3.0 The Analysis of Sexism

Because of this move away from the top-down model of Second Wave feminism, Third Wave feminism finds it difficult to discuss sexism, since sexism as a concept is based on the idea that discrimination against women is systematic and that sexism is imposed on women by those in positions of power, is ingrained in social structures and works to the benefit of all men. Sexism as a topic of analysis is distinctly unfashionable at the moment and has a slightly anachronistic feel to it.  Sexist language was broadly defined within 2nd wave feminism as the use of statements which 'create, constitute, promote or exploit an unfair or irrelevant distinction between the sexes', (Vetterling-Braggin, 1981: 3). Thus, studies of sexism concerned themselves with the use of the so-called generic pronoun `he' to refer to both males and females, and the use of the form `lady' or `female' with generic nouns such as `doctor' when they are used to refer to females.  This type of analysis showed that there was a systematic tendency within English and other languages to assume that males were the norm and to associate women with trivial, sexualised or non-serious topics (Cameron, 1998; Pauwels, 1998). [13]   Many Feminist analysts of sexist language argued that this type of language use should be reformed to reflect the changes in women's position in society.  However, some feminists  questioned this  determinist position and suggested that perhaps sexist language did not itself determine women's oppression; reform of the language alone would not alter the way that women were treated. [14]   Feminists drawing on social constructionism argued that changes in women's position would lead to a change in the way language was used.  Neither of these views is accurate, as it is clear there is a complex  dialectic process going on in language, whereby language items both affirm and contest the status quo, and changes in social structures necessitate the development of new vocabulary and forms of expression. Language is a site where challenges to the status quo through challenges to sexism can take place and these changes at the local level may lead to changes in the overall meanings of words and also wider changes at a societal level.

I would like now to discuss the ways in which analysing sexism within Third Wave feminism has been made more complex,  and to analyse the reasons  that sexism has become difficult to discuss.  One of the major factors in the current difficulty in discussing sexism is the result of very effective feminist campaigns over language: in the public sphere, sexism is often viewed by employers and employees to be incompatible with equal opportunities in the workplace. Publishing houses, trades unions, public corporations, public service providers, universities and so on, have issued guidelines on appropriate language. [15]   Feminists have developed alternative terms, so that instead of `chairman; 'chair', can be used.  Instead of referring to `air hostess' which some find demeaning, one can use  'flight attendant', and so on.  Cameron has argued that in fact by challenging the use of sexist words, 'the radicals have effectively politicised all the terms, so that, in any interaction, the choice of certain words will announce your political stance in relation to women' (Cameron, 1994b: 31). [16]   It is important that these feminist campaigns have led to language policies being adopted by institutions.  Whilst many of the policies on sexism and racism seem to have largely fallen into disuse, the fact that there is institutional support changes the status of an individual's complaint about language use (Pauwels, 1998).  But the very success of the campaigns to change the language used at work has meant that certain forms of sexism rather than being seen as neutral forms have become marked and associated with conservatism-  sexism thus seems to have been driven underground.  Therefore, rather than sexism being overt as in the past, sexism has become much more indirect. [17]

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