Sunday, January 23, 2022

Gender & the art of language



Artful Life
Tara O’Neill

Sticks & stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me…

To that childhood rhyme I say: ahh, baloney. Words can hurt, and deeply. The damage may be subtle, a slow insinuation into the core of your being, and with suffering so much longer lasting than a temporary scrape of the flesh from a stick or a stone.

Last week a friend of mine, a proud and loving father of a high-spirited eight-year old daughter, was recounting to me his daughter’s triumph on the school track where she out-raced most of the boys in her class. His daughter was by his side when he said “Oh yeah, I’ve got quite the little tomboy on my hands.” I felt my blood turn to ice.

Fast-rewind nearly fifty years, when I was about the same age as my friend’s daughter, and I had discovered a passion for tools of construction. I was attempting, all on my own, to build a lemonade stand out of my Dad’s discarded two-by-fours with a handful of nails, a hammer, and a hand saw. When my Dad discovered my backyard project he ruffled my curly hair and jokingly called me his “little tomboy.”

Wait! I’m not a boy, were my thoughts at the time. I was so embarrassed – and confused – I dropped the project immediately. I didn’t want to be a boy, I wanted to be a normal girl. Without the sophistication of language that I would one day dedicate myself to, I didn’t realize I had just been unsexed for the first time, just for doing what felt natural. We’ll skip the tortured feelings of denial that haunted me through my teens.

Do you get this? It’s such a part of our nomenclature that even an educated 21st-century man like my friend would still use this term to describe a girl that liked to run fast. If they’re strong, robust, and physical, a girl somehow becomes a morphed version of a boy. How very sad. My capabilities were the great secret of my life until, at age 22, I gave up the ghost and first stepped onto a construction site with proper tool belt and carpenter tools in hand – and with the reward of a hearty paycheck waiting for me at the end of each week. (For 75% less pay I could have landed a nice shop-girl job…noooooooooo!)

I was proud of my work as a frame-carpenter, even though the price tag included a false mind-set (others’) of being one-of-the-guys. I was strong, I was smart, and dang it, I was extremely capable. I also got the same pay as my equally-qualified male counterparts. And I was not up to the challenge of dumbing myself down for popular support.

So, I have been sensitive to language as it applies to gender for a long time.

Woman artist, woman writer, woman construction-worker. When, I asked myself, did “woman” become an adjective? Should I not at least be a female artist, writer, construction-worker? Then, by great fortune, I was able to study art and literature at Oxford University for a semester in the mid-nineties, and I finally got to take the question up with one of my brilliant English Professors, who happened to be a woman. Her answer only distressed me more.

“Female,” she said “is a biological term, feminine is a social term, and feminist a political description.”


“So,” she went on, “people are still uncomfortable with discussing women in a biological sense and woman/women has become the accepted terminology.” Accepted? Well then, in the name of equality, why do we not say “man nurse” instead of ”male nurse”? Why not man secretary? (Although why any occupation needs a gender affiliation is still beyond me.) Her answer was a shrug. A shrug! Are you kidding me? This, from one of the great thinkers of our time.

There is an organization, The National Association of Women Artists (who recently had an exhibition at our own Marco Island Center for the Arts), that has been courting me with membership invitations; it is an honorable organization that does great work in promoting female artists. And here I sit, struggling with this language barrier. I am an artist, that is a fact. I am a female artist, that is also a fact. But woman artist? Sorry, that’s just bad grammar, and I am just uncomfortable with that.

Final note: I once had a Writing Professor at University of South Florida who was African-American, and a wonderful writer. He shared his distress with us in class one day when, after having his first book published, he went to a bookstore and found his novel shelved in the aisle entitled “black authors.”

“Really?” he asked. I knew just how he felt.




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