2.3 Questioning the notion of a `woman's language'

Second Wave feminists assumed that all women were more deferent, polite, more concerned with the welfare of others and more co-operative. Third wave feminist linguistics suggests that this type of speech style is perhaps only available to a very small number of white middle class women, and even then only within very specific contexts. Holmes (1995) and Coates (1998)  also call for a re-evaluation of  co-operative speech styles and question whether they necessarily denote powerlessness; both argue that concern for others in speech should be valued and Holmes in particular claims that women's greater use of positive politeness within the work environment leads to more productive discussions.  However, whilst all women are not powerless, we have to accept that, for many people, powerlessness and deference are stereotypically associated with women and therefore when women speak assertively, their speech will be considered aberrant and aggressive because they are judged against a stereotypical norm of deference.  This is why many women, as Crawford has shown, rather than being assertive, decide to temper their speech by using politeness strategically: `"unassertive" speech, rather than being a (female) deficiency in social skills, may reflect a sensitivity to the social impact of one's behaviour.  Tentative and indirect speech may be a pragmatic choice for women.  It is more persuasive, at least when the recipient is male, less likely to lead to negative attributions about personality traits and likeability, and less likely to provoke verbal attack' (Crawford, 1996:68)  Thus, rather than asserting that women are more  polite or indirect than men, Third Wave feminist linguists argue that women engage in a complex process whereby they assess others' stereotypical beliefs about gender and then strategically adopt strategies which will be most likely to achieve their ends; some of those strategies may be ones stereotypically associated with feminine language. Third Wave feminists tend to avoid discussing the notion of stereotype since it is one of those problematic concepts often drawn on unproblematically by Second Wave feminists in their analysis of the workings of a global gendered ideology; however, it is clear that a hypothesised stereotype of gendered behaviour informs interaction.  For example, Queen has shown that lesbian speech is often produced in a parodic,  ironic playing with hypothesised stereotypes of `straight' feminine speech and masculine speech (Queen, 1997)  Halberstam, in her analysis of masculine women has  tried to prise apart the relation between masculinity and men and has shown that, rather than stereotypes being fixed and either accepted or rejected by individuals, they are played with, parodied and used for particular strategic ends, and in the process of being changed and ironised  by individuals they are inevitably globally changed  (Halberstam 1998).

Because of the change in focus in relation to power, there has been a move away from the analysis of subordinated women. Mary Bucholtz argues that in the past :`much of the scholarship in language and gender has been what might be called "good-girl research" - studies of "good" (that is normatively female - white straight middle class) women being "good" (that is normatively feminine)'. (Bucholtz, 1999:13)  Now rather than analysing women's indirectness or lack of assertiveness, many linguists focus on strong women speakers and women's resistance to masculine forms of speech, such as interruption or aggressiveness (Mills, 1999)  Clare Walsh  has analysed the language of women working within masculinist or male-dominated environments, for example, women priests,  MPs and environmental campaigners. (Walsh, 2000) She has  found that women within institutions are often viewed very negatively and if they use direct, confrontational language they are often criticised (Walsh, 2001).  Sylvia Shaw (2002) has also analysed the language use of women MPs and has shown that whilst women are very able to adopt the type of aggressive formalised Parliamentary debating techniques which have been developed by male MPs, they may be judged differently to men when they do so. She has also shown that women MPs tend to adhere to the speaking rules very strictly, observing Parliamentary forms of address, protocol and etiquette, whereas the male MPs often manage to achieve certain advantages for themselves by breaking the rules. Marjorie Harness Goodwin has analysed girls' language in play and has contested the notion that girls' language is necessarily more co-operative or nicer than boys', showing that girls use direct and confrontational language (Goodwin, 1998).  In her most recent work, she argues that it is expertise, for example in play, which determines who uses assertive language, rather than sex difference.  Bonnie McElhinny has analysed the language of women police officers in Pittsburgh and found that they  feel obliged to adopt particular masculine ways of speaking simply to appear to be doing their job in a professional way (McElhinny, 1998).  They adopt what she calls `an economy of affect' because disinterestedness is demanded of police officers by the public, since it signifies authoritativeness and impartiality.  McElhinny argues `that women who move into powerful and masculine institutions sometimes adopt the interactional behaviour characteristic of these institutions might disappoint some feminists.  But it seems clear that who we think can do certain jobs changes more rapidly than expectations about how these jobs should be done. The process by which women enter a masculine workplace necessarily includes some adoption as well as adaptation of institutional norms.' (McElhinny, 1998: 322) Thus, all of these studies suggest that women, when entering primarily masculine environments, adopt the language styles prevalent in those institutions, and those styles themselves are both an indicator of masculinity and also of professionalism.  McElhinny states that ` masculinity is not referentially (or directly) marked by behaviours and attitudes but is indexically linked to them (in mediated non-exclusive probabilistic ways)' (ibid). Alice Freed, in her analysis of the language styles of intimate conversation,  suggests that masculinity and femininity should be seen as a characteristic of the context or situation, rather than an attribute of individuals (Freed, 1996) She argues that intimate self-disclosing conversation is associated with stereotypical femininity and therefore when males engage in such conversations, they may tend to display the same `feminine' speech styles as women. [10] Thus, these Third Wave feminist analyses are interested in analysing the way that masculinity and femininity can be seen to exist at an institutional level, linked in some ways to particular institutional contexts rather than simply at the level of the individual and can be associated stereotypically with attributes such as professionalism and competence.

There are certain contexts, however, where women do seem to have brought changes into the predominantly masculine norms in institutions.  Wendy Webster's analysis of Margaret Thatcher's speech styles demonstrates that rather than simply adopting the speech norms associated with the role of Prime Minister, Thatcher integrated more feminine elements into her overall  style, incorporating elements of self-disclosure and informality with a more public authoritative discourse (Webster,1990)  Thus, women's negotiations with the speech norms of the context within which they find themselves should not be seen as simple capitulation to dominant forms.  However, generally as yet these feminine forms do not seem to have been adopted by male politicians. [11]   Furthermore, we should see women's adoption of masculine dominant forms as strategic and perhaps argue that women's adoption of positions of institutional status may result in the use of language styles which are characterised by a different approach to `doing power'.  Thus, as Diamond has argued in her analysis of group dynamics in a group of psychotherapists, in certain contexts, those in positions of institutional authority in fact do not use direct commands and assertiveness, preferring to use indirectness (Diamond, 1996). [12] Third Wave feminist linguistics forces us to reconsider the way that we think that power is exercised through language, but perhaps does not enable us to describe adequately the way that rank within an organisation may influence our localised interactions.

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