Shortly after my wedding to my first husband, two days shy of my 25th birthday, my mother sent me a card addressed to Mrs. Stephen K. Burley. I had chosen to take my ex-husband’s name — the choice between “Slaughter” and “Burley,” I reasoned, was the choice between “cut-throat” and “heavyweight” — but I looked at the envelope in disbelief. There was nothing of me left, not a word except the all-important “Mrs.,” signifying that I had achieved every woman’s dream, the transition to marriage. When I complained to my mother, who certainly did not share the view that marriage should be my goal in life but who was just following convention, she said, “but if I addressed the envelope to “Mrs. Anne-Marie Burley,” that would signify that you were divorced. Again, the most important aspects of a woman’s traditional identity were encoded in titles: Miss, Mrs., Mrs.
I remember a few weeks later, as I eased into my first year of law school, the way my professors talked. The year was 1982, and self-described progressive professors at Harvard Law School were deliberately trying to change the gender messages they sent. Thus when my torts professor mentioned a judge, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or any other profession, he would deliberately use the pronoun “she.” I jumped every time he did it. It just sounded so strange. I didn’t know a single woman doctor, judge, or engineer. I knew of one woman lawyer, Anne Marie Whittemore, a partner at my father’s and uncle’s law firm who had already become something of a role model. As I tell my students, I’m not that old, but as recently as the early 1980s the shift in pronoun opened up my world.
After the publication of my Atlantic article, so many of the blog posts, comments, emails and conversations I received would describe my decision to leave my State Department job and return to Princeton as “dropping or opting out.” This was beyond frustrating. Mind you, I had already anticipated such a characterization, so that in the article itself I wrote: “I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40–50 speeches a year; and am working on a new academic book.” Still, over and over again I saw framings that essentially said I had not been able to cut it in DC. These phrases — “drop out,” “opt out,” “retreat,” “fall back,” “give up,” or “end my political career” — pigeonhole me and countless women like me who have decided to defer promotion or work differently to be able to be with and care for loved ones. They imply that these women are failures, when in fact they are making a courageous choice to support the people they love.
How we talk matters. A lot. It matters at work, at home, in life. The words we choose reflect and reinforce deep assumptions about what is normal and what is not, what is approved and what is not; what is valued and what is not. Take just one example: when a mother is out for an evening and someone says, “oh, is your husband babysitting tonight?” Have you ever heard someone ask a man who is out for an evening whether his wife is “babysitting?” These sorts of linguistic distinctions may seem subtle or insignificant, but an entire structure of assumed responsibility and approved behavior patterns hangs in the balance.
Behavior shapers from activist organizers to Madison Avenue all understand the power of language and framing. They spend billions on finding new words and concepts that will inscribe new categories in our brains and new choices and habits in our bodies. From “female circumcision” to “female genital mutilation.” From the Marlboro Man to “Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.” From “buy our shoes” to “Just do it.” Exploring how we talk about women, work, and family now, even 60 years after the launching of the second wave of the women’s movement, is deeply revealing. Equally important, changing the language we use is something all of us can do, every day.
Each one of us can commit to talking differently, to talking as if we hold men and women equally responsible not only for creating children but also for raising them, and as if the people we respect and value most have full lives in which the people and things they love are just as important as their work. We can describe men who are in the workforce and have children as “working fathers,” just as we describe women who are in the workforce and have children as “working mothers.” We can talk about a woman or a man who is home full-time with children as a “lead parent,” rather than a “stay-at-home mom” or “stay-at-home dad,” a phrase that implies that the office is the norm and thus someone at home needs a qualifier.
Talk alone will not change everything. But talk can change the way we think, which can then change the way we act. If we want to better our world and improve the way we value people and the choices they make, we can start by making our language reflect the change we’d like to see.
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