Language Matters

In July of 1979, Bob made history. After several years of protest from women’s groups – especially those around the gulf coast – Bob was the first male-name hurricane. Or perhaps himicane.  Jason Samenow provides an interesting history of this change, including the worries of many in the meteorological community that storms named after men would not be taken seriously. Consider this quote from the Houston Post in 1977:

Would a hurricane with a man’s name convey the same sense of imminent danger as, say, a Hurricane Carla? Chalk it up to the feminine mystique, but it’s doubtful that a National Hurricane Center bulletin that Tropical Storm Al had formed in the Gulf or Hurricane Jake was threatening the Texas Coast would make us run for cover quite as fast.

35 years later, we have an answer to this question, and the writers at the Houston Post would be surprised. Research has found that masculine-named hurricanes are more respected, feared, and prepared for than those of a feminine persuasion. There are estimates that switching the name from Bob to Barbara could triple the death toll in some cases.

Are we consciously aware of this? Of course not. 2005 was a deadly year for hurricanes in the U.S. In August, of course, Katrina struck New Orleans and other areas of the gulf coast with force that led to immediate loss of life and the long-term disaster we all remember. A month or so later, Rita struck the Texas coast. I lived in the evacuation area at the time, and I remember the rushes to the grocery and hardware stores, the gridlocked traffic leaving Houston, and the days and weeks many suffered without power. Would these experiences have been any less dramatic if Katrina had been Kenneth or Rita had been Richard? Hard to say. But the pattern of the data suggests that this is possible.

Hurricanes are an example of sexism that is an insidious aspect of the way we have learned to see the world. Nicolas Kristof has pointed to other research documenting the differential impressions of one-page professional summaries of “John” and “Jennifer” presented to science professors – both male and female – at major universities. The resumes were identical, yet John was rated as more qualified and a higher salary was recommended.

This isn’t about misogyny. This isn’t about blatant discrimination. This is about a gender bias that is baked into our thinking and ways of speaking and writing. When we hear about it, we’re surprised – shocked, even. If I had seen those resumes, I wouldn’t have rated a John as more qualified than a Jennifer. Or would I?

Other examples are not quite so hidden, but they are still disturbing. Because the women’s editors I write about from the 1960s and 1970s were in the word business, they were very aware of sexism in language. Mom wrote a number of columns about the issue, musing about changes to the language wrought by women’s lib. She’s mostly amused by it all – should a female who works in the city’s sewer system enter the workplace through a womanhole? – but she also acknowledged some of the hidden ways that language shapes our views of men and women.

Marj Paxson was more explicitly concerned. In her papers housed at the University of Missouri, I found an undated mimeograph asking questions to which the answer was “because of sexism in language”:

  •  Why are light-hearted men called easygoing but the same type of women are called frivolous?
  • Why are angry men called outraged while angry women are called hysterical?
  • Why are men who are efficient referred to as competent but efficient women are obsessive?

Marj and Ft. Lauderdale News editor Edie Greene raised similar issues during a workshop they presented for male managing editors. Marj remembers:

We thought they made a mistake when they allowed reporters to write something to the effect that “although Edie Greene is a champion stock car racer, president of the Florida women’s press club and women’s editor of the Ft. Lauderdale News, she still finds time to be a wife and mother.” And we turned it around by asking whether one of them would write about her managing editor that he was a professional marksman, a flycaster, managing editor of the Ft. Lauderdale News, and still found time to be a husband and father.

And all of this still goes on, of course. We read about the wardrobe choices and appearance of women far more than about men. News coverage of Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State (and Condi Rice and Madeleine Albright before her) is testament to this pattern.  We notice this – sometimes – but we may not realize how much it shapes our perceptions of women and men in the world.

Sonja Kudei recently wrote about another one of these phenomena – the increasing use of “man” words such as “man bag,” “mantyhose,” “manscara,” and “mankini.” She argues that these words proliferate because the original words (handbag, pantyhose, mascara, bikini) are viewed as inherently feminine and “manning” them serves to neutralize that femininity. She continues:

But the implication goes even further. Objects such as handbags, pantyhose, and makeup are associated with fashion and beauty. Both of those categories are generally considered to be consumerist and not particularly profound.  Even though this subtext may not be immediately obvious, when people repeatedly use or are exposed to these fashion-related man words, the implicit correlation between superficial consumerism and femininity gradually builds up in the unconscious.

For hurricanes, male and female names on resumes, descriptions in newspapers, and the use of “man words,” the argument is similar and straightforward. Point one: Language shapes our world view, in ways both conscious and subliminal. Point two: That world view influences our actions from hiring decisions to hurricane preparation to voting choices to the way we raise our sons and daughters.

So language matters. A lot. And when we draw attention to these seemingly innocuous examples of sexism in language, we’re not just quibbling about semantics. We’re working to reshape the world we live in, one adjective and pronoun at a time.

Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project – these archives of primary source material are invaluable. 

3 thoughts on “Language Matters”

  1. It’s insidious, isn’t it? Pretty easy to change chairman to chairperson, stewardess to flight attendant — but then there’s the physical descriptions of women, not men, in news stories, and the fathers who “babysit” their kids, and the dangerous sexism of hiring, firing, promoting, giving respect to opinions. The assumptions are everywhere, and while I’ve not felt much of their impact personally, at least not consciously, I do have to guard myself against making them. Thanks for this bit of herstory!

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