Words Matter: Google Docs is Not the Only Thing Trying to Silence Us

June 18, 2012 by

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Last week was a(nother) rough one for women in language and politics. First, we got our collective lady parts (of speech) handed to us by Google Docs, which flagged “Congresswoman” as a grammatical error and suggested “Congressman” as a more suitable alternative. Then the Michigan State House of Representatives upped the ante by actually banning Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking in the House for a day after she supposedly breached standards of decorum by uttering the word “vagina” during her official testimony. (Her colleague Rep. Barb Byrum was also banned from speaking in the House for a day when members deemed her attempts to amend a bill to be inappropriate lady part-related shenanigans). Both cases illustrate the ways in which a male-dominated system is resisting the influx (however small) of women and their corresponding influence. Closer examination of these two cases suggests the ways in which it’s time for a new agenda for linguistic and political representation.

The old agenda for linguistic representation said that what we needed was gender-inclusive terms. During the 1970s and 1980s women fought for professional titles like “fireman,” “policeman,” “mailman,” and “congressman” to be replaced by titles like “firefighter,” “police officer,” “letter carrier,” and “congress member.” Linguistic change was important because as long as certain professional roles were designated by masculine titles, those jobs were considered to be more appropriate for men. The few women who made it into those professions were considered to be either inappropriate, extraordinary, or simply exceptions to the rule. Linguistic barriers were, of course, just one of many that had to be removed in order to promote access—many of those barriers still exist today—but linguistic change was not an unimportant step. After several decades of consistent work, gender-inclusive language is now considered the standard for professional writing rather than the exception. That’s why the Google Docs snafu was blogworthy.

The new agenda for linguistic representation needs to delve deeper and eradicate the stereotypes about female identity that we too easily deploy against those with whom we disagree politically. Although I applaud The Atlantic’s Molly Ball for calling out Google Doc’s dictionary error—and providing the screen shot of her own writing that documented the occurrence—I was disappointed by some of the linguistic choices in Ball’s column about Michele Bachmann.

Specifically, Ball referred to Bachmann as a “crazy right-wing congresswoman,” arguing that for “a while there she seemed to be keeping the more wild-eyed aspects of her political persona under wraps. She managed to impersonate a serious presidential candidate for a while, acquitting herself well in debates and winning the Iowa straw poll last August.” As I have made clear elsewhere, I am no Bachmann apologist, but the meme that dismisses her as a “wild-eyed” lunatic is informed by a long history of sexism in which women who seek political power are deemed either too emotionally unstable or too conniving to be trusted with it. (Case in point: Hillary Clinton is enjoying her position as a popular elder stateswoman now, but not too long ago she was being compared to Glenn Close’s crackpot characterin Fatal Attraction.  The metaphor of the crazed female politico is elastic enough to fit politicians of various ages and political affiliations. The catch is, when it is applied to someone whose views we oppose, we have a tendency to think that the woman in question really is  just a little crazy). Bachmann’s policy stances and religious beliefs are similar to those of other men who vied for the Republican presidential nomination (most notably Rick Perry), but none of them were widely dismissed as “crazy.” It’s certainly not sexist to oppose Bachmann or her politics. The new agenda for politics says that we need women occupying every inch of the political spectrum, but as we stand along that spectrum we need to speak about one another in ways that don’t rely on the shortcuts provided by sexist stereotyping.

Some might interpret my preceding recommendation as a call to civility, but that word can sometimes be wielded as a blunt weapon—as it was by the Michigan Speaker of the House. According to The Daily Beast, his spokesperson, Ari Adler, said that the “crackdown” against Rep. Brown was done to “maintain civility.” (I wonder how many more “Crackdowns for Civility” are in the works?) The Guardian quoted Rep. Mike Callton as saying, “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.” Callton’s pandoring to “mixed company” is interesting. For many it might connote the Mad Men era, when men ostensibly respected women enough not to tell a dirty joke in front of them (but not enough to assign them equal pay for equal work). But the notion that certain talk is appropriate only for audiences of men goes back much farther, to when political audiences used to be exclusively male. When 19th-century women abolitionists like Angelina Grimke began bucking this trend and speaking to so-called “promiscuous” audiences (audiences comprised of women and men), riots ensued. Although members of he Michigan state legislature did not riot last week, they did muster their institutional clout to censure not only individual women but the presence, form, and biological characteristics of the female citizen. It was opposition with which Grimke and her contemporaries would have been all too familiar. Women’s citizenship rights were constrained by male members of a state legislature who retaliated against women’s exercise of free speech.

We need a new agenda for political representation because the actions of the Michigan state legislature demonstrate that the stakes are too high for us to not form  alliances. Rep. Brown was testifying on the issue of reproductive rights, but regardless of your stance on that particular issue, we can all agree that her first amendment rights should not have been constrained. Unfortunately, Google Docs is not the only thing trying to silence us.

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