English as it is currently spoken and understood is deeply sexist. By that I don’t mean that the language itself was consciously created to favor men over women, or that any particular individual or group is responsible for this, merely that English as a language has an awful lot of features that give men status over women. Additionally, I’m not advocating for abandoning English as a language, nor am I implying that it is the only language to have sexist features. The sole intent of this take is to make clear the inherent gender inequalities which exist in the English language and to make people aware of these. So, what specifically do I mean by calling English sexist?
In English, there are many terms which have a male and a female variant, where theoretically the two terms should hold the same level of prestige. However, in many (possibly even most) cases, these terms actually end up being unequal, typically with the male form holding higher prestige. A good example of this is the pair “governor” and “governess”. Based on morphology (word structure) the two appear to be male and female variants of the same word, with the same meaning. But in fact, the two are used to mean vastly different things- a governor being someone who hold political leadership in a certain area, and a governess being someone who takes care of children. Not exactly very equal, is it? Some less obvious examples include things like “Lord” versus “lady”, where “lady” can be used derogatorily in modern language (“Get outta the way, lady!”) whereas the only possible similarly derogatory use of “lord” would be in sarcasm. Another thing worth noting is how terms for women consistently end up with a negative sexual connotation, as with the female terms in the pairs “master/mistress” and “sir/madam” (mistress being a side-chick, and master being someone who has mastery in a certain area, or someone in a position of authority. Madam also is sexual, being a term used to refer to the woman who runs a brothel). Even female terms which have not explicitly picked up a new, less prestigious meaning often have more negative connotations than their male counterparts, as with “bachelor/spinster”. Spinsters tend to be envisioned as old, gossipy, and something of a crazy old cat lady stereotype, while bachelors are young and free and vigorous.
Another interesting pairing is that of “to mother a child” as compared to “to father a child”. The meanings of these two pairs are deeply tied to sexist stereotypes of parenting, with “mothering” meaning raising the child and providing it with love and care, and “fathering” almost exclusively meaning the mere act of biologically producing the child.
So, while these inequities in male/female terminology are not necessarily anyone’s fault, and not much can be done about them at this point, it is valuable to note how our language still contains sexist notions about women’s inferiority and the roles they can perform.
Male as Neutral
There has been a long tradition in English, thankfully now starting to die out, of using masculine terms and pronouns as general terms. For instance, using “man” as a general term to refer to the human race, or the relatively common practice in history of writing all laws with the “he/him” pronoun. This applies also to more general terms, like words for animals or types of people. For instance, the term for a female dog is “bitch” (or was, before it gained so much popularity as a swearword), but dogs as a category were still called dogs. Same for lions and lionesses, as well as just about any category for humans involving distinct male and female forms (actor, actress; murderer, murderess, etc.)
The effect of this male-neutrality is first, that it presumes maleness as typical, and femaleness as abberant and thus to some degree inferior. Men are normal and representative of humanity as a whole, women are strange and are merely outliers who cannot be viewed as representative samples. This subjects female behavior and tendencies to being disregarded when making rules about the behavior of humans, and means that social structures are biased towards men as they are presumed represent the “norm”. The sexism inherent in this is, I hope, clear.
Secondly, this masculine neutrality allows women to be excluded from the protection of some rules and included in the punishment of others. This was much more the case when explicit sexism in the law was permissible, but is nevertheless a relevant feature to consider the effects of. Take the case of Susan B Anthony for instance. In her time, most laws were written using “he/him” pronouns as the generic. That being the case, she attempted to cast a vote despite this privilege not yet being provided to women. She was of course fined for this as the law was interpreted as only applying to men, so she proceeded to argue that if the masculine pronouns in voting laws were exclusive to men, she should also be exempt from all taxation and criminal laws as those also used male generic pronouns. But, of course, this argument failed, as male generics were only considered generic where it was convenient for the more powerful class (men). Again, this kind of issue is no longer so prevalent nowadays, but presents an interesting example of the inequities male-generics can allow.
Does it Matter?
So, you might think that male generics and male centric speech is simply how our language is, and that it makes no difference in our modern, relatively enlightened society. But sorry, no. Firstly, studies have in fact shown that male-generics result in people envisioning men rather than women significantly more, showing that there is in fact a bias and that this bias can result in under-representation of women or an expectation thereof in certain areas. A more damning study however is that of an instance of a court case where the judge’s instructions were given using male generic pronouns despite referring in the specific context to a female. The issue was one of whether the woman’s self defense had been justified, and it was found that the jury was significantly more likely to find it justified if female or neutral pronouns were used, and were more likely to find it unjustified if male pronouns were used. Thus, male-generics not only influence our mental image of a certain group of people, they can make us empathize more with men and less with women, which carries serious consequences in issues of law and justice particularly.
What Can We Do About it?
So, are these issues even solvable ones at all? I would suggest yes. Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on linguistic change, but it’s clear that our language has changed over time, largely for the better as far as these issues go. What I would put forward as the best way to continue making our language more equal, and thus our biases less pronounced, would be for people to simply be aware of the way they use gendered language and to aim for more gender-neutral speech. In regards to the unequal male/female terms, I would suggest merely either using the male/female terms in the exact same contexts and for the same meanings (difficult since they already have engrained meanings which will be difficult to change) or to simply use the male terms as the neutral and let the female ones fall out all together. I would suggest this second strategy is more realistic, as it’s exactly the kind of thing that has already happened and been happening in our language. For instance, the term “child” used to be a feminine term, but over time its usage changed to the point where we consider it entirely gender neutral. Similarly, words like “actor” are being used and understood more and more frequently as applying to both men and women equally, and even gendered insults like “bitch” are rapidly losing their ties to females in particular, though certainly some femininity still remains with them that we should be aware of.
In regards to pronouns, I find this a much simpler issue. Simply use “they/them”, or at the very least “he or she” if you must (though I find this incredibly clunky and unnecessary, and suspect its usage will be shrinking as time goes on). Additionally, be aware of applying genders to objects with unknown or no gender, though this task is rather more difficult and somewhat less productive.
In any case, I hope it has been made clear that English as it stands does have some inherent sexism that deserves to be addressed, and that this inherent sexism should not be considered an inherent or unchangeable feature of the language.