Happy International Women’s Day! I did think a little about whether it was appropriate to wish one a happy International Women’s Day, seeing as there’s still a lot of work being done around the world to secure women’s rights in a variety of areas. But I think today should be a day for celebration, as well as reflection and protest, so happy International Women’s Day! In honour of the day, I’ve decided to take a look at the word woman, and a little bit at how we gender language. And I hope you won’t accuse of mansplaining: I’m just doing what I usually do, just with a feminine focus today (and I’m observing A Day Without a Woman, so who else could I get to do it!).
You may have noticed that the words human, man, and woman are all quite similar. This is the point where I usually say something like “Actually, the similarity is entirely coincidental, and all three have separate etymologies. Our story begins in the 4th century, in what is now Bavaria…” But in this case, the similarity is far from accidental, and you may have guessed that it’s also no accident that man is the common factor in all three. Woman is a simplification of wifman, from the old English wif, meaning woman, and man, which could, as now, refer to either a single masculine person, or all of humanity in general. Wif is obviously the origin of Modern English’s wife, but originally meant simply woman. It’s interesting that the word wif wasn’t deemed sufficient to represent women (more on this strange plural form here), and it was appended to the decidedly masculine man. To me, it seems like an effort to deny female independence and agency. Why give them their own word, and therefore a strong sense of their own identity? Do that and they might be looking to inherit property or somesuch! Better attach them to the word man, make them seem like an appendage to men, something that exists only in their relation to men, as an aspect of male existence. Sadly, it’s not the only way in which English over the years has been used to maintain gender equality. (Human, by the way, originally meant of or related to man, existing as an adjective before a noun).
Unlike other languages such as French or Italian, English is not a gendered language. That doesn’t mean that it still can’t have some gendered nouns though. Actress, manageress, policewoman, stewardess: though most female-variant words for titles have fallen out of fashion now (except, largely, for actress), until quite recently they were commonplace. And it might not seem to be an issue at first glance, but if you were to look up any of these words in a dictionary while they were widely in use, I’m sure you’d find the male version. Having different male and female forms of words isn’t necessarily sexist, but when the male form is clearly marked as the “standard form” from which the female version deviates, that’s at least suggestive of institutional sexism. Plus, why not have male and female versions of every title? Only using them for some positions suggests that these were “male” positions, and a woman occupying them was an aberration: (A woman manager!? I suppose it’s possible, but how would that even work!?) Or in the case of stewardess, the opposite. Poor Mr. Bouvier…
Another example of linguistic sexism is the term hysteria. While it’s now seen as a little old-fashioned, it was originally considered a genuine disorder when the term was coined at the beginning of the 19th century. It was originally considered a neurotic disorder specific to women caused by an imbalance or disruption in the uterus (consider the root shared with hysterectomy). Again, sadly telling that the stereotype of women as highly emotional, irrational beings was so ingrained that it was believed that women were influenced by their uteruses, and not their brains, like men.
In the sake of fairness, I should also point out that other languages have some apparently sexist features. Many will use a male plural word to refer to a group of men and women (e.g. ils in French, and ragazzi [boys] in Italian), though we’ve started to do that informally with guys in English. Anyway, I don’t mean to pick on English: it’s just what I know.
There are other examples of sexism inherent in some common words (see here for example), and of course there are plenty of words that are still commonly used with very deliberate sexism in mind. I could write again about how we can tend to infantilise women through the words we use. But I don’t feel like going on. Language has played its part in maintaining gender stereotypes, and though things are far from perfect, we have come a long way, and it’s hopefully comforting to think that the next generation will grow up with far fewer gender stereotypes.