The women of today still suffer an acute depravation of basic human rights, which is both perpetuated and enforced through the use of patriarchal language.
Language, as it is employed today, is a tool—nay, a weapon—men often used against women in order to maintain the social patriarchy whereby they have for millennia ruled women and children. To rule, as I use it here, is to subdue, control, disenfranchise, and disempower with the intellect in a way that silences opposition without the telltale marks of physical abuse.
Social patriarchy is based on the belief that males are superior to females. For those who submit to this belief, it’s critical to ensconce the sense of superiority within the social institutions of the land, particularly the controlling entities of religion and government, which are organize and chartered to reflect and defend the perceived superiority. Further, social organizations are based on, adhere to, and protect their stance through the use of language. A society, when so conditioned from generation to generation through the repetitive use of male-oriented language, comes to accept, and then support, the patriarchy with more and greater opportunities than the sex deemed of inferior stature. To maintain this hierarchical advantage, however, the self-appointed, superior males must always make their counterpart females appear lesser—regardless of the topic.
Consider the English professor who wrote on the blackboard, “a woman without her man is nothing,” and directed the students to punctuate it correctly.
The men wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
The women wrote: “A women: without her, man is nothing.”
I think physical stature probably helped set the tone for the patriarchal domination of language, even before our forbearers moved into caves. I say this because, as a species, we humans exhibit sexual dimorphism, which, in biological terms, simply means that men and women are visibly different in their physical features—men being generally larger and more stoutly build than women. This phenomenon is also applicable to our closest primate relatives, and such other species as elephants, bears, whales, deer, lions, as well as a considerable number of cosmopolitan tiger beetles in the genus Cicindela, to name a few. In some raptorial birds, however, the reverse is true—females are larger and stronger than the males.
Clearly, a mere difference in physical size and strength would give the primitive male hominid a competitive advantage over the more slightly built female. If so, it seems highly probable that facial expressions, threatening gestures, and a deeper (and perhaps louder) voice augmented the male’s larger size, which, in turn, was amplified by these attributes. The synergism of these traits could easily be construed as patriarchal authoritarianism. On the other hand, male dominance may well have been vital in those far-away days for the mere survival of the family when pitted daily against the threat of predation from such creatures as cave bears or saber-tooth tigers. Moreover, with the conversion to eating flesh, it fell to the males to hunt and subdue large and dangerous animals as food for the family or clan.
Because language is the storehouse of knowledge, and knowledge is the key to social freedom, some cultures and religions forbid the education of women, thus holding them in social bondage. In the United States, however, the social serfdom of women is maintained through the use of language. But when did this patriarchal takeover of language begin, in the cave?
In the yesteryears of our ancestry, the females and children probably had to obey the directives of the males without hesitation, whenever their survival was threatened. In such circumstances, there might have been time react—but nothing more, which meant the communicative “bottom line” had to encompass all the pertinent information received and dispensed within split-second timing. This requirement precluded discussion.
Did this requirement somehow become archived in our genetic makeup? I wonder because so many of the men with whom I have worked over the years just want the informational “bottom line,” without elaboration. At times, I find myself in that category, even when there is no pressing circumstance, no reason to be in a hurry.
With the foregoing in mind, it seems to me that sexual dimorphism led naturally to a growing division of labor in the era of the cave. How might this have worked? Well, the males’ primary task lay outside the cave, where they hunted often-dangerous animals for food, which frequently placed the hunters in immanent danger. Meanwhile, the females’ main tasks kept them in proximity to the cave in order to protect their young from inclement weather and perform the daily chores of maintaining the cave’s habitability, while tending their offspring.
In other words, the males were the protectors and hunters, whereas the females complemented them by assuming the roles of managers, gatherers, and primary teachers. As such, it was the females who had to nurture, teach, and discipline the youngsters during their most formative years. This kind of responsibility required patience, understanding, intergenerational trust, and informative interrelationships. The feminine voice was softer, quieter, and was probably accompanied by fewer threatening gestures. All of which necessitated a language apart from that of the males—a gentler language based on a verbal journey of reasoned outcomes, shared relationships, and iterative feedback loops of learning, whereby the skills were acquired through which daily rituals could be performed.
When old enough, strong enough the young males began to assume their appointed roles as hunters and protectors, often far afield from the relative safety of their home cave. At this point in their young lives, their perception of language would begin to change, even as mind did the more I was around adult men, and thus separated from the gentler, more sensitive influence of women. It was during this time that the authoritative, patriarchal words and tone began to creep unbeknownst into my vocabulary, voice, and demeanor. And, I am ashamed to say, I began to impugn women with my increasingly chauvinistic “male language.” Here, an interesting dichotomy presents itself.
The females, who maintained the many functional relationships within cave, could only do so if, over time, they became masters of multitasking. Speaking of multitasking, I once saw a woman sitting on a chair reading a magazine, while her infant played on a chair next to her. At one point, the child got too close to the edge of the chair, whereupon the woman’s arm shot out, corralled her child, and pull it to safety. What amazed me was the fact that the woman read throughout the whole episode—never once looking directly at her child.
Males, on the other hand, who left the cave to hunt, would of necessity do so with a single-mined purpose, which logically translated into a single-pointed focus. And yet, today, I find women to far exceed men in their ability to multitask.
In addition, the cave would have represented a relatively constant, known, and safe place, whereas the dangers of the outer world would forever be an unknown variable that must be faced every time the males left on the hunt. This very uncertainty of the outer world led to a different kind of technology than would have occurred within and around the cave. Whereas a female would be interested in a utensil in which to carry water, a male would place importance on a weapon whereby he could defend himself and his family and/or with which to hunt more safely and successfully.
Development of any kind is the collective introduction of thoughts, which inevitably lead to further introductions of terms used to identify practices, substances, technologies, and strategies one could use to extract a given resource or to defend those already in possession. Another facet of technology is the sense it gave our forbearers, and still gives us, of ever-greater control over our environment, which today in Western industrialized society is all too often seen as a war against the uncertainties of Nature—against the creative novelty of the Universe itself. To understand this statement, let’s look at a simplistic scenario: the development of weapons.
Weapons themselves initially came about as a means of protecting oneself against predators and for obtaining food. In this simplistic scenario, let’s assume that the first weapon was most likely a hurled rock or a piece of wood used as a club. Then, somewhere in the far reaches of past memory, a human-like creature began to see the advantage of using a long piece of wood to hold some viscous predator at bay. With time, it was discovered that a stick could be fashioned into a more potent weapon by rubbing one end against rough rocks until a sharpened point was affected, a point that caused pain or death.
Next, it was discovered that such a pointed stick could be hurled at a foe or potential meal, and thus was born the rudimentary art of making and using a spear. Then, perhaps by accident, it was learned that subjecting the spear’s pointed end to heat from a fire could harden it, and thus make it more durable. This may have been followed by attaching a piece of sharp bone to create a more lethal tip and, finally, by fastening to the end a piece of stone that was carefully shaped into a sharp, cutting point. Again time passed, and it was figured out that by making and using a throwing stick or “atlatl,” a spear could be hurled with greater force and penetrating power than simply by using one’s own extended arm.
Then came the bow and arrow, which could be shot faster and farther than a spear could be thrown. In addition, one could carry far more arrows than spears, and arrows were probably more economical to make and thus less of a setback when broken or lost. Over time, experimentation led to attaching parts of birds’ feathers to the end of an arrow opposite the point. Gradually, it became common knowledge that if the feathers were arranged at a slight angle, the arrow would spin its way accurately through the air and travel faster and farther, becoming a still more lethal weapon. This in turn meant that one could shoot at one’s opponent or at game from a greater, and thus safer, distance. Arrows also progressed from stone-tipped to iron-tipped projectiles, and bows became stronger, finally leading to the invention of the crossbow, a weapon much more deadly than the traditional longbow of the time. The next advance in the lethal capacity of weaponry of personal confrontation had to wait for the invention of gunpowder, which made possible the smoothbore musket-type weapon, and so on and so on.
Each technological advance in weaponry has not only allowed the weapon to be used from a safer, more distant position but also increased the accuracy and power of the projectiles. Each technological advance also did something else, however; it made both enemy and game animals increasingly abstract entities because one could kill at ever greater distances, thus divorcing oneself from the intimate relationship with either human foe or wild animal that clubs and spears, or even a bow and arrows, demanded.
And so, the male’s world became evermore abstract and emotionally distant. Contrariwise, the female’s world became more relationship oriented with time because, while technology may have simplified the male’s role, it complicated the female’s duties. I say this because “home,” whatever it was, tended to be where every new thing accumulated, was stored, and had to be cared for, which not only added greatly to the female’s chores but also enhanced their psychological responsibility and, therewith, emotional presence.
Each culture (the family unit and/or the clan), and each subculture within that culture (the cave, female; the hunt, male), affected its own environment and was accordingly affected by it in a particular way. The independence with which the male and female subcultures would have developed within the overall culture of the cave created their uniqueness within themselves, as well as within the reciprocity they experienced with their respective daily environments.
The females’ behavioral patterns evolved in proximity to the cave, whereas the males’ evolved in the world outside of the cave. As these disparate behavioral patterns became ingrained in everyday life, and thus passed from one generation to the next, it seems reasonable that two diverging vocabularies, each with a different emphasis, would develop within an otherwise common language. In turn, language—the master tool representing its own culture—is still composed of two subcultures (in western society at least), each with its unique construct, which determines both its limitations and its possibilities for expressing myth, emotion, and logic. And the subculture (male or female—female or male) that controls the language determines the culture.
This struggle for power, for control—conscious or unconscious—was born the moment the first of our forbearers with a social advantage, such as superior strength, eliminated human equality from the heart of their way of life and replaced it with inequality based on gender, which today is ensconced in our everyday language.
In this case, it would have been exceedingly difficult for early hominids to consciously reconcile the complimentary nature of both sexes with respect to the survival of the family unit and/or clan—not to mention their own survival as a species. Even today, I hear reference made to the “war of the sexes,” as opposed to the complementary cooperation of the sexes for the common good.
“War of the sexes” is almost a euphemism. Women today, even in the United States, are treated much like the cattle I used to drive in my yesteryears, when I worked as a cowboy on cattle ranches. During late spring, as the snows of winter melted in the high mountains, we prepared to drive the cattle from the fields around the ranch, where we had fed them all winter, to the pastures of summer. Then, each autumn, we rounded them up again, prior to the onset of winter’s snow, and drove them back down to the ranch, where once again we fed them until the next spring. Now, looking back, I see how the world’s women are, more often than not, treated like herds of the cattle I use to drive.
There are three positions in driving cattle: point, flank, and drag. “Point” is the rider out front—the leader, the person who must know the way; where the water is; where there is sufficient forage to rest and feed the cattle; how fast to move the herd without making them lose weight from exertion, particularly in autumn when they will be sold and the rancher paid by the weight of each animal. “Flank” is the position alongside the herd to keep them moving in the desired direction, and “drag” is the least desirable position at the rear of the herd, breathing the dust.
The point rider is alone, not only physically but also psychologically, with the major responsibility for the safety and welfare of the herd, as well as that of the other riders. The leader must know where to go and how to get there. On the other hand, the riders at flank are the managers who know how to keep the herd moving in the direction set by the rider at point. The person(s), riding drag had the “mop-up” position, which means to keep the would-be stragglers moving, so none are left behind.
In my cowboy days, a man rode point, men and boys rode flank, while the women and girls road drag. The men at least use words to keep the women “in line,” instead of the whips some of them used to control the cattle. To me, herding cattle is a metaphor of a phenomenon that I have long observed in our society, which is still particularly pronounced in the structure of our most prominent organizations.
For example, over the years that I have spoken before such conservation organizations as the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and their various chapters, it has been clear that the greatest body of members has been women, but the leadership was always men. There is similar gender segregation in most prominent religions, corporations, and governments. The only difference between herding cattle and these organizations is that women replace the cattle in our society—and in most other societies.
How does the patriarchal tenor insert itself in our language? It does so in three ways. First, by inserting male-dominated words, such as: he/his, mankind, manmade, manpower, manhole, man-hours, fisherman, fireman, policeman, lineman, God the Father.
Second, by exerting every opportunity to use patriarchal words in a verbal and/or written form. Here are three examples of what I was taught as a young man: All women have head problems, so there’s no point listening to anything they say. Women are good for only one thing, sex, and they’re not even good at that. And, finally, women have such clean minds because they change them all the time. Of course, by inference, men have dirty minds because they never change them; moreover, once a real man makes up his mind about something, he never changes it.
A further example is a current television program called, “Wife Swapping,” which keeps the male in charge without explicitly saying so. Why not call the program, “Husband Swapping,” which puts the female in charge? Or better yet, call the program “Partner Swapping” or “Spouse Swapping,” and keep it neutral. And then there is the insidious “he/she” and “his/hers.” I have in past books attempted to put the feminine first or mix up the usage, but editors have invariably insisted that “he” and “his” must precede the feminine.
The third use of language to dominate women is silence, as exemplified by the total lack of recognition by the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, and State Revenue Departments of the monetary value of domestic work performed by the mere “house wife.” Every day, the multitasking house wife is: an accountant, money manager, restaurateur, cleaning service, laundromat, day-care specialists for children of various ages, pediatric nurse, and taxi service, to name a few. Rural women are also farmers, who produce more than half of the food grown in the world, but are allowed to own pittance of the land. Once again, the male dominated world shuns any acknowledgement of women’s role in feeding the world. Agricultural corporations are particularly egregious in this respect.
If ever there was a dire necessity of letting the cave mentality fade into the past and evolve to a high level of consciousness, now is that time. To alter our current social paradigm, however, from one fractured by male domination to one more balanced by gender equality, will require us—the adult males—to purposefully reform our thinking, as expressed through our common use of the English language. To understand what a gender-dominant language “feels” like, read: “As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen, and then read the revised edition, “As a Woman Thinketh,” by Dorothy J. Hulst.
If we refused to treat women with the respect they’re due, take them seriously when they speak, and give them equal rights, wars will continue to ravage our home planet, our human population will remain staggeringly out of control, environmental degradation will continue apace, and global warming will accelerate. Without a gender-neutral use of English, which connotes a shift in thinking, our male egos will continue to be made blind and deaf by the arrogance of social domination and all the various forms of its ensuing, single-minded competition. As always, the women and children—especially female children—of all generations will pay the price for our decisions and actions mediated, as they are, through our male, chauvinistic use of language.
These essays are dedicated to Zane, my wife of more than 28 years, during which time she has continually taught me the spiritual and social value of the female half of my genetic heritage—my “X” chromosome—and thereby helped me to become a more psychologically mature and balanced human being. She has honored me with her presence and her love. What more me could I ask?
© Chris Maser, 2009. All rights reserved.