Language is important: A feminist primer

Dr. #2 is going to have to help me out on this post since she’s the feminist scholar.  (Everything I learned about feminism I’ve been learning from her and academic blogs!)  But I’m beginning to know subtle sexism when I see it.

Language is a tricky thing.  We can say one thing overtly but use language that implicitly says something quite the opposite.  How we say something can be more important than what we actually say.

Woman as child

There is so much infantilizing of women.  When’s the last time you called a woman over age 18 a girl for any reason?  Please, check yourself.  If you get together with a group of women, are they girlfriends?  Who gets called baby?

[disclaimer:  I think this song is MAD CATCHY!]

Pronouns matter

Much of this information comes from the work of Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues. 

Much research shows that when people read, say, or hear “he” or “him” as generic pronouns, they almost always think of male examples.  In one study, participants read a sentence about “the average student” at a university, and that student was referred to as either  his, their, or his or her.  Then participants had to make up stories about this fictional student.  When “the average student” got the his pronoun, 65% of the stories were about men.  Using their resulted in 54% of stories being about men.  Using his or her, 44% were about men.  There are a lot of studies that replicate this finding.

That study was from 1978 with adults, so Hyde wanted to look at children and how they developed these ideas. She gave children a sentence such as:  When a kid goes to school, ____ often feels excited on the first day.  She filled the blank with either he, they, or he or she.  When the word was he, not a single boy in all of elementary school (through fifth grade) made up a story about a girl.  In fact, most children, girls and boys, did not even know about he being (supposedly) gender-neutral.  However, despite not being aware of the rule, most children thought of “human” as equivalent to “male”.  In another sentence, Hyde had children fill in the blank: If a kid likes candy, ____ might eat too much.  Overwhelmingly, the children filled in “he” to represent a random kid.  Even the girls.

This is true in English, which does not have genders on all our nouns, and also in other languages, like German and Spanish, which do.

Finally, Janet Shibley Hyde gave elementary school children a paragraph describing the fictional occupation of wudgemaker.  She varied the pronouns, and then asked children how well a woman could do the job, and how well a man could do it.  When rating men, pronoun had no effect on what children thought of them as wudgemakers.  They answered that a man could do the job pretty well whether the pronoun described wudgemakers as he, they, she, or he-or-she.  However, when figuring out how well a woman could do the job, pronouns mattered.  Children who heard the pronoun he to describe a typical wudgemaker rated a woman as being “just ok” at that job.  Children who heard she rated a woman as being very good at the job.  The other two pronouns were in the middle.

Sexist language can even lower females’ ability to remember content from a passage of reading.

Media and sexual abuse


And don’t get us started on language used in rape cases.  Well, I guess it’s too late.

Problems include passive language“Every year thousands of women are raped.  How can this problem be stopped?”  Hello.  Every year thousands of men rape women!

In another study of sexual assault coverage, most of the quotes used were from the perpetrator or his lawyer (eww).  Who gets to tell their story?

Child Abuse

It gets worse with child sexual abuse in the media.

The media often use “it” to describe a child (most victims of sexual abuse are girls), and even when the media identify the gender they will later revert to using it, in something called Gender Slippage.  Language is of critical importance in influencing societal views.  When they do this, the article becomes more neutral and reduces the reader’s emotional involvement.  It also reduces the perceived seriousness of the problem.  Do we want to do that?

When adults abuse children, the media often frames the situation as a consensual relationship.  Media sometimes use the word “affair” between a 60-year-old man and a 14-year-old girl.  That is not an affair.  That is abuse.  “Jailed teacher afraid lover boy will dump her”  (O’Mahony, 1998) is one example.  Again, ewww.

Domestic Violence

Johnson (1994) did an incredible study of San Francisco newspapers’ coverage of domestic violence (DV) cases involving death of the victim.  Professional DV experts were quoted in only 25% of articles; the main source of quotes was perpetrator’s family.  Who has voice?

The term “domestic violence” was used repeatedly for non-white couples but rarely for white couples.  White perpetrators were usually described as nice, normal, sweet, and loving; minority perpetrators were described negatively.  In the articles, violence was seen as aberration in white communities but expected in minority communities.

Bullock and Cubert (2002) studied over 200 Seattle newspaper accounts of domestic violence.  They find that many many articles shifted blame from attacker onto victim or circumstances (“the divorce was hard on him”).  EWww!  One possible mechanism for how this happens is DARVO.  There was also a misconception that abusers should be readily identifiable (i.e., not the rich white people-next-door).

But wait, you also get…

We’ve already covered stereotype threat.  Yes, words really can hurt.

You get to choose what you consume in the media.  What will you tolerate?  Do you write letters to the editor?

33 Responses to “Language is important: A feminist primer”

  1. Pamela Says:

    I’ve written letters to the editor. I’ve also gotten hostile phone messages from mouthbreathers who didn’t like what I had to say. Good times, good times. ;)

  2. NoTrustFund Says:

    Can we make ‘hir’ a real pronoun?

  3. Mutant Supermodel Says:

    Excellent post Drs. Grumpy.
    The girl thing reminded me how much I hate the title “girlfriend”. I call my boyfriend baby. If it’s equal, is it fair?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I dunno, does calling him baby mean you’re the adult in the family? (Asks the non-expert.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We have to ask ourselves, who has power in the world? The personal is political; relationships are intensely personal, but also take place in a patriarchal society. Individual acts are not just individual but reflect a broader environment.

        Confession: I call my partner baby. I can’t care about all the things all the time. :)

  4. rented life Says:

    I teach media literacy, so I teach the next generation how to pick apart the language that’s being used in most of these outlets. Since about half will go on with careers in the field, I can only hope things will change as they move up.

  5. chacha1 Says:

    Hmmm. As someone who wrote a master’s thesis on the ways a female author hid her social critiques in conventional stories, I’ve been conscious (and wary) of sexism (veiled or not) in media language for a looooooong time. I don’t consume much mainstream news media; don’t watch network or cable news, don’t read a newspaper. I also stomp on social-media interactions that are offensively sexist (or racist for that matter).

    In personal life I present pretty strongly as a feminist, so that colors who my friends are and how we interact. That said, I DO call myself and my friends “girls” and I do call my sweetheart “baby.” :-)

  6. Debbie M Says:

    I don’t like “girls,” but there’s no good equivalent to the term “guys,” so I settle for “gals,” which works kind of okay in the south. Except for girls/boys night out.

    Which I don’t like–why can’t my boyfriend come to a craft party? I actually stayed away from that monthly craft night for many, many years on principal until my boyfriend started doing something I wasn’t invited to on Friday nights.

    Speaking of parties, I have had a stereotypically female party and a stereotypically male party. Both genders were invited to both of course. At someone else’s woman-only party, they did invite an “honorary woman” (who did massages). But sadly, honorary women are not invited to craft night.

    Obviously, I don’t have a better term for boy- or girlfriend. Sometimes I call him my roommate or my friend in different contexts. “Partner” is too vague, “lover” isn’t vague enough. Something like “my man” is too possessive. “Boyfriend” gives away the gender, which is generally irrelevant information (unless there’s a female-only craft party), so that’s another negative, but otherwise, I like that it’s a short way to say “my current romantic partner.”

    The thing that drives me the most nuts about reports of child tragedy is that the child is always called a “young” or “little” boy or girl. Even if the child is 12 (a medium kid, not a little kid) or 17 (technically an old boy or girl–practically a man or woman).

    Another thing I really hate is that even though now women and girls can get away with doing a lot of stereotypically male things, the opposite is not true. Yes, women have a tough time with high-status jobs in the workplace and trying to be assertive without being seen as bitchy–there’s still plenty of room for improvement. But it takes some good armor to be a stay-at-home dad or a soccer dad, too. And God forbid a boy like pink or princesses or wearing tutus or long hair.

    I don’t write letters to the editor, but I do sign petitions.

  7. Steph Says:

    I noticed my own perpetuation of ‘girls’ when I talked about the other women in my department – early on I had a tendency to refer to the other female graduate students as ‘girls’. I’ve been mostly successful in changing it, but it feels really strange! The male graduate students are ‘the guys’, but there’s no slangy equivalent for ‘young woman’.

    Granted, I also refer to my male friends as ‘boys’ fairly frequently. In undergrad I refered to a group of my friends as ‘the physics boys’, and still call them that.

  8. Pilgrim/Heretic Says:

    This is a good excuse for me to jump in and thank you for using gender-neutral language in your posts… ‘zie’ and ‘hir’ felt terribly awkward at first, but the longer I read and the more different places I come across them, the more I get used to it. Now they feel perfectly normal and logical, and gendered pronouns are the ones that are starting to sound awkward and clunky. Thanks for helping to retrain my brain!

    • Ana Says:

      Agree with this. It sometimes makes me wish I’d started my blog without identifying the gender of my children, to see if that changed the way I write about them or how others perceive them. I’m almost positive it would.

  9. oilandgarlic Says:

    Does a woman changing her last name, or not, matter??

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Given how much people argue about this on the internet, one would think there would be empirical evidence on it! How do you mean, “matter”?

      I know that last names at the beginning of the alphabet do better across a number of measures. Last names that signal ethnicity also matter. But I don’t know about the actual research on outcomes for women who take their husbands’ names. (I’ve read feminist theory papers, but that’s not the same as evidence.) I imagine it might depend on whether or not your husband is working in the same field you are working in, along with many other factors. (Like Rodham vs. Clinton vs. Rodham Clinton… politicians seem to think you gotta take the husband’s name.)

  10. jlp Says:

    I have a pet peeve that I’ve never seen research on, so I don’t know what affect, if any, it has on people’s thinking — but lordy do I hate it. It’s the modification of a noun (typically the name of a profession) with the word “woman,” as in “She was the first woman doctor.” Setting aside instances where there is no cause to mention the sex of the person being referred to (which seems unquestionably sexist) there is a perfectly good adjective that could modify any profession: “female.” “She was the first female doctor.” See how nice that sounds? How not-jarring?

    Using the word “woman” instead of “female” often suggests to me that the speaker cannot conceive of one person being both things at the same time. You can be a “woman,” or you could be a “doctor,” but since I can’t imagine you being BOTH, I’ll just amalgate the two words in the sentence and you can flip back and forth between the two as you see fit.


    *There’s a fair chance that at least some of my angst also comes from my strict rule-loving personality and interest in language. Still!

  11. EMH Says:

    I didn’t realize “he” was a generic pronoun for a male or female. I use “he or she”, “one”, or “people”. Thank you for the wonderful post!

  12. hush Says:

    Fantastic post – esp the section on the passive language in rape reporting. I liked that @Scalzi piece, too.

  13. Karam Says:

    Most victims of child sexual abuse are girls?

    It is actually quite well known that the genderwise breakup of victims of child sexual abuse is not far from 50-50.

    Even if it was 75% female, a 25% representation of boys in the CSA victims community is VERY significant and in no way justifies the use of exclusively female pronouns to describe victims of CSA. More so by your logic, because I dont think you are happy about the fact that physicists are usually described by male pronouns although ~80% are male.

    Please try not to shout down my point. I hope you will bravely admit your obvious double standard and apologize.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Your comment makes no sense. The point was that children are called “it,” not “him” or “her”. That, in fact, is what the scholarly article linked to says.

      Since you have just said that 100% of children are not gender neuter (75%+25%), then I think you’re the one who should be apologizing for attacking without reading carefully.

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