flushing the sneaky sexism out of language and talking feminist
Veteran Feminists of America


Why are women—particularly feminists—still using attachments to a word to denote “female”? Wrong wrong offensive! Those attachments are diminutives, defining such as heroine as “a female hero.” Aside from in this case Hero being a woman (Leander the man), why on earth are we still being defined as subsets of men?


1976 saw “Words and Women” followed in 1980 by “The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing,” both coauthored by Casey Miller and Kate Swift. Now here comes Rosalie Maggio—who’s written marvelous books on the subject of sexist vocabulary and how to avoid it—in the first of a series of articles designed to get the right word out. We’ve won lots of battles and lost a few; language may just be our last uncharted frontier.


We’ll be having a monthly follow-up column with members’ responses to the previous month’s article, so if you have any thoughts, questions, even disagreements about the topic, please send them to womansvoice123@gmail.com
Joan Michel


LionMotherLike many women reading the otherwise quite fabulous interview with Gloria Steinem in the Los Angeles Times (March 6, 2010), I was stopped by the use of “lioness” to describe Steinem (the reference being to March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb). As soon as you have to fix a well-known expression to accommodate a woman, flags should go down on the play. By bringing to mind the substitute expression (March coming in like a lioness and going out like a lamb), you get into “cute” and you accent gender. It’s not the real proverb, but it’s sort of like it.


If that’s good enough for you, it isn’t for me. Unless you need to specify gender (talking about the old lion Fraser, who fathered so many lion cubs, for example, or about Elsa the lioness of story), “lion” will do the trick. By using the base word, expressions like “lion’s share” are also inclusive. (What? The lioness’s share?)


LionFeminine word endings (-ess, -ette, -trix, -ine) specify a person’s sex when it is irrelevant. They also carry a demeaning sense of littleness or triviality (Rush Limbaugh derides women who succeed in traditionally male-dominated professions as “professorettes” and “lawyerettes”). Which would you rather have, a kitchen or a kitchenette? I’m not saying a kitchenette isn’t great, but it is certainly different from a kitchen.


Most important, these ending perpetuate the notion that the male is the norm and the female is a subset, a deviation, a secondary classification. A poet is defined as “one who writes poetry” while a poetess is defined as “a female poet”; men are thus “the real thing” and women are sort of like them. The recommended procedure is to use the base word for both sexes (thus, “waiter” instead of “waitress,” “executor” instead of “executrix”). Rosalie Maggio


Rosalie MaggioOf Sicilian heritage, ROSALIE MAGGIO was born in Texas, grew up in Fort Dodge, IA, and today lives in Pine Mountain, CA. With her seven fratelli e sorella, her best friends, she has recently co-authored “Pieces of Eight,” a memoir of anecdotes from their past and e-mail exchanges from their collective present. A graduate of The College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, MN, Rosalie is married to David Koskenmaki and the proud mother of three. She reads hundreds of books every year and her hobbies include a daily walk in the woods and collecting inkwells. Among her 20 books of particular interest to feminists are the “Dictionary of Bias-Free Usage: A Guide to Nondiscriminatory Language,” “The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women,” “An Impulse to Soar: Quotations by Women on Leadership,” “Talking About People: A Guide to Fair and Accurate Language,” “Quotations from Women on Life”, “How to Say It,” “Nonsexist Wordfinder: A Dictionary of Gender-Free Usage.” Coming soon is “Unspinning the Spin.”


More about her at www.rosaliemaggio.com 


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