Looking out: The language of sexism

March 11, 1998

Looking out

The language of sexism

By Brandon Astor Jones

"ladylike adj. 1. Character of a lady: well-bred. 2.Appropriate for becoming a lady. 3. Unduly sensitive to the matters of propriety or decorum. 4. Lacking virility or strength." — American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition.

This is one of those occasional interactive essays in which I am genuinely seeking enlightenment. I am interested in hearing from a woman who is offended by, or takes exception to, the four definitions cited above for the term ladylike.

I am trying to be more cognisant of language and behaviour that appears sexist. More often than not, sexist — very much like racist — language is too easily accepted. For example, in the United States you would be hard pressed to find a more accepted source of so-called " correct" use of the English language than the American Heritage Dictionary. It is accepted.

I feel that the attendant evils of sexism and racism fully support and perpetuate one another. Moreover, it is my opinion that you cannot ever hope to end one without attacking both simultaneously and vigorously.

Let me say that I find definition number three to be insulting not only to women but to men as well. I think that the word "unduly" is what offends me most. It suggests that sensitivity is less than manly in "matters of propriety or decorum", and that is especially so if definition number four is to be taken seriously. It suggests that women are overly sensitive — as if sensitivity is wrong.

As an African-American man who considers himself to be virile, strong and, yes, even sensitive, it is my opinion that all men could use some sensitivity training, myself included. I do not see sensitivity so much ladylike as humanlike.

Having said that, I remind you that I see definitions three and four through the eyes of a man of colour. I know and experience the language and behaviour of racists as well as any women know and experience the language and behaviour of sexists.

I am new at detecting the latter. I am aware that women may respond differently to the cited definitions. I want to learn more about what it is like to be a victim of sexism, and so I am asking women to respond to this column. Please tell me what you think feels sexist — or not sexist — about the four definitions of ladylike. I would also like to know if you think that I have written anything in this space that can be considered sexist, past or present.

I would like to share the words of one of my favourite women from the past, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as she spoke before the New York legislature on February 18, 1860:

"The prejudice against colour, of which we hear so much, is no stronger than that against sex. It is produced by the same cause, and manifested very much in the same way. The Negro's skin and the woman's sex are both prima facie evidence that they were intended to be in subjection to the [Anglo] Saxon man."

I agree with our late sister. If you write to me on these matters, your 300 words or less may be used in part or whole in a future follow-up of this column. Of course, I will include your name and town/city as well, so consider well what you write. I would hate to see words published that the writer is unwilling to stand by.

[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He welcomes letters commenting on his columns. He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G3-77, Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA. Brandon and his friends are trying to raise funds to pay for a lawyer for his appeal. If you can help, please make cheques payable to the Brandon Astor Jones Defence Account and post to 41 Neutral St, North Sydney NSW 2060, or any Commonwealth Bank, account No. 2127 1003 7638.]

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