To father a child and to mother a child have very different meanings. Father is used as a verb to mean create or procreate, while mother means to take care of the child after it is born. How can we escape the legacy and expectations of patriarchy when it is so embedded in our language?
Words and expressions reveal the basic values of a culture. It’s not all bad – our culture has some good values. For example, the fact that treating people humanely means to treat them with kindness and respect implies a deep-seated belief that the nature of humanity is kindness. This belies the common assertion one hears that human beings are basically selfish and violent.
Those aspects of language that don’t conform to modern sensibilities have proven very resistant to intentional change. We have made some slight progress in de-sexisting language. So, female reporters are no longer called “girl reporters,” and women in general are less likely to be referred to or to refer to themselves as “girls.” But, we still tend to call the species mankind and when we speak of historic inventions we speak of “Man’s invention” of this or that. The term “freshmen” has resisted change to “first year students,” and congressman, chairman, and policeman are all examples of stubbornly resistant sexist language. Women are also still seen by the media first in terms of their familial roles. So, when an a woman is caught committing a crime, it’s “Grandmother caught growing pot,” or “Mom robs bank.”
I think that the best we can do is try to be aware of the underlying assumptions of language and when it differs from our intended meaning use alternate speech. After all, although we may be products our culture and our language perpetuates our culture, language is also a tool that should serve us. A little mindfulness can go a long way in the slow evolution of culture.
For more on gender and language, see what lies behind this daisy: