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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 19. 2nd August 1973



Kate Millett in her book Sexual Politics refers to the use of the term 'man' to cover all human beings. One could add terms like 'mankind, man in the street, to man a ship, man trap, manhole, manpower, manmade, and chairman, manslaughter' and expressions like 'to a man' meaning 'without exception', and the use of the pronoun 'he' to refer to males and females. Millett relates this practice to the patriarchal societies in which men possess all the power — political, military, financial, legal, industrial etc. She says "within the Indo- European languages this is a nearly inescapable habit of mind for despite all the customary pretence that 'man' and humanity' are terms which apply equally to both sexes, general application favours the male far more often than the female as referent, or even sole referent of such designations."

In our western society feminists have claimed that 'man' is regarded as the norm, a 'woman' as a departure from the norm, using linguistic structure as evidence. The linguistic forms cited as evidence can be described as marked or unmarked forms: they are not restricted to sex differentiation.

When referring to people, the feminine is often marked by adding the prefix — ness to the male form, e.g. actor, prince, waiter, conductor. This is most true of terms referring to social or occupational roles and it is understandable that the female forms are derived from the male forms, since the infiltration of women into professional roles was usually subsequent to the occupation of these roles by men. Language is here reflecting historical change.

In order to say anything useful about language and social values we need to look for cases where linguistic marking is significant or has developed significance over time, as in the case mentioned before where 'harlot' was once sexually neutral but is no longer. Examples from outside language include the existence of a marked category in newspaper lay-outs — the women's page (which suggest that what concerns women is different from what concerns men.)

Lakoff looks at the contrast in meaning between master and mistress from the point of view of marked and unmarked forms. Master is unmarked in the sense of a master of a skill or academic field. (Master of Arts, Bachelor of Arts as degrees have no female forms). Mistress however, is used to refer to women as sexual possessions. A woman can be described as X's mistress: i.e. she belongs to him. She is defined as one of his possessions. Remember too, the final words of the marriage ceremony "I now pronounce you man and wife." The man's position is unchanged but the woman is defined in relation to the man.

And this brings us to 'Mr, Mrs and Miss'. Woman are given their identity in society by virtue of their relationship to men. A woman's marital status is considered important information in our society, even by women themselves. It effects the way a woman is seated, and until this changes, the form [unclear: Ms] won't be widely adopted. Social change must precede lexical change. Language reflects attitudes, it can't alter them. The replacement of the word 'spinster' with its derogatory implications by 'bachelor girl' cannot force society to stop regarding spinsters as having failed in some way, or to have missed the beat, and so 'old maid' is another loaded term with no male equivalent.

Drawing a woman and gender symbols