Language As a Barrier for Feminism

April 7, 2017
By literarynongenius SILVER, South Carolina, South Carolina
literarynongenius SILVER, South Carolina, South Carolina
8 articles 0 photos 4 comments

A single voice can express a concept that could change the course of reality. A noise can signify defeat or rise, and sadness or happiness. Voices, sound, and noises can be drawn out to tell a story. The collection of these communicative instruments called words compose our language. Language is utilized as a tool for explaining the unsolved mysteries of life, confessing secrets that are deep within the emotional sphere of the mind, learning, teaching, and asserting individuality. However, linguistics have been implemented in order to characterize one’s surroundings, and when it is passed down through generations, it donates a different individual’s lifestyle unto another being. Likewise, due to a world of past and present oppression towards women, there is unmade progress confined by the misogyny perpetuated by tongue. Ancient languages have shaped those spoken, written, and read today; and the words passed onto us that are categorized as “female” use former discriminatory aspects within their definitions and structure. Also, some words that have a negative connotation are typically affiliated with women, and when this is recognized, we may think of women as the word illustrates. A way to express misogyny with communication is through literature. It is comprised of messages demonstrated by written language. If literature is not altered, the ideas are unhindered by changes in an environment that may contradict the beliefs being propagated by pieces of literature. The points argued pertaining to sex-related oppression in literature provoke questions and thoughts that may change one’s original values. As well, historical events and our interpretations of them are construed by language because the past cannot be observed or physically experienced once completed. For this reason, we are restrained by history, and must adopt documentation and conversation to study concluded actions. For when we learn about the past, we rely on what we are told. Furthermore, human perspective is able to be manipulated by language because what we are exposed to may develop our ideologies further, or change them immensely. Therefore, patriarchal ideologies expressed with language have a tremendous impact on society and its citizens. Language is a powerful tool in reinforcing attitudes that undermine the abilities of women and their rights.

Language is crucial for broadcasting ideologies. As for written language, the messages disclosed in literature influence a reader’s previously acquired knowledge, adding new information to their mental database. In The Rhetoric of Emotion, With a Note on What Makes Great Literature Great, Averill opines, “... Art and literature appeal to the emotions as well as to the intellect… Great literature refines, stretches, and ultimately transforms the emotions” (5). As well, the written language has a powerful effect partly due to how its physical form allows the ideological objectives it may obtain to last centuries. In Victorian works like “A Doll's House” by Henrik Ibsen, the cultural misogyny of nineteenth century Norway is woven throughout the tale of a woman whose husband has supreme control of her life. This female protagonist, Nora, is shunned from society not only because of her gender, but because her mother tongue limits her ability to rise from adversity. Her husband, Torvald, is the head of the household, and he maintains his dominance over Nora by preventing her involvement in non-domestic affairs. He does this with language- he broadcasts his disapproval by telling her she is not fit to perform such tasks. An enhancement that he applies to his chastising language is the usage of demeaning terms, calling her soft, dainty animals such as “my little skylark” (2), “my little song bird” (25), and “my little squirrel” (2). Throughout the book, she acts childish, seeming as if she wants her husband to treat her in this way. For example, here Nora explains that she believes Torvald must be her superior and that she cannot transcend his abilities: "Torvald has his pride - most men have - he'd be terribly hurt and humiliated if he thought he'd owed anything to me. It'd spoil everything between us, and our lovely happy home would never be the same again" (161). This is due to how these belittling words given to Nora by a man whom she relies on for protection, ingrain ideologies into her mind that develop the theory of ‘a man must deprive me of freedom to help me survive.’ The patriarchy and authority figures of her life summon males to take care of females, and when women hear that this is the “truth,” they rely on men to do so. Finch and Park-Finch remark in “A Post-feminist, Evolutionist Reading of Henrik Ibsen’s a Doll’s House,” “...while from first- and second-wave feminist perspectives, she is still a victim… of a male-oriented society that is unable (or unwilling) to accommodate the female point of view” (8).  In other words, a major objective of the society that Nora is surrounded by is to neglect women’s rights, yet the patriarchs in the society are obliged to protect them to impose superiority. It wasn't until 1913 that women in Norway were granted the right to vote. Therefore during the 1800’s, both when Ibsen wrote “A Doll’s House” and when the story is set, women in Norway had not received the same rights as men possessed. Communication assisted men in spreading their ideas in nineteenth century Norway, and the ideas that managed women like Nora were reflected in her lack of rights. This creates a complex of “other-ing,” or the subjection of a group (women in this case) as inferior, because it establishes men as the bearers of law, and women must obey them without being able to have input in their life. The classifying of women in “A Doll’s House” and their identity is also dependent on their relationship/marital status. With Nora being referred to as Mrs. Helmer, she is seen as a married woman who is property of her husband’s family. Nora is indicated as married with the title of “Mrs. Helmer,” and by having Torvald’s last name, she is his own. With Christine Linde being referred to as Miss Linde, she is specified to be a woman without a spouse. However, Mr. Helmer and Mr. Krogstad have no distinction although one possesses a wife and one does not. The need for this description for women and not men is rooted from the idea that a female’s worth derives from whether or not she has a man to control her. This linguistic categorization heightens the obstacles Nora and Christine must overcome in order to liberate themselves from the patriarchy. Christine, unlike Nora, is independent with her wishes and does not put her reliance in a being of the opposite sex. She tries unyieldingly to find a job so that she can support herself financially. However, the only availabilities for women during this time were positions that served men, and were ranked under a typical male’s work. These jobs included nurses which serve doctors, secretaries which serve lawyers, and teachers which serve school principals. Despite society stifling her from obtaining a man’s job, her native language does as well. In the Norwegian language, titles such as director (direktør), ruler (linjal), official (embetsmann), lawyer (advocat), doctor (lege) and even leader (leder), are in the masculine gender ( These words therefore indicate that these are male occupations, and these professions are ones that are authoritative, influential, and important, whereas feminine words that describe careers are almost non-existent. The ideologies corresponding to gender of Norwegian speakers are inscribed by these words with sexist affiliations. When they use the words that are masculine, they think of the object that it refers to as male. However, Norwegian language reforms have been proposed since the mid-nineteenth century to rid of sexism within the language. Saurer, Lanzinger, and Frysak, the authors of “Women's Movements: Networks and Debates in Post-communist Countries in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” mention alterations ongoing today,

Taking into account the high proportion of women in decision-making positions in Scandinavian countries, it is natural that one of the first linguistic developments in response to gender liberalization tendencies there was a change in the use of terms of address for both women and men. More specifically, in Swedish and Norwegian the titles equivalent to English Miss, Mrs., Mr. are being replaced by their gender-neutral counterparts (117).


Furthermore, as women have acquired more legal liberties in Norway, the language has followed suit. Unlike in Ibsen’s era, today’s female citizens of Norway have the right to vote, may pursue the same careers as men, and are required to attend school until the age of sixteen. For communication is so powerful that a revolution in a way of life relies on a transformation of- whether it be with modifications or a spread of ideas- language. Both the Norwegian language itself and the male-dominated society shown in “A Doll’s House” exhibit the jurisdiction that communication systems issue to create inequality amongst women.

Men have exploited language since ancient times to craft their ideal male governed society. In ancient Rome, during 56 BC, a lawyer and statesman named Marcus Tullius Cicero presented his case, “Pro Caelio,” defending a young man accused of both stealing gold from a woman and attempting to poison her. His strategy was to attack and verbally harass her by bashing her sexual tendencies- and a woman engaging in sexual acts outside of marriage was viewed as shameful. For example, Cicero announces, “For never have I thought that hostilities of a woman would be undertaken by me, especially with her whom everyone thought of as a friend of all rather than an enemy of anyone” (14). Here he shames Clodia for sleeping with his client by saying that she is everyone’s enemy after she defied the laws of womanly virtue. The premise of his case is to convince the judges that she lied about him stealing gold and him trying to poison her. To discredit her as a witness, he states that she lied to seek revenge after Caelio rejected her intimate wishes. According to Cicero, Caelius is excused from being at fault for partaking in sexual activity outside of marriage (which was viewed as disgraceful in Ancient Rome)  because he was a young, innocent, inexperienced boy at the time of the incident.

Cicero utilizes the societal preachings of sexual virtue to his advantage to appeal to the judges’ Roman values. The sexism of chastity exists in the way that it forces women to follow guidelines for what they can do with their bodies, and women must be reliable and comply with their spouses- therefore limiting their freedom. Also by treating the philosophy as a fundamental trait for women, the importance of intellectual capability is lessened. Lewis Webb identifies the Ancient Roman ideology’s gravity in the article “Shame Transfigured: Slut-shaming from Rome to Cyberspace,”


Female sexual virtue and shame was an important part of Republican discourse; a veritable wealth of ancient sources attest to this. Themes and images of sexual virtue, violence and shame were ubiquitous in elite and popular literature (e.g., plays, history, poetry), artwork (e.g., wall and vase paintings), and other forms of media (e.g., graffiti, curses, epitaphs) (4).


The aforementioned media platforms in Ancient Rome incorporated language to convey disapproval of extramarital affairs or a female’s comfort with her sexuality, as Cicero does to build a case against Clodia. Not only does he dehumanize Clodia to vindicate Caelius, but he has been shown to be a ruthless patriarch throughout his lifetime. Chrystal, the author of “In Bed with the Romans,” confirms that Cicero once praised his ancestors aspiring for, as Cicero whooped, “all women, because of their feebleness of mind, to be in the power of guardians” (10). Cicero adopts speech to spread this idea of women being the “other” by expressing intolerance of Clodia’s impurity. In fact, the sole method practiced to clarify viewpoints by any Roman lawyer was to conduct a speech. His phenomenal oratory skills helped him in the shaming process also; as he is an incredibly influential Roman orator. Cicero performed his speeches with traditional Roman speech-making gestures, developed a distinctive melodious style, and administered repetition of important phrases. These tactics are wielded to engage audiences and increase involvement of those listening or reading. Engagement heightens focus, which heightens impact. As well, employing emotion into communication can convince the listener of the argument that the speaker is emanating. This is due to the fact that humans sympathize with and experience emotion. Averill identifies this very claim, “Perhaps the primary point of comparison is that both rhetoric and emotions have similar goals, namely, persuasion. Rhetoric has traditionally been defined as ‘the art of persuasion’ and, as Aristotle well recognized, emotions are part of that art. Through emotions we cajole, assert dominance, offer praise, seek succorance, reproach misdeeds, warn of danger, cast aspersions, and many other things besides” (page number). Therefore if a speaker is expressing disdain (like Cicero), that is able to appeal to the listener’s disdain. His refined rhetoric and preformism aided him in leaving the court with Clodia indicted. With this oratory, he indulges in the double standard that suggests that only the women engaged in extramarital sex are unworthy and impure. For he dismisses the fact that Caelius was involved as well simply because he is an inexperienced boy who cannot manage the masculine impulse to engage in sexual activity. This stereotype of men being sexually uncontrollable stands as an excuse for a male’s mistakes. In fact, the very words that he says to show his objection of her actions are an indication of sexism. Words like meretrix and meretricula are seen in “Pro Caelio,” and this Latin word meaning prostitute is used by Cicero to describe Clodia. However, Clodia was not a prostitute; she was a wealthy, widowed woman that participated in a sexual relationship with a younger man. He degrades her by calling her an executor of something that he would disagree with her doing solely because she is a women and sexuality is only valid if it is controlled by men. The English word meretricious, defined as valueless, is derived from meretrix. The English language has adapted to fit the Ancient Roman societal guidelines for sexuality because the two languages have provided a linguistic correlation between prostitutes and unworthiness. By having the word for someone involved in sex work corresponding to no value, Clodia, who did not agree with society controlling her sexuality, is equated to an unimportant, unworthy human being. This offensive portrayal of women with the aforementioned insult contributes to Marcus Tullius Cicero’s “Pro Caelio” being an evident example of misogyny transmitted by language. The objectifying Roman ideology of sexual virtue that Cicero advocated was spread in part by communication, and the endorsement of the belief being passed down has resulted in a presence of this same value in contemporary times. Additionally, when he slandered Clodia’s behavior, the emotion that he demonstrated attracted the emotions of his audience and impacted their view of her value. Lastly, the words that he chose to call Clodia represented someone shunned in their society, so by denoting her as such, he attracts the judges’ and jury’s Roman, learned vision of unethicality. All of these factors verbalized by language in “Pro Caelio” implement sexist doctrines yet strengthen Cicero’s case against Clodia, highlighting the misogyny of Ancient Rome, and at the same time, displaying the similarities to Western society today.

Another case of misogyny embedded in a culture, however not a part of the culture, was the act of foot binding, due to how as an ideology structured around physicality as the paramount aspect of a female’s worth, it undermined women’s abilities to operate in society. Foot binding is an ancient Chinese custom that is primarily lost in practice, however, female beauty guidelines that have negative consequences are still in effect and encouraged for women around the world to fulfill.  From antiquity to the banning of it in 1912, foot binding was a popular method of wrapping young girls’ feet tightly with cloth to prevent growth and fold toes. The process resulted in feet of a male-desired, small size. The main objective of a female with bound feet was to ensure that she will marry; as the feet were thought of as so attractive that they became something imperative for matrimony. As well, foot binding was a way for women and girls with bound feet compacted more than the average bound foot to distract from the little income that their family may have and marry into a wealthy family. In general, bound feet were a standard aimed at increasing physical attractiveness, and by sufficing as a dowry, they encouraged a father’s sale of his daughter in exchange of a monetary prize. The spread of foot binding and the fetishization of bound feet were promoted by language and communication. In “Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China,” a book analyzing foot binding’s relation to linguistics, Wang Ping elucidates the fixation of the female body in literature,

While fetishized language and women lead men to phallic power, they also carry the force to castrate and destroy. Chinese men’s desire emerges in their essays as a fetishistic inventory of words, sayings, and naming of the female body. In their novels, particularly erotic novels, the fetishism of language and the body continues and reaches the point in which… a body part suffocates the narrative and characters (230).


The descriptions in many writings glorified bound feet and female bodies, revealing male authors’ greed in conserving their patriarchal authority and, consequently, their obsession with bound feet. By objectifying women, the writers enveloped themselves in their own yearnings and focused mainly on the explanations of their sexual impulses. This indicates that foot binding was a criterion ultimately made to serve men, as men found bound feet to be enticing because the fetishization of the body part fulfilled their desires. Although it was a mother’s task to bind her daughter’s feet, the force compelling women to continue the practice were the men who wanted wives and the males that deployed language as a means of adoring bound feet. Examples of words manipulated by men in writing and society that transpired the social significance of bound feet are fragrant and bewitching. Words characterized by allure being synonymous with bound feet construct the notion that bound feet are alluring. As well, terms like yao yin (used in literature) and lotus created word associations that enhanced the seductiveness of the feminine physique. Yao yin is defined by Wang Ping as “an inactive ingredient added to enhance the efficacy of a dose of medicine” (Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China 109). Yao yin is referred to as a woman’s body by a writer during the era of foot binding. His language portrays a female figure as an idle, unstimulated item that is not complete unless used to improve a remedy’s healing effects. He assumes that men are medicaments, and women are devices that aid men in becoming healed. In other words, men require sex in order to function properly. But, this sex is perceived as a one-sided feat comprised of a man toying with a lifeless object to refresh himself. This classifying of women as a material entity is also apparent in the naming of bound feet as lotus. In Chinese culture, the flowers represent an herbal ingredient that increases a male’s sexual pleasure. This belief intensifies gender discrimination by affiliating a female’s body part with something that exists to assist a male, which enforces the notion that men must mandate the female body. Not only that, but the lotus is able to be interpreted as another sexist association when observed alongside foot binding. Taoism and Buddhism teaches that the lotus is a spiritual manifestation of purity. They are a symbol of cleanliness coming from obscenity because of the way their beautiful flowers emerge from the filthy mud that they grow in. This could be interpreted as the female body being indecent, yet the bound feet idealize the anatomy with its purity; with its chastity. In other words, bound feet were representative of the male-controlled ideology of pre-marital virginity. But the aforementioned terms are not the only components that, when foot binding was widely conducted in China, restricted a woman’s input on her sexuality. Mandarin Chinese speakers are reminded of society’s dehumanization of females by the Chinese language’s written characters for “to marry a man,” “slave,” and “wife.” The character bestowed to express the act of a woman marrying a man is comprised of the following: ? (woman) and ? (home). ? is a character indicative of the view of marriage denoting a woman’s duty to undertake household affairs and not industrial or political occupations. The Chinese word that, like ?, illustrates society’s depiction of female inferiority is ?? (wife/married woman). This certain character contains the radical for “woman” and “broom,” again conveying that a woman’s contribution to her marriage is domesticity. The most common character equivalent to the English word slave also suggests that women are subservient to a dominating structure. It includes the radical meaning woman, and the radical meaning right hand, which is culturally symbolic of intelligence and power. Tan recounts in “Sexism in the Chinese Language” that when ? (slave) was designed during ancient times, an absence of rights for women generated a legal, secondary placement of females in relation to men (5). Currently, gender related subordination in progressive nations is largely institutionalized without regard to the implementation of governmental entitlements for women. The survival of discrimination against females despite the political justices is partly attributable to language that proliferated misogyny. As previously discussed, female objectification was emphasized in China because of the fetishized language behind foot binding. In fact, foot binding has impacted Chinese society’s role of objectification today because the custom has augmented the belief of women as the “other.” But the harmful language initiated a positive change for women as well. During the early twentieth century, female citizens in China fabricated newspapers for the promotion of women’s rights and women’s involvement in non-domestic matters. The female writers and readers forged a sisterhood that transgressed their domiciliary boundaries. They took the very same language that restrained their dignity and applied it to a platform for a revolution. In “Feminism and Nationalism in the Chinese Women’s Press, 1902-1911,” Beahan describes the purpose of the newspapers in greater detail, “The status of women was viewed in their pages as inextricably and even casually linked with the health of the nation as a whole. The papers all asked, in similar language, ‘What is to be done about China’s future?’ And the inevitable reply was that if one wished to save China, improving the lives of its women was a logical first step” (383). Concerning the future, authors of publications such as the Journal of Women’s Studies and the Chinese Women’s Journal aimed their attention at the improvement of it. They argued that if society considered women to be just as deserving of education as men and invested more finances into higher education for girls, the economy would prosper. They examined an ideal future where Chinese mothers are able to teach their children relevant concepts learned from a higher schooling level. Most importantly, these women and their female supporters were empowered by language. These journals inspired an enactment of women’s rights in China due to the writers’ and readers’ spread of feminism through communication. Qiu Jin, a feminist activist, helped diminish misogyny by influencing the decision to establish rights for women in China as well. Her speech delivered to commend the eradication of foot binding led way to her unsuccessful uprising against the Qing dynasty and the eventual banning of foot binding after her death. Like the columnists of women’s journals, Qiu Jin’s “An Address to Two Hundred Million Fellow Countrywomen” reinvents sexist language into a mediator of change by recruiting demeaning names as examples of negativity. In her speech given to She explained her non-discriminatory stance on foot binding with words obtaining implicit sexist associations. Her speech was given to Chinese women in 1906 to convince them to join the anti-Qing, pro-women revolution taking place during the time. Qiu Jin calls on the women of her country to demand for their rights and warns them of the corruption in the government, “If we don’t take heart now and shape up, it will be too late when China is destroyed. Sisters, we must follow through on these ideas!” (Sources of Global History Since 1900, An Address to Two Hundred Million Fellow Countrywomen, 60). The strong emotions and impatience that she evokes in her lecture are reflective of her firm credence in a rapid implementation of feminist doctrines. Qiu Jin’s embodiment of language in the spoken form and Chinese women’s newspapers written language voiced the inequality and objectification amongst women in early twentieth century China, which produced developments in the area of women’s rights. Although Mandarin Chinese and patriarchal language can impede progression, language has the ability to overcome the forces that constrict its goodness.

Language is a way in which life is professed and explained. It transforms perspectives and increases the prevalence of an ideology, thus building knowledge. However, knowledge may be structured on intolerance; which results in unjust language controlled by those seeking to gain power. Misogyny, a belief system actualized by the patriarchy, has been encouraged by linguistics. It is evident that because of the belittling titles bestowed upon Nora and the Norwegian language’s male chauvinism, the societal inferiority of women is amplified in “A Doll’s House.” Similarly, the double standard of Caelius, a male, being excused for a sexual mistake, and Clodia, a woman, being blamed for “immodesty” by Cicero is defended in the speech “Pro Caelio.” The oratory and rhetoric he executes in his speech to criticize Clodia enhance his argument. Not only this, but the words that Cicero attempts to insult Clodia with are defined as “prostitute.” This debases women who may be involved in sex work by their own will by categorizing their demonstration of the ownership of their sexuality as unacceptable. Additionally, a Latin word for prostitute that Cicero used in his court case has an English derivative meaning useless. In “An Address to Two Hundred Million Fellow Countrywomen” by Qiu Jin, powerful spoken language was made to inspire the women of China to stop conforming to beauty guidelines perpetuated both by men and fetishized linguistics. The Chinese language is misogynistic in the structure of some of its characters, yet Qiu Jin and women-run gazettes used the language to discuss rising feminist movements. The oppression of women advocated by communication can be contemplated in regard to nineteenth and twentieth century Norwegian history, Ancient Rome, and twentieth century Chinese culture. When manipulated by a patriarchy to lessen the political, economical, and social authority of women, language prevents progress and takes on a misogynistic form.

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