your exalted status, or as so insecure that you have to stand on ceremony at all times. Was that what prompted Harris’s ‘it’s fine, I’m Kamala’?

In this case there may have been more to it. Like most things we do with language, first-naming takes on different meanings in different contexts. In political contexts, a gesture implying that you don’t stand on ceremony or demand automatic deference from others can signify qualities which many voters regard as virtues—it says you’re authentic, down-to-earth, a woman or man of the people rather than an establishment type motivated purely by personal ambition. Maybe Harris was exploiting that symbolism.

If she was, she wouldn’t be the only woman to do so. In New York City a campaign has just been launched by the Black lawyer and media commentator Maya Wiley using the slogan ‘Maya for Mayor’.  In her campaign video Wiley makes much of her non-establishment credentials: ‘Some will say I don’t sound like past mayors or look like them or think like them, and I say yes, I don’t — that is the point’. Referring to herself as ‘Maya’ underlines that point. Though it’s also true that her name is particularly well suited to the purpose: if you were called Maya and you were hoping to be elected mayor, why wouldn’t your campaign slogan be ‘Maya for Mayor’?

This brings us neatly to an observation made by several people on Twitter, that when we’re talking about the naming of politicians and other public figures, sexism, or indeed sex, is not the only variable in the equation. The media’s preference for ‘Kamala’ over ‘Harris’—but at the same time, for ‘Pence’ rather than ‘Mike’—is also a preference for more over less distinctive names. Mikes (but not Pences) are a dime a dozen; conversely, Kamalas (in the US) are much rarer than people whose last name is Harris.

The distinctiveness principle predicts that there will be a greater tendency to first-name women, because historically women’s given names have been more variable, and thus more likely to be distinctive, than men’s; but it doesn’t apply exclusively to women. It also explains (at least in part) why the current British Prime Minister is so frequently referred to as ‘Boris’—a very unusual name for a white British man—rather than by his more commonplace last name ‘Johnson’.

I say ‘at least in part’ because in Johnson’s case the first-naming also reflects his carefully-cultivated image as an unconventional politician with a larger-than-life personality. But male politicians whose given names are less distinctive have often tried to get some of the positive effects associated with first-naming (sounding more authentic and down-to-earth, or less patrician) by using nicknames or diminutive forms alongside their last names: see ‘Bobby’ Kennedy, ‘Bill’ Clinton and for that matter ‘Joe’ Biden—and on the other side of the US party line, ‘Dick’ Nixon and indeed ‘Mike’ Pence.  

All in all, then, I don’t think feminists need to get too wound up about the first-naming of Kamala Harris. Though there’s probably an element of knee-jerk sexism about it, in context it has other meanings too. In an era of populism, when elected politicians are judged at least as much on criteria relating to their personal authenticity as on criteria relating to their competence, being ‘Kamala’ may do more to help Harris than to hurt her.  

I feel similarly about some of the other features of the debate that prompted indignation on Harris’s behalf. For instance, it was noted that the moderator thanked Mike Pence more than 50 times, whereas she thanked Harris fewer than 30 times. On its own that sounds like more evidence of the respect gap. But when you look at the transcript you soon realise there’s another explanation. Susan Page consistently used the formula ‘thank you’ to fulfil the dual function of acknowledging a debater’s answer and telling them to stop talking because their time was up. She did this with both participants, but more with Pence because he went over his allotted speaking time more frequently. He also ignored more of Page’s interventions, which forced her to repeat herself.

Here’s an extract, from around 24 minutes in, where Page makes three separate attempts to bring Pence’s turn to a close before he finally yields the floor:

PENCE: Joe Biden, 47 years in public service, compared to President Donald Trump, who brought all of that experience four years ago– 

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President –

PENCE: – and turned this economy around by cutting taxes, rolling back regulation, unleashing American energy-

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – fighting for free and fair trade, and all of that is on the line –

PAGE: Thank you, Vice President Pence –

PENCE: – if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are in the White House.

In this short extract Page produces five ‘thank yous’ addressed to Pence, so it’s not surprising that the overall tally was over 50 (if anything it’s surprising it wasn’t higher).

But it isn’t just because of Page that ‘thank you’ appears so frequently in this transcript. Possibly in an attempt to avoid repeating the extraordinary incivility of the earlier Presidential debate between Trump and Biden, Pence and Harris engaged in repeated exchanges of polite thanks:

PENCE: Senator, I want to thank you and Joe Biden for your expressions and genuine concern. And I also want to congratulate you, as I did on that phone call, on the historic nature of your nomination.

HARRIS: Thank you

PENCE: Well, look, I respect the fact that Joe Biden spent 47 years in public life. I respect your public service as well. 

HARRIS: Thank you.

Both candidates were evidently determined to present at least the appearance of adherence to the rules of civil exchange, to the point where they almost seemed to be competing to see who could produce more politeness tokens. But in one much-commented on respect, Pence clearly deviated from those rules. As well as consistently ignoring the moderator’s instructions to stop talking, he repeatedly attempted to interrupt Harris.

Here’s an example from about half an hour in. Harris has just been invited to respond to Pence’s claim (made in his answer to a question about the economy) that if Biden becomes president he will raise ordinary citizens’ taxes. She says:

HARRIS: Well, I mean, I thought we saw enough of it in last week’s debate, but I think this is supposed to be a debate based on fact and truth. And the truth of the fact is, Joe Biden has been very clear. He will not raise taxes on anybody who makes less than $400,000 a year –

PENCE: He said he’s gonna appeal the Trump tax cuts –

HARRIS: Mr. Vice President I’m speaking.

PENCE: Well –

HARRIS: I’m speaking.

Harris deals with the interruptions using a strategy I discussed in an earlier post—what conversation analysts call ‘doing being interrupted’, i.e. explicitly calling attention to the fact that your speaking rights have been violated. She does this by saying, calmly (since as a woman, and more specifically as a woman of color, she has more to lose than a white man if she gets angry): ‘Mr Vice President I’m speaking….I’m speaking’. (If you want to judge her tone for yourself there’s a video clip of this section embedded in the transcript I linked to at the top of this post.) This is a dual-purpose strategy: even if it is not successful in enabling her to regain the floor immediately, she will still have made the point that Pence took it from her illegitimately. And if she’s canny, that will also help her to play a longer game.

The longer game turned out to be needed, because the initial ‘I’m speaking’ move did not immediately cause Pence to back down. Rather, he pressed his advantage:

PENCE: – it’d be important if you said the truth. Joe Biden said twice in the debate last week that he’s going to repeal the Trump tax cuts. That was tax cuts that gave the average working family $2,000 in a tax break every single year –

HARRIS: That is – That is absolutely not true –

PENCE: – Senator, that’s the math –

HARRIS: – that tax bill – 

PENCE:  Is he only gonna repeal part of the Trump tax cuts?

By getting drawn into this quickfire exchange Harris is letting Pence set the agenda, but it seems she recognises that, and returns to the procedural point that he has muscled in on her turn:  

HARRIS: If you don’t mind letting me finish –

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: We can then have a conversation. Okay?

PENCE: Please

HARRIS: Okay. [continues for 200 words]

At this point the moderator intervenes with one of her admonitory ‘thank yous’; but Harris uses the fact that she was interrupted to make a bid for more time:

PAGE: Thank you, Senator Harris –

HARRIS: – [Trump is in court right now] trying to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, which means that you will lose protections, if you have pre-existing conditions. And I just, this is very important, Susan 

PAGE: Yes, well we need to give – We need to give Vice President –

HARRIS: – and it’s just –  He interrupted me and I’d like to just finish, please

She goes on to deliver one of her more memorable lines of the night, ignoring further interjections from both Pence and Page:

HARRIS: If you have a pre-existing condition, heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, they’re coming for you.  If you love someone who has a pre existing condition –

PENCE: Nonsense

PAGE: Thank you – Thank you, Senator Harris –

PENCE: That’s nonsense

HARRIS: – they’re coming for you. If you are under the age of 26 on your parents’ coverage, they’re coming for you.

PAGE: Senator Harris, thank you.

HARRIS: You’re welcome

We can’t know if Mike Pence would have shown more respect for a male opponent’s speaking rights, or for the instructions given by a male moderator; but in the current state of US politics (which is even more polarised now than it was four years ago) I’m inclined to agree with those commentators who didn’t think Harris’s sex made much difference—that like his boss confronting Biden, Pence would have tried to steamroller whoever he’d been up against. And the fact is that she also used, albeit somewhat less frequently, strategies like cutting in to contradict him and ignoring instructions to stop speaking. Essentially the two of them played the same game by the same rules (making this encounter different from both Trump vs. Biden and Trump vs. Clinton in 2016). I don’t see much evidence that she was treated less favourably or less respectfully in the debate itself.

What happened after the debate, however, as pundits and the public assessed the two candidates’ performances, is a different story—one which shows, once again, that the biggest problem for women in politics is not how they themselves speak, or even how they are spoken to by their male colleagues, but how they are spoken about in the larger public sphere. The judgments made by commentators on the debate were transparently partisan: Trump supporters declared Pence the winner and Biden supporters insisted that Harris had outshone him. But where negative comments were made, they were clearly differentiated by sex, and in Harris’s case they drew from a bottomless well of sexist/misogynist stereotypes.

One commentator complained that ‘her reactions to Pence, which included smirking and smiling while he was answering most of the questions, were a turn off’ (this perhaps deserves some extra points for perversity, since men more commonly claim to be ‘turned off’ when women don’t smile). An Indian publication ran a piece with the predictably loaded title ‘Why is Kamala Harris so unlikable?’ which went on to say that she ‘reeked of condescension’ and had a ‘maniacal’ laugh (she does laugh, but ‘maniacal’ is quite a stretch–see the embedded clip I mentioned before). This writer also called her a ‘megalomaniac’, and in making that assessment he was far from alone. Harlan Hill, a commentator who has advised Donald Trump, and who tweeted during the debate that Harris was ‘a lying bitch’, said afterwards: ‘I stand by the statement that she’s an insufferable power-hungry smug bitch’.

This is really the crux of the matter. When two politicians are contesting the same position, it might seem logical to assume that they are equally ‘power-hungry’; but men are rarely described in those terms so long as they do not pursue power in extreme and extra-legal ways (e.g. plotting a coup or an assassination, as opposed to simply running for office). A woman, on the other hand, is ‘power-hungry’ (and therefore unlikable, a turn-off, an insufferable bitch, a megalomaniac) if she shows any disposition to seek any power at all. The desire for power, considered natural in men, is inherently incompatible with feminine modesty and submissiveness, and that is the standard women are judged against.

You do not have to be an admirer of Kamala Harris, or any other individual female politician, to understand this attitude as a fundamental obstacle to equality—one that cannot be overcome by exhorting women to speak differently, or to project a more ‘acceptable’ public image. Harris’s efforts to appear approachable (‘It’s fine, I’m Kamala’) did not stop commentators from branding her a power-hungry bitch. If you are, or aspire to be, in politics, and you have the pre-existing condition of being female, then whatever you do, the misogynists are coming for you.

In some democracies today the misogynists’ influence is much diminished; in others, including the US, it has reached new heights in recent years. Voting out the grotesque figure who currently occupies the White House (along with his religious zealot deputy) will not, on its own, be enough to turn that tide, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

Life lessons

Where I live September is back-to-school time, and this year the annual ritual had a special significance because it followed a period of several months when schools were closed to most children because of the pandemic. There were many reports on how delighted pupils were to be back with their friends in real classrooms with real teachers. But we all know (some of us from first-hand experience) that for some young people that won’t have been the story. There are many things that can make returning to school a less than delightful prospect. One of those things is sexism.

I first blogged about this back in 2015, when the Institute of Physics (IoP) published a report called Opening Doors, about sexism and gender stereotyping in schools. This document was on my radar because of the emphasis it placed on language. The Institute’s research had found that sexist language—covering a spectrum from casual stereotyping (‘I need two strong boys to help me with this table’) to name-calling and verbal bullying—was ubiquitous in schools. Half of the primary school teachers surveyed had witnessed boys using it to girls, and one in five teachers had themselves been subjected to sexist verbal abuse by pupils. The researchers also noted that this was rarely treated as a problem: often it was dismissed as ‘harmless banter’, though ‘many pupils, especially girls, did not see it as such’.

The IoP’s mild suggestion that schools should be less tolerant of sexist language got a predictable reception from the right-wing press, which treated it as both an outrage and a joke. The Sunday Times’s report lamented that

The days of boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground with terms such as “sissy” and “cupcake” or issuing orders to “man up” or “go make me a sandwich” may be brought to an end.

Still, I found it encouraging that the report was getting some attention (and some buy-in from the government—it had a foreword written by Caroline Dinenage, the then-Under Secretary of State for Women and Equalities). If anyone bothered to read the whole thing they’d find some useful examples of good practice and various practical, achievable recommendations. So, five years later, what progress has been made?

I fear that the answer is, ‘not much’. Some schools may have acted on the IoP’s recommendations, but the national initiative that made headlines in 2015 had evidently been forgotten by 2017, when the National Education Union (NEU) in association with UK Feminista conducted another study and produced a report entitled It’s Just Everywhere: A study on sexism in schools—and how we tackle it.

For anyone who’d read the IoP’s report two years earlier, this was déjà vu all over again. Once again, the researchers noted that ‘the use of sexist, misogynist language…is commonplace in schools’. In a sample of over 1600 teachers, almost two thirds of those who worked in mixed-sex secondary schools said they heard this kind of language at least weekly, and nearly a third said they heard it every day. Their further comments made clear they were not talking about ‘boys and girls cheerfully baiting each other in the playground’. Teachers expressed concern about boys discussing girls in language they described as ‘degrading, sexualised and offensive’ or even ‘violently misogynistic’; one interviewee reported that ‘sexually unacceptable/ threatening comments’ were made by certain boys both to girls and to female members of staff. Though the report treated sexist language and sexual harassment as separate issues, the accounts it reproduced showed that language played an integral part in many or most incidents of harassment.

In class boys talk about girls’ bodies and what they ‘would do to them’, make female sex noises at the teachers and at girls, ask girls in class if a particular photo was them, have they got it shaved, what it looks like (Secondary school teacher)

Some of the boys make comments on a lot of the girls in our years’ bodies and the girls just have to ignore it because no one thinks it’s a big deal (Female student)

In secondary schools, the use of sexist and misogynist language is no longer, if it ever was, a reciprocal, equal opportunity activity: it’s overwhelmingly a case of boys targeting girls with overtly sexual comments. And the effect on girls is not trivial. According to Girl Guiding UK, which conducts an annual survey with a sample of girls aged 11-16, fear of attracting these comments from boys makes many girls reluctant to draw attention to themselves; about a quarter report that they try not to speak in lessons. Even if most girls do not practise self-censorship, why should any girl (or indeed, anyone at all) be expected to spend 30+ hours a week in an environment where verbal abuse is an everyday occurrence? Beyond its effects on girls’ academic education, what life-lessons is this experience teaching them?  

According to the NEU/Feminista study, few schools were making any systematic effort to tackle the problem. In their sample, 78% of students and 64% of teachers were not aware that their school had any policy on sexism (suggesting that even if one existed it wasn’t being followed), and only 20% of teachers had discussed the issue during their training. The report concluded with a list of recommendations: sexism should get more attention; schools should adopt explicit policies; teachers need specific training; students need opportunities to talk about it. This is all pretty obvious, and it’s also pretty similar to what the IoP came up with. So, three years later, has anything changed?

This month a book has been published which claims that something has indeed changed since 2017—but not, unfortunately, for the better. In her introduction to Men Who Hate Women, a tour of the misogynist subcultures of the online manosphere (incels, pick-up artists, MGTOWs (‘men going their own way’) and other assorted men’s rights activists), Laura Bates explains that what prompted her to investigate these subcultures was hearing their language and their talking-points parroted by boys she met when she went into schools to talk about sexism. This hadn’t been a thing when she first started visiting schools, but two years ago she began to notice a change:

[Boys] were angry, resistant to the very idea of a conversation about sexism. Men themselves were the real victims, they’d tell me, in a society in which political correctness has gone mad, white men are persecuted, and so many women lie about rape. In schools from rural Scotland to central London, I started hearing the same arguments. The hair rose on my arms when I realised that these boys, who had never met each other, were using precisely the same words and quoting the same false statistics to back up their claims. …These [online misogynist] groups have dug their claws into teenage boys across the country.

Laura Bates is among the feminists who place the ideas and activities of online misogynist groups in the conceptual frame of terrorism (this is a framing I have some reservations about, but in this post I’ll leave them aside). She is concerned that teenage boys, most of them more confused and lonely than violent and hateful, are being radicalised online, and recruited into an extremist movement which bears comparison with white nationalism or radical Islamism. Education, she believes, has an important role to play in countering this radicalisation, just as it does in the other cases. She suggests that schools could make use of the expertise that already exists in organisations like White Ribbon and the Good Lad Initiative, run by ‘men who hate men who hate women’.  

My own feelings about this proposal are mixed. I don’t dispute that some of the young men who are drawn to the manosphere are struggling with personal and social problems; but the thought that kept coming into my mind was ‘what about the girls?’ If schools are pushed into doing something about misogyny only because it’s been added to the list of extremist ideologies that can lead to acts of terrorism—and if what they do focuses on boys as potential victims of radicalisation—what does that say about our priorities? Where does it leave the victims’ victims?

I think that what schools most urgently need to address is the sexism of the ‘hidden curriculum’—what students are learning, not from explicit instruction, but through participating in the daily routines of school. It’s no use teaching formal lessons about the evils of sexism and misogyny if students’ whole experience outside those specific lessons shows them that in practice ‘no one thinks it’s a big deal’. In many schools, if the studies I’ve linked to are anything to go by, that’s exactly what their experience shows them. How much can sexism and misogyny matter if boys can verbally abuse girls with impunity, and girls’ only refuge is silence?

The most general lesson girls are learning from the experiences described in study after study is that their needs, rights and feelings are not important–or at least, not important enough to justify curtailing boys’ freedom. Until we as a society decide that this is intolerable, we will doubtless be presented with many more reports which highlight the same problems, make the same recommendations, are met with the same brief flurry of concern, and are then left to gather dust.

She Speaks

Three years ago, to mark the political party conference season, I wrote a post about Great Political Speeches—or rather, Great Male Political Speeches. On most Anglophone lists of the best speeches of all time you will find just one token woman, or if you’re really lucky, two. British list compilers typically select from a field consisting of Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Margaret Thatcher; their US counterparts, who (still) can’t choose a female president, tend to go for Susan B. Anthony or Sojourner Truth.

Of course, it’s not surprising if the female speechmakers of the past can’t compete with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. In addition to being gifted orators, these men were leaders of global stature, speaking at key historical moments on subjects of grave import. Until recently very few women, however gifted, were in a position to tick any of those boxes. But even today, as the Labour MP Yvette Cooper says in the introduction to her recent anthology of women’s speeches She Speaks: The Power of Women’s Voices, ‘public speaking can still feel like a man’s world’. Though women are no longer banned from the podium, they still have to contend with various ancient sexist prejudices.

By way of illustration, Cooper quotes the introduction to an anthology of great speeches produced in the 1990s, where the editors offer three justifications for the near-absence of women. The first is the point I’ve just made myself, that women were historically excluded from the ‘great stages’. The second is that women ‘wanted no part in the macho game of domination by speech’ (really? In that case why did they spend much of the 19th century fighting for their right to speak in public without being denounced as unnatural and immoral?) But it’s the third justification that really grates: ‘women’s voices are not made by nature for oratory. They are not deep enough’. Though Cooper rightly calls it ‘ludicrous’, the prejudice against female voices is still alive and well: witness the complaints about Hillary Clinton’s ‘shrillness’ during the 2016 presidential campaign, and the outrage provoked by the BBC’s decision to let a woman commentate on the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

But in any case, these justifications begin from a false premise. They’re answers to the question ‘why haven’t women made speeches?’, when in fact women have made speeches: there’s a tradition of female oratory that goes back at least to the early 19th century. By the 1990s it wasn’t even true that there were no women speaking from ‘the great stages’. The anthology Cooper criticises was published, as she points out, in the same year Hillary Clinton made her ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing, and Benazir Bhutto addressed the UN as the first woman elected head of an Islamic state.

She Speaks is Cooper’s attempt to redress the balance. Her introduction makes clear that what inspired the project wasn’t just her irritation with male-dominated anthologies, but also her concern about recent developments in our public discourse. Whether it’s the casual misogyny of populist leaders like Donald Trump or the rape and death threats which any woman with a public platform can now expect to receive (Cooper reminds us that her colleague Jo Cox MP was murdered by a man who took exception to her views), she believes that women are being silenced, and she wants to encourage them to resist. ‘The women in this book wouldn’t stay quiet’, she writes. ‘Their words live on after their speeches and will live on after they have gone’.

So, who are the women in this book? There are 35 in all: about half of them are British, including political leaders (Boudica, Elizabeth I, Prime Ministers Thatcher and May), politicians (Eleanor Rathbone, Barbara Castle, Diane Abbott, Harriet Harman, Jo Cox, Cooper herself) and campaigners (Josephine Butler, Emmeline Pankhurst, Alison Drake, Emma Watson). Another fairly well-represented category is non-British female heads of state like Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard (yes, the ‘misogyny speech’) and Jacinda Ardern. 

Predictably, the largest single group of non-Brits are American: political figures (Sojourner Truth, Michelle Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), writers (Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde) and performers (Lupita Nyong’o, Ellen DeGeneres). There are also two young activists with global profiles (Malala Yousefzai and Greta Thunberg), two Nobel laureates (one a physicist, the other the first African to win the Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai), a disability activist, a trans activist and a Holocaust survivor; there’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s celebrated ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ TED talk, and a speech by Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. The sequence is chronological, and in each case we get some contextualising discussion followed by the (sometimes abridged) text of the speech itself.

As exemplars of Great Speechmaking I’d say Cooper’s selections are a mixed bag.  I did feel that quite a lot of her choices were based less on the quality of the speeches themselves than on her view of the speaker and/or her life-story as inspiring. I thought that was a pity: since great male speeches are usually remembered for both reasons, it risks recycling the conventional wisdom that women lack men’s rhetorical skills.

This problem was most evident in the British politicians’ speeches. Cooper’s own contribution, urging Parliament to do for refugees fleeing war in Syria what Britain had done for those fleeing Nazism in the 1940s, is one of the better examples, rhetorically speaking. Apart from the two Tory Prime Ministers, her other choices are all women of her own party, many of them her colleagues and friends; she obviously admires them as people and as politicians, but they aren’t all great political speakers. In current British politics I don’t think there are many outstanding speakers of either sex; but I was surprised Cooper passed over one senior female politician who really does stand out for her rhetorical skills: the SNP leader and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Among the non-British politicians, I was most impressed by Jacinda Ardern (speaking after the terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: both have the ability to fit their words to the occasion in a way that seems not merely apt, but uplifting. Michelle Obama’s 2016 Democratic Convention speech also gets high marks: it’s one of the few that contains a genuinely memorable line (‘when they go low, we go high’).

This example points to a perennial problem with anthologies of speeches: some of the qualities that make a speech great may be lost in the transition to print. In 2017 I praised Michelle Obama for the way she connected with her audience; her speech is still pretty good on the page, but it was her embodied presence and her rapport with the people in the hall that made it so compelling in its original, oral form.

Another case where some of the original magic has been lost in transcription is Julia Gillard’s famous ‘misogyny’ speech. If you watch her performance on video it’s electrifying, but as a text it’s surprisingly flat: the first part is still memorable, but the energy of the rest of it was more in the righteously angry delivery than in the language itself. (I do like this musical setting, however.) Similarly with Malala Yusefzai and Greta Thunberg: both hold your attention when they speak, but the written version of Malala’s ‘Education First’ speech to the UN is a more highly-crafted text, and thus more rewarding to read.

The biggest revelation, for me, was Kavita Krishnan excoriating the authorities after the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh on a Delhi bus. It’s a remarkable feminist speech–as Yvette Cooper says, both impassioned and forensic. It uses plain language in the service of a sophisticated argument, a skill which is all too rare. Here’s part of the last section by way of illustration:

Women have a right to freedom. And that freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.

I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much (…)

Women know what ‘safety’ refers to.

It means—you behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe.

A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it.

The Delhi police is running an ad campaign… [with] a Hindi film actor exhorting people, ‘Be a man, join me in protecting women’. I want to ask, what about the brother who cuts his sister’s head off when she dares to marry into a different community? Is he not playing the role of a male protector too?

This machismo is not any solution to the problem of violence against women; it is, in fact, the root of the problem. This is what we need to understand.

For all that we live in a multimedia age, speeches like this one, delivered to the crowd at a protest, show that our oldest political communication technology has not lost its power. And it’s important that women can harness that power on equal terms with men. 

Of course, just celebrating female speakers doesn’t remove either the structural barriers or the cultural prejudices that still prevent or deter women from speaking publicly; efforts to address those issues must continue. But we should also remember that, as the saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. Girls and women need to know that people like them not only can speak, but have spoken— powerfully, persuasively and movingly—on all kinds of subjects and in all kinds of situations. That’s where anthologies of women’s speeches have a part to play; I might quibble with some of Yvette Cooper’s choices, but her aim is one I think feminists should applaud.