It’s in the Wording

Recently I’ve begun noticing that sexism isn’t just in the way we act, but in how we make use of our language. There are several examples of phrases that I have come across lately that illustrate our culture’s views of the sexes and the roles proscribed to each. These constructs of language serve primarily to reinforce the notion that one group is superior to the other, to reinforce “the Western philosophical notion of hierarchical rule and coercive authority,” according to bell hooks.

One such phrase that I have heard time and again is that “so-and-so had the balls to do such-and-such.” Why should men’s genitalia be significant in whether or not someone is brave enough or determined enough to do something? Why are men’s genitalia linked to ability and strength and perseverance? The problem being that our culture in general does not equate women’s bodies with any of these qualities, but even so, why should we not use “guts” more often that “balls?” Why should we constantly be reiterating the idea that men are these qualities? Why not, if we’re going to refer to a body part, use one that is possessed by both genders?

Here, hooks might argue that putting ourselves on equal footing with men via this change in terminology still would not be enough. In response to this, several women I know have taken to using the term “ovaries” instead of “balls” in such situations, and I have noticed that this causes people pause when they hear it. They are taken aback by hearing the opposite of what they are expecting, and maybe – just maybe – it causes them to think about the origins of the predominant phrasing. I suppose one can only hope, right?

In addition, women are almost never referred to as women. Clothing companies predominantly label departments as “guys’” and “girls’,” but not “boys’,” or “young men’s” and “juniors’,” “men’s” and “ladies.” Why are we never called “women?” (The only time I have seen a department labeled “women’s” was when they were referring to so-called “plus sizes.”) In terms of these labels, women are not allowed to grow up. We are referred to as everything except women in the hopes that we will learn to conform to these labels, that we will continue to be subordinate to men, that we will be socialized to think that we are supposed to be small and helpless like children. Our culture sees calling a grown male “boy” as utterly insulting, but has no qualms about referring to a grown woman as “girl.” That’s considered normal, polite, or flattering even. Referring to a woman as a “lady,” in my opinion, is no better. It implies that she is expected to uphold all of the idealized qualities of a lady – to be quiet, docile, and obedient.

I see no ladies here.

hooks also discusses our definitions of family and parenthood and the idea that we reaffirm the “central tenets of male supremacist ideology” when we use terminology that suggests that women are better suited to family life and the domestic sphere. She talks of (and I have seen examples of) our language reinforcing the “stereotypical sexist notion that women are inherently better suited to parent” by saying that a good father is being “maternal” or that, to use one of her examples, a little boy acting the role of a caring parent with his dolls is being “maternal.”

In addition, she discusses the actual dictionary definitions of “father” and “mother” (and I have looked into these myself) and the implications of each. According to, to father, is to “To create, found, or originate, or to acknowledge responsibility for.” To mother is to “to give birth to; create and produce, or to watch over, nourish, and protect maternally.” Both these definitions support the notion that it is primarily mothers who are responsible for nurturing and care taking, which as hooks argues, just reinforces the ideals of patriarchal rule.

This usage of our language is dangerous to feminism’s cause and to the way in which women in our society are viewed, and it is details such as these that make oppression so difficult to eradicate. If we are not able to recognize that which perpetuates the process, we will not be able to rid ourselves of the effects. I have also noticed that people in general have no idea of the implications of their speech – it is just the way that things are said – and that is the worst aspect of all.

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