What are words worth? Thoughts on the pardoning of witches

Last month the Scottish government gave its support to a proposal to grant a posthumous pardon to people who were executed as witches. The campaign group Witches of Scotland estimates that between the passing of the Witchcraft Act in 1563 and its repeal in 1736, almost 4000 people were accused; around two thirds of them, more than 2500 people, were subsequently convicted and executed. As well as a pardon, the campaigners want an official apology and a public memorial to those who died.

In Scotland as elsewhere, a large majority of the victims of witch-hunting—around 84 percent of them—were women, and the campaign has been seen as a feminist issue. For some supporters its significance goes beyond the purely historical: it’s been suggested that the righting of this centuries-old wrong will also, in the words of Scottish Parliament member Natalie Don, ‘have an impact in challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes in [present-day] society’. All of which raises some interesting questions about history, politics and (for reasons I’ll come to shortly) language.  

There are other cases where a pardon has been granted to a group of people who are considered, in retrospect, to have been criminalized unjustly. In 2016, for instance, the UK Parliament passed legislation pardoning anyone who had been convicted under the various laws that once prohibited consensual sex between men. Lord Sharkey, who proposed the relevant amendment, said that ‘a pardon is probably the best way of acknowledging the real harm done by the unjust and cruel homophobic laws, which thankfully we’ve now repealed’.

Not everyone agreed. George Montague, a gay man who was convicted of gross indecency in 1974, told the BBC he wanted an apology, not a pardon. ‘To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty’, he said. ‘I was not guilty of anything. I was only guilty of being in the wrong place at the wrong time’.

The Scots lawyer Andrew Stevenson has made the same point about the pardoning of witches:  

One pardons a wrongdoer, not the party wronged. Yet by means of a pardon conferred by statute the state is granting, not seeking, forgiveness. A pardon (of witches or anyone else) does not quash a conviction. It actually reaffirms its existence.

Pardoning is an example of the type of speech-act the philosopher J. L. Austin called a ‘performative’, meaning that the utterance of certain words actually performs, as opposed to just reporting, a specific action. Whereas statements like ‘it’s raining’ describe a state of affairs that exists independently of the speaker’s utterance (or doesn’t: I can check by looking out of the window), performative utterances like ‘I bet you £5 it rains today’ or ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ are, in themselves, enactments of the bet or the oath. They bring a new reality into being—or at least, they do if they’re performed properly. Performatives don’t have truth conditions, but rather ‘happiness’ or ‘felicity’ conditions which must be met if the performance is to have the intended effect. In the case of pardoning those conditions include the prior existence of a crime or a wrong for which the person being pardoned was responsible. Consequently, Stevenson argues, pardoning the witches cannot achieve the intended effect: it will not bring into being a new reality in which they were never guilty of anything.

But while this argument may be legally correct, for most people in modern Scotland it is surely beside the point, since they already take the witches’ innocence for granted. Witches are a different case from gay men: a pardon is not being proposed because of a change in society’s attitudes to what they do (people used to think witchcraft was wrong, but that has now been recognized as an unjust prejudice), but rather because we now reject the idea that witchcraft is, or ever was, a real phenomenon. To us it is self-evident that the accusations made against witches—for instance that they had killed their neighbours’ cows with curses, transformed themselves into owls or cavorted on beaches with Satan—were false: no one could have been guilty of such absurd and impossible crimes. In that sense you could argue that the wrong has already been righted, to the extent it ever can be. But in that case, what is a pardon meant to accomplish? 

A cynical answer might be that it’s ‘performative’ not (just) in Austin’s sense, but in the now-popular pejorative sense: an ostentatious but superficial display of concern intended mainly to boost the performer’s claim to the moral high-ground. That criticism has sometimes been made about the formal apologies other governments have offered for more recent wrongs like the removal of indigenous children from their families in Australia, or the abuse of women in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The problem isn’t necessarily that they’re insincere (I’m sure the Scottish government does genuinely believe it was wrong to execute people for witchcraft). But if the regret politicians express for the way certain people were treated in the past is not accompanied by any concern about the injustices those people still suffer in the present, their performances may be dismissed as just self-serving, empty words.

What about Natalie Don’s assertion that revisiting the history of witch-hunting in Scotland will serve the purpose not only of atoning for past sins, but also of ‘challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes’ in the present? This argument is often made about the commemoration of atrocities: we should remember the Holocaust or the Atlantic slave trade not only as a mark of respect to the victims, but also as a way of educating ourselves, and so preventing comparable horrors in future. Painful though it may be, we can only learn from history if we face up to what really happened and why.  

The witch-hunts of the early modern period have not generally been commemorated in this way: they’ve been mythologized and trivialized by the entertainment and tourism industries. In the English town of Lancaster, the site of the 1612 Pendle witch-trials (in which ten women and two men were convicted and executed), the historian Rachel Hasted reported in 1984 that

The local tourist bureau has just launched an advertising campaign headlined The Magick of Lancaster, with a 17th century woodcut of several women being hanged…Tourist shops all over the county sell little black-hatted figures on pipe-cleaner broomsticks and guide-books to ‘the witch country’ with lurid accounts of their doings.

A quick online search confirmed that some tourist attractions in the area are still presenting Lancashire’s witch-hunts (aka the torture and killing of human beings) as if they were quaint local traditions on a par with cheese-rolling or dancing around the maypole.

As Silvia Federici argues in her 2018 book Witches, Witch Hunting and Women, the lurid tales and tacky souvenirs both sensationalize and sanitize history: they recycle an image of the witch that was originally constructed by her persecutors, while glossing over the reality of her persecution. Federici would presumably applaud Scotland for facing up to that reality. But exactly how to present ‘what really happened and why’ remains a complicated question. Historians, including feminists, hold different and sometimes conflicting views.       

Back in the 1980s, Rachel Hasted took issue not only with the crass pop-history in tourist guides, but also with what she dubbed a ‘new myth of the Witch’ popularized by feminists. This account posited that the witches were ‘wise women’ and healers, dispensing plant-based natural remedies to the people of their peasant communities, and (in some versions of the story) holding on to ancient pagan beliefs. Witch-hunts were said to have occurred when these long-established activities, and the traditional knowledge that underpinned them, began to be seen as a threat to the authority of the church and the interests of the men who controlled the emerging medical profession.

But in Hasted’s view the Lancaster records did not support this interpretation. The Pendle women were pious Christians who neither laid claim to nor were accused of using any knowledge of medicinal herbs. In Scotland, too, it seems that few women tried for witchcraft were known in their communities as healers. These cases might fit better with an alternative account in which women were victimized not because the authorities felt threatened by their power, but on the contrary, because they were so powerless.

Some research suggests that accusations of witchcraft were disproportionately made against individuals who were already marginalized because they were old, disabled, or without regular employment, and consequently so poor that they would sometimes beg or steal from their neighbours. It wasn’t a coincidence that many of them were women: the exclusion of women from many kinds of work made them vulnerable to poverty, especially if they were single. But in this account what made them targets was not their sex in itself, but the perception of them as troublesome and undesirable. The implication is that accusers were motivated less by fear of witchcraft than by a desire to see people they disliked, disapproved of, or had some kind of quarrel with, punished by the authorities.

That desire has existed in every age, and been exploited by authoritarian regimes of all kinds. We now know, for instance, that in both Nazi Germany and Communist East Germany, many people who informed on their neighbours, workmates or fellow-students did so for personal rather than ideological reasons, to settle scores with their enemies or gain an advantage over their rivals. Recently there has been some discussion of this in Scotland, in relation to a controversial new hate-crime law which was finally passed last March. One concern expressed by critics of the legislation was that it would encourage zealots and grudge-bearers to drag the state into their personal or political feuds.   

The Scottish witch-pardon might also invite questions about the complacency of a society that condemns past abuses of women while tolerating comparable abuses in the present. When I say ‘comparable’, I obviously don’t mean that women in Scotland are still being executed for witchcraft. But many of the same things that were said about witches are still regularly said about women in modern courtrooms—for instance that they are liars, manipulative, vengeful and sexually predatory.

The actual language of witch-hunting is not dead either. In 2020, after the trial of former SNP leader Alex Salmond on multiple sexual assault charges ended in his acquittal, commentators in the Scottish media used it to attack some of the women journalists who had covered the case. A programme fronted by Kirsty Wark was said to have featured a ‘coven’ of women who were likened to the three witches in Macbeth; one of them, Dani Garavelli, was also described as ‘the Rapefinder-General’. The sexism of this rhetoric, which recasts women, the original witch-hunt victims, as persecutors of innocent men, is not, of course, unique to Scotland. But nor does Scotland have any special claim to have moved beyond it.

I’m not suggesting that feminists should oppose the pardoning of witches (or formal apologies or memorials to them, which IMHO might be apter choices), but I do think we should consider what we want these performances to accomplish. If all they accomplish is to distance the living from the superstitious beliefs of their long-dead ancestors, that’s fine as far as it goes, but there’s nothing especially feminist about it. For the gesture to ‘have an impact in challenging gendered and patriarchal attitudes’, it would need to go beyond saying ‘look, we’re not like our ancestors, we find what they did abhorrent’, and address the ways in which—regrettably—we are still like them.

2021: mixed messages and weasel words

When I last did an annual round-up we were nearly a year into the pandemic. 2020 had been grim, but it seemed possible 2021 would bring a gradual return to something more like normal life. It didn’t: though the government in England declared ‘freedom day’ in July, as I write in late December normality still seems a long way off.

Living through this pandemic has something in common with living as a feminist. In each case you’ve always got to be prepared for some new horror, while at the same time knowing (a) that the underlying problem is the same one you’ve been shouting about forever, and (b) that the response of the people with the power to do something about it will be the same mixture of arrogance and incompetence, excuse-making and victim-blaming, which has failed on every previous occasion. Spin and disinformation will abound, and large sections of the media will amplify them.

In Britain, and particularly in England, the pandemic has been, among other bad things, an object lesson in how not to do public communication. One reason for that, though not the only one, is that the Communicator-in-Chief, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is a man who has never been renowned for his clarity, honesty, seriousness, grasp of detail or commitment to any kind of public service. It’s hard to think of anything he has said since about March 2020 (when he announced the first full lockdown by saying ‘you must stay at home’) that has not been evasive, confusing or misleading.

By the end of 2021, as evidence surfaced of Johnson and his colleagues drinking and partying while the rest of us were forbidden to socialise or even visit dying loved ones, the public’s patience began to wear thin. But the media had spent the year making excuses for ‘Boris’, if not explicitly then implicitly, by using language that echoed his own carefully cultivated image as an unruly schoolboy forever getting into ‘scrapes’, and in some cases blaming his poor decisions on the malign influence of his partner Carrie. And yes, this is about sexism. Though I don’t think feminists should idealise women leaders (which was something of a trend in 2020), at least women in positions of authority generally make some effort to look and sound like competent adults. No woman could get away with Boris Johnson’s naughty schoolkid act.

For British feminists—and many women who might not think of themselves as feminists—perhaps the galvanising horrific event of 2021 was the abduction, rape and murder of Sarah Everard in March. There were many other killings of women by men this year (by December 18 there were 136 known cases), but this one stood out because the perpetrator was a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, who had used both his police ID and the circumstances of the pandemic to entrap his victim (he told her he was arresting her for breaching the public health rules in force at the time). It also emerged that his predatory attitudes to women had been known to his colleagues for years, and that he had been reported more than once for exhibitionism—reports which his fellow-officers apparently did not follow up on. The case thus highlighted not only the extent to which women’s freedom is restricted by their well-founded fear of male violence, but also their inability to trust the police.

Violence against women in general is a subject on which mis- and disinformation is rife, mainly because of the constant repetition of ancient but demonstrably inaccurate and misleading stories about why it happens and who is (or is not) responsible (‘he just snapped’; ‘she rejected him and he couldn’t live without her’; ‘an isolated incident’, etc., etc). But in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder what we got from the authorities, as well as assorted experts and pundits, was gaslighting on a grand scale—a sustained attempt to persuade women that when they described the realities of their own lives they were being irrational and even ‘hysterical’.  

My most-read post of 2021 was an analysis of the discourse in which the mass outpouring of women’s anger was dismissed as an overreaction to something (the killing of a woman by a male stranger) which was, mysteriously, both an inevitable fact of life and at the same time ‘incredibly rare’. (So, maybe one or two cases a decade then? No: according to the UK Femicide Census they account for about one in every twelve cases. Applied to this year’s figures that statistic would translate to roughly one every month.) Think-pieces in the media asked why women are so afraid of men; few asked why so many men habitually behave in ways that make women fearful. And in a bravura display of missing the point, it was suggested that any lone women stopped by a male police officer could call a police station to verify that he was legit. This advice entirely ignored the reason why the question had been raised in the first place—that when Wayne Couzens stopped Sarah Everard he was not impersonating a police officer, he actually was one.  

The anger this case provoked among women gave a boost to the ongoing campaign to extend current legal provisions on hate crime to offences motivated by misogyny. For a moment it seemed as if the government would seize on this apparently popular demand, but in the event they decided to pass. I did not share some feminists’ disappointment: I’m no fan of the government (see above), but I am nevertheless a ‘misogyny hate-crime’ sceptic, for reasons I wrote about in March. Apart from my doubts about whether ‘hate’ is the right frame for most violence against women and girls, I agree with those feminists who have argued that the main problem for victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse is the failure of the criminal justice system to enforce the laws we already have. One issue here is how poorly resourced the system has become after years of public spending cuts. But another is the endless excuse-making and victim-blaming complainants continue to encounter within a system that is itself institutionally sexist and misogynist.

The criminal justice system is not alone here. A number of schools responded to incidents of girls being upskirted by boys by telling the girls to wear ‘modesty shorts’ underneath their uniform skirts. Perhaps the teachers who came up with this policy weren’t aware that upskirting became a criminal offence in 2019. Or perhaps making new laws is just a futile symbolic gesture if you don’t also make efforts to tackle the attitudes which both underlie the behaviour you’re concerned about and ensure that most instances of it will continue to go unreported and/or unpunished.  

This year brought more evidence that UK schools are struggling to deal with endemic sexual harassment and rising numbers of sexual assaults, including a growing number involving children aged under 11. On this issue disinformation took another common form—using language that obscures who’s doing what to whom. The vast majority of sexual assaults recorded in schools are perpetrated by boys against girls, but the statistics which contained this information were reported in virtually all media sources using the studiedly gender-neutral (and reciprocity-implying) phrase ‘sexual abuse between children’. We do need to talk about the way early exposure to a highly sexualised popular and online culture is affecting both girls and boys—but without implying that the effects are the same for both.

There’s a lot of muddled thinking in this area, though, and in 2021 it produced some strikingly mixed messages. On one hand there were repeated expressions of concern about the effects of social media in ramping up the objectification of teenage girls and the attendant dissatisfaction many feel with their bodies. In January, for instance, a report was published which found that heavy use of social media was associated with lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem for adolescents generally, but girls experienced a steeper decline than boys from the age of 14 (with one in three girls reporting negative feelings about their appearance). Yet in the same month a public health campaign to increase the take-up of cervical cancer screening among young women suggested they should encourage their peers to get screened by posting coded references to the state of their pubic hair (‘bushy, bare, or halfway there?’) on social media.

While objectified female bodies are hyper-visible, women’s voices continue to be silenced and disparaged. Examples that made the news in 2021 included the story of the man in charge of the Tokyo Olympics, who defended the near-absence of women in his organisation by saying that women would cause problems with their incessant talking, and a study which revisited some 40-year old findings about who speaks in US university classrooms and reported that not much had changed (men in this study talked 1.6 times as much as their female peers). My post on this topic was inspired, however, by a more positive story, about a woman whose response to being told to stop talking by a man in a Zoom meeting was swift, uncompromising and highly effective: she expelled him. I refer of course to Jackie Weaver, who became a national celebrity after a recording of the Handsforth Parish Council meeting went viral.  

In summer, reading an academic history of women’s contributions to language study before World War II made me wonder how many of the women discussed had an entry on Wikipedia. I discovered as I expected that many of them did not, but I was also shocked by the sexist and sometimes downright insulting content of the entries I did find. I also discovered a study which found that feminists’ efforts to redress Wikipedia’s well-known gender imbalance are being undermined by a persistent tendency for entries about women to be nominated for deletion because, allegedly, their subjects are not sufficiently ‘notable’.

We had a topical illustration of women’s non-notability in December, when the Sunday Times ran a piece about the data scientists who’ve become popular celebrities during the pandemic. All the individuals featured were white men. The i-Paper swiftly countered by profiling a selection of what it mockingly dubbed ‘the female “data lads”’. ‘Men’, the writer observed, ‘have indeed been at the forefront of Covid number-crunching, but because the pandemic did start a long time ago but not as far back as the Dark Ages, swathes of women have been doing it too, also amassing thousands of online followers’.

In October and November this blog took a backseat to my day-job, and I only returned to it as the end-of-year festivities approached. Not that I was feeling the seasonal goodwill: a rant about the portrayal of ‘Nana’ in Christmas ads was as festive as it got. It could have been a lot darker, though. Shortly before Christmas I stumbled across a tweet whose author had collated no fewer than four versions of a family Christmas card in which Dad, Mum and 2+ kids posed for the camera wearing Christmas jumpers or Santa hats—and in the case of Mum and the kids (or in two cases, just the daughters), a strip of duct-tape fixed firmly over their mouths. This delightful scene was captioned ‘Peace on Earth’. (In case you’re wondering, I’m not reproducing these photos because they contain degrading images of children too young to have given informed consent to their public circulation.)

When the depiction of gagged women can become a humorous Christmas meme, we are a long way from where feminists might have hoped we’d be in the third decade of the 21st century. And this wasn’t the only point in the year when I wondered if we were going backwards. In April the death of Prince Philip unleashed a global wave of commentary so overtly patriarchal it could easily have been composed 100 years ago. Its main theme was Philip’s difficult position as a man forced to walk in his wife’s shadow—though we were repeatedly assured that in private he ‘wore the trousers’. An Italian newspaper approvingly remarked that ‘he was the only one who could tell the sovereign to shut up’.

Telling women to shut up was one of the recurring themes of this year. But so was women refusing to (be) shut up. Those who featured directly in my posts included not only Jackie Weaver, but also the women who organised and attended vigils for Sarah Everard despite attempts to stop them, and the female employees whose testimony led to the downfall of New York state Governor (and serial sexual harasser) Andrew Cuomo. In this second Plague Year, when so many women were so overburdened with extra work and worry, the fact that they continued to raise their voices was cheering, even if the events they were responding to were not. Thanks to everyone who read this blog this year, along with all the researchers whose work I made use of; let’s hope things get easier in 2022.

Sherry for Nana?

If you’re looking for examples of banal sexism, Christmas TV ads are the gift that keeps on giving. At the beginning of this year’s Christmas ad season I was especially struck by Lidl’s evocation of Christmas Future (exactly like Christmas Past and Present except that Dad carves the turkey with a laser while Mum asks the visiting relatives how they’re finding life on the moon). Then I saw Majestic Wine Warehouse’s contribution to the genre, in which one of the staff members who’ve been helping families pick their festive drinks has a last-minute thought. ‘Sherry for Nana?’, he offers, thrusting a single bottle of the brown stuff into a grateful customer’s hands.

Now, I’ve got nothing against sherry: I learned to appreciate it by drinking it with friends in Spain, where it’s not reserved for old ladies (sorry, I probably sound as pretentious as the woman in the Waitrose Christmas ad banging on about how great sprouts are if they’re cooked with enough pancetta). Yet in Britain that perception is so strong, attempts to promote sherry to more discerning drinkers almost always begin with some variation on ‘it’s not just your granny’s Christmas tipple’. The use of the word ‘tipple’ appears to be compulsory in this context; you can even buy a personalised sherry glass inscribed with the words ‘Gran’s Little Tipple’.

On a website called ‘The Sommelier Chef’, a 2015 post entitled ‘Grannies’ tipple’ starts by acknowledging that ‘it has a stigma, Sherry: sweet, sticky, associated with grannies at Christmas’. The writer explains this unfortunate association with a bit of social history:

In granny’s earlier years it was thought unladylike for a female to drink hard liquor, and wine usually came in the form of claret that was drunk in very small amounts at dinner. Champagne was expensive and there was little alternative outside of port (thought a more manly choice) or sherry. So, it became acceptable for females to drink a small tipple of sherry for those special occasions.

But wait a minute, whose granny is she talking about? According to the Office for National Statistics, the average age for becoming a grandparent in the UK is currently 63. I’m also currently 63, and what is said here certainly doesn’t describe my ‘earlier years’. It’s more applicable to my own grandmother, who was born just after Queen Victoria died—if she were still alive she’d be almost 120—than to me, a baby-boomer who came of age in the late 1970s.

Grandma rarely drank alcohol (though some of her contemporaries clearly did: when I asked my partner if her grandmother drank sherry, she laughed and said ‘no, she drank sidecars’). But my generation of young women drank whatever we felt like drinking, including beer, wine, and many varieties of hard liquor. The only disapproval I remember this attracting was occasional comments from men in pubs who thought it was unladylike for women to order a pint of beer rather than a half. ‘Are you one of those women’s libbers’, they would ask—to which the answer was ‘yes, are you one of those male chauvinist pigs?’  

The Sommelier Chef’s account of ‘granny’s earlier years’ is an example of something which, for want of a better label, I’ll call the concertina-ing of women’s history. A great deal of popular wisdom, and for that matter popular feminism, seems to operate on the tacit assumption that the current cohort of women under 50 are the first to have experienced certain problems or enjoyed certain freedoms. Any woman born before a certain cut-off point (one whose exact timing is vague and elastic) gets consigned to some generic pre-feminist Dark Age, in which today’s grandmothers—women who were young during the heyday of the second wave—become indistinguishable from their own grandmothers, born before women in most places had the right to vote. In that sense, feminism’s imaginary older woman is a bit like ‘Nana’ in the adverts, forever drinking her thimbleful of Christmas sherry while knitting up a packet of Shreddies: she’s not just a stereotype, she’s a stereotype that’s got stuck in a time-warp.

Though ageing remains an unavoidable fact of life, what it means to be old has changed over time. Women in their 60s and 70s today may or may not be handy with the needles (I’m not knocking knitting), but they no longer look or sound like the Nanas in the Shreddies ads, with their quavering old lady voices and their 1950s perms. Today many or most women in their 60s still have jobs (in Britain the female state pension age is now 66, and is set to rise further); if she makes it to 65 a woman in the UK can expect to live, on average, for another 21 years.

This woman may be a grandmother, but she’s a long way from the stereotype of Nana as a kind, innocent old lady, skilled in the traditional domestic arts but unfamiliar with such newfangled inventions as the internet and feminism. She could be your teacher, your boss, or even the leader of your government. Maybe that’s one reason why the outdated stereotype persists—it’s an expression of nostalgia for a simpler time when, supposedly, women didn’t have that kind of power.

The Nana stereotype is overtly positive rather than negative (that’s what makes subversions of it, like the foul-mouthed Nan character created by comedian Catherine Tate, funny), but it’s also an example of what’s sometimes called ‘benevolent sexism’, representing women in a way which is backward-looking, sentimental and deeply patronising. We love Nana, of course we do, but her ideas are old-fashioned, her tastes are a bit naff, and there’s a lot about modern life that she just doesn’t understand. We love her but we don’t see her as an equal–even if we’re the same age, we don’t recognise ourselves in her. That’s partly because, as I’ve already said, she’s a stereotype from a bygone age; but it’s also because of the stigma attached to ageing, which leads many older women, including even ardent feminists, to emphasise how unlike Nana they are.

In La Vieillesse (‘Old Age’), Simone de Beauvoir observed that in capitalist societies old people, like women, are treated as Other, different and inferior. This affects men as well as women, and for men Beauvoir suggests it may be even harder to deal with, because the loss of status takes them by surprise. I thought of this when I read about a Christmas ad that went viral in Germany this year:

The two-minute commercial follows a grandfather who, isolated by the coronavirus pandemic, starts his own solo fitness quest with nothing but a kettlebell. The elderly man struggles and groans but motivates himself with a photo in a frame of somebody the audience can’t see. It’s revealed in a moment that will melt even the iciest of hearts, just what the grandfather has been training for over his lonely year. As he finally meets with his family for Christmas, he picks up his granddaughter, and is strong enough to lift her up to put the star on top of the Christmas tree.

Could this ad have featured the little girl’s grandmother as its protagonist? In practical terms we might think the answer is yes: fitness regimes are not just for men. But symbolically it strikes me as very much a male narrative, about an old man’s resistance to the loss of status Beauvoir talks about. Rather than passively accepting his situation, he makes heroic efforts to overcome his physical frailty so he can play, when the time comes, an active and visible role in the family Christmas celebrations. The ad is undoubtedly sentimental throughout, but it does take the viewer on an emotional journey: while we may start out feeling pity for Grandpa, by the end we’re admiring his grit and determination. This is not a story I can imagine being told about Nana.

It’s true, of course, that advertisers don’t always portray older women as Nana: it depends what they’re selling and to whom. Nana works well in Christmas ads for food and drink, with their cosy ‘happy families’ vibe; but when it’s her money they’re after they’re more likely to go for a different stereotype, the ‘Glamorous Gran’. In ads for Voltarol or incontinence pants we see her lifting weights at the gym or getting dressed up to go dancing; in ads for anti-ageing products we see her ready for her close-up, perfectly groomed and still enviably attractive—even when, like Jane Fonda, she’s in her 80s.

Maybe this is the female version of refusing to capitulate to the indignities of old age: grandpa strengthens his muscles with a kettlebell, Gran battles her wrinkles with L’Oreal. But that comparison only underlines the point that ageism is inflected by sexism. Men are valued for what they do, whereas for women what matters most is how they look. The message of ads featuring the Glamorous Gran is that if we make enough effort and buy the right products, we too can remain acceptable to the male gaze. This is touted by the beauty industry as ‘empowering’ older women, but arguably it’s just another reminder that women’s power is dependent on their sexual allure.

For me, the choice between Glamorous Gran and Nana is like the choice between Babycham and Harvey’s Bristol Cream. I find both of them equally unpalatable, and equally remote from my actual life as a 60-something woman. You may feel similarly, or you may not: either way, I hope that all the glasses you raise this Christmas contain the drink of your preference, whatever that may be.

Unspeakable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fall of Andrew Cuomo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speakin while female

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us not praise famous women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The illustration shows Alice Kober and a Linear B tablet.

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

Hit or Miss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to everyone who responded to my questions on Twitter.

Who’s to be mistress?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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