On Sexist Language: What do you call this woman when she runs a meeting?


I’ve recently had a very pleasant discussion with some of my twitter friends about the word ‘twat’.

The conversation started when I responded to a tweeter who was angry at the misogyny and threats of physical and sexual violence sent via social media to women in the British public eye, including feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez from the Women’s Room, Stella Creasy MP, and Historian, Professor Mary Beard. I was equally outraged, and support the gist of her argument, but I pointed out to her that describing the miscreant(s) as a ‘twat’ is sexist.

Dictionary definition:

  1. Vulgar Slang The vulva.
  2. Offensive & Vulgar Slang A woman or girl.

Several other people joined the discussion. For the record, I prefer to keep to the issue/argument rather than call people names, because it allows them to digress (just as I did). Fortunately, we did not lose sight of the fact that the people making threats must be stopped.

In the 70s feminists drew attention to sexism in everyday language. Men were ‘Mr.’, but ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ conferred marital status on women, hence ‘Ms’ was promoted as a neutral term, to give women equal footing.

Both men and women found the proposed adoption of ‘Ms’ difficult. A woman told me she wrote to a company and signed herself Ms. P… T…. A few days later, came the reply:

Dear Miss T,

I assume you are a ‘Miss’ as I have yet to meet a ‘Mrs.’ who would prefer to be called ‘Ms’ …

I have to report sadly, that, what many of us deem unnecessarily sexist language persists to this day, and in particular about what title we give to a person running a meeting. ‘Chairman’ was used regardless of gender and as a small step to recognise a woman in the Chair ‘Madame Chairman’ was commonly used. Although not perfect many of us ‘liberals’ were happy to accept the gender-neutral terms ‘Chairperson’ or simply ‘Chair’.

Barbara Castle, the British MP for Rochdale who spearheaded the Equal Pay Act through Parliament in 1975 said at the time, “I don’t mind what they call me, as long as I’m in the Chair”. But then, not many people would have stood a chance against ‘firebrand’ Barbara – a reference to her tenacity, formidable debating skills – and her red hair – even she didn’t escape comments about her appearance.

40 years on, ‘Ms’ is widely used but out-dated forms of address still persist. John Christie, a newly elected Councillor on Oxfordshire County Council has been in public service most of his career and is used to using gender-neutral language, so when he stood up to speak in the Council Chamber and addressed the person chairing the meeting as ‘Chair’ he was ridiculed by the predominately male attendees with a noisy chorus of guffawing. ‘We’re not pieces of furniture’ they heckled.

John has proposed a motion, to be debated in the autumn, that The Council should in future use gender-neutral terminology to describe roles within the organisation, but has little confidence it will be carried.

My personal preference would be for vacant positions to be a neutral ‘Chair’. I have no objection to men being called Chairman, but I’d rather be called Chairwoman, than Madam Chairman. Besides, have you every heard a man addressed as ‘Mr. Chairwoman’? Neither, have I, which says a lot about where the power lies.

Why is this important? Persistantly using masculine titles for women’s roles makes women invisible, and perpetuates male associations with roles in job hierarchies. That’s a huge disadvantage to women. We have made progress – police officers, fire fighters, actors etc. It is but a small step to adopt the word ‘Chair’. I don’t buy the furniture quip: politicians have seats as an MP and as a member of the Cabinet, so I have every confidence they are capable of embracing ‘Chair’.

Back to where we started. I suspect many people don’t know what the word ’twat’ means. If they did, and wanted to support gender equality they might think twice about using it.

© 2013 Mary Evans Young

Mary is a qualified psychotherapist and life coach. She lives in Oxfordshire, England. Her latest book (with Derek Evans) is: Ageing with Attitude, a guide for baby boomers not ready to hang up their boots.

Her other books include:

Diet Breaking, having it all without having to diet

You Count, Calories Don’t

Mary is also the Tea Shop reviewer for The Oxford Times/Mail

Twitter: @MaryEvansYoung


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