Feminist scholarship: a classic oxymoron?

By Antonia Feitz
web posted October 18, 1999

A few years ago, a feminist who objected to my defence of generic 'man' gave me an article to read. She was confident that it would enlighten me about a bias against women which men have structured into the English language, and which allegedly makes women 'invisible'. If the arguments in that article are representative of feminist linguistics, then Femspeak hasn't got an intellectual leg to stand on. (It was an incomplete photocopy with no bibliographical citation - tch, tch!)

While the article was rich in speculation, it offered little in the way of substantiation for its sweeping generalizations. For example the author wrote, "The evidence for the relationship between sexism and language, and males, has been largely circumstantial: there is sexism in the language, it does enhance the position of males, and males have had control over the production of cultural forms. It therefore seems credible to assume that males have encoded sexism into the language to consolidate their claims of male supremacy."

It does? Really? On the basis of emphasizing verbs with italics? To my mind, the emphasis on italics indicates a rather shaky if not even desperate intellectual foundation. Nevertheless she continued, "It could be said that out of nowhere we invented sexism, we created the arbitrary and approximate categories of male-as-norm and female as deviant. A most original, imaginative creation."

Really? We (males?) invented sexism just like we invented the wheel? Or the internal combustion engine? It sounds rather far-fetched. At what stage of development did somebody - some man - have the bright idea not only to invent sexism, but to encode it secretly into the language? Was it a Cro-Magnon man? An ancient Assyrian? And were all languages so encoded? They must have been, because feminist linguistics alleges a universal patriarchal oppression, structured into language itself.

Was this a once-off invention that spread? Or was it invented independently across the world at different times? And what were women doing while all these dastardly males were "creating the world, inventing the categories, constructing sexism and its justification, and developing a language trap which was in their interest." Oh, and in their spare time, producing "language, thought and reality."

Whew! With the men engaged in such weighty matters it is no wonder women have always had to look after the kids! The author then claimed that "in this process women have played little or no part." Why so? Were females still talking in grunts perhaps while their obviously intellectually superior menfolk were taking over all human languages and encoding them for sexism? Is this scenario really tenable? After all, it has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that compared with males, females generally have superior verbal skills. Why should the sex which is superior in language be taken for a linguistic ride?

There's nothing wrong with speculation. Backed up. James Tipler's "The Physics of Immortality" asserts that we will all be raised to eternal life on the Last Day as computer emulations. Now that's speculation! He presented his arguments with very little jargon, and included a long appendix for scientists, providing the mathematical proof for his speculations. And he explicitly invited criticism from his peers.

Tipler's intellectual hospitality is in marked contrast to feminist speculative theorists who assert propositions, provide little evidence, and routinely dismiss criticism as being of little consequence because the critics have not been enlightened. This is a most revealing aspect of feminism: that it depends not on evidence, but on a consciousness-raising more akin to religious conversion.

When the vast majority of men have learned their languages at their mothers' breasts, it is simply not credible to speculate that males could have taken command of language and then subverted it for devious purposes. Such an idea can only thrive in a feminist fantasyland. The only real attempt at substantiating these wild speculations comes from a theory of linguistic determinism which asserts that, "it is language which determines the limits of our world, which constructs our reality."

However determinism in linguistics is no different from determinism in any other discipline. In fact, it is usually an intellectual fault line, and linguists are in no way unanimous in accepting the deterministic theory associated with Benjamin Whorf. To many of his critics, Whorf sets the cart before the horse. For example, the author points out that there is no one word in the English language for a strong female, and deduces that this is one of the "distortions and omissions" of English which females do not notice because of the sexist language trap. This "omission" allegedly limits women's understanding of themselves.

But this is either an ignorant or a mischievous understanding of language. To liberally paraphrase Michael Levin, there is no one word in the English language for 'space shuttle', or 'happy birthday' either, but we perfectly understand what's meant by those two-word phrases. So why complain that there is no one word for a strong female? It is a bit precious, isn't it? It is a bit paranoid too.

Move over semantics, come in structure! To the author, the use of generic 'man' and the grammatical convention of using 'he' to function as a general or indeterminate pronoun are examples of sexist linguistic structures which make women invisible and makes language ambiguous for them. She wrote, "The rationalization that 'man embraces woman' is a relatively recent one in the history of our language. It was a practice that was virtually unknown in the fifteenth century."

Wrong. As "A Feminist Dictionary" says, "The word 'man' has been making confusion in many respects for more than a thousand years." Oops. Unfortunately for feminists, generic 'man' is still used without any embarrassment by the hoi polloi. You can find him in TV guides and newspapers ("Mankind on Mars" headlines). He was the emotional highpoint of the movie, "Independence Day", when the President exhorted 'mankind' to do battle with the aliens. But despite being alive and well among the plebs, generic 'man' has been banned by decree from universities, governments, bureaucracies, religious congregations, etc. That list says it all.

Another argument against man's alleged ambiguity is that there has been no organic change in the language to justify the new exclusive meaning. On the contrary, the change has been decreed from on high, by a privileged elite which absurdly claims to be oppressed.

But government interference in languages has a bad record. During France's Reign of Terror, everybody became 'citizen', and in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, everybody became 'comrade'. Feminists are not in good company here. As Michael Levin wrote, "enforced ideological linguistic reform has been tried before, and failed. ... The ordinary worker may be officially entitled to address the First Secretary of the Party as 'comrade', but that has not made them friends or equals in any substantial way. ... The failure of 'comrade' and 'citizen' to induce political equality suggests that language does not and cannot shape thought in the manner or to the extent supposed by egalitarian reformers." Too right it can't.

And now my favourite bit - grammar. The author wrote,"The seal was set on male superiority, however, when in 1746 John Kirkby formulated his 'Eighty Eight Grammatical Rules'. These rules, the product of Mr. Kirkby's own imagination, contained one that indicated the esteem in which he held females: Rule Number Twenty One stated that the male gender was more comprehensive than the female."

She has understood this to mean that, "Mr Kirkby believed that each man represented much more than each woman." This conclusion displays gross and stunning ignorance. For a start, she obviously has no understanding of the technical meanings of the words 'gender' and 'comprehensive' in grammar. Secondly, grammatical gender has nothing to do with sex, so a grammatical rule about gender can in no way indicate either esteem for females nor lack of it.

French, Italian and Irish have two genders. Latin, Russian and German have three. English is pretty well genderless, and perhaps this is where the confusion has arisen with gender/sex. What can be deduced from this? While one could speculate both as to the meaning of gender among different languages, and also as to the meaning of gender within any particular language, for the purpose at hand it is reasonable to accept that gender is an arbitrary division of nouns within a language.

For example, the word for 'house' is feminine gender in French and Latin; neuter in German; masculine in Russian and Irish; and genderless in English. Why is the word 'moon' masculine in German and feminine in French? Why is it that in most European languages the possessive pronouns agree with the genders of things possessed, and have nothing to do with the sex of the people who are the owners, as in English? From these few examples it is obvious that grammatical gender and biological sex have nothing in common. With very different concepts and structures manifested in different European languages, it is going to be a very clever feminist indeed who can demonstrate in built sexism in language.

'Comprehensive' is also a technical term in grammar. Mr Kirkby was merely describing the way groups are referred to. One category of nouns uses the masculine gender as the comprehensive gender. The masculine gender word 'lion' is the comprehensive gender for lions and lionesses, as 'fox' is for foxes and vixens. This is what Mr Kirkby was referring to. This is his Rule 21, and it is still current usage, particularly in describing wild animals. Anyone who uses the feminine gender words 'lioness' or 'vixen' is referring only to the females of those species. The comprehensive gender - the one that refers to male and females together - is the masculine.

It is interesting to speculate why the author made no mention of a second category of English nouns which uses the feminine gender as the comprehensive gender. The feminine gender word 'duck' is the comprehensive gender for that creature which swims and quacks. The feminine gender word 'goose' is the comprehensive gender for those longer-necked birds who honk. The masculine gender words 'drake' and 'gander' refer only to male birds. To comprehensively refer to these species, an English speaker will always use the feminine gender: ducks and geese.

In passing it's interesting to note that English also uses neuter gender comprehensive words: stallions and mares are all 'horses', and rams and ewes are all 'sheep'. And English even contains a feminist grammatical unisex utopia: a mouse is a mouse whatever its sex, as a louse is a louse.

Why did the author not speak of this cornucopia of comprehensive genders in English? It has to be out of deceit or ignorance, and neither quality reflects well on an academic. Mr. Kirkby was right, and he still is right. He was certainly not referring exclusively to men and women. Moreover he was not 'inventing' rules as alleged by the author. Theory does not usually precede practice, except for feminists and other ideologues. Rather it usually codifies existing practice. Mr. Kirkby was describing and codifying the usage of the English language, as used by men and women in the years prior to 1746.

With these proper understandings of the meanings of the words 'gender' and 'comprehensive' it was simply embarrassing to read sentences of such monumental stupidity as, "One is left with the conclusion that Mr. Kirkby believed that each man represented much more than each woman and that it was legitimate to encode this personal belief in the structure of language and to formulate a grammatical rule which would put the users of the language in the 'wrong' if they did not adhere to this belief. That each man included much more than each woman was a personal opinion that Mr. Kirkby was entitled to hold...." And, "Rule Number Twenty One is one man's bias, verified by the bias of other men, and imposed upon women. They did not participate in its production, they do not benefit from its use. It was a sexist principle encoded in the language by males and which today exerts considerable influence over thoughts and reality by preserving the categories of male and minus male."

Sheesh! Talk about an inferiority complex! Such ignorant ravings can only give credence to the notion that the phrase 'feminist scholarship' is truly a classic oxymoron.

For her intellectual trump card the author says, "Theoretically, if 'man' does represent the species, then the symbol [sic] should be applicable to the activities of all human beings."

Not so. As Fowler says, it is a convention in English that "where the matter of sex is not conspicuous or important he & his shall be allowed to represent a person instead of a man." Nevertheless the author gives some examples which she thinks prove that the word 'man' is not a generic word: "It is because 'man' evokes male imagery that the very statement ... 'man has difficulties in giving birth' strikes us as unusual. Like the statement ... 'the first ancestor of the human race had not yet developed her mighty brain when she descended from the trees', we encounter this clash of images."

But giving birth is a peculiarly female activity. Here the matter of sex is importantly and conspicuously female, and therefore it is quite wrong to use generic 'man' in sentences such as, "Man has difficulties in giving birth" and "Man being a mammal, breastfeeds his young." Under the same rule, the sentence, "The first ancestor of the human race had not yet developed her mighty brain when she descended from the trees", is also wrong. In this case, one would hope that the matter of sex is not conspicuous or important.

It's indicative of the intellectual decadence of our age that these examples are uncritically regurgitated in such publications as the Australian Government's Style Manual, as well as a plethora of university style guides. It's also indicative of the intellectual decadence of our age that so many have complied with such tripe.

Despite emotional assertions that an oppressive patriarchy has encoded a bias against females into the structure of language itself, the author has produced no evidence - apart from a philosophic preference for determinism; a misunderstanding of grammatical terms; and unsubstantiated speculation - to support her claim.

The alleged 'exclusiveness' of Standard English is a cultivated sentiment of an elite minority of privileged women. Until recently, Standard English was used by all educated people, including feminists. It was taught more often than not by female teachers, and was fully respectful of women. 'Exclusiveness' is a feminist ideological construct that has thrived upon grammatical and general ignorance, and on the collusion of male wimps. The feminist attitude that anyone - especially any woman - who disagrees with feminist ideology needs her consciousness raised, is a patronizing impertinence.

Antonia Feitz is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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