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Feb 8, 2017

The Psychology of Freedom: How Sexist Language Harms Women

A libertarian commitment to individualism means taking sexism in language seriously.

Many people, including some libertarians, may pooh-pooh the issue of sexist language as mere political correctness (I previously wrote about the issue of political correctness here). But the American Psychological Association takes it seriously: several decades worth of research back up the harm that it does, so using allegedly generic terms like “he” or “man” to refer to people in general is not allowed in any APA journal.

The contention that language is a powerful tool of sexism and racism is based a theory that suggests that the language you think in structures the way you think. In this view, language communicates the rules of our culture and has the power to restrict behavior. It reiterates the social patterns of our culture and thereby perpetuates cultural norms. Children’s minds are molded by language so that they think like other members of the society. A child’s reality is shaped by the way they talk about reality. I’m going to argue that sexist language dismisses, defines, and derogates women. Not what we would want to be teaching our children! Let’s look at some of the research.

Sexist language dismisses women by excluding them.

The obvious examples are the use of so-called “generic” male pronouns. But in several studies of children reading stories using the generic “he” as opposed to stories with “they” or “he/she,” the children subsequently generated fewer stories about women. That’s not what generic terms are supposed to do. But it’s easy to use alternatives to generic “he.”  You can say “he or she,” “s/he,” “they,” or just use non-gendered plurals. In fact, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun has now been basically approved by linguists.  Language always continues to change with the times; it is never static. So using non-sexist pronouns is just good English.

Objectivists love to use the word “man.” But if they think it is a reasonable substitute for “humankind,” the research is not on their side. Here’s what a landmark study found: The participants were asked to pick out photos to illustrate a sociology textbook.  Those who thought the title of the chapter was “Urban Man,” compared with those who thought it was “Urban Life,” chose significantly more “male-only” photographs to illustrate the chapter. Images were more likely to be ones of “urban bachelor apartment” as opposed to a (more appropriately) wide variety of photos, including parks and ghettos. Does that sound reasonable, let alone generic? Not to me.

The alternatives to the use of “man” may be a bit longer, but they aren’t difficult. Alternatives to “mankind” include “humanity,” “humankind,” or just plain “people.” What about salutations of letters? How many of you who are involved in businesses or organizations still get letters addressed “Dear Sirs”? See my hand going up. It happened with my organization Resources for Independent Thinking. Why would anyone today think that is appropriate when so many women are involved in business, let alone nonprofit organizations like mine?  Easy alternatives include “Dear Sirs or Mses” if you really want to be formal, ”Dear Committee,” etc., or no salutation at all!

Sexist language defines women by putting them “in their place.” 

For example, men are more likely to be described in terms of their occupation and women in terms of their relationship to men or family, e.g., John Smith is a doctor; Joan Smith is a mother of three children. Honorifics also define women. For women, honorifics denote marital status: “Miss,” “Mrs.” For men, this isn’t so: just “Mr.” That’s a lack of parity that emphasizes a woman’s role as wife rather than just simply her as an individual. That’s why using “Ms.” makes sense.  It has parity with “Mr.”

Nonverbal language, or what has been called “The Politics of Touch,” also show how sexist language defines women as less powerful. Studies show that the powerful are more likely to touch the less powerful than the other way around, e.g., physician-patient, boss-employee, teacher-student, businessman-secretary. Studies also show that men touch women more, especially in situations of unequal power.

Sexist language derogates women.

Women are more likely than men to be portrayed as sexual objects through the use of language. Studies have found that there are 220 sexual words for women but only 22 for men. There are 500 slang terms for female prostitute but only 65 for male prostitutes or male users of prostitutes. Another way that sexist language derogates women is through different connotations for words that may have once been parallel. For example: master vs. mistress, bachelor vs. spinster; governor vs. governess; sir vs. madam. All of the allegedly parallel words for women have negative connotations and in some cases, sexual connotations, that the male terms don’t have.

Another way sexist language derogates women is through the lack of parallel usage in description. For example: “The girls in the college class sat on one side and the men on the other.” Excuse me but most college students are young men and women of similar age.  Another example I’ve seen is “The pioneers and their wives…” As someone born in the pioneer state of Oklahoma where a statute to the Pioneer Women is the favorite attraction in Ponca City, I deeply resent this insinuation. Pioneer women did not sit around eating bonbons. They got up at the crack of dawn to chop wood and fix meals, then went out and helped plow the back forty along with their husbands. They faced the same dangers: hostile Indians, tornados and other bad weather, crop failures. The denigrating phrase “pioneers and their wives” is deeply insulting to these women.

Sexist language also uses terms relating to women that put them in a “power down” position. For example, trivializing: “ladies”, “lady doctor,” “poetess,” or infantilizing: “babe,” “chick,” or “girl.” But words that may seem to derogate men, e.g., “stud” are not always viewed as negative terms. “Stud” is a complement in many quarters.

Sexist language is a way of perpetuating inequality between the sexes. It perpetuates images of dominance and submission, stereotypes of weak, trivialized, sexualized women and powerful men. It subtly reminds women of their place as the soft, submissive girl whose identity is defined by a man. It defines men as dominators. If we object to these stereotypes and want to work for a society of equals, where individuals are free to be judged as individuals, sexist language is one of the elements of society that must change too. Fortunately there has been a lot of change but we still have a ways to go. If we as libertarians believe in the individual and individualism, then there is no place in our world for sexist language. We must respect individuals as individuals, not as unequal gendered groups.

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