Last week in the planning for mass food production, so that we could eat insanely to show how thankful we are for life, I learned that two of my sisters-in-law had been asked to bring dishes to toss into the bacchanalia. When I heard that they were asked, I wondered why I had not been. The answer, I’m sure, was the assumption that women cook. Cooking is what women do, yes? Along with the assumption that men don’t. (I made collards anyway.)
Of course I don’t expect my elderly relatives to be up on the barricades waving flags of social change. But someone needs to be up there. Gender roles are social prisons. When we say to a person, “Here is what you are supposed to do” based on that person’s genitalia, there is something so existentially fucked up in such a notion that it cannot be fixed. Such an idea can only be destroyed.
All of our ideas, be they noble or reprehensible, come through in our language even when we don’t realize we’re expressing them. Openly sexist language—the kind no one with a brain uses anymore—is usually easy to recognize, except by the kind of men who go to Hooters and vote for certain Republican candidates. More subtle, and harder to recognize, are those ways of using English that simply assume men own the world. Even so, people have been addressing this kind of language for several decades now, with words like “policeman” and “chairman”, or the use of “he” to refer to any unknown person (the doctor tells his nurse).
The idea that our role in the world is determined at birth is a straightjacket of stupidity and obsession with the physical world. I’m not saying we’re smart about it. We’re not. Clearly we are obsessed with the physical world, even if we don’t belong to a fundamentalist religion. The idea that we are spiritual creatures beyond our body is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all.
Maybe a time will come when we deal with other human beings on the basis of their minds and spirits, instead of always seeing a person as a physical object. Even if we do reach this point, language can bury old ways of thinking—and importantly, it can affect thinking. Take a modern word that’s used only in fairly academic writing, the word “seminal”. It means something new that is so important, it causes other things to follow, as in the sentence “Johnson’s seminal work led to the field of kinetic studies”. There is logic with this word in the idea of producing something new, as it comes from the Latin for “seed”, but notice that it is also related to the word “semen” (also logically inferring “seeds”). What we see here is that novelty and creation are described with an implied reference to maleness. And yet it is women who give birth. Why aren’t new ideas described with a reference to the womb? “Martin’s wombic work has greatly influenced social policy.”
Some older examples of etymology may be even more interesting. Generally it’s a good thing to display virtue. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, virtue is “morally good behavior or character.” We could notice several things in that definition, but start with “morally”. The implication there is that virtue begins on an ethical level, going on to involve both behavior and the state of a person’s character. That’s a lot. Where does all this noble goodness come from? The word “virtue” comes from the Latin word “vir” meaning man (compare “virile”). To have virtue is to act like a man.
Maybe this kind of thing makes you crazy. Maybe you’re feeling hysterical by now. We all know what “hysterical” is, a wild display of uncontrolled emotions. Where does that one come from? In ancient Greek the word ὑστέρα (hystera) meant uterus. It was the uterus that was thought to cause uncontrolled bursts of emotion, and thus—you see the logic here? beautiful, huh?—only women could be hysterical.
We might not be surprised that primitive societies, gaping up in fear at the sky, shaping their deities out of clay and stone, would imagine that male and female are irrevocably different creatures. They were primitive people, after all. But we’re modern. We’ve come so far. We invented sports bars so men would have a place to drink beer and scream at glass boxes. The women, as you know, are home cooking. One group is hysterical, the other is virtuous.