The Power of Language

October 2013/Second Year of College

The Power of Language

Despite the Movement’s attempt to spread gender equality and women’s rights, present ideas of misogyny are disturbingly spread by women themselves. Not only do women spread misogynist values and ideas, but many women can been seen evoking patriarchal tactics of control by “using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” (Hooks, 1986). In order to investigate and evaluate relationships between women and answer the question of women-based misogyny, language must be considered (Lewis, 2013). Language is an extraordinary tool of communication, powerful enough to promote misogyny among women themselves. Extensive empirical and theoretical research on gender and language has clearly demonstrated the link between power and identity in the ways in which women and men are referred to in language. Gender relations are reflected, created, and sustained through everyday interaction through the use of language meant to guarantee the dominant social position of men and the subordinate social position of women (Weatherall, 1998). The scope of the problem that misogynistic language creates is daunting. Language and power are seen affecting women in the workforce and in sexual assault and domestic violence. Unfortunately, women commit a shocking number of these language atrocities. A man’s ability to succeed in the workforce is “assertive,” while the woman is “bossy.” Newspapers often run articles with the tagline: “Senator McCain expressed his concerns…” alongside “House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi complained…” The language that we use often disempowers the minority; in this way, the woman is viewed in a lesser way, and when women themselves perpetuate these behaviors, the cycle is never-ending.

The link between power and language first occurred to me as an actual problem when I was volunteering at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center. The impact that language has on a domestic abuse conversation is unimaginable: It is often the difference between language like “Why does she stay?” and “Why does he hit?” When you realize that 1 in 3 women experience domestic abuse, the power of this language is unmatched. When I realized that 86% of victims are women, I wondered why women didn’t abuse as frequently as men (American Bar Association, 2011). Shockingly, research has shown that as children and teens in domestically violent homes develop, the likelihood of either gender perpetuating abuse is equal. By the time a woman has reached her twenties this equality all but disappears. It has been discovered that language and power play a huge role in whether or not someone has the capacity to abuse. Because abuse thrives on power, language linked to power needs to exist. When boys and male teens displayed signs of aggression, they were labeled with language that supported or explained the behavior: “Jealous,” “over-protective,” and “aggressive” were words associated with domestic violence patterns. In girls, on the other hand, language like “crazy,” “bitch,” and “Nazi” were used to describe the same patterns that were observed in their male counterparts. In this way, language is used to empower one group of people and marginalize another. Because the girls could not maintain power, their abusive tendencies could not withstand social expectations and the hegemonic masculinity that followed. This is just one of many clear examples of the power of language. In both instances, language was used as a tool to either empower or disempower a group; subsequently, in both instances, language succeeded in promoting or ceasing a behavior.

Similarly in the workforce, powerful women like Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, experience language daily that is meant to keep women subordinate. The effects of the differences in language associated with men and women has causation and correlation patterns in the workforce, too. The wage gap is at 77 cents to a man’s dollar (National Women’s Law Center, 2012), and women hold only 20% of Senate seats and 17.9% of House seats (Center for American Women, 2013). Interestingly enough, many women themselves still have a problem with female power. Lewis (2013) contends that the level of judgment and hatred we emit toward one another should be evaluated. If more energy was placed toward unity and solidarity, through gender-neutral language, women could collectively reign in positions that we are currently fighting one another in order to achieve. Immersed in this society that constantly undermines women through links in power and language, in response to Sandberg’s notion of “Leaning In,” Grant wrote that there is “simply no way for women to lean in without leaning on the backs of other women” (Ginkgo, 2013).

We need to recognize that language holds more power than we ever previously imagined. This recognition is a creation of cognition, and cognition to create change in behavior. The goal, then, is to realize that language is impactful and unavoidable; therefore, the language that we choose should express our true feelings and not be a substitute for interpersonal communication. When we choose our words, we need to make them purposive. We need to evaluate motivations for language that come from a place that is more implicitly masked: We need to ask questions related to the underlying messages that our words convey. These are all examples of behaviors that we need to be a part of in order to create change. We have seen how influential language is in our society today. We need to recognize and change the language that we use that undermines or underestimates its effect. When we read The Daily Collegian’s sexual assault reports tally, we need to reflect on why we ask questions like “Was she drunk/What was she wearing?” rather than “Why is this acceptable/Why is he raping?” This isn’t meant to drive a wrench deeper into the gender divide. After all, “This is not a tidy world of tyrannical men and victimized women, but a messier realm of oppressive social customs adhered to by men and women alike” (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009).

References 

American Bar Association. (2011). Domestic Violence Statistics. Retrieved from             http://www.americanbar.org/groups/domestic_violence/resources/statistics.html

Ginkgo. (2013, March 13). Misogyny: Why Women Trash Successful Women. Message posted to http://www.genderratic.com/p/2674/misogyny-why-women-trash-successful-women/

Hooks, B. (1986). Sisterhood: Political Solidarity between Women. Feminist Review, 23(1), 125-138. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1394725?uid=3739864&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=7            0&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101972472391

Kristof, N., & WuDunn, S. (2009). Half The Sky. New York City, New York: Vintage Books.

Lewis, L.E. (2012). Why Beating Each Other with the Master’s Tools Definitely Won’t Dismantle His House. Unpublished Manuscript, College of Communications, The Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania.

Lorde. A. (1983). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle tbe Master’s House. Retrieved from             http://lists.econ.utah.edu/pipermail/margins-to-centre/2006-March/000794.html

National Foundation for Women Legislators. (2013). Facts About Women Legislators. Retrieved from http://www.womenlegislators.org/women-legislator-facts.php

National Women’s Law Center. (2012). The Wage Gap is Stagnant in Last Decade. Retrieved from http://www.nwlc.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/poverty_day_wage_gap_sheet.pdf

Weatherall, A. (1998). Women and men in language. Human communication research (0360-3989), 25 (2), p. 275.

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