How shifting our language can help free us from sexism
I was writing a letter in support of Jacinda Ardern, the wonderful new Prime Minister of Aotearoa.
It started like:
When we found out that you were our new Prime Minister, my friends and I were moved to tears. I didn’t realise how different it would feel to have an authentic young woman leading our country, instead of an old white man.
To face the challenges of climate change, housing, inequality, education, mental health, violence etc, I think an important element is a uniting of the feminine and masculine in leadership within individuals and in groups.
I’m surrounded by a lot of very grounded, intelligent, loving, capable and powerful women. There are so many around. Despite this, I still don’t see a lot of women able to lead from integrated, embodied feminine (whatever that means… love, vulnerability, care).
Then I realised that I wanted to qualify what “feminine” and “masculine” meant to me.
I added the following note to the letter:
Take the words feminine and masculine here with a grain of salt, I use them here as a short-term shortcut to express something very complex in a simple way I think we may both understand. I’d like to see those words change/fall out of use, but in the meantime they feel helpful.
Then I realised that as long as I continue to USE the words “feminine” and “masculine” as representatives of things, they won’t change/fall out of use!
Using language that I want to leave behind is like itching a mosquito bite to make it go away
So I decided I needed to express my ideas and intentions without the words “feminine” and “masculine”.
Exactly what was I trying to use those words to express?
- I’d love to see men valuing the set of qualities and values often represented by “Feminine”
- I’d love to see women able to feel able and supported to embody the set of qualities and values often represented by “Feminine” in leadership positions, as well as continuing to embody the set of qualities and values represented by “Masculine”.
- I’d love to also see men continue to embody the set of qualities and values represented by “Masculine” and also start to embody the set of qualities and values represented by “Feminine”.
The words “Feminine” and “Masculine” represent sets of qualities and values
What are those qualities and values?
They are all the qualities and values of humanity.
Gender splits them according to whether you can have babies/have a penis/vagina/breasts.
There are infinite ways to split them. Here’s the split a child would find from a google search:
Here are the first results a child would find on Google:
Ok, so according to Google, the feminine gender gets:
- girlish (childish)
- something about snowdrops
And the masculine gender gets:
- raw energy
Any surprises that masculine gets “powerful”, while feminine gets ‘girlish’?
nothing about “boyish” in the masculine one.
Here’s a more beautiful split:
To face the challenges of climate change, housing, inequality, education, mental health, violence etc, I think an important element is a uniting of the feminine and masculine in leadership, within individuals and in groups.
Should people who identify as men not embody love, patience, empathy?
Should people who identify as women not embody strength, logic, confidence?
And what about people who don’t identify as either, or identify as both?
The words “Feminine” & “Masculine” TIE the quality & value sets to a gender.
As long as there are people who identify as Men, it doesn’t really make lingual/conceptual sense for them to embody “Feminine”
and vice-versa for those who identify as “Women” embodying the “Masculine”.
So if we ditch “Feminine” and “Masculine”, what can we use instead?
1. We can speak directly to the qualities and values
That’s how I rewrote my letter to Jacinda without “masculine” or “feminine”:
When I found out that you were our new Prime Minister, I was moved to tears. I didn’t realise how different it would feel to have an authentic young woman leading our country, instead of an old white man. To have you as our Prime Minister makes me feel so much pride for Aotearoa. I feel hope that we can lead the way again, that Aotearoa be a place to show other countries beautiful new ways of being, like we did with women’s voting in 1893.
To face the challenges of climate change, housing, inequality, education, mental health, violence etc, I think an important element is a uniting of both love, care, vulnerability, intuition + other qualities with the currently dominant values of challenge, strength, intellect + other qualities in political leadership, both within individuals, and in groups.
I’m surrounded by a lot of very grounded, intelligent, loving, capable and powerful women, aged 16 months to 90 years. There are so many around. Despite this, I still don’t see a lot of women leading with integrated love, care, vulnerability, intuition. My sister is doing her PHD in genetics. She has an abundance of love, care, vulnerability, intuition, challenge, strength, intellect, but during her time at work she has to completely disable her love, care, vulnerability, intuition, out of a justified fear that if those with power and influence within Academia see those qualities in her they will lose respect for her as a scientist, and look at her as a weaker women, someone to be flirted with, who’s main priority will be children.
2. We can use non-gendered words to represent useful sets of qualities and values
Grouping things can be helpful for communication.
I think there is a dominance of:
[Strength, Intelligence, Challenge, Argument, Competition]
in leadership and throughout our current society, and a lack of:
[Love, Care, Vulnerability, Intuition, Dialogue, Collaboration]
It would be helpful to be able to summarise those groups for more simple discussion — so we don’t run out of breath.
What about Yin & Yang?
They have some gender associations, but are not gendered — it’s widely understood that it is desirable for one to have balanced Yin & Yang within oneself.
By swapping out “Masculine” for “Yang” and “Feminine” for “Yin” in our everyday language and conversations, we de-genderise important value and quality sets and in doing so create a possibility for all people to relate to and embody them.
The questions of Language, Gender, Values, Qualities and Relations are huge. This story was a window, throwing some words and concepts at something very large, complex and still very mysterious. I’d value your musings and questions around these topics.
This enquiry led to a deeper enquiry…
The first thing you must do is forget my gender. The second thing you must do is never forget my gender
A note about the letter to Jacinda: The other part of that letter not shown was an offering of support and practical gifts. I ended up chopping out the whole “opinions on required leadership qualities” from my letter, for concern that Jacinda would be put off by a bunch of unsolicited opinions (from a white man! ha..), and not read all the way to the offers of support and practical gifts. This other leadership quality stuff may make it in in a more considered and collaborative open letter from a wider community.