Still here? Thanks. As this is posted, it’s International Women’s Day. One question many people have is: is such a day still relevant? Haven’t women achieved equality? The answer (in case you haven’t been following the news…) is no. Even in cosmopolitan, developed places, it’s still clear that we have a lot of work to do. I’ll just give one example. In a recent large study, it was shown that, by the age of six – 6! – many young girls already believe that they are not as smart as boys.
The issues here are complex and multilayered, and I won’t pretend to touch on all of them. But, speaking as a wordsmith with a background in language, I do have a few things to say about language.
That’s right, language. Why is it that, after so much time, we still have such a long way to go when it comes to real equality for women? Part of the answer is arguably that we learn our attitudes very early in life, and that we learn them in part through language. The words we use, and the way we use them, transmit our culture, and our (grand)children adopt that culture. That’s how cultures endure.
The problem is that our language can help to perpetuate a lot of inequity. Now, before you start thinking that I’m talking of what a lot of people call ‘political correctness,’ I’m really not. It goes much, much deeper than saying something in a certain way so as not to offend. It’s what our choice of words says about our underlying beliefs, and how those beliefs are perpetuated. And it happens even if we don’t consciously intend it.
There are many, many things that we can do to work together for a more equitable society. I won’t mention them all; there are too many. Let’s just focus on language, and I’ll give you an idea (I hope) of what I mean.
A word in your ear, please. Most of the men I know are not consciously sexist. Certainly, they’re not misogynists. In fact, most of the men of my acquaintance are eager to support equity for women. But our culture has made certain things ‘all right,’ and a lot of men – even those who see women as equal partners – perpetuate that culture without being aware of it. Here are just a few examples.
If you share your life with a female partner, and you cook a meal, or do laundry, or dust, or buy food, you are not ‘helping.’ You are doing part of your share. To say that you’re ‘helping mum,’ implies that it’s her job to cook, clean, mind the children, well, you get the idea. I know, it’s hard to get past that. But think about the messages that you send when you say you’re ‘helping.’
And, while I have your attention, there are a lot of other ways in which you can be allies to the women in your lives. For instance, you can call out your fellow men when they demean women. There’s a difference between a funny, raunchy, ‘locker room’ joke, and a joke or comment that degrades women. When you hear the latter, that’s the time to do something about it. The same goes for hearing your fellow men refer to women (or each other) using certain words. Yes, it might make for some awkwardness. That part’s difficult. I know it’s harder to do than to write. But when people aren’t called out, it all continues to be all right. And it’s not. And do you really want a world where your (grand)daughters are demeaned and made to feel less because they are female? Where your (grand)sons are responsible for denigrating women?
And please pay attention to things your (grand)sons and their friends might say. Remember, they are looking to you to show them how a man behaves. Allowing degrading remarks (e.g. ‘Man up!’ ‘You run like a girl!’), or making them, simply perpetuates the culture that permits them.
You are not off the hook here. How do you think girls come to believe that it’s all right to body-shame, to ‘slut-shame,’ or to otherwise bully each other? They learn it from what they hear and see.
Every time you try to laugh off a misogynistic remark, even if you later express resentment, you are showing your (grand)daughters that they should accept such treatment. When you comment on, say, a female legislator’s clothes and hair, rather than her policies, you are teaching your (grand)daughters that women’s appearances are more important than their ideas. That silences those women who could be role models. When you use certain words (you know the ones I mean!) to describe people you don’t like, you are teaching your (grand)daughters that only one part of their anatomy is of interest, and even that is somehow ‘wrong.’
Even off-hand remarks about famous people (e.g. ‘She’s gotten so fat!’ ‘She looks like a tramp in that dress,’ etc..) send messages to young people. And certainly remarks about people you know send those messages.
Remember: your (grand)daughters look to you as role models. What you say about them and yourself carries weight. What you say in their presence, even if it’s about others, carries weight, too.
Does that mean that we need to censor every word? No. I doubt if we could. Besides, as I say, this isn’t about political correctness. It’s about how we transmit culture through words, and what that teaches our children about men and women.
We can make a difference just in our own lives, and that can have a powerful impact in the future. Have conversations with your (grand)children about what words really mean. Call it out when you hear language that objectifies women or demeans them. Call yourself out when you catch yourself saying something that demeans women (that’s a great way to teach children to deal with their own mistakes). Those little choices that we make all of the time, often without being aware of it, can have much more influence than we know.
And, after all, think of the alternative. What if there were a world where women simply…weren’t?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eurythmics’ Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves. I invite you to listen to the duet from the Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox and the one and only Aretha Franklin.