Feminism Ideas and Sexism in Language Part 1

About sexism in language, a look at the power of words in our ideas of feminism and women, an exercise.

Sexism in Language

From the very 1st moment of her life (ignoring possible references to a male fetus), the girl-child is hidden behind the pronoun "he." Hospital instructions to new parents read: "When bathing baby, never leave him unattended." Dr. Spock, in his introduction to Baby and Child Care, apologizes for his constant use of the pronoun "he" to refer to all children. He reserves the pronoun "she" for the mother. (Might the 2 otherwise be confused?) In theory, "he" refers to members of either sex. In fact, hearing only the pronoun "he" to classify the students of a certain school, one little girl wondered why no girls attended. And there is the young high school girl who won an award for outstanding citizenship. The prerequisites for the award? "He must be of outstanding character . . . he must evidence excellent scholarship . . . he . . ."

Plainly, women are too often linguistically invisible, hidden in the word "man" when "human" is meant, forgotten by the word "he" when "she or he" might be more accurate. Even words that in themselves have no gender, such as "lawyer," "judge," or "president," evoke images of men unless otherwise qualified. One can only speculate about the psychic damage this invisibility has caused women who are made to feel insignificant, or absent, in the shadow of the dominant HE.

Language has asymmetrical qualities that further discriminate against women. The asymmetries include: (1) words that do not mean the same thing when applied to a woman as when applied to a man, and (2) words for which there is no equivalent for both sexes. Included in the 1st category is the word "professional."

To say of a man, "he is a professional," implies no slur. To say of a woman, "she is a professional," besmirches her honor. "Bachelor" and "spinster" do not have the same connotation. Has anyone ever looked for an available spinster? And even "widow" and "widower"--which at 1st glance appear parallel--are not always similarly used. One would be unlikely to refer to a man as Mary's widower. Many words do not even have a male equivalent. For example:

Find the Parallel Word

(an exercise in logical thinking)

Female Male



little old lady


old maid





castrating bitch


the little woman

girl (to describe females regardless of age)


Does the parallel word mean the same as the word used for females?

Is the parallel word negative or a put-down?

Does it connote status?

If you couldn't find a parallel word, why not?

What assumptions are reflected in the words in the "female" column?

(Note: In the above exercise, the bias of the Emma Willard Task Force on Education is that there really are few parallel words that have the exact connotation as the "female" word. For example, to be a "bachelor" carries status; to be a "spinster" or "old maid" doesn't. "Stud" does not have the same connotation and lack of status as "nymphomaniac" or "whore" does.)

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