Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Never underestimate the power of language for feminism

Language is powerful. That's one of the tenets of postmodern feminism. Every time we speak, we have the opportunity to perpetuate stereotypes and patriarchy, or to reinforce them.

The case Dr. Lazar Greenfield, although extreme, illustrates the need for a careful choice of words, as language is also a sensitive issue and can easily be taken out of context.  Choosing the wrong words can have disastrous consequences that can haunt the speaker indefinitely.

Columnnist/Author Gail Collins
In her book, "When Everything Changed:  The amazing journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present," Gail Collins, a New York Times op-ed columnist, shares significant, postmodern feminist language victories from the 1970s.  Here is the excerpt from her book (emphasis mine:)

Thank you, Ben Bradlee
"Words mattered.  It was an enormous victory in 1970 when Ben Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post, told his reporters to stop using such words as 'blond' or 'divorcee' or 'grandmother' to describe women in news stories (The juror, a blond schoolteacher ....) 

"At the New York Times, Barbara Crossette spent her years on the news desk running a rearguard battle against those same unnecessary descriptions:  'Like a short, trim woman ...'where you knew there would never be a 'tall, slightly overweight man.''

"McGraw-Hill outlined an eleven-page policy in 1974 that warned editors about everything from use of the term 'the weaker sex' to cliches about nagging mother-in-laws.  But the longest, hardest battle involved the term 'Ms.'  There were few things that more vividly reflected the philosophy that women were important only in their relationship to men than the fact that they had to be identified as either 'Miss' or 'Mrs."

"If a reporter didn't know whether a woman was married, it was necessary to ask -- even if the person in question was lying dead of a gunshot wound or being awarded the Nobel Prize.

"'Ms.' had been employed in some business correspondence when a marital status wasn't known, and women lobbied to make it the one-size-fits-all equivalent of 'Mr.'  but the New York Times, which many people saw as a particularly critical standard for language style, held out.

"'To our ear, it still sounds to contrived for newswriting,' said the paper's language guru, William Safire, in 1984.

"In the same year, the Times ran a story about Gloria Steinem's fiftieth birthday party that reported proceeds from the dinner "will go to the Ms. Foundation  ... which publishes Ms. magazine, where Miss Steinem works as an editor.

"In 1986, Paula Kassell, a veteran journalist, brought ten shares of Times stock and went to the annual stockholders' meeting to plead the 'Ms.' issue with the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger ... Shortly after, Sulzberger wrote back, thanking her for raising the question and informing Kassell she need not press further; the women had won."

Today's Associated Press Stylebook, favored by many publications and news organizations, goes one step further:

Under "courtesy titles," AP style dictates, "Refer to both men and women by first and last name.  Use courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or in other situations."

Those situations are "when  it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name as in married couples or brothers and sisters ..." or "When a woman specifically requests it."

Fair enough.

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