Feminism | Posted by LodB on 02/22/2012

Doctors, Nurses And One Terrific Professor

language matters

Recently, I was taking a course on linguistics, and we were discussing syntax. My professor asked the class– a room of roughly a hundred English students, mostly female– what pronoun to use when replacing the noun ‘boss’. It wasn’t a very serious question, but the response made him stop in his tracks. Over half the class had casually, but eagerly, called out ‘he’. It wasn’t until my astonished professor eyed us that everyone realised what they had said: that they had confirmed something we all thought to have been a thing of the past. There were nervous giggles and some shocked faces, including my own, because what’s so horrific is that I hadn’t realized it either.

The incident reminded me of this riddle I encountered about a year ago. It went like this: ‘A father and a son get into a car crash. The father dies, but the son is rushed to hospital. On the operating table the doctor suddenly cries out “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son”.’ Possible or not? Well, yes of course it is, but I didn’t think properly then, and apparently I still don’t. My culture is one in which, traditionally, doctors are male, nurses are not. Pilots are men, kindergarten teachers are women, etc.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that language, because it is so intuitive, is a great mirror of society. However, if we don’t like the image that it reflects back at us, then it is our responsibility to try and change that. Also, since language is predominant in almost every aspect of our life, I think it will pay off to try and consciously manipulate it. Some people may give you the stink-eye if you correct their statements into more gender-neutral equivalents, but if you don’t then this passive aggression will surely come back and bite you in the ass.

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  • Renee @ at 3:58 pm, February 22nd, 2012

    Umm no you don’t consciously change language that’s not how it works. When society changes the language will reflect that. When more women are bosses than men Then the language will reflect that. When our society is less binary the language will reflect that. It does NOT happen the other way around!

  • firefly @ at 5:41 pm, February 22nd, 2012

    @Renee: How will more girls decide to become doctors if they are taught to expect that doctors are male?

  • Gigi @ at 7:49 pm, February 22nd, 2012

    @Renee, I agree with firefly. There’s no rule that says you cannot consciously change sexist language – hell, I correct people all the time and they seem shocked that they ever even made assumptions like the ones mentioned in the article.
    There won’t actually be a change if we simply wait for society to correct us. What kind of thinking is that? Racism would still be an even bigger issue if people over time hadn’t consciously worked to make it unacceptable in society, and it’s the same with other predjudices. Society changes through people’s actions, not because one day everyone included in a society wakes up, checks the gender percentages in management positions and realizes that seixst language is wrong…

  • Renee @ at 10:54 pm, February 22nd, 2012

    @firefly Okay first there our plenty of girls who want to become doctors. The thing is we aren’t seeing female dctors we just aren’t we have to physically SHOW that there are female doctors or instill the idea in girls that yes they can be doctors.
    Simply using gender nuetral pronouns isn’t going to accomplish that.
    @Gigi did I ever say to wait? No I did not I said that a changed society will have a changed language.
    The Civil Rigts Movement was successful b/c they WORKED they used Physical Action in their fight for racial equality. They SHOWED America that blacks WERE equal to whites and that they wanted that society to reflect it as such! They wanted to change MINDS because they knew that to change MINDs and mindsets would lead to a changed society.
    They weren’t sitting in their Racial Studies Class they were out on pavements marching and protesting FORCING America to confront it’s racism!
    Those gender nuetral words that yall love so much don’t amount to shit if you aren’t trying to change the minds of the people that you force to use them.
    tl;dr Modern/Third Wave Feminism puts WAY too much importance in gender nuetral pronouns.

  • Gigi @ at 4:43 am, February 23rd, 2012

    I never specified the way in which people would change minds. I agree that people worked hard to change racism and i never said they sat in some class in order to do so; theres no need to be sarcastic. As for the gender quality pro pronouns that apparently “dont mean shit”, i never said i agreed with them. i dont use them and i never addressed that part of your argument. Since your obvious intention here is to point things out i never disagreed with, ill happily leave this little debate at this point. Im not wasting my time disproving your untruthful accusations about what i supposedly said.

  • All Contraire @ at 1:35 pm, February 23rd, 2012

    The allegorical feminist “riddle” of the Doctor Mother has been around at least since the 1990s when––reiterated in various nationalist adaptations––it figured prominently in the lengthy U.N. paper published after the ‘Fourth World Conference on Women’ held in China in 1995. The American Delegation was headed by then First Lady Hillary Clinton. It is certainly not true today, at least in the West, where women figure prominently in the media as doctors, lawyers, police officers, detectives and chiefs, etc.

    Men, of course, are still overwhelmingly the criminals, pedophiles, abusers, villains, ‘beasts’, etc. See, for example, the almost sociopathic/criminal description in Wikipedia of Bart and Homer Simpson’s characters contrasted with Lisa and Marge who are portrayed as ideal in every respect. And look at the child Cartman from ‘South Park’, who Wikipedia describes as an “overweight, immature, spoiled, outspoken, homophobic, manipulative, lazy, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, sadistic, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, sociopathic, narcissistic, and ill-tempered elementary school student.” It’s as if the popular cartoon’s creators had gone down a list and checked off every evil attribute. Very funny…

    So, I would offer another contrary, far less acceptable, but none the less true, role-shattering riddle. A young boy is rushed to hospital. On the operating table the doctor suddenly cries out. “Oh my god, it’s my son! This time she’s almost killed our son!”

    Most in this forum may reject or at least minimalise (which is in effect to trivialize) the prominence of female abuse, not as victims, but as perpetrators. If you are intellectually honest at least make an effort at researching this very difficult and painful subject, with the goal of recognizing, forestalling, and promoting healing and atonement whatever the gender of the abuser/victim, themselves likely the grown-up victims and replicators of childhood abuse and trauma.

    You might start by viewing the video on YouTube where child psychologist Michelle Elliott of the UK charity ‘Kidscape’ discusses female abuse of children and the fierce opposition to accepting that such abuse is not only happening but is widespread. Particularly note Ms. Elliot’s recounting of Germaine Greer’s dismissive comment on a TV show that “well, if it’s a woman having sex with a young teenage boy, i.e. 13 or 14 years old, and he gets an erection, then clearly it’s his responsibility.”

  • Renee @ at 4:29 pm, February 23rd, 2012

    You might not have outright said it but it was definitely implied in your question but I can see that this little debate has been too much for you, so thanks for stopping by.

  • Fern @ at 6:04 pm, February 23rd, 2012

    Part of the problem with the “boss” example is that our society has acted as if “he” IS a gender neutral pronoun. Thereby when we don’t know the gender of someone, it’s grammatically accepted to say “he.” I have seen certain publications that make an effort to address this, by using “she” for a person of unknown gender, even in an atmosphere that is usually presumed to be predominantly male, such as video games.
    I agree that we can change both words and examples. But it might help if we have a true gender neutral pronoun, or at least stop using “he” to mean “anyone.”

  • Renee @ at 9:28 am, February 25th, 2012

    @Fen yes this country uses the “universal man” look at the DOI: “All men are created equal” and the biblical passage of the angel that told the shepherds(or the world): “Peace on Earth and goodwill toward MEN”
    The universal man is ingrained in our culture
    Also look at the image we’ve had of “The Boss” since we we’re young(im taliking cartoons here). It’s always been a balding slighty overwieght short white man in a gray suit(google image it he’s there). Now I’m not saying it’s right but I am saying that symbols have something to do with it. This might also have been the reason I would have said “he” too despite the fact that my mother has been a budget supervisor My whole life.

  • Jen @ at 6:29 pm, August 27th, 2012

    If we started using the word “they” instead of “he/she”, which is already acceptable in spoken conversation but needs to be formalized in print, it would help. How about we all contact the makers of all of those style guides for essay writing?

    I’ve got a funny story along these lines. Years ago I and another girl who were working as research assisstants in a lab were discussing how we both had a goal of being a professor one day. After I described what I wanted to research, she mentioned that she was really enjoying the research she was doing with the prof running a different lab. I asked “What does he study?” The answer: “SHE studies gender stereotypes”. I just had to laugh, to think that one of two women discussing their professorial goals would make that assumption. And yet, it’s pretty scary how deeply we’ve been conditioned.

  • Johannah @ at 9:29 am, August 17th, 2013

    This is so interesting, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of an experience I had recently. I am pre med, and I was shadowing two doctors in the emergency room. One was a man, and he would walk in, introduce himself as a doctor and set to work on his exam, no questions asked. But the other was a woman, and she was constantly asked to reiterate the fact that she was a doctor, not just once but several times. One patient even through a hissy fit when his wife arrived, complaining that he had been there for an hour and a half without seeing the doctor yet. However, she had been in there twice, introduced herself both times, done a full exam, given him test results and had a long discussion about his medical history. Even at my stage of my medical career, the response to me saying that my pln is to go to medical school elicits Oh, so are you going to be a nurse? more often than not. I can only hope that by changing the way I ask questions myself and by encouraging more and more women to do so as well we can maybe lessen those gut assumptions

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