Language Can Make Women Disappear

Words affect thought.


  • Europeans play football
  • Americans play baseball
  • Australians are bear-drinking surfies

A few years ago (when both language and culture were more sexist than today) Dale Spender asked some teens to play a game. She made statements like those above and asked if they could guess the rule behind the game. Girls were quicker to catch on:

You pretend you’re talking about everybody but you don’t. It’s only men.

Basically, they were using language to make women disappear. The boys had a lot of fun with this game.

Until she changed the rule.

Let’s make men disappear

“Now let’s make men disappear,” suggested Spender.

  • Adolescents think only of marriage and makeup
  • Australians look good in bikinis

The girls had a lot of fun. But the boys grew hostile and withdrew. They didn’t like feeling excluded and not counting.

Why didn’t the girls get upset when they were “disappeared?”

Probably because girls were so used to it that it had come to feel natural and normal. Girls had grown used to being secondary and left out.

Disappearing women

People are much less likely to only say “he” instead of “he and she” these days. But it still happens. But “he” still usually comes before “she,” making men primary.

And it’s still not uncommon for humans, male and female, to be called:

Man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship…

We still talk of chairmen, congressmen and mailmen… and “man’s best friend,” the dog — if less so than in the past.

Psychological consequences of words

Words affect our psyches. That’s why the totalitarian master planners of George Orwell’s 1984 sought to rid the world of words. They wanted to remove the thoughts that lie behind them.

Helen Keller knew this from first hand experience. Born blind and deaf, she did not learn language for many years. During that time she had very few thoughts, she said.

Language works a bit like covert propaganda. We hear it all of our lives from the time we are tiny — a time when we are not sophisticated enough to think critically about the things we hear. So it all seeps into our unconscious.

And so we unconsciously learn our place in society.

Girls learn that they are the more invisible and secondary sex.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 26, 2016, in feminism, gender, psychology, sexism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 51 Comments.

  1. I recently took a German course and the instructor talked about the debate over gendered words in German. Titles have a male or female form, for example Arzt and Ärztin when translated to English both mean doctor but the former is the masculine form and the latter the feminine form. Even when talking about friends, Freund and Freundin one masculine one feminine. When referring to a group or just speaking broadly in German the masculine plural form is almost always used. This has led to the argument that woman and nonbinary people are linguistically excluded though the use of the generic masculine.
    Attempts at making the language more “gender-equitable” have included slashes and asterisks before the word endings, but even this is pushed back against and isn’t in the mainstream use of the language. Those who are against it argue that it makes reading and writing more cumbersome.
    Using language that subjugates women isn’t an issue confined to English, and it hasn’t been resolved but it is something that should change.

  2. I appreciate this posting for sharing the results of that game, although I’m not surprised the boys grew hostile when they were excluded. What still shocks me is that the girls felt normal and natural when they were excluded because it is so widespread. As states, “language works like covert propaganda”, and I completely agree. Because women are so often disregarded and excluded, it’s like they no longer have the option of withdrawing or growing hostile because language has also been used to manipulate the way women are supposed to act according to social standards. This “learning our place in society” wears down on individuals, and is reflected in every other aspect of life. That is why we often see women being paid less, being celebrated less and even being voted for less than men. It is critical that we all carefully consider the beliefs behind our words and actions, otherwise we could be making ourselves and those we care about invisible.

  3. I enjoyed this article; its gave a lot of insight into how vocabulary and language can affect someone’s perception of the world. When the group of both sexes was playing the game, I found it interesting how the males did not like being excluded, but the woman has used to exclusion. I also found it interesting how common vocabulary words exclude women,even the word women has the word men at the end of it. Some other key vocabulary words that we use daily like Congressmen, and mailman, as stated in the article. After reading this post, I never find myself using different words for those same vocabulary words like post officer. This article has me think twice about how I use words daily to describe unisex activities and job titles.

  4. I am a student at a local community college, and I am completing my general education subjects in order to transfer to a four-year college. One of my classes involves a lot of group work, where we read parts of the book and answer questions each team has asked. My group consists of one boy and three girls (including myself) and the boy and one of the girls are very shy. However, I have noticed that even when the more confident girl and I raise our hands to answer the question, another group (all male) just shout the answer louder, dismissing everything I have said, and therefore making me feel embarrassed and that I am having my voice shut down. My professor is lovely and usually listens when other groups are indignant and tell her that I answered the question first, but the male group (called “The Coffee group”) just shout their answer even louder. Both my team and their team were correct, however, the men refused to listen to me. I have noticed that in the last few classes, fewer and fewer of my female classmates are raising their hands or participating. It has even made me feel small and as though my voice and opinions don’t matter, because I am not as assertive or as loud as the male group. As my parents used to say to me, “just because your voice is louder doesn’t make your response correct,” and this is very applicable to my situation in this class. The boys are more confident, even if their answer is incorrect because they are seen as more “powerful” in the class – they dictate the lecture and which table should get the points, but only because they are louder.

  5. I have found that people have a complex relationship with language. New terms are introduced into our vocabularies all the time, and for the most part people adopt new words without hesitation. But it seems that when it comes to changing gendered language, many people become resistant.

    Why could this be? Here are a few of my ideas:

    Gender is confusing, fragile, and generally misunderstood. Resultantly, people cling to any sense of security, which in this case can be found through language that reaffirms both the patriarchy and binary identities. Threat is then seen in the existence of language that puts women first, or that allows for non-conforming gender identities.

    People have been told all their lives that they have to follow a strict set of rules in terms of gender. Often, a person who breaks those rules is met with violence or other negative consequences, and so people become afraid to break gender rules and expectations. Seeing another person break those rules makes people upset because they don’t see why that person should be an exception to the rules.

    People are afraid that any changes related to societal gender norms that occur will undermine their own gender related privileges.

    I would love to hear more thoughts.

    • You have some interesting thoughts there. Thanks for offering them. I’ll have to think about all of it more.

      Language has deep and invisible consequences so people who understand that will be very hesitant to change the language if they are conservative and want to keep things the same as they have always been. Plus, it can be difficult to relearn language when you are older so some people are resistant just because they don’t want have to deal with it.

  6. Elisabeth Esquivel

    Language makes a woman disappear, and decides what she can and can’t be. Until words like firefighter and chairperson became common vernacular, women of course couldn’t be a person that fights fires. Although the word “mathematician” has no “man” in it, I get really varying comments when I tell people I am studying math in college. It used to be a completely male dominated field, and even though society is now more progressive, I am still offended by the comments I get from others. Sometimes I get an uncomfortable laugh and then a “oh math?” from guys, are they intimidated because that means I’m smart? One time my mom told someone I was studying math and they said, “Oh but she’s so pretty,” is beauty and intelligence inversely related? A male classmate very condescendingly taught me an idea but I didn’t ask for the help, does he think he must be smarter because he’s male? It is not only words with “man” in it that exclude females, but societies views on what gender belongs to that word.

  7. I once read an article that talk about men at war and how they were able to live with out regret of killing a human. language was the primary roll of men being morally okay with killing a man. Using terms like terrorist and enemies would help in degrading the other people. We live in a world dominated by ideology of men. we’ve been raised this way since we were young and have become numb to the fact that we talk in male perspective so to say. in a similar way, like the men at war, use terms that degrade other people, in a direct or subtle way, women have gotten used it. we can see how even in the presidential election women were being degraded by trump but still manages to win the election. People didn’t mind the fact that the next president was a man who had little respect towards women, show us how divided this country still is.

  8. This blog identifies how society establishes the place between men and women. Unfortunately, we are exposed to early sexism in the simplest form of terms. We unconsciously use phrases like chairmen, congressmen, and mailmen all masculine terms that exclude females from that position. Does that mean that just because “men” falls at the end of it, does it mean that women can’t possess that position? Although that may not be the case we have discovered that naturally we have put men before women.

    In the article Dale Spender acknowledges that the girls didn’t get upset when they were being excluded from the class discussion. Society has established females to be in second place. It is natural for women to “disappear” when it comes to men. Women fall back to make a man feel inferior. We learned that in earlier years when grandmothers and mothers teach their daughters how to clean and cook. It’s necessary for women to teach young girls so that they can end up taking care of their husband and children. It’s unfortunate but us women learn of our place in society at a young age.

  9. I find it really interesting, but not surprising, that when they changed the rules to make men disappear, the boys got angry, but when they had the women disappear, the girls didn’t have much of a reaction. Personally, I have experienced people using “him” for “they” a lot. Even in the Spanish language, when you are talking about a group of people, you use the masculine and you have to use this conjugation even if there is one guy to twenty girls in the group. I agree that because of the way language is structured, women often go unacknowledged, which teaches people to put less value on women.

  10. I agree to the point where language does make women feel left out back in the days. However, language to me is equal between men and women. I did not realize until recent on how women are left out like, “brotherhood, or mankind.” Whenever I have to speak to a female, I really watch what I say because I don’t like to get off on the wrong foot. I believe in equal women rights and their existence. All the male dominated words can easily be replaced with female words like, “sisterhood,” but the words would sound strange because it’s unusual.

    • We get so used to hearing women being treated as second-class citizens, From the time we are born, that it starts to seem natural and normal so that we barely notice it. But it has important negative effects. I’m glad you are becoming more aware of the problem.

  11. This article is interesting, and I would have loved to read about someone standing up for the girls, and vice versa. I guess that society have very few people, that would stand for something truly unreasonable.

  12. The idea of language been so hard on our sexes is crazy. However it makes me ponder the idea that if people choose to change the names of things would peoples perspectives to change over time.If i changed the word mailmen to post-people would thing have a change on the gender position of the idea rather then the word? Been of a European background the language is very different then in the americas, I am trying to figure out is how such a forward moving country has such a backwards idea of power holding status. In some European countries women hold places of power that have not even been held in the Americans. In Ireland there has been two female presidents, and in England you have the queen once a position of power next to the king it is now a social/societal position it did once hold great importance. There are some many different women in history that are not discussed in school and by not talking about them, young women of today look and live in a world ran predominantly by men.

    • “If i changed the word mailmen to post-people would thing have a change on the gender position of the idea rather then the word?”

      Yes. Women are more likely to apply to be a “mail carrier” than a “mailman”

      “A person”? Most think of men. Women are more “other”

  13. This topic for me is very delicate. As I got to the point where it illustrated that women might be used to disappearing but men may not it got me very sad. I was sad because it is the truth. Men aren’t used to feeling left out or not acknowledged. In the other hand, it is almost routine for women to feel as if we don’t exist in some situations or are most likely to feel excluded because we might not fit in or know anything about certain things.
    For example, if there was to be a problem with a car not turning on, if I was to be besides a guy who would be asked about a car solution? Most likely the guy besides me, because I might be underestimated about my knowledge on cars.

  14. This is a painful topic. The problem here obviously isn’t the language, it is the beliefs behind the language. It is unfortunate that using encompassing terms, which in general means to surround and include, turns out to exclude so many.

    I wonder how this plays out in contrast with gendered languages, such as Spanish. As I keep trying to learn my husband’s native language of Spanish, I find myself frustrated over the fact that everything has a gender, and of course, it’s especially frustrating when they play into sexist beliefs.

    I loved your comment “Language works a bit like covert propaganda.” It perfectly describes the power of words.

    Thankfully the power that is in language means we can change beliefs through the words we choose. Maybe one day when we use ambiguous terms, it will not inadvertently erase more than half of mankind…I mean – the human race, from its subject.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment and discussion of gendered language. Of course the problem here is that words always contain meaning behind the words, which in this case are sexist.

  15. We need to change our perspectives. See the words: woman has man in it, female has male and she has he. Women are all encompassing and they have been blessed by the Nature to give birth to a man.

  16. my mother still calls the posty the mailman but sometimes there has been a lady riding a posty bike around lately so I just call it the posty instead and the AFL Australian Futtball League is just starting to have a series of female teams there are already female football teams around but they weren’t as high profile but now things are starting to change there are also a female cricket team I think too.

  17. I have another example. I have a T-shirt that my wife brought home for me after a trip to Norway. On the back of the shirt is writing in some aboriginal language that translates to “man knows little.” I didn’t give it too much thought a woman asked me about it when I was buying my dog food in a local pet store. We discussed it for a while and realized that as is the saying is thought to be a commentary on the knowledge of the human race. But if it instead said “woman knows little,” the meaning is completely different. It would be seen as a derogatory comment about women, something that maybe Donald Trump would say after the 300th or so woman relates her story of how he groped her.

    • Yes as you say, these two phrases would be interpreted very differently:

      “man knows little”
      “woman knows little”

      One indicating humanity and the other indicating just women. Thanks for sharing about your experience with that. 🙂

    • “litet-vis maðr”, supposedly “man knows little”. Since the origin of this is from the remains of an old viking ship, no doubt manned by men doing raids, maybe it was supposed to refer to men, and their little knowledge about their fate in the next battle, as opposed to the women staying home who know plenty about their future. Or maybe it is just badly translated and should be “people know little”. Either way, I don’t see the point of bringing this up.

      • There are men who do scholarship for “Men’s studies” and one of the points they bring up is how difficult it is to know whether “man” refers to everyone or just to males. It’s part of the problem with our language.

        That said, the Vikings also had female fighters called shield maidens. Archaeologists have found Viking women buried with their weapons.

      • “the Vikings also had female fighters called shield maidens. ”

        Maybe.. or maybe not.

        “It’s part of the problem with our language.”

        Language is full of ambiguities, this is only a tiny subset of the problems. One of the many in English is if you ask “Are you not…”, neither a yes or no answer is unambiguous. Don’t you have to put up with it? I mean, Obama, who you probably think of as in your general camp, says that Mars is the next giant leap for mankind. You don’t control language.

      • Language has been shifting overtime because we are educating on its effects. Because sexist language has been embedded in my brain I still mess up sometimes, myself. But it’s important to try to change the language because girls and women start to feel lesser than and other. Men see things the same way. And then women are harmed more because they are lesser than, whether because there is less medical research on women’s problems or because we are women are looked down upon they are more often insulted, raped, beaten. And that’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for the women or their mothers, fathers, husbands, sons and daughters.

      • So.. how far do you want to take this? You don’t want freshman, man-made, no-man’s-land, layman, man-hours, mankind, manpower, human, barman, chairman, bell-boy, alderman, bondsman, cameraman, caveman, common man, countryman, doorman, handyman, henchman, infantryman, longshoreman, man-to-man, marksman, medicine man , repairman, salesman, seaman, showmanship, song-and-dance-man, statesman, weatherman, yes-man?

        Presumably you also don’t want homo, homo-sapien, hominem, hominid since these all derive from Latin “homo” meaning man.

        You want to destroy the entire language and rebuild it anew, is that it?

      • Yep. You got it.

        And for more on why this is so important see this comment from one of the women who wrote in:

        “This topic for me is very delicate. As I got to the point where it illustrated that women might be used to disappearing but men may not it got me very sad. I was sad because it is the truth. Men aren’t used to feeling left out or not acknowledged. In the other hand, it is almost routine for women to feel as if we don’t exist in some situations or are most likely to feel excluded because we might not fit in or know anything about certain things.”

        And my response:

        When people internalize that women are less important they are also more likely to be harmed, Whether by being paid less or even being attacked with violence.

      • You don’t have a backup language waiting in the wings though. If you replace man with human, it’s still got that inconvenient “man” in it. You want to destroy the language, but what have you got in its place? Hu-person maybe?

      • Well you can change mailman to mail carrier. And chairman to “chair.” Might have to be creative. And I admit it can be difficult at first as I have struggled with my own internalization. But it does have psychological effects so it’s important.

      • Mail carrier doesn’t have all the connotations of mailman. If you said you were a mail carrier, I wouldn’t automatically assume you deliver mail. And I don’t know what a chair is.

        As long as you have the lofty ambitions to destroy the language and build it anew, wouldn’t it be a lot easier and quicker to just redefine the word “man” to include women, and job done? Instead of a thousand language changes, you’ve only got one! Easy and quick.

        And… oh wait, the word man has always had a connotation that includes women, so the job is already half done for you!

      • Why would you assume that someone delivers mail because they are called a “mailman”? That seems less obvious than mail carrier.

        What word do you mean that with encompass both male and female?

  18. Funny, I was just reading an article about this today, where the authors of a study had counted the amount of times masculine versus feminine language was used. It was literally twice as much. But, like you say, it was much worse in the past, so as we grow aware of it, it evens out. Hopefully.

  19. I consciously try to remember this when I write reviews or regular articles for my blogs. I look for alternatives to “man” unless I mean “man”. It is usually doable.

  20. Since the women’s surf champion is Australian, and no doubt enjoys a good lager, aren’t you the one making the classic sexist gaffe?

    • Nope.

      I mentioned that we are less sex a society today and that this study was done a few years ago. Some of it still fits, in that women still typically play softball instead of baseball, and men but not women usually play football (US or in Europe). On the other hand, surfing might be considered gender-neutral in Australia today, because as I said in the post we are a less sexist world now.

      And I never suggested that we should switch things so that men were always referred to as women, so I wasn’t being sexist.

      See other comments to see how the problem continues.

      • yeah but it’s not like women don’t know of the rules of said sports. Tons of women sports fans, so it’s weird that it would be excluding women. When many girls I know follow football or baseball so such question, they would be interested or be able to answer the rules for it. I think this might show how women learn or get acclimated to more “male things” than men acclimated to women things, maybe to gender raking. Like much less men would have an idea about make up and such topics for the female based questions whereas plenty of women could relate or answer the sports questions. It’s like how women find male comedians or like male comics as much as female comics or male oriented comedy (well except for the immature stuff), whereas, less likely men caring about the female oriented jokes and comedy.

      • Sure, they know the rules of the sports but they aren’t as fully engaged since they don’t play them.

        And the article was written in 1980, meaning that this classroom experiment probably happened even earlier — maybe the 70s, when women were less interested in these sorts of sports. Like I said she did this experiment during a more sexist time, and wrote about it in an essay called “Disappearing Tricks.”

        Take a look at Ken’s comment. If you say “men” versus “women” for instance, people often think man means everyone but women just been women. But when you say “men,” women disappear.

        And it registers that way too. If a want ad is put out for a “mailman” fewer women apply then if the ad is for a “mail carrier.” One instructor did an experiment asking students for pictures to illustrate a book. One class was asked to get pictures illustrating chapter titles called: social man, political man, economic man… Another class was asked for pictures to illustrate: social life, political life, my economic life… And students were much more prone to bringing pictures of men in that first case. Disappearing women.

        When I was young I couldn’t figure out why men like dogs so much (dogs are man’s best friend). Women disappeared again.

        So when we think of people we are more likely to think of men. This is probably one reason why almost all medical research is done on man. Men are people. Women are only half the population (actually, a little more than half). I’ll have to write about all this later too.

      • And what if “Dog’s are man’s best friend” says something genuine about the differences between the sexes? A woman’s best friend is another woman, because that’s how women are. Men are more independent, and thus a man’s best friend is a dog. Here is an article to illustrate:

        Yes, we could all go around saying “Dog’s are a person’s best friend”, but it would be no longer true, so what would be the point? Political correctness gone mad again?

      • If it was meant to literally mean that then fine if it is true.

        This reminds me of research on young children. When they are little boys and girls are equally likely to engage in nurturing behavior toward babies. But boys start to be taught that they’re not supposed to behave that way so they shift their nurturing toward their pets. Boys definitely have the capacity to be nurturing but that desire gets rerouted.

        Meanwhile boys learn to put their emotions in a straitjacket or get tortured/Made fun of. Which hurts intimacy, Emotional health, All sorts of things. It’s a sad thing for was an men. And it hurts everyone because it hurts relationship.

        Men are much less likely to leave a relationship than women are because relationships are one of the few places where men can express emotion and feel intimacy, which shows how much men need it.

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