Feminism | Posted by Haley S on 05/31/2010

Language Matters

Barack Obama was my sisters 2010 University of Michigan commencement speaker. He was incredible, but he said one thing that I immediately had a negative reaction to. He said, “Through periods of great social and economic unrest, from civil rights to women’s rights, it has allowed us slowly, sometimes painfully, to move towards a more perfect union.” I turned to my sister and said “Excuse me…Women’s Rights ARE Civil Rights.”

It was something that seemed so ridiculously obvious too me, but clearly Obama, and his speech writers, did not catch it. Why should Women’s Rights be considered as any different than Civil Rights as a whole? CIVIL rights should encompass all rights because they are HUMAN rights and we are all human. Yet, when referring to the these achievements of equality, it is almost always civil rights (referring to african americans) and women’s rights (just to women). This is completely socially acceptable, and I doubt few people other than maybe other feminists at the graduation noticed this blatant ignorant statement.

When thinking about this, there are a ton of different phrases and terms that SHOULD be dissolved from the English language, but are still here and kickin.

Two of the more socially acceptable, yet idiotic, terms are “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Abortion.” Let me just say this: is anyone PRO abortion? Who seriously sits around and is like, “You know what’s awesome…ABORTION! I think EVERYONE should get one!” The answer is no one…that’s just not what the debate is about. Similarly, I doubt that anyone involved in the abortion debate is Anti-Life. The debate is about CHOICE. So if all people were knowledgeable, terms like Pro-Life and Pro-Abortion wouldn’t be thrown around in intellectual conversation. Instead, the terms “pro-choice” and
“anti-choice” would be the more appropriate ones, because they are the ones that truly describe the two sides of the debate.

Another one of these terms/phrases is “That’s so gay.” I always yell at people when they say this term, because it implies that being gay has a negative connotation. In fact, a couple of years ago I got into a fight with a gay person I know, who claimed that because he was gay, it was okay for him to say “that’s so gay.”

“Actually,” I corrected him, “Doesn’t that make people think that it’s okay to use it in a negative way?” To which he replied, “It doesn’t matter if I say ‘gay’ negatively or not- people are still going to look at me negatively.” So I then asked how using his own sexuality as a negative adjective was going to make a difference in trying to teach these ignorant classmates of his or attempt to curb their homophobic thoughts. To which he replied “Well I’ll probably stop when I come out, but for now I’m going to keep it as a coping mechanism and to deter people from thinking I’m gay. At this point, it’s better than having people think I am gay.”

I told him, “That may be true for now—that referring to something stupid as gay will deter people from thinking you are gay…but to end homophobia, do you really think we should continue to use the term in a demoting way? What will help people overcome their ignorance towards the subject is realizing that someone they know and love is gay, or that someone they know and love thinks that saying “gay” means “stupid” is a negative thing. He then acknowledged my point and said he would make a sincere effort to stop using the term negatively.

Overall, these phrases are interesting to think about. Taking a step back from the things you hear on TV or things you hear your friends say, and actually THINKING about what is being said can prove to be eye-opening. I know this article may do little in the grand scheme of things, but for someone who uses the phrase “That’s so gay” or even someone that refers to Anti-Choice people as Pro-Life, I hope this finds you thinking more carefully about what you say, and the impact it has on the world around you.

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  • O'Phylia @ at 11:47 am, May 31st, 2010

    So, what’s an African-American woman???

  • Alayna @ at 11:59 am, May 31st, 2010


    Excellent article. You bring up some wonderful points about the use of language. Another word that I have recently been very aware of is the use of the word “homophobia.” Many people who identify as LGBTQ or Ally prefer the term “heterosexism,” for a number of reasons. First, homophobia insinuates that there is a real, phobic fear of people who are same-sex attracted, like people who are truly afraid of spiders, as opposed to a discriminatory belief. Additionally, it places the blame on hetero-attracted individuals, as opposed to putting the focus on those who are same-sex attracted.

    Just another thought-provoking work!

  • Melissa @ at 12:24 pm, May 31st, 2010

    You’re right; language does matter.

    However, telling a marginalized person whose particular oppression you do not share about the proper way to end (or at least reduce) his own oppression is hardly appropriate.

    Think about it: how would you feel if some dude tried to mansplain to you that you’re doing feminism wrong? Probably not very good. You’d probably (rightly) think that he’s showing his privilege by thinking that, as a man, he is the ultimate authority on everything, including other people’s marginalization. Unfortunately, that’s what’s kind of going on here. You can’t tell a gay man how he should be coping with his marginalization. If he tells you that he’s not ready to let go of his coping mechanisms, it’s not your place to tell him he must. I know that the conversation about whether or not it’s alright for a gay person to use the phrase “that’s so gay” is still (to a certain extent) going on in the LGBT community, but straight people don’t really have any business acting like we have a full understanding of the issues involved. As straight people, we should never use that phrase ourselves, of course, and we can and should call out other straight people on the use of the phrase, but not to straightsplain to gay people how they’re adding to their own oppression by using the term.
    They understand their own oppression. We don’t.

  • Haley @ at 12:45 pm, May 31st, 2010

    That’s a really interesting point, Melissa! I will definitely take that into consideration for the future!

  • K.O. @ at 1:19 pm, May 31st, 2010

    Unfortunately, when people talk about human rights in this way, they are always talking about specific periods of time and movements (past tense). The truth is that women’s rights have hardly been won and using this type of speech doesn’t include the continuing fight for rights. It goes along with the idea that our time is “post-feminist”. Bullshit.

  • Katherine C. @ at 1:45 pm, May 31st, 2010

    Nice post! I agree completely.

  • james @ at 1:56 pm, May 31st, 2010


  • JKS @ at 2:07 pm, May 31st, 2010

    I agree that there are many expressions in English that need to be abolished, such as “gay” or “retarded” being used to mean “stupid”. However, I believe your point about Pro-Choice vs Pro-Life was biased. Obviously, a supporter of the banning of abortions would use the terms “Pro-Life” versus “Anti-Life” because these phrases support their side and demonize the other. Similarly, as an advocate for abortions being legal, you favor the term “Pro-Choice” because it puts a positive spin on your side; no one believes that choice is a bad thing, so “Anti-Choice” makes the other side look bad. Rather than using loaded terms like these, people should use neutral words that still describe the sides of the debate.

  • Gabrielle @ at 2:12 pm, May 31st, 2010

    And also using “stupid” to mean a negative or bad thing is oppressive against people with disabilities. “That’s so stupid” is not a suitable alternative to “That’s so gay”: http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/23/ableist-word-profile-intelligence/

  • Claire @ at 3:00 pm, May 31st, 2010

    I’m gay and I loathe the term ‘gay’ being used negatively. I have had people say “Yeah, but the term doesn’t really mean ‘homosexual’ any more…the meaning has changed over time.”

    Ah right. Why do we have Gay Pride then?

    I firmly believe it helps no one to use the term ‘gay’ negatively.
    If you try it with some other terms (used in a pejorative sense, not the cultural sense):

    “That’s so Jewish!”

    “That’s so black/African!”

    “That’s so female!”

    Can’t see it happening somehow…

  • O'Phylia @ at 4:22 pm, May 31st, 2010

    Claire, you know what’s sad?

    I hear “That’s so black!” a lot. :/

    But it’s not about me. I’m sorry that some people don’t see your point of view too often.

  • Brownpaperbaggirl @ at 9:14 pm, June 1st, 2010

    Excellent article! So glad to hear I wasn’t the only one to notice that slip up on Obama’s speech.

  • Holly @ at 4:23 pm, June 3rd, 2010

    I’m with JKS on this one. If you’re going for strictly factual, pro-abortion and anti-abortion are the closest we have that are actually in common usage. If you’re going to use one “side’s” preferred self-identification, I think you need to do the same for both. Pro-life and pro-choice.

    If I had to craft something more precise, I think I’d use “pro-legal” and “anti-legal” myself, as in “pro-abortionbeinglegal.” But that’s not quite as snappy.

  • stephen @ at 10:44 am, June 5th, 2010

    When female rights ARE civil rights, then why dont you call yourselfs civil rights actvists, and not feminists? Should you claim that there is some sort of difference, and that it is neccessary to focus on women, than dont get mad when someone singles womens rights out.

  • Laura @ at 5:37 pm, June 5th, 2010

    I completely agree with Stephen. Why are we called feminists? Aren’t we fighting for women’s rights? Why are feminists not called “civil rights activists”??

  • anonymous @ at 10:36 pm, July 13th, 2010

    oh my. for some reason im not surprised you posted on this.

  • Lolita @ at 4:30 pm, September 3rd, 2010

    True but when people say ‘civil rights’ people don’t usually think women too. They just think the whole black racial thing.

  • ada @ at 9:24 am, October 9th, 2010

    The pro-life and pro-choice labels are perfectly apt, I believe to represent the fundamental point of difference between the two groups: pro-lifers believe that life is the pre-eminent value, and pro-choicers believe that choice is the pre-eminent value with regard to human (and not merely feminist) autonomy.

    It is difficult to argue with the idea that life is the highest order value – without it there is no opportunity to exercise one’s right (in a condition of free will) to “choice”. That prochoicers deny the a priori condition of life to a certain population (the unborn) suggests that their claim of being pro-choice is not a consistent ethic, but an exclusive one.

  • Westboro Baptist Church Cult @ at 3:04 am, February 4th, 2011

    Fred Phelps is such a jackass! Him and his Westboro Baptist Church Cult! Lets Plan to protest Pastor Fred Phelps’s Funeral now!

  • Renee @ at 2:14 am, May 31st, 2011

    I used to be very pro-life and used to hate the term proschoice or anti-choice many of us on the pro-life side take offense to the word because it leaves out the choice of alot of people the unborn the father and in many cases the mother but I have sense changed my veiw…while I still see abortion as a horrible practice I’ve recognized the need for it to be avalible and accessible and now I seek to protect it to my dying breathe

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