Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Can women use the ladies: Is there a women's room after decades of feminism?

This month's guest post is by Matt. He first became interested in language, gender and feminism at university; two of his favourite feminist language authors are Robin Tolmach Lakoff and Deborah Cameron. Read more about his research into language and gender at https://wlv.academia.edu/MattMills 

Toilet sign
In 1977, Marilyn French's acclaimed novel The Women's Room appeared, which has become a key work of fiction within feminism. Many earlier copies of French's novel showed the title with the word “women's” written over “ladies”. This was due to the feminist movement's rejection of the terms “lady/ladies” because of the connotations of a certain type of behaviour associated with them, and also because feminists believed there was nothing wrong with using the word “woman” as it sounded equal to “man”. 

Back in the 1970s, it was still quite common in the United States to refer to a men's toilet as “the men's room”, but to call a women's toilet “the ladies room”. Despite decades of feminism, this type of asymmetry can still be quite common in the United Kingdom, where I live. The UK use of toilet names differs slightly from the US examples above, and many people refer to the “ladies toilet” in Britain when the men's toilet is just “the men's toilet”. 

Although some people in Britain can refer to men's toilets as “the gents”, to say “men's toilet” is still more common than to refer to a women's toilet as just that. I was at an induction a few weeks ago and the trainer showing myself and colleagues around referred to the “men's toilet” and the “ladies toilet”. I was quite surprised by this and with equality in the workplace being a key factor I wondered why he chose to say “ladies” when the toilet for men was simply referred to as the “men's” and not the “gentlemen's/gents”. What is it in the 21st century that makes people reluctant to use the words woman/women?

Many UK toilet signs nowadays have symbols on their doors denoting female or male, toilets in pubs still often have “ladies” and “gents” on the signs; at least these are comparable and equivalent terms. But many toilets in other establishments that don't use the figure symbols on their signs do often read “Mens” and “Ladies”, once again reflecting a discrepancy and avoiding the use of “Women”.

It is worth noting that the word “lady” is much more commonly used than “gentleman” in many contexts, and a number of these uses result from people feeling uncomfortable with using the word “woman”. People often comment that they believe “woman” can sound rude in some contexts, but “man” doesn't. The word “gentleman” is also used often in its literal sense, ie “he's a real gentleman” and although it can be used as a polite way to refer to a man, there are still many uses of “lady” that don't match its male equivalent. In fact, “lady” has suffered such semantic derogation, particularly in the United States, that it can be used in an insulting manner, ie “hey lady, look where you're going”.

With decades of feminism and the emphasis on equality between men and women, surely people should by now be comfortable with using the word “woman” in the workplace and in society in general. It surprises me that in 2020 people are still avoiding saying “woman/women” including in references to toilets, when they don't have a problem with saying the “men's toilet”. I think it is about time we changed this old and unequal use.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Here a man, there a man, everywhere a man man

I recently moved to Germany and I am struggling! What was relatively easy in the English language – speaking inclusively – is a real challenge in my native German. Every conversation I have is infiltrated by ‘man’; the indefinite pronoun seems all-pervasive. While in writing I have the time to reflect and find alternative phrasings, the speed of speech seems to drastically shrink my linguistic toolkit. And I fall back on what I have been brought up to say: ‘Man hat, man macht, man denkt’… (One[masc.] has, one does, one thinks...)

Wittgenstein says that as children we are trained to use language, not to question it (1998:4). And this training presents a real hurdle, despite my incessant adult questioning! But do I really have so little choice? I could of course use ‘frau’ (one[fem.]), as suggested by feminist linguists. However, when it comes to live social interaction I am more of a (*sigh) coward than I imagined. I want to fit in, I want to be accepted, I want to be understood: ‘Man ist auch nur ein Mensch’. (One is only human.)

In my defence I do use ‘frau’ sometimes, but less frequently and consistently than I would like. And so it is an ongoing struggle to speak German inclusively. However, this experience has also taught me something, namely empathy and patience. In conversation it might just take a little more time to put linguistic changes into practice. But that’s not to say it’s not worthwhile to try. With those I have been brave enough I feel I have created new bonds and also a new understanding – not only of ‘one’ but of our ability to adapt language.

So I will continue trying! But being brave is so much easier together – will you join me?

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. [1953] 1998. Philosophische Untersuchungen = Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell.

Friday, 3 August 2018

Read all about it

There is this great quote by Ursula K. Le Guin about the impact of literature on readers:

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find – if it’s a good novel – that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little (1969, p. 3-4).

This is something I’ve become really interested in, how literary texts shape readers’ perceptions – despite or even because of being fictional. With linguistic representation my main interest I wonder: ‘Can fiction help to promote inclusive language use?’

Thanks to activists, linguists and researchers there has been amazing progress over the past forty years. Formal language, in particular, is decidedly less androcentric today. However, everyday language use can lag behind – and male terms, such as ‘guys’ (‘Hey guys’) and ‘man’ (‘man-made’, ‘craftsman’ among many others) still predominate in speech.

So, how can literary texts help with this?

As Le Guin says, not only do we ‘believe every word of it’, we are altered by the process of reading. Therefore, fiction might be a useful tool to promote change. Narrative theorists and researchers explore this premise. Wolfgang Iser, for example, argues that communication is a central role of fiction. As he states, ‘fiction is a means of telling us something about reality’ (1978, p. 53).

However, this is not a one-way interaction. According to Iser, the reader ‘participates in producing the meaning’ (1978, p. 74). That is, readers build the story world with the narrative rather than simply receiving it. And they do so with reference to their own knowledge, beliefs and social contexts. This dialogue, Iser suggests, ‘enable[s] us to see that familiar reality with new eyes’ (1978, p. 181).

And moreover, it can help to shift pre-existing opinions and convictions. As Iser argues, ‘our past still remains our experience, but … in the course of reading, these experiences will also change, for the acquisition of experience is not a matter of adding on – it is a restructuring of what we already possess’ (1978, p. 132). Consequently, encountering a literary texts can have a profound impact on readers.

Building on this understanding, I'm proposing that literary texts which engage with the issue of linguistic representation can help to promote inclusive language use. By allowing readers to experience the issues with dominant practices and/or the possibilities of more inclusive alternatives, I believe fiction can sensitise readers and thereby lead to wider linguistic change.

Come and help me try this out! Just get one of the books below or any other that engages with the issue, read it together with your friends, family, work colleagues… and explore:

- The language used in the novel (especially the nouns and pronouns)
- What kind of characters you imagine and why this might be the case
- How the language used in the novel compares to everyday language

And then post what you thought, discussed, learned! Also, please post any recommendations you have for other novels which engage with linguistic representation!

Some suggestions:
Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie)
The Cook and the Carpenter (June Arnold)
The Daughters of Egalia (Gerd Brantenberg)
The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You (Dorothy Bryant)
The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy)

Happy reading :)

Iser, Wolfgang (1978). The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Le Guin, Ursula K. (1969). The Left Hand of Darkness. Reprint, New York: Ace Books, 1976

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

A fellow feminist?!

Eagle-eyes will have spotted that I used the term ‘fellow’ inclusively in my last post. Surely that’s a huge no-no for a feminist linguist! I have to agree, it doesn’t seem like my finest moment… But there are two reasons for doing this:

Firstly, to be perfectly honest, initially I didn’t notice the (obvious) issue when writing of ‘fellow citizens’ – it illustrates how engrained male-as-norm is in everyone’s thinking, mine included. And secondly, once I realised the problem at hand, I couldn’t think of a suitable alternative. To communicate the ‘togetherness’ implied by ‘fellow citizen’ the term seemed the best way to put it.

Now, that feels like a sad excuse if I ever heard one. And if anyone else had used it, I might have countered that this ‘reason’ just won’t cut it – it’s our language, if a term doesn’t exist then create it! Okay, so here I go (and am also learning a massive lesson in empathy; it’s not so easy!)…

I don’t want a straightforward synonym because the most obvious one, ‘compatriot’, is similarly flawed. It’s linked to patriot: ‘from Greek patriōtēs, from patrios ‘of one’s fathers’, from patris ‘fatherland’ (OD).  And while etymology might in fact offer me a last-minute way out for ‘fellow’: ‘[u]sed familiarly since mid-15c. for “any man, male person,” but not etymologically masculine (etymonline), I’m not willing to take it. Considering its dominant understanding, both the noun and its associated adjective seem flawed.

I want to say something like the German ‘MitbürgerIn’, literally ‘with-citizen’, to communicate the joint endeavour that is the European Union. And while it does express what I want to say, and does so much more neutrally than ‘fellow citizen’, ‘with-citizen’ also feels a little alien to the English language. Perhaps this might simply be because it is a novel term, but I feel there could be improvement on this literal translation.

In fact, one already exists: as a brief online search showed, the term ‘co-citizen’ is a listed and used alternative to ‘fellow citizen’ (see wordnik.com). That’s exciting! And much more pleasing than both my translation and the status quo version.

So, no excuses! I might feel stuck but that doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t thought about the problem, and found a solution. Lesson learned my dear co-feminists. Let’s keep questioning, inventing, trying. It might sometimes feel impossible, but it’s always worth the effort.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

A citizen of nowhere?

If I learned one thing from the debates prior and post the EU referendum in the UK, it’s that the community I imagined to be a part of for the past 17 years has at worst never existed or is at best unravelling. I was born in the former GDR and as an East German national I had the right to live, work, love, be only within the state’s clearly defined borders. When the wall came down in 1989, my boundaries shifted dramatically. Not only did they encompass the rest of Germany but, as Germany is part of the European Union, other European member states as well.

As an EU citizen I was suddenly free to live, work, love, be in France, Portugal, Sweden, for example, and later in Romania, Latvia, Poland, and also in the UK. Put it down to language education (I learned English first, and later French), an interest in the culture and music, or a belief that it was a liberal, open-minded place to be, I chose the UK. But I suppose the UK never chose me.

This divergence became particularly clear during the past 18 months. I had been asked ‘Where are you from?’ frequently before but the question took on a new meaning. I no longer thought (perhaps) the asker had an interest in my cultural origins but understood they wanted to pinpoint my nationality. And so I regressed from being an EU citizen to being a national of a particular country.

The public language used by politicians and the media to refer to EU citizens confirmed this: no longer referred to as citizens, or even nationals, we are now predominantly called EU migrants. People who come to the UK not as fellow citizens but ‘in order to find work or better living conditions’, as the dictionary states. And while this might be true for many or even most, the term ‘migrant’ denies the existence of a union, of a shared undertaking.

Perhaps this divisive rhetoric is required for the UK to untangle itself from the European Union. But it also has real human consequences. Hate crimes against EU citizens are on the rise, communities are being eroded, and even if we, the EU migrants, were allowed to ‘stay’ without a reduction in our rights, outside of the EU the UK is no longer what it once used to be: a place of European possibility.

But where does this leave me? A migrant in my home of choice (my Wahlheimat as we say in German) or a virtual foreigner in my country of birth? Of course, people have always had to adjust to shifting political circumstances, and the present shifts are much less traumatic than many others. In effect, the EU might be contracting but I remain an EU citizen. Nevertheless I feel as if my world is disintegrating, as if I, an East German-German-European, am suddenly a citizen of nowhere. No longer part of the UK-European community, no longer ‘truly’ German.

But perhaps I have gained something from this experience as well. I understand that my sense of belonging is not tied to a nationality. It is tied to certain values and beliefs. It is tied to something to strive for, an ideal. The ideal that we could live peacefully in a world without borders, a world of human unity. And that can never be taken away from me.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Is there such a thing as being apolitical?

This is something I have been thinking about a lot in recent months. A lot of people I know seem to be disengaged with politics, stating it’s too depressing to read about, let alone act on political events. Some might consider their actions ‘apolitical’ – however, is there really such a thing? Is being apolitical not just passively supporting the status quo? By not responding, by not acting, does an apolitical stance not help to facilitate the very context which is ‘depressing’?

Now, before I proceed, I have to deal with some blatant generalisations. What do I mean by ‘politics’? And what do I mean by ‘act’?

Of course, like any human being I hold a subjective point of view. There are certain issues I consider key because they either affect me directly or oppose my values and beliefs. At the moment, ‘politics’ to me is the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and the toxic rhetoric that surrounds that decision. Not engaging with this issue and its consequences makes no sense to me. Moreover, claiming an ‘apolitical stance’ feels like an indirect backing of all the division and hate.

However, this is a harsh assessment to say the least. Things are never as clear-cut. For one, there are plenty of other political events I am not responding to, let alone aware of. And my lack of response and/or awareness does not necessarily mean I support the dominant political agenda.

Life is a complicated beast, with many conflicting demands and desires, and sometimes being ‘apolitical’ seems like an escape from an increasingly complex and confusing world. But this life is not just an individual but also a shared experience. We jointly decide what matters, what’s worth fighting for and who deserves a voice.

And this is where I would like to act. Just as a friend’s disinterest in my ‘politics’ hurts me deeply, another friend will feel pain at my apolitical stance toward theirs. I would like to get better at talking about this experience. I share my highs and lows with friends, but often leave politics out of the conversation. Instead I talk to people I feel understand and care, and segregate my friends into those who are and those who are not political. And thereby I feed the very division caused by the EU referendum.

I would like to get better at sharing the sadness and pain caused by political events. And I would like to get better at asking about and listening to others’ political concerns. Perhaps these two acts could help to illustrate that politics is not an alien thing happening in the corridors of power, but affects us all.

It could start as a conversation between people who are open and listen; a conversation which allows us to gain a new understanding and, as a result, act together. It could be conversations like these which make me, you and all of us realise that there is no such thing as being ‘apolitical’.

Let’s talk!

Friday, 6 October 2017

‘You call me what?’ A trialogue

This month’s post is a collaboration between Mathelinda Nabugodi, Liz Harvey-Kattou and Christiane Luck. It was inspired by the title of Denise Riley’s work ‘“Am I That Name?” Feminism and the Category of “Women” in History’ and is a conversation between female writers reflecting on Riley’s question. It explores how our different backgrounds shape this trialogue on identity.

Each contributor was asked to respond to the question ‘Am I that name?’ individually and the pieces were then merged into a whole. The intention was to give the illusion of unity whilst immediately splintering this illusion through the diversity of our responses. This aims to both challenge the concept of a ‘singular’ author as well as a singular ‘female’ point of view.

‘What does it mean?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Haha, that’s funny.’
‘It’s from my father, but he never taught me his language. I’m not sure it is supposed to mean anything.’
‘But African names always have such beautiful meanings.’
‘I thought it was rather Arabic.’
‘It’s Arabic?’
‘No, Arabic names that have beautiful meanings. Honey, and flowers, things like that. Almonds. Actually, I think only the prefix is the family part, each son has his own ending, being his own branch of the family.’

My great-great-grandmother came from Poland. The Masurian Lake District. I carry her cheekbones as a memory. What is Poland? Was she Poland? Am I Poland? She wasn’t Polish. It wasn’t Poland then. It’s Poland now. Is there a difference? In the land? The lakes? In her? Would she be different? Would I be different?


Are you that name?

I’m German, despite the cheekbones. Or because of them? A German. No, not Ger-man. A woman. So, Gerwoman? My Word processor marks it red, there’s no such thing. Suggests Gagwoman, Gunwoman, German. Not Ger-woman. But what does a Word processor know about ‘woman’. It’s man-made, after all.

‘So it means that knowledge is evil?’
‘No, not knowledge per se, only the knowledge of good and evil.’
‘Is evil?’
‘Well, it got us kicked out of Paradise. If you consider that a bad thing.’
‘But that is to say that also knowing the good is evil.’
‘Knowing to distinguish between good and evil is... not so good, no. But it need not be evil, just that it doesn’t belong in Paradise. But as women, I think we are better off outside of it anyway.’
‘Because God only made man in his image?’
‘It’s a bit of a slip, really. He says “let us make man in our image” and “let them have dominion” over the earth. But how could ‘them’ refer to this singular man, for at this point there really is only one of each sex in existence.’
‘But he does say our image, in plural.’
‘Of course he does, it’s God. And it’s not our images, is it?’
‘Maybe it is just a bad translation?’
‘Naturally, it always is.’

Your chromosomes read XX. When you are born, the doctors proclaim ‘it’s a girl’. And that is that. The genderisation has begun, and you will never again be able to experience life outside this social construct. The list of dos and don’ts looks dauntingly long. It is full of caveats and exclusions. You can:

- wear dresses, or trousers (as long as they’re fitted)
- grow your hair long, or cut it short (as long as it remains fashionable)
- play Mums and Dads (as long as you are the Mum)
- play doctors and nurses (as long as you are the nurse)
- be passive and subordinate (at all times)
- pursue the dream of stability (find a husband, alone no more, the M.A.N. who will complete you, be your other half - certainly how could you be W.O.M.A.N. without M.A.N.?)...

W.O.M.A.N. If this is what it entails then you must ask yourself, ‘am I that name?’
I struggle to answer this question, for once the chromosomal results are in, I no longer hold a neutral standpoint.

Your DNA may scream ‘F.E.M.A.L.E.’, but you hasten to reject this loaded denomination. Its connotations are too rigid, they deny you the space to be an individual without boundaries.
Instead, she will allow herself to identify with all the ‘feminine’ tropes of her choosing. She will also allow her identity to encompass all the ‘masculine’ stereotypes applicable. She will not shy away from adversity in the name of equality, and will stand for neither misogyny nor misandry. This does not make her a contradiction. It merely confirms her personhood.

Woman comes from wifman. Wif-man, wife-man. It used to be just wif. Weib. A universal. In connotation at least; today, it’s universally bad. It didn’t use to be, however. But what is wif, Weib? What was it? What did it use to mean? I carry the word as a memory. What is the difference between me as wif then, as Weib now?

W.O.M.A.N. has a history. But she does not need to live in the past or remain essentialised because of it. Identity is a liminal space, a fluid space that is constantly changing. Identity is a space where you exist, where I exist, where he, she, and we exist. Together, but different. With certain commonalities, of course, with certain oppositionalities, definitely.

The notion of W.O.M.A.N. as coming out of M.A.N., as intrinsically needing these three letters to exist, is at once a man-made construction which must be confined to the past, and the history that has manufactured and shaped our gender. Our bodies are encoded with certain physical characteristics, but a female identity no more defines our entire being than any other that we hold on to: ethnicity, culture, tradition, sexuality, hobby. We are multiple, adaptable, and capable of change.

‘What can you tell me about your family tree?’
‘Well, you must know something. Where is your father from?’
‘I think my father has branched off, somewhat. From the family tree, I mean. So nothing much to say. And my mother, too, definitely the scapegoat.’
‘That’s not really to the point. Tell me what you know about your grandparents, on your father’s side?’
‘Not to the point? But I’m in every way closer to my mother’s side. For instance, my maternal grandmother virtually raised me. And the other one I’ve never even met.’
‘Okay, but a family tree generally follows the male line.’
‘Only the male?’
‘Well, yes, certainly. Since women take their husband’s name and become part or that family’s tree, I suppose. You are a good example. Didn’t you say you carry your father’s mother’s given name?’
‘Yes, but...’
‘But, but, but. It’s these silly feminist ideas, I can tell. But historically we have devised a very handy way of classifying family trees and giving everyone their place. And to come and stir it up, this talk of the mother’s line, it is no good.’
‘But the mother’s line is also always there! Perhaps running across several male trees, branching out, or maybe even more like the roots, rhizomatic and so on.’
‘“Rhizomatic and so on”! That is nonsense. Rhizomes don’t even operate the way those postmodern theorists claim. They should study some biology, I’m telling you.’
‘But biology can’t distinguish, can it?’
‘Distinguish what?’
‘Between the male and the female line. Is it not all inherited genes?’
‘That is a good question, but it doesn’t belong in a family tree. Strictly speaking it is not about genes, but names.’
‘How come?’
‘Well, no one is going to go digging for old ancestral bones to study their genes. It is about knowing where you come from. That is, the names of your ancestors.’
‘But what do those names have to do with me?’
‘Everything! They show who you are by showing where you come from. Hence the importance of a family tree. And besides, it happens you know... People are unfaithful, indiscreet. Men as well as women. So there’s really no way of knowing who has which father’s genes. But a name, well that is certainly for sure!’
‘As are the mother’s genes.’
‘Ah, so what’s the use of a female family tree, then?’
‘So fatherhood is essentially about giving a child your name.’
‘Of course not, it is about love and nurture and the rest of it. But all this fades with memory. What remains is the name.’

My great-great-grandmother was a woman. But I don’t carry her name. I carry my father’s name, which was his father’s name, which was his father’s name, which was his father’s name. My great-great-grandmother is on my mother’s side. She is nameless. Just like my great-grandmother, just like my grandmother, just like my mother. Just like me.

We have no land, we have no name, we are wo-men.


So I ask myself again: Am I that name? Yes, but its meaning is of my choosing, and it will remain one among many.