Women and the Word

“Would you empty the dishwasher?”

“You couldn’t set the table could you?”

As you read those mitigated directives are you hearing a woman or man’s voice in your head? That they are all questions situated in the kitchen we might disregard but did you know that there is a body of research evidence exploring what sociolinguists call conversational work? The early findings in the 1980s suggested that women were statistically more likely to keep conversations alive and conform to the ready stereotypes of so-called powerless styles of discourse. We were told (and regular comedy posts on Facebook confirm that it is alive and kicking) that women were more accustomed to getting things done by avoiding the commands favoured by men. Women allegedly use language manipulatively. At the same time, research suggested that imperatives were recognised as signs of power – if you’re the one dishing out the orders then you are the top dog. If you’re not giving the orders, you are compelled to adopt other ruses.

This all matters in a world of hierarchy. It mattered then because women were only just reclaiming the word feminist from 1960s connotations of wild women burning their bras. Interesting as an aside that this sliding into negative space is entirely typical of what is now described as occupying negative semantic space – just look at what has happened to words like courtesan, spinster and dame. In the 1980s a brave new world was emerging but it was still a radical notion that women could break the glass ceilings or get off the sticky floor. There were so many assumptions about what was normal that at almost every turn it was possible to identify linguistic or other inequalities. Heady times.

Don’t ever underestimate what went on then. Those of us at university endlessly annoyed our lecturers by querying the lack of diversity on the English Literature or other course reading lists. We didn’t know it was called diversity then – indeed even the OED lists the word feminist as first appearing in 1852 and the word feminism in 1895. Naming things matters. Incredible books still worth reading like Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, or “Silences” by Tilly Olsen, began to set out a story of the gaps, the holes or what the post-structuralists called interstices. Spaces yield meaning – they are incredibly fertile imaginative places. This was the moment for the beautiful, haunting and moving novels of Alice Walker and her extraordinary essays “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.” If you haven’t read them there’s still time – and in the meantime and by way of an example, do you know the maiden names of your great-grandmothers? That their names are often eclipsed is just one means by which women and their stories have been silenced and we know that there are layers to the silences, which cut across class, race and not just gender.

That blunt and early challenge to canons, language and systems has become more sophisticated and happily girls and boys grow up reading a range of literature and while there is still work to be done on unconscious bias we do at least have a name for that as well.

Is it controversial to suggest that we still associate the heavy lifting of conversation, such as collaborative turn taking as distinctively “feminine?” (never mind the minefield of who really gets the dishwashers emptied or surfaces on a kitchen wiped – there’s a world of research to be done on that division of labour and putting out the bins doesn’t mitigate this).

And therein lies the thing. We still associate power with masculinity. A friend of mine was told by a judge that she wasn’t put forward as a QC because she wasn’t “bullish” enough in court. I rest my case. She is not a bull.

So as ever we recast, we rethink. Perhaps so-called “feminine” styles have a different strength. Who wants a bull in a china shop anyway? It may be that the collaborative styles allegedly favoured by women have their own power. Consensus building is transformative – it is how you build a profound, because unified, culture and thus it is how you change the world. There is also a radical energy about silence that we don’t talk about. One of the many stereotypes about conversational styles is that women talk too much. Yet study after study contradicts that: note the study where men and women were given a photograph and asked to talk about it. Women on average stopped talking, most men were still talking when the tape ran out (yes – it’s quite an old piece of research but it’s the one, still, with the most impact). Women are shown to interrupt less than men. They overlap instead, they finish other people’s sentences – all features which are deemed collaborative. Notably, research also shows that if you are interrupted often enough you fall silent. So whether it is men or women who uses these features the point is that conversational turn taking is best when it is equal and not about power grabbing. And silence is the most interesting of all. Not speaking signifies so many things. It is a powerful expression of boredom or disengagement. It can be a subversive way of altering or dominating the conversation. Silence disrupts. It can also represent powerlessness. In an age where we are properly addressing matters of consent silence is a complex thing.

This year has been designated ‘The God Who Speaks: The Year of the Word’ by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. A year of focus on the Bible, a year to celebrate, live and share God’s word. In the Bible there are some incredible women with plenty to say. There are women of wisdom and power – Deborah, Ruth and the sisters of Lazarus. There are invisible women and silent women. There are women who just do too much. Jesus rebukes Martha for filling the equivalent of the dishwasher instead of sitting and listening (and we hope talking). However, His mother Mary is famous for agreeing to the biggest request of all. The Magnificat is her great paean. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” we read. She speaks with her whole being. Theologians describe Mary as ineffable – beyond words. She carries the word made flesh.

The Magnificat prioritises the powerless. The rich will go home empty. The hungry will be fed. Old hierarchies will be upturned. It is a prayer of hope, a song of joy, a vision of energy and activism. Its words challenge us to make sure that we and future generations, girls and boys, men and women set a new agenda. The children we educate must transform old inequalities and use words carefully, beautifully. They need to be persuasive and to influence through dialogue or the silence which refuses to consent to exploitation, greed and indifference.

Last year two of our Politics students were learning about pressure groups and how they can change lives. They decided to start their own. This really is the word made flesh. They set up a pressure group, ‘Preventing Period Poverty’, raising the profile of period poverty and they gathered 8,500 followers on Instagram. They collaborated with one company to support the work of homeless shelters to provide women with sanitary products. They also joined forces with ‘Flowcup’, who are now donating one menstrual cup to women in Africa for every cup sold. They won the TES Award 2020 for Student Initiative of the Year. They show the glory of young people who are empowered to use their voices. They give us all hope for the future.