The word “sex” — clearly evocative of an unequivocal demarcation between men and women — has been replaced by the pale and neutral “gender,” and the words “man” and “he” — now avoided as if they were worse than obscenities — have been replaced by the neuter “person” and by grammatically confusing, cumbersome, or offensive variants of “he/she” or “she” alone as the pronoun of general reference.
Since it was never even remotely in doubt that when used as a general referent, the male pronoun included females, this change was never designed to prevent confusion. The change has, on the contrary, often created confusion. Its purpose is solely ideological.
–F. Carolyn Graglia, Domestic Tranquility, A Brief Against Feminism, Spence Publishing Company, Dallas, 1998, p.154
I, for one, want to be free to refer to “the brotherhood of man” without being corrected by the language police. I want to decide for myself whether I should be called a chairman, a chairwoman, or a chairperson (I am not a chair). I want to see My Fair Lady and laugh when Professor Higgins sings, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” As a writer, I want to know that I am free to use the words and images of my choosing.
Diane Ravitch, The Language Police, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, p.169
These two quotations open Kelley Ross’s essay “Against the Theory of Sexist Language.” She then goes on to make her argument, which is essentially this:
- feminists say that language is sexist because men are more “marked,” that is, men are treated as if they have real qualities and women are treated as if they lack those qualities
- but really languages – Chinese, Spanish, English, what-have-you – treat women as more “marked.”
- Therefore language is not sexist.
Not to be unintellectual, but – what a dumb argument. It’s like the woman has never heard of logic. If she had, she would have known that the correct conclusion to her major and minor premises is that some feminists are wrong. Some. The idea that there’s no such of thing as sexism in language is not actually tackled in this essay, except in its conclusions, in part because there’s no acknowledgement of the possibility that treating women as “markedly” Other could be sexist. It’s not surprising, then, that Rogers is a fan of Christina Hoff Sommers, who “encouraged” this essay; Sommersian “argument,” too, relies heavily on cherry-picking, straw men, and patter.
Let’s go back to those quotations for a second. Graglia is ignorant; if she knew her history, she would know that the generic he was deliberately chosen over the previously-used “they,” which was both singular and plural just as “sheep” still is, and that the generic he was officially chosen by Parliament in the mid-19th century for legal documents precisely because its referent was not clear without a bill to spell out its referent. Go read a book, Graglia, instead of making history up.
Ravitch, as you in your ingenuousness goddam well know, you’re “free” to do whatever dumbass thing you want to. As the late, great Richard Mitchell once said, “You can grab a football and run to Oshkosh any time you please; you just won’t be playing football.” Don’t pretend that freedom of expression equals intelligence of expression, or that your views should be treated, a priori, as unassailable.
It is in these unintelligent quotations that the real thrust of Ross’s argument lies, despite the razzle-dazzle of Chinese characters. The essay is designed to seem learned and calm and rational in contrast to the forceful git’er done tone of the quotations, but the very choice of those quotations reveals Ross’s emotional base for the rationalizations she trots out.
Speaking of Chinese characters, Ross forgot to mention a few: the character for discord is two women (you know chicks; always catty and squabbling). The character for good is a woman with a child (get thee to a pregnant state!). The character for peace is a woman under a roof (just stay in your place; women outside the home = trouble).
But I think we can all agree that despite these minor little flaws Ross has really made a valid, impressive, learned contribution: there’s totally no sexism in any language, ever, until those ugly, shrieky, ignorant feminists dreamed it up.