Thursday, 13 October 2011

Who’s calling me a woman?

According to the latest UN population statistics, there are 103 British women to every 100 British men (United Nations 2011). Consequently, UK women might not be an overwhelming majority, but they are far from being a minority either. However, looking at the representation of women within the government that is exactly what one is led to believe: out of 650 Members of Parliament, only 144, roughly one fifth, are women (Parliament 2011). The question is: why is this the case? Why are not more women elected as Members of Parliament?

The root-cause for this underrepresentation will partially lie in the fact that not enough women are standing to be elected. And why are not enough women standing to be elected? Because women MPs are predominantly treated not as representatives of the majority of the British population but as a secondary voice to the statistic minority of men. Whether they are referred to as “Blair’s Babes” (Telegraph 2000), “Dave’s Dolls” (Daily Mail 2010), told by the Prime Minister to “calm down, dear” (Guardian 2011) or jeered at in the House of Commons for being “extremely [obviously sexually] frustrated” (BBC 2011), women MPs have to publicly suffer woman’s continued object position to man.

But could language have something to do with their persisting subordination? And could language also affect real change for the years to come?

The majority of elected MPs are Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat, of which the majority again are men. 49 MPs out of 306, less than one fifth, are women Tory MPs, 81 out of 258, less than one third, are women Labour MPs and only 7 women out of 57 MPs, just over one tenth, are elected Liberal Democrats. But while the numbers, if one spends a bit of time looking for them, clearly speak for themselves, the everyday language we employ helps to veil the issues surrounding women’s underrepresentation. Referring to women MPs as simply ‘MPs’ evokes after all not (necessarily) the image of ‘woman’, but always already of ‘man’.

Historically, only men could be Members of Parliament, which is why we accept that the term does not need to indicate whether we are dealing with ‘man’ – an MP was, and, as the numbers show, is, assumed to be male unless proven otherwise. Women have only been able to stand for election for less than 100 years and are only recently more widely represented in Parliament. The term ‘MP’ therefore continues to connote both the dominance of man as well as the absence of woman. What I am wondering is this: if we openly referred to women MPs as 'women MPs', would we be able to more openly highlight the underrepresentation of as well as attract more women to government?

An obvious counterargument might be that this would only highlight woman as ‘woman’ but fail to equally highlight ‘man’. As the feminist linguist Luise Pusch argues: “[n]ur wenn die Bezeichnungen für Männer gleichzeitig mit geändert werden, vergeben sich gleiche sprachliche Chancen für Frauen und Männer” - 'only if the terms relating to men are changed at the same time will there be equal linguistic opportunities for women and men' (Pusch 1984, 48, my translation). However, such a linguistic revolution might still be a long way off. In the meantime, giving woman her own voice in language, a language which has for centuries been linguistically and conceptually dominated by man, seems to be the best solution to enable her acknowledgement as an equal member of humanity beyond. As the feminist linguist Dale Spender confirms: “[f]or women to become visible, it is necessary that they become linguistically visible” (Spender 2001, 162).

But not only highlighting women’s underrepresentation in Parliament is at stake, women might also be put off standing for election if they are linguistically nowhere to be seen. As the feminist linguist Senta Trömel-Plötz states: “[w]ir leisten weniger, wenn die Erwartungen an uns niedriger sind” - 'we achieve less if expectations are lower' (Trömel-Plötz 1994, 59, my translation), i.e. if women do not feel addressed when they hear the term ‘MP’, they are less likely to think of themselves and other women as (potential) Members of Parliament. It might therefore pay today and long-term to openly refer to women MPs as 'women MPs' – in a truly equal society, what could be the shame in being called a woman after all?


Pusch, Luise F. 1984. Das Deutsche als Männersprache: Aufsätze und Glossen zur feministischen Linguistik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Spender, Dale. 2001. Man Made Language. London: Pandora Press.

Trömel-Plötz, Senta. 1994. Frauensprache: Sprache der Veränderung. Frankfurt am Main: Fisher Taschenbuch Verlag.

1 comment:

  1. I don't really like the word "member" referring to women neither in Spanish nor in English. It has an excessive male connotation. In Spanish, changing the gender usually works 'diputado-diputada'. And when the word cannot be changed like in 'miembro' (member), one can always find a better option such as 'integrante' (-e ending could be used for male or female in Spanish). The question is, can we find an alternative for women MPs in English? Let's look for it!