Feminism Ideas and Sexism in Language Part 2

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

Sexism in Language

A more subtle distinction in the way women are singled out by language is evident in the way that the same personality trait is characterized approvingly for one sex and denigrated for the other. Thus, if a man is aggressive, he is considered a go-getter, a self-starter, while a woman is considered pushy or a castrating bitch. If a woman consistently agrees with her boss, she will be thought bright; a man will be called a yes-man or an ass-licker.

Many of these discrepancies involve words that deal directly or indirectly with women's sexuality. In fact, one linguist has even made the case that "lady" is used as a euphemism for "woman," in that "woman" implies sexuality, while "lady" is desexed. Certainly, "woman" is a word that can imply the presence not only of sex, but also of power, which "lady" cannot. A lady doctor or Ladies' Lib would simply be incongruous.

Although women are used harshly by language, they are not in their own turn allowed to use harsh language. Women's language in English, at least according to stereotype, does not contain swear words. While there have been few studies of women's speech and thus no documentation of sex differences in speaking, one can make a case for a separate women's language that uses weak words like "divine," as in "a divine idea," a language imprecise, emotive, and laced with silly words. Robin Lakoff distinguished another characteristic of women's speech, the tag-form sentence: a statement of fact undercut by a final question. "We are going tomorrow, aren't we?" "This is a terrific play, isn't it?" Even when a woman is assertive, she often shows at least token or apparent passivity, as if all her assertions were only tentative. The tag-form sentence becomes a paradigm for women's paradoxical position--that is, aggression constantly balanced by passivity, real or implied. The supposed weakness inherent in women's speech may in fact be nothing more concrete than the fact that they use it. When men use women's language, they may appear effeminate. Interestingly enough, many words that accentuate hip speech, or head talk, like "groovy," "outa-sight," "man, like . . .," roughly parallel in their lack of precision women's speech ("fiveish," "heavenly") and suggest further connections between politically powerless groups and feminine language.

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