Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Sex or gender?

This month a big plug for some fantastic feminist scholarship – Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work by Gillian Thomas. I have included a summary below but want to focus a bit more on the title which particularly resonates with my own research.

As you can see from my posts’ most frequent tags, ‘gender’, ‘language’, ‘women’, I  generally do not refer to ‘sex’. Moreover, the wider field I am interested in is predominantly called ‘gender and language’. And this use of ‘gender’ rather than ‘sex’ has troubled me more and more in recent years – which is why I love Thomas’ title: Because of Sex.

Effectively it is ‘sex’, defined as ‘[e]ither of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans … are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions’ (OD) which is the root cause for discrimination. And while ‘gender’, ‘[t]he state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)’ (OD), also results in bias, it is biology which is abused to justify favouritism and unequal treatment. Bluntly, it is male genitals which are considered the source of strength and dominance, while women’s reproductive organs are associated with the exact opposite, i.e. weakness and passivity.

So considering that sexism is based on ‘sex’, should linguistic sexism not be referred as such? That is, should the field of ‘gender and language’ not be more accurately called ‘sex and language’? Some might counter that grammatical gender, in particular, has nothing to do with biology. But as empirical studies continue to show, speakers tend to think otherwise: they frequently interpret both as one and the same. (See, for example, Alan Garnham et al.’s study ‘Gender Representation in Different Languages and Grammatical Marking on Pronouns: When Beauticians, Musicians, and Mechanics Remain Men’.)

It is Because of Sex that women are discriminated against in the workplace, and it is also Because of Sex that men are favoured in language. Maybe it’s time to follow Thomas’ lead (myself included!) and make that clear.


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The below summary of Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work has been copied from the Macmillan Publishers website. You can access an excerpt from the book here: Facebook First Reads.

‘Best known as a monumental achievement of the civil rights movement, the 1964 Civil Rights Act also revolutionized the lives of America’s working women. Title VII of the law made it illegal to discriminate “because of sex.” But that simple phrase didn’t mean much until ordinary women began using the law to get justice on the job—and some took their fights all the way to the Supreme Court. Among them were Ida Phillips, denied an assembly line job because she had a preschool-age child; Kim Rawlinson, who fought to become a prison guard—a “man’s job”; Mechelle Vinson, who brought a lawsuit for sexual abuse before “sexual harassment” even had a name; Ann Hopkins, denied partnership at a Big Eight accounting firm because the men in charge thought she needed "a course at charm school”; and most recently, Peggy Young, UPS truck driver, forced to take an unpaid leave while pregnant because she asked for a temporary reprieve from heavy lifting.

These unsung heroines’ victories, and those of the other women profiled in Gillian Thomas' Because of Sex, dismantled a “Mad Men” world where women could only hope to play supporting roles; where sexual harassment was “just the way things are”; and where pregnancy meant getting a pink slip.

Through first-person accounts and vivid narrative, Because of Sex tells the story of how one law, our highest court, and a few tenacious women changed the American workplace forever.’

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