The minute you say “women”, all of a sudden listeners place them in a separate mental pocket.
Close your eyes for a moment. When you imagine people, you see all sorts of humans, right? (Some of you may envision only men. Men are not the default, so go back to your caves.) Nevertheless – eyes open – the humans pictured above are people first. Yes, they’re people who are female, granted. Still, human beings, people, first and foremost.
An interesting thing has been happening over the past few years with regard to humans who were bought and sold prior to the Emancipation Proclamation in the US, and those who now live the same tragic existences all over the world, primarily in India.
They used to be known as slaves. These days, most journalists and even the guides at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, refer to them as people held in slavery or enslaved people.
You can tell the difference, right? A slave is not as human as an enslaved person. The latter is a person held in a temporary state of non-liberty. The former is, perhaps, subhuman and born to be owned.
Think how a similar enormous difference impacts the human beings shown above. Referred to as people, they remain human. Called women, however, and something happens in the mind of the listener, particularly if dangerous cultural or political baggage gets in the way, as in this article regarding the politics of sexual violence in Egypt.
They become something less than people, as if we were speaking of dolphins or aardvarks.
Farfetched? No. Language carries enormous cultural weight and can cause confusion. In Spanish, for example, mujer is the word for both woman and wife. Asked by authorities if she is the “wife” of an injured man – spouses may give consent for medical care – a woman may well answer “yes” even though she is not legally married to him.
Language gives order to how we learn and remember. Language has power, and it offers power, as well. Witness the rise of Welsh-language schools in Wales, the persistent efforts of French speakers to make Quebec a separate country, and the efforts of billions of people to learn and improve their English, the current linguistic coin of power.
It’s just not wise to dismiss how we use words when their use either reduces power or increases it.
We should not have to keep making signs saying “Women Are People, Too!”. That’s so 20th-century.
We do need to begin replacing the words woman/women with person/people as much as possible.
It might sound awkward at first to talk about pregnant people, people with breast cancer, people who have survived FGM.
Though we do speak of pregnant whales, giraffes giving birth, and elephants that have survived poachers’ attacks.
If one, why not the other?
Doing so would point up the humanity of people who are female, rather than consign them to a lesser status in the mind of the listener. Calling them people gives primary acknowledgement to their personhood. Qualifiers – like the word female – are the secondary identification. Then again, speaking of people means that if they carry XY chromosomes, they too will need a qualifier. Male.
When we talk of people, we’ll make more sense than if we used words that mistakenly relegate others to a status below humanity.
Words like slave. And, unfortunately, women.
Stand firm. Use words with care. Up with people !