In the Spirit of Collegial Inquiry...

updated: 1 Aug 99

Gender-laden Language, Renaissance Women, and the Ponderous Future

Part One

Adapted from our discussions of February '99

EM:   ... In this forum, many are called but few are chosen, which is to say, they desire to affiliate, God knows why, then become silent contemplatives. Perhaps it results in spiritual growth, if there is such a thing as a spirit, and if there is such a thing as growth, and if that is a desideratum anyhow. I am much taken with the discussion here about the information explosion, with side references to the legendary renaissance man, ... why were there no renaissance women? ... and what should we make of all of it?

My own persuasion is that it is a continuing accretion of human mythology, somewhat parallel to Laura's speculations. Whether a dunning notice arrives by e-mail or pony express, it is still a dunning notice, and the origin is probably the same human behavior from one century to another.

LDL: There were few Renaissance Women because it was illegal for a woman to speak, to be heard, to have or present ideas during the Renaissance. The Catholic church ruled with an iron hand and even kings bowed down to the authority of the church!

Women were, with few exceptions, not among those taught to read or write ... not even among the noble class! Here and there a woman, stunningly courageous and exceptionally brilliant, beat the system. Hildegarde Von Bingen, although catholic herself, was one such women. The question might be ... why even today are those few brilliant and courageous women not recognized for their accomplishments? Perhaps the boot is not entirely off the neck ... n'est-ce pas?

CRS:   I recall watching a TV story about daVinci. The topic at hand was the subject of his most famous painting. One of the theories was that the Mona Lisa was a self portrait. Perhaps he was the model, and was trying to ask the same question you just did!

Really, it was very interesting. The Mona Lisa and several other drawings or sketches of daVinci were compared and superimposed in an attempt to show the similarities between the two faces. Hmmm?

MR:   I think I saw the same show. It was an Unsolved Mysteries, narrated by Robert Stack. A slightly manic friend of mine brought over the videotape.

We previously had had a discussion about the Mona Lisa supposedly being a DaVinci self-portrait. He claimed it was a fact, and I declared somewhat arrogantly (and jokingly) that if I hadn't heard about this "fact", then I doubted that it was true.

Bob Stack did his best to puff up the story, but in the end it seemed clear that a previously done picture was the model for the Mona Lisa. There was one convoluted sentence from Bob starting with "Could it be, ...." that we played over and over again, trying to understand what the hell he was saying, and never succeeding. That was a lot of fun for my girlfriend {smile}. You have to assume whatever meaning there was in the sentence passed right over the head of the casual viewer. That sentence was the "Unsolved Mystery" for us.

JCC:   A fine train of discussion, everyone! It's an open question as to the extent of damage caused by gender-laden language. Obviously there is some degree of discouraging word passed along to girls and young women growing up in almost any culture on planet earth, even in these times which are thought to be more enlightened than previous eras of history. Now it is fair to observe that too much ought not to be made of pronouns and much of gender in the purely grammatical sense. Turkish, after all, has but a single third person pronoun (if I remember correctly) and was officially "sanitized" of many Arabic loan-words which happened to be quite sensitive to gender distinctions by nature of the language. I suppose language does propagate hidden assumptions but it is quite difficult to impose changes on language, which after all, reflects the everyday usage of its native speakers.

Brilliant women certainly lived, thought, and expressed themselves in the dozen centuries following the collapse of classical civilization. The problem may be that historians and other academics did not consider them worthy of any serious consideration until those recent years when our own culture began to outgrow a purely male-supremacist viewpoint. I can recommend two enjoyable books among others celebrating the neglected stories of cultural heroines of medieval times and the Renaissance:

Leon, V., Uppity Women of Medieval Times, New York: MJF Books, 1997. ISBN 1-56731-250-0

McAlister, L.L., ed., Hypatia's Daughters: Fifteen Hundred Years of Women Philosophers, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-253-33057-2 and 0-253-21060-7

CRS:   Of course, I prefer to think the term man is not gender specific. I believe all of the current Hoo-Rah regarding gender specific terms like 'mailman', 'workman', 'congressman', et. al ad-nauseam is a waste of effort.

Here in my hometown I am a member of the board of directors of an outfit populated with local elected officials. Recently the Chair was occupied by a woman whose first order of business was to officially change the title from "Chairperson" back to "Chairman". The resolution was passed unanimously by a board of 6 women and 5 men.

EM:   My favorite example of politically correct imbecility is "personhole cover" for manhole cover. Among other evils it interjects a colloquial lubricity totally unnecessary as our nation founders in a sea of jejune prurience, genuine on the part of the principal government official involved. This is met with an equally genuine interest, disguised as concern for the public morality, on the part of those who struggle ceaselessly, though apparently ineffectively, to bring him down.

WHK:   We have a woman who leads the Fairfax County (Virginia) Board of Supervisors, and refers to herself as Chairman. - Females at the Naval Academy are referred to as Midshipmen, just like the males.

LDL:   Perhaps you wouldn't think it so much "wasted effort" if the gender non-specific term was "woman!"

Example: "After all, womankind has created an incredible world! It is a woman's world! Why do guys get so bent out of shape about the non-gender specific word, woman? Not all guys, of course, some of them know their place, but others actually have opinions of their own."

Some woman find the gender non-specific word to be a continuation of male dominance into the modern world. Considering the severity of the crimes, and I use the word precisely, against women ... I find no fault in their perspective.

There are, of course, many women who have no problem with the generic use of man, but there are women who have no problem being subjugated and dominated as well. The question is, do those who have an objection have a legitimate complaint and is it proper to dismiss that complaint cavalierly ... or is that more of the same old silencing of the feminine voice? Shut up, bitch, I don't want to hear from you!"

I think the above questions are self-answerable!

Those women who call for equal recognition are not attempting to bring the government down ... they are attempting to get an equal voice in government as their intellect, numbers, and self-knowledge dictate. It seems there is a genuine lack of understanding of women who had to fight to get the right to vote, to run for public office, and for equal rights to pay and consideration in a society that has, until the last war, when women were needed, been dominated by men.

Besides, if the government can be brought down by wanting a change in the language that would include women, then perhaps that government needs to be brought down. I find it amazing that so many men take umbrage at what they would be demanding for themselves, if the words were reversed and they were embraced by the term "womanhood!"

But I suspect many men run to their wives with their complaints on this issue, and their wives, loving them, pat them on the head and say, "Yes, dear, you're right! Those women are just complaining bitches that don't appreciate you!" GriN!

Womankind, throughout the ages, has stood for courage, boldness, inventiveness, and change. It seems as womankind's manifest destiny unfolds, life becomes increasingly better. Of all life on earth it is woman that thinks, woman that shines, woman that has the spark of genius. Womankind, may one day colonize mars, perhaps, the stars, and, yes, she shall raise her eyes to the heavens and challenge the gods.

Oh, yeah, that includes males too ... womankind is a non-gender specific word! After all, "man" is included in wo"man" so there is no intent to slight the male sex, and all men are born to females and the base DNA has been passed down from Lucy, said to be the mother of the human species. So, women, womankind, and she make much better gender inclusive word than man, mankind, and he! {GriN!}

P.S. But it's okay ... we'll let you keep the label "manhole cover! ... Giggle! Chuckle! Guffaw!!!

AJ:   I guess that even though the term 'man' was gender neutral once upon a time, it patently isn't now. So, there can be no question of using man in place of human for instance. Imagine a biology textbook that used the term man in a gender neutral way. It might say things like "Like all mammals, man breastfeeds his babies." -- That just sounds odd. On the other hand, it is twisting things to regard the occurrence of m, a, and, n (in that order) in 'walkman' as gendered. So, not all words with man as a component need to be changed.

LDL:   After due consideration ... "man" was never a gender neutral term! It always sounded strange to hear someone talk of "man" as a mammal that breast feeds his baby! In fact, it was even stranger than some think "womanhole" cover sounds today! {GriN!}

CRS:   Of course this also applies to phrases like mother earth, mother nature, mother of invention, and on the flip side "the mother of all battles"...

JCC:   Certainly true! All such metaphors are rooted in culture, and it's doubtful whether any of it will disappear except through the attrition of gradual cultural change. Slang and neologisms either catch on when they fill a need, or they fade from the scene. Probably attitudes change more readily than our more traditional figures of speech ... the origins get forgotten, as we say "out of sorts", "the whole nine yards" or whatever. On the positive side, when careful thought is given to avoiding sexist language, sometimes an entire thought can be rephrased with greater clarity.

Admittedly that does not always happen. We'll yield to the Chair ... and hope that the chair doesn't yield if we sit down too forcefully!

LDL:   Absolutely right! One of the greatest virtues of English is that it's flexible, changes and adapts much more readily than other languages. Language Police in Montral require that a bilingual sign, if used at all, must always have the French placed above any other language and twice as large. Businesses have been closed for non-compliance!

Resistance to changing times and changing word usage that accompanies them if futile! The usage of an acclaimed gender free word that clearly is not gender free, suggests a vested interest in retaining language as it is because of a non-gender-free agenda! If woman, women, and womankind were used in a non-gender manner, I would imagine it causes discomfort and a sense of inappropriateness in many people. Yet, in many ways, with the current understanding of DNA, one could logically argue that, if there must be a non-gender gender specific word (what a mouthful that creates) woman, and women, would reflect a greater truth!

Are there subtle and not so subtle attacks on the self-esteem of young males, females, and gender blends as they are growing up? You bet! Remember shows like "The Life of Riley"? Dad was a boob ... apparently this only happened as a man approached adulthood, because both Mom and the kids were brighter than Dad! Women live longer, are sweeter, gentler, nicer, made of sugar and spice ... men die younger and sometimes violently, are meaner, stronger, harsher, made of snips, and snails and puppy dog tails! Are men today getting a bum rap ... a guy playing with a kid not his own offspring is automatically suspect of child molestation.

It's time we stopped thinking of males and females as opposite sexes, and started thinking of them as complementary. Both sexes should give up the competition with one another and listen to each other. I am in a unique (eunuch, GriN!) position and know both men and women are terrific. All of us can get along better if we understand how some things we do make the other feel denigrated.

What man wouldn't willing use gender-free words to discuss humanity and humankind, or "go where no one has gone before" as in the New Generation, if the only people thought of as child molesters were child molesters? A thought: there may be more sexual molestations by males, but there are more mothers who kill their children? Why do we focus on the lesser crime? Should all females be suspected murders of children?

In Arizona children rule! And that is to the detriment of the children as well as society! There are so many basic things about human nature that are never discussed, and they need to be discussed and changed, if we are ever to approach a world where people treat each other with fairness and justice. They don't exist you know ... fairness and justice! But they could, if we work at it together!

WAP:   Excellent point!! I agree, but what is the next step? It's easy to say we should give up competing, but realistically, that is a huge step. Us men especially love competition!! Anyone have any ideas?

LDL:   Men, at the highest levels of competition, respect and appreciate each other's accomplishments! Perhaps giving up competing totally would be difficult ... but I think we can work on diminishing the negative competition. Instead of psychological warfare, perhaps a cooperative competition could be encouraged. Many men and women are learning to appreciate each other's talents and skills, working side by side, perhaps sometimes with a positive spin including "friendly" competition.

I have been fortunate to be reasonably good at many things ... and I have found that my self-esteem doesn't depend on crushing another person in competition. Sometimes I have been known to back off and let someone else take first place, satisfied in the self-knowledge that I could have taken first. Go figure, these times have been more satisfying than when I've went full bore and won out!

And I make many friends ... together we have had wonderful adventures, had great delights, and all have grown and become better people. Those intimates close enough to me to know how I am with other people have learned patience, good sportsmanship, fair play, how to fight fair, and most important of all, to appreciate their own self-worth first, and then appreciate the self-worth of others as well. Appreciation, one of the simplest words in English, is, in my opinion, perhaps, the most important and useful of concepts.

How do we begin, you ask ... appreciation of our own worth and then appreciation of the worth of others. We dwell way too much on the negatives ... what we dwell on seems to increase! When some one doesn't take number one, or, heaven forbid, couldn't take number one even if they tried ... why do we diminish their accomplishment? Athletes are a prime example ... gold, silver, or bronze and who cares about the rest? Artists, Picasso "prostituted his art on garbage" (his own words). I knew it and he said it in precisely those words. Have you seen his earlier works? Wow! If someone had appreciated that man's early talent, we would have far greater wonders than those he did produce.

Women are highly intelligent people who have been kept silent and out of the mainstream far too long. Too many people are bitching about women taking "men's places" in the work world. Appreciation of their perspective helps make immense changes for the better. Men are denigrated for keeping women suppressed! It wasn't men ... it was the clergy! Men protected, sheltered, and loved women. They should be appreciated for taking it all on their shoulders. If it weren't for men's sense of fairness and justice women would never have gotten the vote, and never left the kitchen. Men and women get along much better when they appreciate that it has been together the world has been changed for the better ... both for men and women. And then there are gender variant bridges like Julia and myself ... we like to be appreciated too! {GriN!!}

WHK:   Speculating about potential problems for the early "manned" Mars missions, I was concerned about the stated intent of having a multicultural crew on all of them. While this is a nice "politically correct" idea, the room for personal miscommunication and other maladjustments among crew members grows with the length of the mission. For Earth orbit, returning one or more "difficult" members (mental illness, criminal activity, incompetence, or simply not fitting in with others) is less of a problem.

For missions [longer than two years], the threat to successful accomplishment of the mission could be significant. What to do? - incarcerate, immobilize, even terminate, if warranted? It will be a big enough problem finding completely stable personalities, those who get along with others under whatever conditions may come to be, in addition to being able accommodate to long term separation from Earth. Imposing an inter-cultural mix may exacerbate this situation; consider the personality differences acceptable in various societies, some placid, others volatile.

It occurs to me that the more homogenous a crew, the better. (One less confounding issue with which to contend.) - Continuing along that line of reasoning, consider the difficulties that may arise with mixed gender crews.

The sexual nature of our species will eventual arise, which evoke many possible scenarios beside simple pair couplings. Envy, jealousy, retribution, etc. Jerry Springer in space? The history of human relations in the Biosphere and aboard two-gender naval ships are instructive. So, the logical conclusion would be to use only one gender aboard Mars flights. An all female, single ethnic/culture crew certainly seems a better solution than alternatives, but probably won't happen.

JCC:   There's much sense to that. Clearly it will be difficult, and I hope the politics of crew selection would be minimized. I'm certain that there conversely are many of excellent qualifications who feel such passion for exploring the cosmos that they would willingly give their lives for the privilege of exploring a neighboring world.

EM:   It is with a feeling of great sadness and impotence that I view what is happening to women today in Afghanistan (Kabul) under the authority of the Taliban. It is horrifying beyond belief that modern, in some instances well-educated, women are treated with less regard than domestic animals.

We live in this vaunted age of instant world communication, yet a small tyrannical and lunatic political group is able to exercise despotic political control over the women in the geographic area under its hegemony. The boundaries of the geographic area are as imaginary as any other delineations devised by humans. Y2K? Yes, and as many other designations as there are calendars. It is not Y2K to the Jews, Moslems, Chinese, and to the 70% majority of the world which is not Christian.

Proceed to Part Two

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