In my family, we take what we say seriously. I learned from an early age that my word was my bond. For within my household, some of the worst things you could do were to say something you didn’t mean, or—even more damning—intentionally break your word. As a result, I quickly grew to have an acute sense of the meanings infused throughout the English language. The way that one word can have multiple interpretations, or the way that placing the emphasis on one simple word within a sentence could change its entire color.
Language was the scaffolding that helped me climb higher and higher in my comprehension of the universe around me, and how I stood in relation to others within this vast existence. With each new word that I learned, I found a new way to express myself and convey my passions. And with each new story I read, or conversation I shared, language formed a bridge of understanding between gaps in my knowledge. Yet, as I grew older, I found myself becoming increasingly aware that, as a young woman, this semantic scaffolding offered me far less support than it afforded my male counterparts—placing me on a far wobblier foundation, and making it more challenging for me to reach the heights I wished to reach. Placing me in a language framework where the grammar and vocabulary had largely been curated by male architects for the benefit of men within society. A framework where I could still see the sky, but reaching it suddenly became far more difficult than expected.
“Placing me in a language framework where the grammar and vocabulary had largely been curated by male architects for the benefit of men within society.”
It’s funny how oftentimes we don’t realize the significance of seemingly innocuous occurrences until weeks, months, or even years after the fact. Yet, as I reflect upon the day about fifteen years ago when I saw an invitation addressed to my parents not as “Garret and Susan Wasek” or “Mr. and Mrs. Wasek,” but as “Mr. and Mrs. Garret Wasek,” I can’t help but marvel how one small interaction opened my eyes to how language truly shapes our perceptions of gender within society.
“Mom,” I remember asking, “Why does this envelope only say Dad’s name and not yours? Your last name may be Wasek, but your first name isn’t Garret.”
“Well,” she’d replied, “sometimes when people address envelopes to married couples, they write it that way. When your Dad and I got married, it meant we were going to be sharing our lives together. Sharing a name is just one of the ways that some people like to show it.”
In hindsight, my mom’s answer was a pretty good response to a difficult question posed by a precocious eight-year-old. Still, in the time following her explanation, my young mind couldn’t help becoming frustrated about the overwhelming unfairness of it all. Why did my dad get to keep his name, but not my mom, just because they were married? Why couldn’t he have taken her name instead? And what’s more, would I have to absorb some man’s name at some point in the future if I got married? Then, I’d no longer be “Emily Wasek,” but a woman with a completely separate name and identity from the person who I’d already started to become. With one simple stroke of a pen, it would be possible for someone to define me not by who I was before I got married or who I was as an individual, but by what man I chose to associate with.
Pretty soon, I began noticing other ways the English language marked me as inferior to my male counterparts. How a lot of the old textbooks at school resorted to using what I now know to be called the “generic he,” a practice wherein writers use the masculine pronouns he, him, and his as gender-neutral singular pronouns when referring to both males and females. Under the “generic he,” I saw sentences such as “A student who works hard will see his effort reflected in his grades,” reinforce stereotypes surrounding traditional gender roles.
“Common words and phrases that framed men as the standard and women as the anomaly soon began jumping out at me, as though in boldface.”
In sentences such as this example, with something as simple as a grammatical convention, the realities of who I was grew invisible through language. By automatically prescribing the noun student with a masculine pronoun, such phrasing not only implicitly made the assumption that women cannot be students, but ignored and excluded a large population of bright, talented woman students who I identified with and went to class with every day. Other common words and phrases that framed men as the standard and women as the anomaly soon began jumping out at me, as though in boldface. Mankind. Manpower. Chairman. Congressman.
Even the common tri-state area colloquialism, “You guys” that I grew up with in New Jersey began to carry a gendered connotation. It seemed as though there was no greater betrayal than discovering the very language that I used to speak subtly, yet simultaneously also worked against me to stifle my voice. To absorb my individuality into the identity of any given man who I married. To erase my accomplishments under the assumption that men ought to be the default actor in a given situation or position of power.
Yet, over time I’ve learned that just as with other social inequalities in our lives, women need not be bystanders. We are more than emotionless, walking grammar handbooks, but rather activists responsive to the changing world and phonetics. Likewise, the English language not a fixed institution, but a living, breathing mechanism that evolves alongside society.
“We are more than emotionless, walking grammar handbooks, but rather activists responsive to the changing world and phonetics.”
With a greater feminist emphasis on egalitarianism marriages, it’s far less common to see anything addressed to couples as Mr. and Mrs. John Doe. Instead, we tend to see things sent to a Mr. John and Mrs. Jane Doe. Or, even more critically, as women increasingly maintain public lives after marriage and wish to retain their earlier identities, a Mr. John and Mrs. Jane Smith-Doe, or a Mr. John Doe and Ms. Jane Smith. Additionally, in large part of the because of the efforts of woman activists in the 1970s, who recognized the importance of representation in language, usage of the “generic he” is now considered archaic.
Instead, grammar handbooks now advise writers to use “he or she” in sentences, or in recent years, switch to the “singular they,” in which writers can use they, them, and their as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Using singular they, the earlier sentence “A student who works hard will see his effort reflected in his grades” becomes “A student who works hard will see their effort reflected in their grades,” providing all-encompassing, equitable phrasing that’s inclusive to members of the LGBTQ+ community who may not identify under the gender binary.
Finally, as women have assumed more authority positions, words that place a greater emphasis on male power structures have changed to reflect these shifts. It’s quickly becoming a common practice for people to refer to the global community as humankind rather than mankind and the strength needed to get a job done as human power rather than manpower. Chairs or a chairperson is listed as the generic head of a committee instead of a chairman, and the same rules apply in Congress when generically referring to a congressperson, instead of an assumed congressman.
In the past century, women have obtained greater societal inclusion through greater education, suffrage, and authority positions. And through our progress, we have done more than just shaped our world, but shaped the language that shapes our world.