They say what?
I am constantly being bombarded with emails from various campaigning organisations. Because everything is so carefully targeted, they usually highlight issues which I agree with, so I do my best to support the various petitions that come my way. The latest one I have received concerns the definition of ‘woman’ used by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). I don’t subscribe to the OED so I could not check, but apparently under the definition of ‘woman’ it gives the following examples:
‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’.
‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets’.
‘Male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’.
‘I told you to be home when I get home, little woman’.
The point is made that these particular examples portray women as sex objects, subordinate, and/or an irritation to men, which is not helpful in this day and age. So a petition is underway to the OED for them to replace the current examples with something a little less offensive to women.
Now there is no question that such blatantly sexist examples are used by all dictionaries. I did some online searches and found plenty of examples that had no sexist connotations at all. I feel fine with the phrase: ‘to be one’s own woman’, i.e. to be free from restrictions, control, or dictatorial influence; be independent. I guess I would campaign for all dictionaries to balance negative examples with an equal number of positive examples and to make outdated context clear.
As we know, language and culture are intimately connected; our concepts are framed by the words we use. While careless talk may not always cost lives, it can often offend, so it’s always worth reflecting, if only briefly, on the impact of what we are saying. And even more so if we are writing it down or sending it out into cyberspace.
But this is damesnet, and hope springs eternal. There are countless examples of independent women and girls who bear no resemblance to those unfortunate examples quoted above from the OED. And one of my all-time favourites which inspired me as a young girl is Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet.
I loved horses – my best friend and I spent our childhoods galloping around the school playground on imaginary steeds, jumping and racing. Then I came across the book. Published in 1935, it tells the story of 14-year-old Velvet Brown, a butcher’s daughter, who prays each night, ‘Oh, God, give me horses, give me horses! Let me be the best rider in England!’ Her wishes are granted in the form of a piebald horse that is raffled off in a village lottery. ‘The Pie’ turns out to be rather good at jumping fences, and against all odds Velvet goes on to ride him and win the Grand National.
I reread the book many times; Velvet’s determination comes in part from her mother, who swam the Channel as a young woman and was feted by the press at the time, yet when the reporters are clamouring to speak to Velvet after her success it is her mother who closes the door on them. This is how she explains her actions:
‘On’y leave that child to me. She’s got more to come. You think the Grand National’s the end of all things, but a child that can do that can do more when she’s grown. On’y keep her level, keep her going quiet.’
I think if Mrs Brown were around today she could sort out a few of the misconceptions associated with women.