On a typically glorious California day, a new friend and I sat in the sunshine in the not-so-typical Peoples’ Republic of Berkeley discussing our respective libraries. Annette was a collector of the late-Victorian Kelmscott Press, and I had recently begun to acquire early novels written by women. Blame the anti-rarified air (isn’t Berkeley known for being anti-everything?), Annette and I quickly left the comfortable ideas attendant upon the joys of book collecting and moved on to an unexpected topic: the English language—the intelligent matter within the corporeal objects of our books.
Like many of our age cohorts, Annette and I had attended public schools where a dearth of resources reserved the advanced mathematics and science classes for the boys who “would need these skills to support their families.” We girls, apparently guaranteed sustenance, would be better equipped for our future lives of dependence by acquiring excellent communications (as opposed to analytic) skills, which, in the heady, bra-burning, ERA-producing days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, meant four years of high-school English classes. After all, even the MRS degree would be benefited by good spelling, not to mention excellent typing skills.
Somehow, Annette and I had diverged from the path of theoretically guaranteed sustenance. Annette had opted for that exclusive genus of rara avis, the (lady) venture capitalist, the neo-industry that subsequently produced the funds for her book collection. Annette sought her fortune in biotech venture funding in the early 1980s, a lone female in a business sector that had not evolved even so far as to appreciate that she represented a token attempt at the window-dressing of inclusion. She had, by the time we met, endured more than a decade of relentless opprobrium for her impertinent inclination to enter this new field of financial endeavor, one rife with opportunities for the intelligent and the bold. Women? Bold? Women, such as Paradis, Earhart, or Ride could be adventuresome, but apparently not venturesome. Here was a distinction with a difference, and one that would prove nearly insurmountable in the decades that followed; there are still only a handful of women in this quite remunerative and quite thoroughly male enclave.
I had followed a similarly less-trodden path, enduring years of asexual camaraderie in the hallowed halls of academic math and computer science departments, where the few of us not-obviously-male, when the necessity of description arose, were described as “non-male.” Leaving aside the entitlement of my male colleagues to the perquisites of mentors, financial and societal support, I found that my biggest challenge as the Lone Female ultimately was to learn advanced mathematics while in graduate school, all the while appearing to be equally well-qualified for my highly competitive slot so as to avoid the stereotype of that catch-all complaint: reverse discrimination. I was qualified, but only because I came with an alternative skill-set—no, not typing—but computer programming, and very early in the evolution of the technically literate, too. Again, my colleagues, while apparently ungrateful for their “token,” were years ahead of their brothers in business by requiring only a complete submersion of gender to be both accepted and acceptable. But, unlike Annette, at least I could be accepted and acceptable. However, the price was that women could not be “womanly” in those heady days of technological birth, even though one can reasonably consider “birth” as a feminine concept. As with the money-lenders, there are even yet few women who have endured the rigorous rights of passage to reap the rewards possible through successful technology start-ups.
As Annette and I compared the convoluted paths to our professional success, our stories took on an eerie similarity; we had both been unpopular in our respective organizations, despite being the reason (mother?) the business existed. We shared stories of our male counterparts being described as “manly,” while we were “emotional.” Men were leaders, while women who held fast to their beliefs in the face of dissent were “poor team players.” Climbing the ladder of success was the natural result of hard work and unquestionably reflective of a man’s abilities; success for women on that same ladder was obviously the result of her unseemly ambition and self-evident manipulation, the latter at least tacitly assumed to involve her torso. She was blunt, pushy, and unsportsmanlike; a gulf impassable existed between her and her glorious male counterparts who were straight-forward, manly men, exemplary in their single-minded commitment to the business.
But, back to books: As Annette and I canvassed our own beloved English, the language which united the voices of our books as far apart as New Zealand (Annette is a Kiwi) and California, we slipped seamlessly into a game of words, words that were somehow special. Now, there are many ways a word can be special: It can be sonorously onomatopoetic, gregariously alliterative, unambiguously explanatory, clinically precise, sensually evocative, or dexterously placed, just to name a few. However, our words that day were discussed because of quite different singularity: These words had gender, and what’s more, a gender-specific bias that was unidirectional and unique in our English, an English that began to appear depressingly rich in those adjectives that had no apparent purpose other than to single out women for denigration and scorn.
Such as? Well, starting with the gender-specific on the positive side of the balance sheet, the adjective “manly” simply begs for its oft-appended noun, “virtues.” Even on its own, it is defined as, “Having the qualities generally regarded as those that a man should have; virile; strong, brave, resolute, honorable, etc.” (YourDictionary.com). However, when this same adjective is used to describe a woman—or even worse, its derivative, “mannish”—it connotes not any positive trait, but a slur on her sexuality. Leaving virility and its gender-based, parallel, fecundity, aside, why are women not associated with strength, bravery, resolution or honor if described as “manly”? Moreover, in the same dictionary that produced the plethora of fulsome adjectives for “manly,” the counterpart for “womanly” was simply nondescript, “Belonging to or representative of a woman; feminine.”
If a woman is “womanly,” she does not inherit synonymous or even analogous virtues of her male counterparts, but instead is either devoid of any description at all, or, using a thesaurus, she is “effeminate, ladylike, feminine, female, gentle, compassionate, wifely, sisterly, motherly, protective, womanish, weak, fair.” Antonyms? Manly, virile. Does this mean that, by definition, women are weak, afraid, irresolute, and dishonorable? And, while the definition of “manly” is full of positive attributes (and no negative), of “womanly”—other than simply describing gender (feminine, female)—four have to do with other people, two are overtly negative (effeminate, weak), two tautological (ladylike, womanish), and one so ambiguous as to be descriptively useless (fair).
So much for who we are describing. How we, as women, are treated by Mother Tongue is even more one-sided. Where are the male counterparts to harpy, gossip, harridan, shrew, scold, virago, termagant, nag, fury, bitch, battle-axe, hag, crone, slattern? Other terms, such as “witch” may indeed have a male counterpart (warlock), but the male noun is very specifically related to the occupation of the person described, not his generically bad character such as is implied by “witch,” a usage irrespective of occupation or practice. How about “fishwife” (a scurrilously abusive woman) vs. “publican” (keeper of an ale house). Ever heard of “rooster-pecked”? “He is a prince among men” has a far different intent to describe than, “She is such a princess.”
Then we come to the sex-based slurs: hussy, floozy, hoyden, jade, minx, vixen, harlot, whore, strumpet, wanton, slut, prostitute, vamp, nymphomaniac, concubine, trollop, dominatrix, mistress. (Oh! Mistress, how far we’ve fallen from the lawful analog to Mister!) What about all of those males of questionable morals? Womanizer, libertine, rake, roué, Don Juan all may denote quasi-acceptable adjuncts to “manly,” but in all cases rise not to the superlative, all-inclusive damnation of their feminine counterparts, not to mention their unaccountable paucity in the language. What about barren? Where is the word for an infertile male? And, why are all starlets female? Surely there are now women who have achieved the perquisite of an office with a casting couch. If co-ed means, “cooperative education,” why are co-eds female? The implication of the female student majoring in the “MRS” degree has no male equivalent in any case.
Even ageist descriptors such as “codger,” “coot,” and “duffer” have overtones of kindness utterly absent from “hag,” “bat,” and “bag.” What about “old wives’ tale”? Are men uniquely averse to superstition, unremittingly logical? “Crony” means “old friend”; not so “crone.” The descriptor “spinster” almost rises to epithet status, implying not only censure for the unchosen and derision for her disappointment, but a hopeless permanence for the terminally undesirable. Its word-mate, “bachelor,” speaks instead of choice, a state perhaps temporary—perhaps not—and lends a certain frisson to the gentleman so described; it may or may not be wholly approbative, but it is surely never implicitly derisive. In sum, the denotation of “spinster” implies that no he has chosen her, whilst “bachelor” implies that he has not chosen. Ever hear of a “spinster party”? Spinsterer, analogous to widower? No? But the happier of the pair has been co-opted as “bachelorette,” when used to describe something possibly positive, albeit with overtones of the successful entrapment of a man.
Anachronistically incorrect gender-bashing lives and breeds in neologisms such as bridezilla, shopaholic, bimbo, valley girl, drama-queen, trophy wife, chick-flick, chick-lit. (Would anyone think to describe “action movies” as “dick-flicks,” or the Hardy Boys as “dick-lit”?) May I humbly offer remotophile? Satyromaniac? Directionophobe? Maybe the aforementioned aren’t ready for prime time, but I think a case can be made for the convenience of similarly descriptive male-oriented pejoratives.
Our sexist neologisms have even created a whole new part of speech: the defensive and offensive adjective. Women seem to feel the need to add the adjective “happily” to single, perhaps indicating their rejection of the appellation of “spinster.” How about stay-at-home mom—was “housewife” not inclusive enough, perhaps implying that one was only caring for a home and husband, but without the additional justification of young children? Why does “career girl” supplant “working woman”? What mother isn’t a “working mother”? This defensive description is somehow not required by men: Why not “working father”? “career boy”? We have legitimated Mr. Mom but not Mrs. Dad—why? Single women who are heads of households have long outnumbered their male counterparts, so this seems an odd omission. Gloria Steinem’s poignant quote about never having been asked by a man how to balance marriage and a career is symptomatic of the degree to which men in this new century remain uniquely unconflicted about these competing claims; there are no words that would apply, so there must be no perceived need for new words or helpful adjectives.
Where, on the other hand, are the new words, words which describe bold women, strong women—physically and/or emotionally, honorable women, honest, plain-speaking women, women of achievement, women who lead others to safety, to independence, perhaps to greatness? The few terms for female achievement (originally non-English words, it must be added) have no double-entendre male counterpart: diva, prima donna, while their male counterparts have “artistic temperaments.” Does one become a master craftswoman (lexically contradictory), a lady master craftsman? A mistress craftsman/craftswoman? Women have been master silversmiths, jewelers, painters, carvers, etc. for centuries. Isn’t it odd that this appellation remains unresolved? The sobriquet of renaissance-woman sounds as forced as it is uncommon. Historically, descriptors for men who had achieved great financial success were “titans,” “magnates,” “captains,” or “tycoons”; while there were female titans and ostensibly none of the other terms are gender-specific, these accolades have so long been associated with such manly-men that the mental image, if it were ever to be applied to a woman, is likely more jarring than useful. Self-made woman? Given the definition above, what is she now?
Our society has grown up, at least in so far as requiring, de jura, the desexing of its language: Chairperson has morphed into the monosyllabic “chair,” depriving everyone equally of their humanity; other titles have simply abandoned all attempts at inclusion and simply retained the masculine: actor, author, priest, patron, poet. Some categories have adapted by becoming cumbersome linguistically as well as increasingly incomprehensible: peace officer, sanitation engineer, laundry specialist, administrative coordinator, automotive diagnostician, etc., while others remain smugly neuter: doctor, lawyer, scientist, professor, architect, even if still occasionally prefaced by the thoughtfully added offensive adjective “lady,” lest the gentle listener miscalculate gender of the subject under discussion. We are not lady lawyers, lady doctors, lady astronauts, lady pilots, lady rocket-scientists, lady senators, lady Justices. Was the country less prepared to pronounce Lady President or First Man? (Wasn’t that Adam?)
Sitting amidst even that most progressive air of Berkeley, California, at the end of the 20th century, two successful, professional, and—yes, we would proudly add—powerful women: the product of 70 years’ voting rights, 20 years of reproductive rights, and varying degrees of educational and social rights won in the decades in between, Annette and I remain rarities, freaks of language. The lack of equality of descriptive language deprives female high-achievers of an identity and, even more important, the validation for young women of ambition. How can our daughters be expected to stay focused on a goal, to sacrifice, sweat, and endure to realize their dreams, when their success cannot even be described? How can we support their struggle for equal opportunity and equal remuneration when our society provides no identity for their mission or their admission? Our English persists in its sexism in the face of women generals, racing-car drivers, soldiers, engineers, scientists, Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners, the feminization of medicine and law, even (to a very limited extent) venture capitalists. When will our English catch up with the other half of its rightful proprietors? Sadly, we are all still at a loss for words.
Addendum 25 years on: The language not only fails to provide any positive works to describe females but continues to coin female-only slurs at the rate of about one a decade: I neglected to include “missish” in the list of epithets: no “misterish,” and this epithet is still applied to female horses who are misbehaving. But most important, we now have “cougar” for a middle-aged, successful woman with a preference for younger men (cradle-robber is remarkably gender-neutral) and “alpha female,” a misogynous descriptor originally from the biology used to describe the senior female in a herd of females and young, but now, to quote Frans de Waal, “The term alpha female originated in my field of animal behavior, but has acquired new meaning. It refers to women who are in charge, for example, by flirting and dating on their own terms [isn’t this what men have always done?] It is also used maliciously for a loud-mouthed, controlling woman who has no patience with deviating opinions.” The worst is saved for last: “feminazi.” Somehow, male (value neutral) chauvinist (literal meaning: patriot) pig (literal meaning: useful, valuable, intelligent mammal) really does not seem to even begin to sink to the level of a descriptor with the horrific “nazi” appended. We are not only failing to improve the language, but surely this is an all-time low. An adherent of non-gendered economic and social equality is analogous to the largest human-engineered mass-murder in all of human history?
What is to be done? I propose that we re-purpose “Wench.” This was originally a rather toothless term for a young woman, often in the capacity of a servant. I suggest that we redefine “Wensch” as the analogue of “Mensch”: “A person of integrity and honor; upright, mature, and responsible.” Too bad that the literal translation of “Mensch” is “man” in German and Yiddish. Gloria Steinem removed our marital status as a front-line descriptor with one stroke of her mighty pen. Let’s take some initiative here and start some word-smithing of our own on a regular basis. My contribution is “Wensch.” I doubt Ms. magazine would want to rename itself quite yet, but it’s a start.
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