May This essay is derived from a guest lecture at Harvard, which incorporated an earlier talk at Northeastern.
A gender system that distinguishes femaleness as having a salient property, whether positive, negative, or neither, might still be regarded as a kind of sexism, whichever way the property goes; but it is a rather different matter from the usual feminist complaint about the patriarchal conception that we find all the way from Genesis to Aristotle to Freud: It looks to be essential to the feminist theory of "sexist language" that a gender system where the masculine gender doubles as the common gender causes or reinforces "phallocentrism" and a patriarchal society.
Or of sexuality itself? Is the "female eunuch" objectively sexless? The feminine as gammatically the more "marked" gender, however, makes that unlikely. In an ideology that wants to see language as a tool of oppression, embodying an unjust characterization of sexual differences, the actual grammar of gender contradicts the thesis.
The feminine gender is marked by a presence, not an absence. Since this practice clearly bespeaks the genuinely patriarchal nature of Islamic society, it may leave us suspicious that Western "patriarchy" was never really the enemy to Greer, but capitalism and America were.
A recent take on this point can be found in Laura Kipnis: Who wants some fleshy old appendage swinging between her legs? The female psyche and consumer culture: And Kipnis herself undercuts her own analysis with a later observation: Indeed, if the female genitalia are popularly called the "booty," this is because that word means "treasure," "prize," or "plunder" [ note ].
There is no way in theory or practice that such a thing could be construed as "something missing" -- it is all too real to the crowd of men who are likely to be drawn to a beautiful woman at a party. The men may know what they are missing, and they go straight for it -- even as, biologically, we see the single egg, in its impassive dignity, beset by hundreds of desperate spermatozoa.
How can this possibly be construed to the disadvantage of the feminine?
Unless, of course, the source of the envy is elsewhere, and feminism itself has a misogynistic origin. But all of "sexist language" doctrine as a theory can actually be tested: We would expect that if linguistic gender were a correlate of social form, an engine for the enforcement of patriarchy or a reflection of the existence of patriarchy, then we would find it present in sexist or patriarchal societies and absent in non-sexist or non-patriarchal societies.
In fact, the presence of gender in language bears no relation whatsoever to the nature of the corresponding societies. The best historically conspicuous example is Persian. Old Persian, like Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, had the original Indo-European genders of masculine, feminine, and neuter.
By Middle Persian all gender had disappeared. This was not the result of Persian feminist criticism, nor was it the result of the evolution of an equal opportunity society for women. It just happened -- as most kinds of linguistic change do.
Modern Persian is a language completely without gender. There are not even different words for "he" and "she," just the unisexun. There are not even different titles for married and unmarried women: So the advice could be: If someone wants "non-sexist language," move to Iran.
But that probably would not be quite what they have in mind. This goes to show us that gender in language is completely irrelevant to the sexual openness of society. And one of the greatest ironies for us is that a feminist attempt to produce a gender free "non-sexist language" in English could only be contemplated in the first place because grammatical gender has already all but disappeared from English.
Feminist complaints must focus on the meaning of words like "man," even though words can mean anything by convention, because the pronouns "he," "she", and "it" are all that remain grammatically of the three Indo-European genders.
Getting gender to disappear in German or French or Spanish etc. Occasionally feminists say that they are personally offended by people referring to ships or aircraft as "she"; and manuals of "non-sexist" language usually require that inanimate objects be "it" without exception.Learn German Faster by Letting Loose and Using It.
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I, for one, want to be free to refer to "the brotherhood of man" without being corrected by the language police. I want to decide for myself whether I should be called a chairman, a chairwoman, or a chairperson (I am not a chair).
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