Books · Gender · GSRM/LGBTQIA

English for girls

Womanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal SocietyWomanwords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Patriarchal Society by Jane Mills
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Maria Black and Rosalind Coward argue… there is a discourse available to men of masculine sexuality as well as one ‘which allows them to represent themselves as people, humanity, mankind. This discourse, by its very existence, excludes and marginalises women by making women the sex'”

This book is very scholarly, tracing the origin and development of words over many centuries, when their meanings often changed completely or reversed. I defy any reader not to find something interesting here, but on the other hand I would be surprised to hear a reader declare they were gripped from start to finish.

Mills’ text is concerned to examine the sexist use of language, such as the tendency for women-specific terms to perjorate and be used to condemn sexual behaviour in some way. Mills emphasises repeatedly though that ‘language cannot be sexist, linguists are sexist’ and says that feminist attempts to reclaim terms like bitch ‘ignore the intention of the speaker, who can always be sexist’. She puts us at the mercy of language, which sometimes annoys me a little.

The entries on gossip and chatter interested me particularly, maybe because they were recently discussed by Flavia Dzodan and others on Twitter

Mills quotes

“Women’s talk is not subversive per se: it becomes subversive when women begin to attach importance to it and privilege it over their interactions with men… Men trivialize the talk of women not because they are afraid of such talk, but in order to make women themselves downgrade it. If women feel that all interaction with other women is a poor substitute for mixed interaction and trivial compared with the profundities of men’s talk, their conversations will indeed be harmless” (Deborah Cameron, Feminism & Linguistic Theory, 1985)

And contrastingly

“Gossip can determine who is within the protection of society and restrict other women from moving over into self-determination… It is specifically directed against any manifestation of liberation, sexual or otherwise, and is designed to prevent women scabs from taking on the powers of men” (Sheila Rowbotham, Dreams and Dilemmas, 1983)

The limits of the book are its restriction to White North American and British lived realities. Terms like ‘women’, ‘feminine’ ‘female’, ‘lady’ receive plenty of attention and we see how they are contructed against man and maleness, but not how they are constructed against Blackness, standing on and denigrating Black women and erasing their experience. Mills acknowledges, in the discussion of the word ‘frail’ (which relates to the construction of the White female body as a disabled body) that “Working-class women, of course, were not considered feminine precisely because they worked”, leaving a glaring absence of attention to the racist constructions that enabled exploitation of Black female bodies for reproductive and manual labour. Mills has done a lot of research but neglected the work of Black feminists/womanists and other feminists of Colour.

In the discussion of the word ‘maiden’ she notes that in the 18th century women began to take their husbands first names as well as their family names, and that feminists resisted. Elizabeth Cady Stanton 1815-1902: “Ask our coloured brethren if there is nothing in a name. Why are the slaves nameless unless they take of their master? Simply because they have no independent existence… The custom of calling women Mrs John This and Mrs Tom That, and coloured men Sambo and Zip Coon, is founded on the principle that white men are lords of all. I cannot acknowledge this principle is just; therefore, I cannot bear the name of another”

This hints at the potential of feminism as a movement against all oppression and in solidarity with other struggles, but also at the possibility for appropriation and derailing…

There is an agreeable amount of space given throughout the book to compulsory heterosexuality, lesbianism and the choices of women not to involve men in their sexual lives or sex in their love-lives. But there is never the faintest inkling of a shadow of an idea that a woman may not have a vagina…

A handful of other things I noticed:

Mills draws attention to the physical reality of the chastity belt, often joked about, but on reflection a disgusting instrument of torture.

“To Marxists ever since [Engels], matriarchy has been defined as an egalitarian, pre-class society in which women and men share equally in production and power.”

Paraphernalia has a Greek origin and referred legally to a woman’s property excluding her dowry, over which husband has no rights.

The word uxorious, meaning excessively loving of one’s wife, OF COURSE has no male equivalent

On ‘tomboy’: “where is the word that would bring to mind a lively spirited girl without the subliminal implication of imitation or penis envy?”

And a candidate for reclamation: muliebrity, the feminine version of ‘virility’, denoting the ‘powers of womanhood’. What are they? What would we like them to be?

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