Speaking Up: Understanding Language and Gender

Speaking Up: Understanding Language and Gender

by Allyson Jule


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783099597
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 08/01/2018
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.82(h) x 0.35(d)

About the Author

Allyson Jule is an academic specialising in the interaction between language and gender. She is Co-Director of the Gender Studies Institute, Trinity Western University, Canada and an associate of the University of Oxford's International Gender Studies Centre. She has published widely, and her work has featured in TIME magazine and The Ladies Home Journal.

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The Basics

I don't know why people are so reluctant to say they're feminists. Could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when 'feminism' is a bad word?

Ellen Page

Gender roles and behaviors have interested me my whole life. I grew up with an older brother and sister and, like everyone else, my early life experiences were heavily influenced by the sex I was born with. In my cultural context, this meant that I had a pink bedroom and was absolutely delighted to receive Barbie dolls for Christmas. My mother was a nurse, a good cook and an attentive homemaker; my father 'went to work', cut the grass and took care of the car. In short, I grew up with stereotypical gender modeling around me. Until I came to recognize the assumptions embedded within the gender distinctions that these models presented, I saw being a girl as unproblematic. After all, I liked Barbie dolls – as did my sister. We felt no oppression. My life goal to be a language teacher seemed very possible and realistic. Without extraordinary effort, I qualified as a teacher in due course. In many ways I am a 'typical' woman: I am married to a man, I have children, I like to decorate and read, and I have chosen a profession easily open to women: education. Would these realities have been the same had I been born male or not straight? Perhaps. Likely not.

The lived realities of being female, feminine, male or masculine is central here in relation to language use. There are two reasons why I am writing this book on gender and language use. One is that being formed, rehearsed and rewarded by my culture into performances of gender and gendered life choices predicts lives like mine. This universal human reality (that we are deeply connected to our communities through our genderedness) is in and of itself reason enough to consider the complexities and the implications of gender. The second reason is that rehearsals into genderedness are most fascinatingly revealed in language use, language tendencies and language patterns. An interest in the relationship of language use and one's gender emerged from my experiences as a classroom language teacher. I noticed over the years that the boys and girls in my classrooms were having quite distinct experiences and were preparing for different possibilities for future experiences.

One example of gendered tendencies as expressed in language use is the way I have begun to write this book. I have already used a gendered tendency by using personal anecdote. This is the writing 'voice' I am most comfortable using. Why might this be? Apparently, this personal revelation style is something understood by my society as 'feminine' because it is viewed as relatable and accessible. (In 1990, Deborah Tannen identified this as 'relational' talk.) This relational style might serve my purposes here quite well – to draw you in by making you feel a personal connection; or it might limit my authority by undermining the legitimacy of what I might have to say. In other words, this style interacts with each reader in a unique way. But regardless, my performance of gender and its particular recognition by you, the reader, matters a great deal to my message: how we speak reveals our gendered tendencies, and it also continues to perpetuate these tendencies. Your reaction to this style of relational writing tells us something about you, too. You might expect me to write in a certain way because I am an academic. Importantly, these gendered roles have less to do with which sex we were born with and more to do with our surrounding society's values, norms, and expectations of each sex.

In this book, I seek to introduce you to the exciting world of language use (both its powers and its limitations) through and with the lens of gendered expectations. My hope is that this beginner's guide will be accessible as well as engaging for you, and that it will inspire you to continue to explore and reflect on the ways gender identities impact our communication and how our language use impacts our performances of gender. Gender is a major part of who we are and why we behave in certain ways, and so it is worthwhile to consider the many places that gender and language intersect. This first chapter addresses the development of the academic field known as 'Gender, Sexuality and Language'. What follows is a discussion of key concepts and terminology used in the field.

Feminism: A Quick Review

The Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism as 'the policy, practice, or advocacy of the political, economic and social equality for women'. This definition is helpful enough but there are strong connotations around the word 'feminism' that a dictionary definition cannot adequately explore. Today's feminism is a diverse phenomenon with a very long history. The current field includes three main camps:

1. Liberal feminism which seeks primarily to watch and comment on society's portrayal of women as indicative of society's patriarchal attitudes and values.

2. Socialist feminism which sees patriarchy alongside social class issues of dominance and power and in need of challenge.

3. Radical feminism which views women as oppressed and seeks to challenge power relations that exist between women and men.

Intersectional feminism is also important to understand because of the various identities we all have, including our gender, sexual identity as well as race, social class, nationality, socio-economic status, etc.

This book comes from a liberal feminist position because its main aim is to comment on society's portrayal of gender. Other variations include, among many others, psychoanalytic feminism, queer feminism, post-modern feminism, Islamic feminism, Jewish feminism, Christian feminism and post-structural feminism.

Feminism is a bedrock in Women's Studies and or Gender Studies within academia, but it is also a specialty area within other academic disciplines like Education, the Humanities, Fine Arts, Health Sciences and within all the Social Sciences, including Anthropology, Linguistics, Communications and Psychology. Some feminist scholars explore gendered ways of speaking, learning, thinking, writing, creating, performing and counseling as well as investigate gender-specific health or medical concerns, family and domestic realities, and legal rights and access to representation. There are also those focused on the rewriting of history to include women as well as those searching out new female stories and novel ways to write them. Some examine literary theory and the way women and women's lives are seen in literature and art, as well as the ways women have used literature and language to shed light on their experiences as women. There are a multitude of ways feminism intersects with a host of academic discussions.

Because of the various strands and understandings of feminism, the word is extremely difficult to define. It is better to refer to it as plural: feminisms. We can only try to pick out some common characteristics of the varieties of feminism. Most are, at least sometimes, critiques of patriarchy (the hierarchy of the male) or critiques of misogyny (the hatred of the female). It may be safe to say that all feminisms are a disenchantment of some sort with an androcentric society, one which sees the male experience as the central point of reference of 'the norm', while the female experience is what is 'marked', what is different, what is not 'norm' and what is seen as 'other'.

There are many examples of how patriarchy is revealed in language use. For example, the word 'waiter' is perceived as the 'norm' or the 'unmarked' word used in our everyday language, while 'waitress' is the marked variation – it is a change from the 'norm'. The use of the word 'waitress' highlights the server as different from a waiter; this is what is meant by 'marked'. In educational theory, Swiss theorist, Jean Piaget, based his theory of social development on boys thus privileging the male experience as the 'norm', or, that which is presented and understood as universal: there were no girls in Piaget's research. Feminisms are concerned with the ways these kinds of assumptions in society exist and search for ways they can be interrupted and interrogated for the sake of those born – or who identify as – female. Feminisms explore the effects of assumed privilege, examine and expose these outcomes in a quest for reasonable accountability, and pursue basic social justice and human rights. Feminisms seek out which voices and stories get heard in society and which do not, including in the realms of politics, academia, classrooms, churches and families. Feminisms concern themselves with the perceived inferiority of women and the discrimination women encounter because of their sex and because of assumptions about femininity itself, while some women themselves collude in the perpetuation of these attitudes.

Especially in the latter half of the 20th century, feminisms have also been characterized by major American movements like the Equal Rights Amendment and the National Organization of Women. These mid-century American incarnations of feminisms (and other similar efforts in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and around the world) insisted that women be free to pursue careers and economic independence as well as to have freedom from any male-based oppression in their personal or workplace relationships. This particular wave of feminism in the West (the second wave) followed closely on the heels of the 1950s post-war era, a decade with a heavy domestic emphasis. The 1960s and 1970s was a uniquely potent period for the realignment of established attitudes, including (but not limited to) those surrounding gender roles. Indeed, the period hosted a plethora of anti-establishment movements. The entire era in the United States was framed by the anti-Vietnam war protests and the fight for Civil Rights. Feminism as experienced in the 1960s was inspired by consciousness raising groups where women gathered together to question and reject their restrictive role in society. These baby-boomers (those born between 1945 and 1964) propelled an unprecedented revolution regarding social roles, politics, religion, affluence, philosophy and the politics of war and peace. Challenging sex/gender roles was a part of these other societal shifts. The 1960s and its sexual revolution challenged the traditional models of male-female relationships.

By the 1970s and 1980s, Western societies saw many resulting legal reforms, such as equal pay for equal work, more accessible divorce laws, more legal access to abortion, increased day care options, and more affirmative action in both the workplace and in educational opportunities. Quite rightly, many societies have a lot to thank second wave feminism for in regards to the improvement in much of women's freedom – particularly in the West. The issue of women and their lives on the margins of power entered the social consciousness and changed enormously in the workforce, in university programs, in the literary canon and in family dynamics.

Importantly, the notion of feminism itself must be understood as much, much older than the second wave incarnation; the study of and concern for women and women's experiences reaches much further back. Major early feminist thinkers include England's Mary Wollstonecraft who, as an extension of the Enlightenment movement in general, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Wollstonecraft criticized the lack of rigorous education for girls in 18th century England as related to their weaker positions in society. She believed that women couldn't possibly hold positions of power if they lacked the training to do so. She saw it as imperative that society educate its women. American Sarah Moore Grimké wrote Letters on the Equality of the Sexes in the early 1800s. In 1843, Sojourner Truth gave her 'Ain't I a Woman?' speech as part of the emerging feminist movement in and around New York State. American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote The Woman's Bible in 1895, a document offering a woman's perspective on Biblical events. There were also various writers from the Women's Christian Temperance Movement who established the YWCA and influenced major prison reforms throughout the British Empire, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, among many other nations around the world. Britain's Emmeline Pankhurst and her universal suffrage movement promoted the vote for British women. The Suffrage movement took at least 50 years to successfully secure voting rights for women; this movement is known as 'the first wave'. In many ways, this wave also includes those who focused on women's service and experience in the two world wars and between the wars, such as the flappers in the jazz age and the Depression Era reforms led by American Eleanor Roosevelt. England's Virginia Woolf's feminist lectures to the University of Cambridge's Girton Ladies College, compiled in A Room of One's Own, was published in 1928. France's Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in 1949. Both of these texts became foundational to later efforts to promote equality among the sexes.

All these women and a host of others were established as major world writers, thinkers and politicians long before 1960s feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem championed feminism for white, upper middle class, suburban American women. The second wave centered itself in many ways on the boredom such women were experiencing. Allison Pease (2012) addresses this phenomenon as 'the culture of boredom', in which the search for meaning became a central premise. This 'practice of self-reflection' created desire but with no clear object or objective. There is a lingering view of feminism as both political and militant. This opinion is a direct result of the perception of how the feminists of the 1960s advocated for equality. This perceived militancy has detracted many potential feminists (i.e. anyone who believes in the innate equality of women and men) from encountering the more robust literature that highlights how critical feminism has been around the world. Feminism continues to debate significant issues unique to (or almost always uniquely centered on) women: rape, domestic violence, pornography, prostitution, female circumcision, self-harm, dowry crimes, or women's rights to education or legal protection. Anyone connected to academia today recognizes the basic gifts of feminist thought to our daily lives.

The patriarchal system entrenched in Western society can be seen in the work of early 20th century thinkers, such as Otto Jespersen (1922). He suggested that women spoke in ways different from men because they were simply unable to speak in strong, coherent sentences or with an extensive vocabulary. He believed that the greatest orators of history were men because of innate abilities in them that were rarely found in women. This was the prevalent view at the time. However, it was not the only view. There were many individuals who suggested various reasons for the perceived discrepancies between the ways in which women and men wrote and spoke. Virginia Woolf (1928), in A Room of One's Own, suggested that women's absence from positions of power had to do with the lack of opportunity for women to assume those positions and not with an innate weakness in those born female. In other words, women were not innately unable to be innovative or sophisticated in thought or language; however, they lacked the educational and economic opportunities that were available to men.

Sex and Gender

Important to mention is what gender is understood to be and how it is distinct from sex. For most people, our sex is determined by being born male or female. However, our gender refers to the ways in which masculinity and femininity are enacted; gender is a social construct, a set of behaviors, related to our sex but quite distinct from it. Our sex affects how we interact with the world because of what is linked to it (for example, the capacity to give birth) and what is associated with the linking of 'maleness' and 'femaleness' to those around us. Sex is, therefore, related to gender but it is not the same thing. The current debates surrounding one's sexual identity as distinct from one's biological sex are centered around this very reality. Gender is a social category of behavior and is not an innate feature. It is, however, strongly associated with the social divisions made on the basis of sex. Meanwhile, language plays a major role in establishing and sustaining these divisions. Though the word 'gender' is also a grammatical category in some languages (such as the 'masculine' or 'feminine' used for syntactic meaning in such languages as French), the social sciences use the concept of gender as a social category. 'Masculine' and 'feminine' are understood as behavioral categories usually – but not necessarily – ascribed to and aligned with those born with the correlative sex. Those born male are associated with, or perhaps are compelled to embody, behaviors that are perceived and understood as masculine, while those born female are associated with, or are compelled to embody, behaviors that are perceived and understood by society as feminine.


Excerpted from "Speaking Up"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Allyson Jule.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue, ix,
I: Understanding Gender and Language Use,
1 The Basics, 3,
2 Language as Gendered, 19,
II: Understanding Gender and Language Use in the World,
3 Gender and Language Use in the Media and Technology, 35,
4 Gender and Language Use in Education, 53,
5 Gender and Language Use in the Workplace, 68,
6 Gender and Language Use in Religion: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, 78,
7 Gender and Language Use in Relationships, 89,
8 An Anti-Conclusion, 98,
Glossary, 102,
References, 109,
Index, 123,

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