It was 40 years ago one day

In discussing her general qualifications for the office, and her background, the New York Times saw fit to remark on her [the Supreme Court candidate’s] ‘bathing-beauty figure’. Note that this is not only a judgment on a physical attribute totally removed from her qualifications for the Supreme Court, but that it is couched in terms of how a man would react to her figure

Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place

textile museum oaxacaMany people know of Deborah Tannen’s work such as You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (published in 1990); far fewer know of the ground-breaking work of Robin Lakoff, whose Language and Woman’s Place was published 15 years earlier by Harper and previously excerpted in 1973 by Cambridge University Press.  Lakoff looked at how men and women used language and how language related to power.  She showed how “lady” can be a euphemism and “gentleman” cannot; how describing Madalyn Murray O’Hair as a “lady atheist” can cause her to be dismissed as an eccentric while using “gentleman atheist” would not serve the same purpose and would never be used – because the gentleman is male, he cannot be dismissed, unless, of course, one were to put “black” or “Muslim” or “Latino” in front of the noun.

Lakoff was one of the first to point out the sexualization of words used to describe women (such as mistress) where no sexualization took place with the male equivalent (master).  One might be a master of the universe, but mistress of the universe?  Well, mistress denotes not, well, mastery, but innocence of a sexual nature.  Similarly one might have a Man Friday (but not a Boy Friday) or one might have a Girl Friday, but certainly not a Woman Friday.

Lakoff is professor emerita of linguistics at UC Berkeley.  While American English has undergone a number of changes for the better with regard to gender balance, a reread of Language and Woman’s Place shows Lakoff’s analysis of language, gender and power is still accurate and if its examples do not ring quite as true, they occur often enough to still make one cringe.

The tree next door

Has hundreds of ripe mandarins
The house has been vacant for months
Its American owners somewhere else.

If in market
The small orange orbs would
sell for a few pesos a kilo.

This town has many, many elderly —
rich like the tree’s captors,
their money made and stored elsewhere
with little or nothing to do
But tell stories of past lives.

This town has many, many young
Hiding in makeshift shelters,
Cardboard to the wind,
Waiting with their mothers in doorways
Waiting. For food. They wait
with little or nothing to do
But tell stories of the future.

A human fetus
Has 6 million eggs at five months
4 million die before her birth.
It is the law.

Many years ago a friend told
A story that took place
Many years before, when she knew
An island in the China Sea.

She said, “Sage and I lived in a house
Beside a persimmon tree. All of a sudden
The fruit was ripe and we went to bed
Talking of the next morning when
We planned to make
A pie from some of the fruit.

Silently, the sun rose
And we saw a silhouette
Of black lines
against the sky.
The fruit, gone,
Taken at the peak of flavor by the hungry.”

Ain’t Nuthin’ But A She Thing


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