Herstory in Language

Herstory in Language
By Charlotte Audley-Coote
(As featured in the upcoming issue of wom*news!)

The need for “herstory” could be observed in some ways to have surfaced from the patriarchal order of language, as we observe the cultural approval of this system through lingual expressions that symbolically relay sexist ideals as ‘natural’ or ‘legitimate’. The way that terms such as ‘chairman/policeman’ are the default while ‘female judge/ female engineer’ appear as necessary ‘extra’ distinctions could be examples of the way in which language transmits the endorsement of this system. Asymmetrical gender constructions are just one example; and although these lingual myths are no more than just that, they do serve to reinforce a certain level of reality. The words we have at hand are not neutral or objective tools – they were made with intent and purpose. Or, as Dale Spender (feminist scholar) describes, language was ‘man-made’, and furthers that:

“Language is our means of classifying and ordering the world: our means of manipulating reality. In its structure and in its use we bring our world into realisation, and if it is inherently inaccurate, then we are misled. If the rules which underlie our language system, our symbolic order, are invalid, then we are daily deceived”.

The symbolic and ‘rule’ type structure of our language carries misleading assumptions which become validated through repetitive use. The set of rules we have been assigned become seen as the ‘the way things really are’, and the myth of male superiority is supported as fact. It appears that herstory isn’t only a necessary cultural concept but is also representative of issues within language itself, as it fails to include or consider an autonomous female perspective.

Language is made to appear as predictably male, which can be observed in the way that language delineates the ‘man-as-norm’. It is usually considered that ‘he/man’ are the gender-neutral terms to use. An obvious example could be the way man is used to refer to all humankind. Although this may sound harmless or ‘normal’ to our ears, I’m more inclined to agree with Spender’s diagnosis. Adele Mercier (philosopher of language) describe how ‘man’ should be used as a ‘gender-neutral’ reference when the sex of the person is unknown or as a collective referent when there is a combination of male/female. Although I regularly observe this guideline in practice, I wonder how it could actually be considered ‘gender-neutral’ when this pattern of referencing clearly demonstrates the idea that man is the norm or default of humanity. Man is the standard, the one we are most often talking about, even if it actually isn’t about ‘man’ at all. Jennifer Saul (philosopher of language) furthers that:

 Feminists have argued that terms like ‘he’ and ‘man’ contribute to making women invisible — that is, to obscuring women’s importance, and distracting attention from their existence. Fighting the invisibility of women is an important feminist project in many areas, and language that makes one less likely to think of women clearly contributes to this invisibility.

One could argue that the example of asymmetrical gender constructions previously mentioned often draws attention to women in positions of power (E.G female doctor), however, this is not the type of visibility Saul is suggesting. The necessity in making that extra distinction is because our society sees man as the default and further on, that doctor is a male-default role. The kind of attention women need is not the kind that highlights the cultural perception that women are some type of deviant version of the ‘normal/standard’ doctor. Spender finds that this mode of speech only provides two human divisions, not female/male (and even this would be insufficient), but male and ‘minus-male’, as women lack their own space within language and are only referred to when something is specifically non-male. Spender furthers that:

“While this rule operates we are required to classify the world on the premise that the standard or normal human being is a male one and when there is but one standard, then those who are not of it are allocated to a category of deviation…. At the most basic level of meaning the status of the female is derived from the status of the male.”

Further effects of his system are detailed in the encoding of the ‘male’ worldview. Within Saul, this concept demonstrates how through language, the world is manipulated to appear as more ‘natural’ for men than for women. It also illustrates the ‘gaps’ within expression that fail to provide means of communicating and legitimising women’s experiences and perception. For example, the term ‘sexual-harassment’ was produced by feminists after discussions of this prevalent problem was realised. Once it had a name, it could be used as a tool for education and for legal issues. Further examples of male encoding are that there are many more words for men than for women, many more negative words specifically for women than for men and even the same general term is often negative for women (stud/slut, bachelor/spinster). Saul details male encoding with terms such as ‘foreplay’ and ‘sex’:

“Sex’ is generally taken to refer to an act that is defined in terms of male orgasm, while the sexual activities during which many women have their orgasms are relegated to secondary status, referred to by terms like ‘foreplay’.”

While many people share different views in this sense, this typically male-identified perception is still appearing as the reference point of what is ‘normal’ in place of the broader human experience. This silences women’s experiences of sex and also alienates and invalidates non-heteronormative experiences. Anyone who has dared to question this ‘standard’ can probably sympathise with being told that their experiences aren’t ‘real’ or that they haven’t done it ‘right’.

Women also face sexualisation and objectification within language, as even seemingly neutral words can have negative sexual connotations. For example, ‘he’s a professional’ and ‘she’s a professional’ carry distinctly different undertone in the way that the later could easily be referring to prostitution. What these lingual tools tell us is that sex is exclusive to male-agency, while women are either subordinated/objectified or completely absent.

Attempts at resolve (such as ‘herstory’, ‘sexual harassment’ and encoding ‘women’ as an autonomous category) are great efforts of deconstruction and modification, however, it is difficult to incorporate these symbolic patterns within an existing order which directly opposes the new criteria. The friction this causes isn’t only a lingual disconnect but also translates to modifiers often being seen as attempting to deny nature. This isn’t just because people dislike the symbolic and patterned meaning they have selected being disrupted, but also because questioning this may really appear as unreasonable, and in a way it is- within patriarchal terms. Spender shares some words of wisdom though, that:

Unless that pattern for meaning is infallible… Then the flaw may be in the pattern itself, and not in those who protest. If patriarchal order can be shown to be unreasonable, then those who are attempting to dismantle it are behaving in an eminently reasonable fashion.

It’s amazing how much of his-story you hear within language once you start listening, and you begin to recognise how misrepresented and underrepresented women are within this context. It is no surprise that our language is so directly linked to our cultural experiences, but becoming more aware could aid in recognising that the language-gaps women face in communicating experiences don’t reflect illegitimate perspectives. And that, the negative, sexualised and objectified references we face are not natural divisions that we must accept. These concepts are just one side of the story; and for something different, I’d really like to hear a little more of herstory.

~ Charlotte Audley-Coote


Mercier, A. (1995). A Perverse Case of the Contingent A Priori: On the Logic of Emasculating Language (A Reply to Dawkins and Dummet). Retrieved June 2012, from http://www.ub.edu/grc_logos/people/amercier/HASLANGEwrd.rtf

Saul, J. (2012). Feminist Philosophy of Language. Retrieved June 2012, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-language/#1.1

Spender, D. (1980). Man Made Language. Retrieved June 2012, from http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ot/spender.htm


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