One of the things that we sometimes discuss in my Women’s Studies classes is the issue of language. Many feminists critique the use of “man” or “mankind” to refer to men and women, the use of “he” as a generic pronoun, etc. Feminists argue that inequality in language occurs on a spectrum of related discriminations, and you can’t eliminate all discrimination if you don’t address all the contributing practices (including things that may seem inconsequential, such as using the term “mankind”). I see a lot of resistance in my classes to this argument. The students recognize that there’s an inequality in language use, but they just don’t see why it matters. According to them, this language doesn’t hurt anyone. Many of the female students in my classes admit that it’s not something that offends them, and so they don’t see why we need to change our language use.
The first issue at stake when thinking about problematic gendered language is trying to determine the true power of words. Most of us are probably familiar with the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Though this rhyme points to the fact that words cannot do actual, physical damage to an individual, I would posit that power encompasses more than the ability to inflict physical damage.
Certainly there is the consideration that words can be used as a tool of emotional abuse, and while it is understandably much harder to determine and measure than its physical and sexual counterparts, it is a legitimate concern. If everyone tells a child her whole life that she is stupid and no good, it’s most likely going to cause some serious problems in her life. However, a lot of discriminatory language is not easily identifiable as emotional abuse (take, for example, “mankind”), so I would argue that we need to think about the power of words in ways that do more than measure “hurt.” To make this point, I will tell a story about my lovely fiance.
There is a on-line translation service called Regender. It is a site that will take any on-line webpage and switch all the words that reference a specific sex or gender to their opposite. For example, regender.com would “translate” the sentence “the woman went to the store with her two children” to “the man went to the store with his two children.” The other day, I decided to look up some conference talks using this site, and I ended up reading the following two paragraphs from James E. Faust’s Womanhood: The Highest Place of Honor, a talk given at the April 2000 General YW meeting, to my fiance (warning: these paragraphs have been “regendered”):
I wonder if you brothers fully understand the greatness of your gifts and talents and how all of you can achieve the “highest place of honor” in the Church and in the world. One of your unique, precious, and sublime gifts is your masculinity, with its natural grace, goodness, and divinity. Masculinity is not just lipstick, stylish hairdos, and trendy clothes. It is the divine adornment of humanity. It finds expression in your qualities of your capacity to love, your spirituality, delicacy, radiance, sensitivity, creativity, charm, graciousness, gentleness, dignity, and quiet strength. It is manifest differently in each boy or man, but each of you possesses it. Masculinity is part of your inner beauty.
One of your particular gifts is your masculine intuition. Do not limit yourselves. As you seek to know the will of our Heavenly Mother in your life and become more spiritual, you will be far more attractive, even irresistible. You can use your smiling loveliness to bless those you love and all you meet, and spread great joy. Masculinity is part of the Goddess-given divinity within each of you. It is your incomparable power and influence to do good. You can, through your supernal gifts, bless the lives of children, men, and women. Be proud of your manhood. Enhance it. Use it to serve others.
My finace’s response was noteworthy. Rather than laughing at the combination of “masculinity” and “smiling loveliness” (hey, it made me chuckle), he listened to the paragraphs as if someone had actually spoken them to him in a serious context (i.e. he was a young man at a General YM meeting, and he was hearing these words from an Apostle). His response was something along the lines of, “If I had been spoken to in this way for all of my life, I think I would be a very different person.”
While I am sure that most of us are aware of the limitations of words and language, they are, nonetheless, the way we make meaning of our daily existence. Words have particular linguistic and cultural meanings, and those meanings mediate how we understand the events in our lives; they have the power to shape how we interact with the world. While they are not the sum of our experience, they have the power to affect our reality. When certain words are used repeatedly to interpret our experience, and we are not given alternate choices, we generally accept the words we’ve been given. When we are talked to in certain ways (as my fiance observed), we may not embrace those words, but we will be affected by them.
The second issue at stake when thinking about problematic gendered language is whether or not we should have a hierarchy of concerns. In other words, aren’t there issues more important than fixing the way that everyone talks and writes? Shouldn’t we focus on sexual violence or poverty? Don’t these concerns have a higher priority?
The hierarchy of “cultural” (or “linguistic) and “material” (or “real”) concerns has been widely debated in leftist circles. In Merely Cultural, Judith Butler asks the question, “is it possible to distinguish, even analytically, between a lack of cultural recognition and a material oppression, when by the very definition of legal ‘personhood’ is rigorously circumscribed by cultural norms that are indissociable from their material effects?” (41). (The implicit answer to her question is “no.”) While Nancy Fraser, in Justice Interrupts: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition, argues that we should focus on the “cultural” battles (Fraser’s term: “politics of recognition”) that also affect “material” conditions (Fraser’s term: “politics of redistribution”), both Butler and Fraser make different but compelling arguments that in order to address material redistribution (or “real inequality”), one must address problems with language, culture, and representation.
To illustrate this with an example, when we think about the issues of rape and sexual violence, feminists are quick to make the point that when culture and the media and members of their society refer to women and their bodies as objects (just look at advertising to find an incredible number of examples), it helps create a mindset that women are objects and can be treated as such. While I’m not arguing that the media causes sexual violence, how we choose to represent the meaning of women’s bodies (especially in areas of culture that are as pervasive as advertising) is going to affect how we interact with these bodies on a daily basis. And this goes for both men and women.
So, here’s the part of the post when I consider what this all means for how we use language in the church, particularly when it comes to gender. On one hand, there’s the problem of ambiguity (as pointed out to me by Katya, one of the other ZD bloggers). She writes,
One [issue with gendered language in the church] is an overuse of masculine pronouns when the counsel/statement is actually meant to apply to both genders. In a church where gender roles are very strongly emphasized, you can’t fall back on the excuse that women are contextually going to understand when they’re included in a statement. (Or, even worse, it speaks to the idea that the men are the only ones worth talking to, and that women are either saved peripherally, or automatically, ’cause we’re just so darn spiritual, already.)
Another problem is the one that the regendered Faust talk makes apparent: the ways we do talk to men and women differently in the church can be either limiting or problematic. While I am not the be-all and end-all of women’s experiences in the church (they are so varied, which is wonderful), for a long time I thought there was something wrong with me for loving school as much as I did. When I heard talks like the one by Elder Faust, I figured it was “proper” for me to be gracious and to desire children, but I thought it was “improper” of me to be smart and academic. There were no priesthood leaders in my vicinity saying “girls get an education and be strong and smart because knowledge is important and God’s plan is one of eternal learning.” There was no official language in the church to describe who I was and what was most important to me. Additionally, I am a woman with a number of “masculine” virtues–intellectualism, rationality, and a strong drive to accomplish things in the world (outside of my family). I thought for the longest time I was a defective woman because these virtues don’t show up in models of virtuous womanhood.
The words we use, and the way we use these words matter. We do not have the discerning power of God, who knows the thoughts and intents of hearts. We must communicate our beliefs through words, and the words we choose to use have power. They shape our reality, experiences, and how we understand our divine roles as sons and daughters in the plan of our Heavenly Father.