Tag Archives: Intersectionality

Feminist linguistic activism in the U.S. + intersectionality


An example from 1971

Since I’ve been writing about intersecionality, I will start with that.

When two female students at Harvard Divinity School in 1971 made a request to their professor to stop using “he to refer to God and masculine pronouns to refer to people in general,” the professor honored their requests. While some male students were open to this newly implemented practice, other male students including the few students of color were resistant. They were “leery of white feminists, even though we had come out of the civil rights movement ourselves,” stated Emily Culpepper, one of the students who made the request. This is an applicable example of how one marginalized group can impede the cause of the other marginalized group.

An example from 2019: U.S. Supreme Court Hearing on LGBTQ employment discrimination


Source: One Iowa Facebook Page

One Iowa, a non-profit organization that “advances, empowers, and improves the lives of LGBTQ Iowas statewide,” made a posting on their Facebook page yesterday. It was an update on the current hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court on three cases about LGBTQ employment discrimination with a poster that says Protect LGBTQ Workers. “These cases will determine if federal law protects LGBTQ people.” It made me question hard: ‘What could be the ground for not hiring or firing someone based on their sexual representation? How could it connect to their job competency?’ I could not come up with an answer. Currently, the civil rights laws of some states provide protection from employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity but it is not covered in federal civil rights laws. Can we justify discriminating against a person because of who they are? Sexual orientation or gender identity is a core part of an individual like race, color, religion, sex or national origin, the elements covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If we can opt to exclude a part of identity from legal protection, wouldn’t it mean that we can exclude any element? When we fail to protect a group of people who are marginalized due to their identifying characteristics, for example, immigrants or women, it does not just affect that group; it affects all marginalized groups. That is how intersectionality works.

Feminist linguistic activism in the U.S.

The story of two female students at Harvard Divinity School is used in the article, Language and its everyday revolutionary potential: feminist linguistic activism in the US by Christine Mallinson (2017), as an example of “challenging man-made language forms.” Mallinson analyzes three strategies deployed in linguistic activism by the U.S. feminists: (1) challenging man-made language forms, (2) creating and institutionalizing egalitarian naming practices, and (3) linguistic disruption. These activists use the language as “an object to reform” as well as “a platform for revolution.”

In the introduction, Mallison explains the fundamental problem with English as a man-made language:

Gendered linguistic inequalities are also often rendered invisible, via pervasive gendered ideologies that construct male-oriented, hegemonic social structures, positions, and practices as normal and natural.
Language not only reflects larger social arrangements and hierarchies; it also creates, challenges, and maintains them.

Let’s go over the three strategies under discussion one by one.

Challenging man-made language forms

What the two female students at Harvard Divinity School challenged in their request was the use of androcentric words. They are “centered on, emphasizing, or dominated by males or masculine interests.” They cause problems to gender equality because they try to “establish ‘the man/the male as the prototype for human representation … [and] reduces the woman/female to the status of the ‘subsumed,’ the ‘invisible,’ or the ‘marked’ one’” (Pauwels 2003: 553). 25 years after this incident, organizations have now established their policy against sexist language. For example, the Linguistic Society of America recommends that “whenever possible, use plurals and other appropriate alternatives, rather than only masculine pronouns and ‘pseudo-generics’ such as man, unless referring specifically to males” (LSA Bulletin 1996: 68). Although the wave of generic use of man and masculine pronouns has passed us mostly, now there is an emergence of a new androcentric term: you guys. This is proof that male hegemony will continue to rise and seep through our language use because “being required to speak of people as males … seem[s] natural, immutable and preferable” (Henley and Abueg 2003: 449).

Creating and institutionalizing egalitarian naming practices

A big part of this work is instituting titles that treat all genders equally such as the use of Ms. Abandoning Miss. and Mrs. was important because “women were judged, qualified, and disqualified, included and excluded, on the basis their marital status” (Eckert and McConnel-Ginnet 2003: 43). Nowadays, another title is being promoted, especially in the U.K.: the gender-neutral Mx. (pronounced like “mix”).

Linguistic disruption

This strategy is used to disrupt the male hegemony by “actively making women visible in everyday language and everyday spaces.” The first type of the strategy is the neologism, introducing new words such as herstory, and womyn. They are not intended to be realistic or be used widely. They rather serve the purpose of “re-envisioning of language and history by and for women, and to raise awareness, sometimes in a more provocative manner” (Pauwels 2003: 562). The second type is called “form replacement” or “gender-neutralization.” These are simple, practical, and attainable changes such as switching from fireman to firefighterchairman to chair(person), waiter/waitress to server.

Concluding Q&A

Some people are skeptical of linguistic activism: can language use bring about social changes? Language and society are tightly intertwined and therefore influence each other constantly. As the generic use of you guys in recent years shows, the male hegemony will keep influencing our language use. At the same time, “we do language,” according to the author Toni Morrison. Each individual is an independent agent of the language they use. Here is a quote from Mallinson to conclude:

We can claim words, we can fight over their meanings, we can resist linguistic bias, we can tamper with sexist form, we can creatively deploy linguistic resources, we can speak truth to power.

Intersectionality and White Women

The title is two keywords of this entry. Let’s start with intersectionality.


This term was coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, American lawyer, civil rights advocate, a leading scholar of critical race theory, and a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School. In her 1989 essay, Crenshaw used the term to “address the marginalization of Black women within not only anti-discrimination law but also in feminist and antiracist theory and politics.” Later in 1991, she also use it to describe “the ways in which social movement organization and advocacy around violence against women” exludes “the vulnerabilities of women of color.”

Her recent usage of the term has broadened rightfully since the feminism and the anti-racism are not the only two movements that intersect. The social constructions of gender, race, social class and ability are interdependent forms of dominant ideology; ideologies and the resistance to them do not function independently. In certain cases, a discourse of resistance can rather produce and legitimize marginalization of another resistance.

An Example re: White Women

Here is an example from Medium by Real Talk: WOC & Allies. The article attributes the cause of white women’s lack of force in anti-racist activism to their deeply-conditioned discomfort with discord, subversion, and disruption. Sassy Latte, Black blogger and activist points out:

As people in marginalized communities gain access to power, the effect is that people who have power are going to have to give some of it up.

And giving up power is scary for it will crack or even dismantle the wall, which has been protecting White people including White women and White women feminists. The rest of the article shows the actions that White women can take to overcome the repulsion from subversion and disruption and use their White privilege to dismantle the systematic racism.

A tiny personal wrap-up

My investigation of intersectionality will continue in my linguistic studies, as language is everywhere and intersects with everything.

Is it okay for a black man to use “bitch” and “pussy” in his rap?

My short answer is “no”. If your answer is a firm no, you might not need to read this article.

I recently volunteered for a week long festival where black artists and artists of color were invited to perform. I was happy, surrounded by people of color and making a contribution in forming community and increasing visibility of POC. On the night of spoken word and poetry, I was struck when I heard a black man rapper using these words: bitch and pussy. It was very clear that he was using them to insult the characters in his story. At that moment, I felt the fragility of supporting one marginalised group when it fails to support the other marginalised groups. As I mentioned in my previous article, [Call it like it is] TERF? TPHP., intersectionality is real and essential. We are in this fight for justice together, and we cannot achieve justice by throwing another marginalised group under the bus.

By no mean, I am not against slurs. I believe slurs are natural expression of human emotions. However, slurs like “bitch” and “pussy” are problematic because they are often misogynic. Contexts determine their meanings, and they can be used by women in an empowering way as Caitie Karasik explained in The Stanford Daily:

A woman saying she is a “bad bitch” is not the same as a man calling a woman “his bitch.” The first can be a term of endearment, the other of possession steeped in a history of oppression. A man telling a man not to be a “bitch” means something entirely different from a woman telling another woman not to be a “bitch.” For one thing, the former suggests women lack value, and the latter suggests that women can only behave in certain ways. For another, men simply lack unfettered access to “bitch,” “pussy,” “cunt,” or “slut” because these words were intended by males to insult what’s female, or restrict women’s freedom of thought and behavior.

For I myself is a woman and is critical of oppression on women, I could not enjoy or appreciate the artist work any longer. The rapper looked young, so I just made a wish that he will learn, grow, and become a more socially-conscious rapper in the future. I rarely listen to rap, but I know this rapper is not the first man who used misogynic slurs in his work. There is research on who tops in that area.

So here is my long answer to the initial question of whether he can use “bitch” and “pussy”: Noooooooooooooo.