And it makes me particularly happy when I see feminists exercising theirs.
It was with this in mind that I gave a workshop at the Melbourne Feminist Futures Conference earlier this year titled: Mincing words: Feminism and Semantics. It went down well, I reckon, and I was flattered to be asked by the editor of online publication 'The Scavenger' to adapt the workshop into article form. This proved trickier than I expected but they were very patient with me and, with some wonderful editing help from talented writer Meg Mundell, I finished it at last. It was published about a month ago & you can read the original here, or keep scrolling.
Warning! Long! Very loooong.
Speak For Yourself: A Call For Feminists To Sharpen Their Tongues
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and
liberation” – Angela Carter, author and feminist.
Language is a mercurial force as temperamental as a newborn child, constantly changing,
adapting and reacting to its environment. Individual words fatted up by the tongues of
many, in one time and place, can wither quickly into a state of anorexic weakness with the
passing of just a few years or a few miles. Words netted in popular culture by language
enthusiasts and carefully placed between dictionary pages can be made extinct before
they’ve even hit the library shelves – wiped out by one blockbuster movie or hit TV show
with a catchy catch-phrase.
It is little wonder then, given the wily and capricious nature of language, that some feminist
activists view the discussion of semantics as little more than an academic indulgence, an
intellectual game with little connection to the pressing realities of women’s lives. In fact
I believe it is the very intangibility, changeability and ubiquitousness of language which
evidence its great power, and rather than dismissing language as something which might be
toyed with as a secondary concern, we must move it to the forefront of our fight. Because
to put it in no uncertain terms: language as it is commonly used today is stifling the feminist
cause and it’s time we made an effort to change it.
Language is a barometer of a society’s beliefs; it reflects and supports the dominant culture
and by studying it we can gauge that society’s attitudes. In Australia today the word
considered the most offensive possible, a word deemed so objectionable that it is blanked
out of all major newspapers, is one which doubles to describe a part of the female anatomy.
Meanwhile the word ‘Slut’ is commonly understood to negatively describe a woman who
participates often in sex, yet there is no male equivalent for this term. ‘House-husband’
awkwardly raises eye-brows, while ‘house-wife’ is so clichéd all it can raise is a yawn. Even
this quick glance at the barometer of our language indicates that today’s social climate is a
worryingly patriarchal one.
The past year, however, has seen a revival of interest in feminism, spearheaded
by ‘Slutwalks’ across the (predominantly) western world. Some have expressed concern
that the walks are misdirecting the revival by employing the word ‘slut’, which they
see as a distraction from other more tangible legal and systemic concerns, which seem
more amenable to being grasped and altered in a concrete way. But language cannot be
separated from other issues and set to one side; it is with us every day, reflecting those
days and shaping them too. If we fail to address language issues then the power of language
will fall naturally into the hands of the dominant patriarchal culture, undermining any
other action we take. As author Ingrid Bengis said, 'Words are a form of action, capable
of influencing change'. Indeed, I believe that words are one of the most powerful forms of
action we have at our disposal today, and they are vital for tackling the particular new and
unique challenges faced by contemporary feminism.
We live at a time when many of the barriers to equality have become less overt. Women
now have the right to vote, sit in parliament, fight for the military and, in some areas of
Australia, exercise extensive control over their own reproductive systems. A large portion of
the solid blockades of the patriarchy appear to have been torn down, and opponents of the
feminist movement use this as evidence that ‘we now have equality’.
Of course, we do not; in the Australian parliament only 28.3% of members and senators
are women, just 9% of private board directorships are held by women, and the portion of
women’s sports coverage in the media is a grand total of 2%. The blockades are still there,
they’ve just become less glaring – assumptions and expectations of men and women are
now seldom decreed by law, but rather held in place by subtle but pervasive patterns of
language and communication, all the more insidious because they are not immediately
visible. Unfortunately low visibility does not decrease their power; it just makes them
harder to tackle. A woman considering applying for a position in a high paying non-
traditional field does not have the law to contend with, but she must struggle against the
burden of her co-workers’ expectations, and her own expectations to follow a ‘natural’ path
– which have been reinforced day in, day out, over her entire life, by language. Describe one
person as nurturing, caring, sweet and compliant and another as ambitious, strong-minded
and aggressive and it is near impossible not to make gender assumptions because the words
are used so predictably.
Some argue that the reason women don’t apply for, or aren’t successful in getting, certain
jobs, and the reason certain behavioural words have gendered connotations, is that men
and women are biologically geared to want different things and behave in different ways.
While there are a hundreds of possible words to describe most concepts and ideas, there
is just one which adequately sums up this argument: bullshit. In her book, ‘Delusions of
Gender’, Cordelia Fine quickly dispenses with assumptions about behavioural differences
caused by a ‘male’ or ‘female’ brain, stating that it is the social world which “entangles
minds – gendering the very sense of self, social perception, and behaviour that will then
seamlessly become once again part of the gendered world”. We hesitate to do things not
because we’re not capable of them but because we are indoctrinated with a strong and
erroneous idea of gender capabilities by the language of the patriarchal system. How can we
free ourselves from the limiting tangle of the social world, then, and is that even possible?
Perhaps we can begin by unpicking that which binds it together: language.
It is possible for disenfranchised sections of society to take control of aspects of language
for their own ends. Examples of words which have been actively appropriated by and within
communities and have had the effect of galvanising and strengthening those communities
and helping them to build positive senses of self-identity are the ‘n-word’, ‘queer’
and ‘wog’. Even with these positive examples, many still view the idea of taking control of
the capricious thing that is language as a near-impossible task. Following the Slutwalk in
Melbourne, many internet commentators seemed bemused as to what ‘the point’ of all
this banner waving and word reclaiming was, arguing that it wasn’t likely to stop people
from using the word in spite. And the thing is, it probably won’t. Nor would more drastic
measures such as enforced censorship have much effect; language is a wily force, and
breezes past such obstacles like wind through a chain-link fence, which is why we’re all
familiar with the word ‘cunt’ though (and perhaps to some extent because) it is forbidden in
so many realms.
The fact that we’re not able to halt the distribution of words is certainly no reason to
despair, because the happy news is, no force can dictate how words are absorbed – we each
experience language in our own unique way, just as we all perceive the world in our own
way. I say the word ‘dog’ and one person will imagine a border collie, another a Chihuahua,
a poodle, or perhaps a sausage in bread. Say the word ‘cunt’ and I perceive something
entirely wonderful but apparently most people aren’t seeing what I do. The Slutwalks may
well have done little to change the wider community’s attitude towards women who engage
in frequent sexual activity; it may have provided no disincentive for individuals who have
used the word from doing so in the future with the intention of shaming and insulting.
However, what it did do was galvanise a group of women who declared that they were no
longer going to absorb this word and internalise the concept it denotes as an insult. The
sight of women across the globe marching and shouting this out gave women support and
strength to enable them to deflect the blow of this word if ever it was hurled their way. It
increased their immunity to the patriarchal mindset – the invisible barrier which holds so
many women back from expressing behaviours and pursuing paths which men never think
A couple of years ago I was sitting in a bar with a female friend when a guy came up and
asked if he could join us. We were deep in conversation and told him so. “Ya fuckin’ stuck up
cunts,” he spat, hovering over us. My friend laughed, “Well yes, we are deep and powerful,
thank you.” The guy looked confused for a moment, then stalked off and we continued
our conversation. A word which was intended to hurt us or piss us off careened out of his
mouth, pirouetted in mid air and landed daintily in our ears having taken on an entirely
different form because we found nothing remotely offensive about female genitalia and
had the tacit support of each other in our interpretation of the word. A word delivered with
hatred was rendered benign by our interpretation.
That is what taking back the power of language is: it is diffusing potentially hurtful words
by analysing our reactions to them, and how they fit into or reflect our views – then
finding other people to connect with and support who share our views, who truly speak
our language. And once we have taken that power, and made benign all those hidden
patriarchal blockades, who knows what we may achieve? As author Rita Mae Brown once
said, “Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides”. Ignore that power in the
current climate and we’ll be allowing women to be washed out to sea, but learn to harness
it and all the waves of feminism might at last come together to change the shape of our