Friday, July 14, 2017

How Language Can Make Women Invisible

Small acts of linguistic rebellion can change the world. We can only become what we can imagine and we can only imagine what we can articulate. That’s why language matters to our lives; that’s why little changes in grammar and vocabulary can affect the entire architecture of our political imagination. "Gender-Neutral Language and Why It Matters"
I've just read a post by a writer I respect, in a blog for writers, who used masculine pronouns unnecessarily: “. . . the reader may feel he is being tricked . . . He may even quit reading. He will certainly not . . . .”  

Technically, I doubt this writer hopes to be read by only one reader. More important to me, as a social psychologist, is the degree to which language affects our thinking, which then affects our language. We know how women in all professions, including writers, have been overlooked historically. Apparently, not everyone knows that language affects how human beings think, in this case about women. More succinctly, we as writers have the opportunity to decrease gender bias by the way we write. 

It's not simply my wishful thinking that we can influence readers' views of women by how we write. Such effects are substantiated by a growing body of research. As indicated by one recent study, “A large body of empirical research documents that the use of gender-fair forms instead of masculine forms has a substantial impact on mental representations. Masculine forms activate more male representations . . . .”

Since reading A Feminist Dictionary* in 1985, I've written a number of books and hundreds of articles and blog posts without once having to resort to "he/she," "s/he," or "they" (referring to an individual).

What is now termed gender-fair or gender-neutral language has become standard practice in journalistic and academic writing. It's easy to accomplish and doesn’t require the awkward he/she substitution. Gender-neutral language also extends to everyday verbs such as "manned," when "staffed" is as easy to say or write, and to role titles such as "Chairman" when "Chair" is shorter and equally definitive. 

In my own writing I even avoid general terms such as "mankind." We are all of us -- male, female, bi, trans, or any other gender description -- "humankind." 

It would have been quite easy for the writer quoted earlier in this post to write, “. . . readers may feel they are being tricked . . .  They may even quit reading. They will certainly not . . . .”

Nothing lost, everything gained.

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 *I myself have never been able to find precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat. --Rebecca West, 1913, quoted in A Feminist Dictionary.

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