Cultivating stereotyped Gender Roles: Sexism in Language

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

24 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)


Table of contents

1. Preface

2. Sexist language defined
2.1. Semantic derogation 5 2.2.Generic masculine
2.3. Feminine markers
2.4. Personal titles

3. Sexism in newspapers
3.1. Associated Press guidelines

4. Analysis of articles from The Washington Post

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Preface

Women are more emotional than men, they speak in a different way than men, but how are they spoken about? Throughout the last century there has been a lot of discussion concerning language and gender. Mainly, linguists have focused on the different discourse strategies and conversational styles of women and men, that is, they dealt with the difference of women’s and men’s language. Sexism became an important point of discussion in the 1960s, and especially feminist critiques have discussed the sexist representation of women in language. Many linguists tried to find alternatives for features of language that discriminate against women, and thus sought to correct existing sex biases. In a time where the inequality of the sexes is said to have diminished, the anti-sexism movement seems to have decreased, as well. People try to speak in a politically correct way, a way that is not sexist or racist, but certain stereotypes are nevertheless still part of the language system.

This can be seen when taking a closer look at the media, which plays an important role in the process of language development. Newspapers articles, for example, have to be objective and without bias, but as they employ language that is politically correct with regard to common language usage, they reflect the language of a society. Consequently, the media is a rich source for analysis when it comes to examining to what extent sexism is still an issue today. Has the feminist fight against male supremacy been without effect?

In my paper, I will discuss if sexism in language has diminished and how it is dealt with. Therefore, I will first define sexist language and the relationship to society with the help of several linguistic approaches. As part of this, I will explain several features of sexist language, such as derogatory designations for women, the generic masculine, feminine markers, and the problem of personal titles. Then, I will depict the role of the media in context with sexist language. In relation to sexism in newspapers, I will list some rules established by the Associated Press that intend to help journalists deal with sexist features of language. Finally, I will analyze articles from The Washington Post to examine if sexist language is still perpetuated.

2. Sexist language defined

In order to discuss whether or not sexism in language has diminished since the first feminist attempts to correct sex biases in language, sexist language has to be defined first. The debate on language with regard to gender has focused on two different areas: the difference between female and male discourse strategies, and the naming and representation of women. The discussion of naming and representation is essentially concerned with women spoken about rather than women speaking. Many feminists have examined the representation of women in language and have, according to Deborah Cameron (1993), concluded “that our languages are sexist: that is they represent or ‘name’ the world from a masculine viewpoint and in accordance with stereotyped beliefs about the sexes” (Cameron 12). That is, language encodes a culture’s values, and in this way reflects sexist culture.

Language could be seen as a reflection of sexist culture; or [...] it could be seen as carrier of ideas and assumptions which become, through their constant re-enactment in discourse, so familiar and conventional we miss their significance. [...] Thus sexism is not merely reflected but acted out and thus reinforced in a thousand banal encounters (Cameron 12).

So one can say that sexist language can be defined as the use of words that cultivate stereotyped gender roles or customized gender assumptions.

Language hence carries an ideology created by the society that uses it. According to Cate Poynton (1989), a culture fixes its beliefs and attitudes towards certain issues through an ideology encoded in language. Ideology in this case is “another way of referring to the world view of a particular culture” (Poynton 17). She furthermore says that

[...] ideological meanings emerge out of particular power-configurations. But rather than being separable from the society that has produced them they mirror that society back to itself in such a way as to reinforce its own identity (Poynton 18).

In English-speaking cultures, the ideology encoded in English advocates subordinate places for women in society, as the ‘good woman’ is the wife and mother who supports and nurtures others, and women who aim to be successful outside the domestic sphere deviate from their preconceived gender roles. Poynton says that as long as this is the case, “sexism- the ideology of gender as the inferiorization [...] of women with respect to men- is alive” (Poynton 19).

2.1. Semantic derogation

Muriel Schulz, who discusses the naming of women in the course of language history, states that

[t]here is no doubt [...] that a language reflects thoughts, attitudes, and culture of those who make it and use it. [...] To this extent, at least, analysis of a language tells us a great deal about the interests, achievements, obsessions, hopes, fears, and prejudices of the people who created the language. Who are the people who created English? Largely men- at least until the present generation. [...] A woman’s life has been largely restricted to the home and family, while men have lived in a larger world [...]. That men are the primary creators and users of the English language generally follows from the primary role they have traditionally played in English-speaking cultures. [...] An analysis of the language used by men to discuss and describe women reveals something about male attitudes, fears, and prejudices concerning the female sex (Schulz 134).

Based on this statement, Schulz describes in her article “The semantic derogation of woman” (1975) how words designating women that were originally neutral in both meaning and sex reference take on negative sexual connotations in the course of language development, and after a period of time end as a “sexual slur”(Schulz 135). Thus, in contrast to Poynton who says that women are characterized according to their domestic role, Schulz says that men think of women mostly in sexual terms. In her opinion, men’s names for women reflect their sexual fears and attitudes concerning the female sex, and consequently terms for women often have negative sexual connotations. She shows that derogation tends to occur more often when naming women by giving examples of matched pairs of terms that designate females and males. Sir and Master, for example, did not acquire derogatory meanings while Madam, Miss, and Mistress have all derogated and became euphemisms respectively for “a mistress of a brothel”, “a prostitute”, and “a woman with whom a man eventually fornicates” (cf. Schulz 136). The connotations of these titles show the frequent course of terms designating women as they “slip past respectable women and settle upon prostitutes and mistresses” (Schulz 136). Furthermore, niece became an euphemism for “a priest’s illegitimate daughter or concubine” (Schulz 136), but there is no corresponding term for nephew. Even girl itself has a history of pejoration. First, the term applied to “a child of either sex” to be then specialized to “a female child”. After that, it designated “a maidservant” and eventually acquired the meanings “a prostitute”, “a mistress”, or “the female sex- or that part of it given to unchastity”. Today, the term has rehabilitated and is used again for “a female child” (cf. Schulz 138).

An explanation as to why terms designating women degenerate, Schulz examines the origins of pejoration with reference to three suggestions made by Stephen Ullman (1967). The first is the contaminating concept, which describes how the terms woman, female, and lady are reduced to having purely sexual meanings. Woman, for example, was avoided in the 18th century as it had became to mean “paramour or mistress” or “the sense of intercourse with women when used in plural as in ‘ Wine, Women, and Song ’” (Schulz 142). It was replaced by female, but this term also came to be considered “degrading and indelicate” (Schulz 142). In the 19th century, female was replaced by lady, which, however, vulgarized as well, and was again substituted by the rehabilitated term woman. The second possibility of explanation is the frequent use of euphemisms such as “women of the night” caused by a “reluctance to name the profession outright” (Schulz 143). Schulz says that this is not a likely explanation as most of the euphemisms are rather dysphemistic. She considers the third explanation, prejudice, to be the most likely source of derogatory terms. Prejudice, she thus concludes, is

fear, based on a supposed threat to the power of the male. [...] Power becomes a question because the male is biologically inferior to the female in several respects. [...M]an’s fear of woman is basically sexual, which is perhaps the reason why so many of the derogatory terms for women take on sexual connotations (Cameron 143 f.).

2.2. Generic masculine

The generic masculine, another feature of sexist language, has a long history, as well. Generic masculine means that the masculine personal pronoun forms and the word man, alone or as a compound, are supposed to refer to people of both sexes when the sex of the referent is not known or does not matter. Numerous psycholinguistic studies agree that the generic masculine does not actually work; sentences with masculine forms, which by the dictates of prescriptive grammar ought to have generic reference are usually taken to refer to men to the exclusion of women (Fasold 116).


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Cultivating stereotyped Gender Roles: Sexism in Language
Technical University of Braunschweig  (English Seminar)
2+ (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
421 KB
Cultivating, Gender, Roles, Sexism, Language
Quote paper
Nadine Klemens (Author), 2002, Cultivating stereotyped Gender Roles: Sexism in Language, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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