One cold evening I was looking for a new way to brand an upcoming women’s rights project, and so I typed ‘woman’ into Google, searching for synonyms. The result was unexpectedly chilling. Both Google and Oxford (University Press) displayed definitions of “woman” that are patronising, misogynistic, sexist or offensive.
How Google defines ‘woman’ vs ‘man’
The first search involved googling ‘woman synonyms’ and boom — an explosion of rampant sexism. I thought to myself, ‘What would my young niece think of herself if she read this?’ I tried to look at it another way and thought maybe offensive terms are part of the lexicon. So I looked up ‘man synonyms’ to find out that, nope, men are not treated the same way.
Unfortunately, all the searches turned up the same results. The definitions of ‘woman’ being heavily sexist and biased.
The one that really caught my attention is Oxford’s , as language used in both the thesaurus and the dictionary are the most damaging to women.
Here’s what Oxford University Press really thinks of women:
- A ‘woman’ is subordinate to men. Example: ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’, ‘the little woman/ the good woman’, ‘one of his sophisticated London women’.
- A ‘woman’ is a sex object. Many definitions are about sex. Also, ‘woman of the streets: prostitute’ is one of the only 5 phrases Oxford could come up with. How about using ‘sex worker’ at least instead? Example: ‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets’, ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’,
- A ‘woman’ is an irritation to men. Example: ‘I told you to be home when I get home, little woman.’
- ‘Woman’ is not equal to ‘man’. The definition of ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of ‘woman’. Example: Oxford Dictionary’s definition for ‘man’ includes 25 ‘phrases’ (examples), ‘woman’ includes only 5 ‘phrases’ (examples).
Most importantly, the text of the dictionary and thesaurus seemed familiar, and I realised the Oxford definitions of womanhood are the same ones used by Google! Incredulous, I looked up the other most-used search engines, Yahoo and Bing, searching for ‘woman definition’.
Here it was again, Oxford’s definition. Yahoo’s search results say they are ‘powered by Oxford Dictionaries’ too — which shows how the misogynistic definition of ‘woman’ can become widespread, as Oxford allows other sources to use its content (i.e. Yahoo, Google, and Bing). On Oxford’s website it gives more information about licensing of content to third parties such as Google.
Now, this is the way the Oxford University Press defines the lexicon on their website: ‘Using world-class technology, our dictionary programmes constantly monitor the use of language so that our experts can identify and record the changes taking place. The result is dictionaries which give a window on to how language is used today’.
Should data about how language is used control how women are defined? Or should we take a step back and, as humans, promote gender equality through the definitions of women that we choose to accept? It is morally and ethically important that we fight the use of belittling and offensive definitions of women in the dictionary. Should an institution like the Oxford University Press — part of a public university that receives grants from the government — portray women this way? No, the dictionary should immediately stop discriminating against women.
‘Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it’ said Malcolm X. The mere fact that everyone is using language like this — to demean and diminish women — doesn’t make it right.
- To eliminate all phrases/ definitions that patronise women;
- to eliminate all sentences and/ or definitions that connote men’s ownership of women;
- to enlarge the definition of ‘woman’ and equal it to the definition of ‘man’;
- to include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.
I shared the findings with the feminist group @FawcettEastLondon and they too felt outrage. We were also confused. We talked about how the dictionary is the most basic foundation of language and how it influences conversations. Isn’t it dangerous for women to maintain these definitions — of women as irritants, sex objects and subordinates to men? That is why, now, we are launching a public pressure campaign aimed at Oxford University Press because change can happen and we shall succeed in removing the offensive and damaging definition of women from the dictionary.
Can you help us? Here is how:
- Fill their inboxes: contact Oxford Dictionary here and express your concern by demanding inclusive, and non-sexist definitions;
- Sign our Change.org petition Change Oxford Dictionary’s Sexist Definition of ‘Woman’;
- Send the campaign to your friends and connections;
- Share the campaign on social media using #IAmNotABitch;
- Reach out to influencers: are you (or do you know) an Oxford University alumnus/ professional, or an influencer in the field? Ask them to email in an official capacity.
Our collective efforts can go a long way. Thank you in advance!