Am I included or not?

Patty Fawkner SGS

Patty Fawkner SGS

There is a link between exclusive sexist language and abusive behaviour towards women, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS*

I don’t like being called a ‘guy’, let alone a ‘man’. So I salute former Army Chief and Australian of the Year, David Morrison, for his campaign to discourage Australians from using catch-all words like ‘guys’ to include women.

Morrison was maligned for “political correctness gone mad”. But is it political correctness or real and present discrimination when 50 per cent of the population have to think twice whether they are included or not when such words are used?

Presumably, when I pray “for us men and for our salvation” in the Creed at Mass, I am included. But after Mass when the priest asks for some men to stay behind to move a piano, I’m not. Presumably.

Like everyone else on the planet I want to belong, but, as a woman, I do not want to belong by being “one of the guys”.

“Get over it,” people say to those who raise the issue of inclusive language, “‘man’ and ‘guy’ are generic terms”. That’s my point. Sometimes they are, but there are many occasions when they are not, leaving women to wonder if, in a particular situation, they are one of the ‘men’ or ‘guys’ or not. And have you noticed that all-inclusive generic words for people are never female?

It is not only women who are left wondering. On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ this year, we heard the Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves. Faithful to the text, at the church where I went, the priest in his homily said that Jesus fed five thousand men. He added, in an ever-so-casual aside, that women and children were not there. Not that they weren’t counted (in keeping with the patriarchal mores of the time), but that they weren’t even there at this iconic Eucharistic event.

I was disturbed. The priest wasn’t. There was no outcry, no thought of injustice that the world for which Jesus breaks, blesses and gives bread, just as he breaks, blesses and gives his body and his life, is a world in which women and children are excluded.

Excluded in our language and then in our consciousness. Excluded in our consciousness and then in our language. Women become unseeable just like Alice, who observed beyond the looking glass, “I don’t think they can hear me, and I’m nearly sure they can’t see me. I feel somehow as if I was getting invisible.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rituals and prayer of many of the world’s religions, including the liturgy of the Catholic Church. In language of Scripture, hymn and creed, in the person of the imam, priest or preacher, not to mention in images for God, women are absent. But do we notice, let alone care?

The issue of inclusive language continues to be trivialised. I’m told that I shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff” and should concentrate on what’s important, the real issues of domestic violence and the sexual exploitation of women. But I am, in a small way, focusing on such issues, because there is a link between exclusive sexist language and abusive behaviour towards women.

Language is potent. Language shapes perceptions and shapes reality. Language shapes behaviour. Dictators and propaganda merchants, advertisers and spin doctors know this, as do victims of discrimination. Exclusive language indicates and reinforces a system in which the male is normative and privileged over the female.

There is also a link between language which excludes women and language which sexualises women’s status or behaviour. Think of words such as ‘spinster’, ‘old woman’, ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or ‘whore’, and their gendered pairings of ‘bachelor’, ‘old man’, ‘dog’, ‘philanderer’ or one who ‘sows his wild oats’. Pejorative moralism often accompanies the first set of words, while the second list is generally neutral or benign.

Language that is sexist, heterosexist, racist or ageist enhances the position of men over women, heterosexual over homosexual people, one race over another, and usually the young over the old. Language is used to maintain a status quo of differential power and discrimination.

Herein, of course, lies the good news. If there is such a linear connection between language and behaviour, surely by changing my language I can challenge this status quo and create the possibility of a new reality.

Taking the cue from that famous guy, astronaut Neil Armstrong, I believe that changing my language may be one small step for me as a woman and one giant leap for humankind. Please think about taking your own small step.

* Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.

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The Good Oil, August 16, 2016. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

40 Responses to “Am I included or not?”

  1. Marie Casamento says:

    Patty I have just come to read THE GOOD OIL as time and appointments have taken me elsewhere. What an opportunity has been afforded us to like Jacob wrestle with our sense of God. Whatever about sweating the small stuff this it is not as voices are heard no matter on what front we present our beliefs, and who the divine is for us. Are we talking about the living faith of dead people or the dead faith of living people, I wonder? Marie Casamento

  2. Rose says:

    Sorry to say, but I usually get upset reading The Good Oil.
    There are real anti-Church, anti- clergy, feminist threads.
    Once my comment was taken off your website, never to return, because I disagreed!
    All the best, Rose

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Dear Rose, I am sorry that you get upset reading The Good Oil because the aim is to have respectful dialogue. You can see from a couple of the comments below that some people strongly disagree with what I am saying. I am not anti-Church. I am not anti-clergy but I am, like Pope Francis, anti-clericalism. I am a feminist and proud to be one because I believe that women should be allowed the same rights and be treated with the same respect and dignity as men.

      • Rose says:

        Thanks Patty, the articles are horrendously anti-Church, anti-Clergy, and feminist.
        Even bordering on religious vilification.
        You can be ‘picky’, but you must remember the context, and not use semantics and the selective ‘quoting’ of Church leaders (or stating as fact your own interprepation of Church leaders’ views) in a manner that furthers your own feminist, etc agendas.
        I also don’t think that these articles are setting a good example, nor fair to the Good Sams and their past good works and current reputation. I am signing off from The Good Oil, as I see enough ‘Church ‘bashing’ from the secular media.
        All the best, Rose. Be happy, don’t be angry 🙂 🙂

      • Sharon Lee says:

        Yes, Pope Francis has asked priests to avoid the temptation to clericalism.
        “The pontiff asked priests to respect laity by “leaving them in peace,” and to avoid the temptation of clericalism. A parish priest, he said, shouldn’t turn every good layman into a deacon, nor should a layman try to be good by being ordained.”

        I fail to see what possible connection that has to your jumping on the secular bandwagon of neutralized language. If anything it’s an argument for you not to write such a column ridiculing a priest and telling the world what’s wrong with his homily.

        No doubt you’ve also noticed Pope Francis’ frequent and vehement warnings of the diabolical and anti-human nature of “gender ideology”. Whilst no doubt the Holy Father is primarily aiming at the more horrific manifestations of this ideology such as so-called “transgenderism” and so-called same-sex “marriage”, the push for gender-neutralised language seems the thin end of the wedge that ultimately leads to such atrocities. Even though it may seem a harmless and amusing diversion or even as you claim a matter of equal rights for women. I think the cultural neo-Marxists would describe those taking the latter view as “useful idiots” as Lenin called them.

  3. John Ryan says:

    I’m not sure which bible you are reading but my Catholic bible says there were about 5,000 men NOT counting women and children. Which means they were there. In an age when women were not counted, I give kudos to the author that he stated that women & children WERE there.
    I think Sharon Lee got it right when she says you are dating yourself back into the 80’s. Get over it and start working positively and not negativly

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      John, this story is told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew says that there were five thousand men, besides women and children. Both Mark and Luke simply say that there were 5000 men. This year on Sundays we read from the Gospel of Luke and this is the Gospel I heard on the particular Sunday I’m referring to. I take your point that it sounds like an argument from the 80s. And that’s part of my frustration. Though I see enhanced awareness within many parts of the media, with politicians etc. of the use of inclusive language, I see little growing awareness within my own church.

      • Sharon Lee says:

        In fact the story of this miracle is told by ALL FOUR Evangelists, and none of them says that there were no women or children there. I have to repeat John’s question, which Bible are you reading?

  4. Sharon Lee says:

    Oh Lord, didn’t we get over this in the 1980s?

    Look, it’s not difficult. “Man” is one of many, many English words which has TWO meanings and we know which meaning it has by the CONTEXT. 99% if not 100% of us have worked this out by the age of about 3. But some adults claim to be confused by it.

    Can you seriously put your hand on the Bible and tell me that you’re not sure whether you’re included when somebody says “men”, in context obviously referring to the whole human race, not just (adult male) men and women but a whole lot of people who are neither – teenagers, adolescents, children, infants, toddlers, babies, foetuses, embryos etc.

    I find the people who insist must strenuously on using gender-neutralised language are actually the most sexist. They think that this silly distortion of the language makes them look anti-sexist. It doesn’t get rid of confusion, it creates confusion. Find something real to write about please.

    • Sharon Lee says:

      As for the priest saying “there were no women and children there” this was what’s technically known as a “JOKE”. You may have heard of it.

      And the only people I’ve heard use the term “guys” in recent years have been young women referring to their girl friends.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Hello Sharon. Thems fighting words! You’re right, most of the time the context generally tells me if I am meant to be included or not. But the language, I believe, is still discriminatory. Men and women may be equal before the law, but they are not equal in our use of the English language. That I believe, leads to further discrimination against women, subtly and insidiously. We can agree to disagree on this.

      Trust me, Sharon, I know the priest, and in this CONTEXT, it was not a joke. Ignorance – yes. Joke – no. He genuinely was confused by the language. He read “men” and took it literally. His aside, was genuine. You could almost hear his thought process: “It says men. The women and children mustn’t have been there”.

      • Sharon Lee says:

        I assure you I have no intention of fighting you or anyone. I merely gave my opinion which I can understand must come as quite a shock to you after 25 comments unanimously 100% agreeing with your comments in absolute lockstep. Obviously you know the priest in question and I do not, but he must be the most confused or ill-educated priest in the country if he seriously thought that. Or maybe he was trying to provoke you to write this column.

        May I ask do you know any languages other than English? If you do you will realise that the attempt to gender-neutralise the entire language is only (barely) conceivable in English because English has naturally lost most of the gendering of Old English. In every other Indo-European language and many others, not only pronouns but every noun, adjective, article and in some languages even verbs are gendered. In some languages (e.g. Polish) many words change form depending whether a woman or man is speaking. In fact one of the few Indo-European languages which has even less gendering than English is Persian, which lost its gendered pronouns naturally in the Middle Ages. Yes, just around the same time that Mahometans were becoming completely dominant in Persian society and driving women into the deplorably oppressed situation they are in in that country (Iran) . Your idea (actually not an original idea, it reads like something recycled from a 1980s number of “Cleo” magazine) that non-gendered language liberates women is ludicrous. Clearly it does not.

        • Sharon Lee says:

          P.S. “most of the time”? Can you actually remember one time in your life when you heard someone use the word “men” in a conversation and genuinely didn’t know which of the two meanings it had, and so “felt excluded”? I’ve certainly never felt excluded by use of “men” or any such word. It seems the only people who feel excluded by them are those who are very determined to feel excluded.

    • Alice Priest says:

      Interestingly, as a teacher in a secondary school of a generation who have grown up in a world where inclusive language is now (thankfully) the norm and policy, I regularly find myself having to teach my students that when they encounter Church and liturgical documents and see/hear the word ‘men’ that it is meant to mean and include both men and women. It’s genuinely anachronistic now. There are very few other contemporary examples of this old usage being insisted upon. Why on earth would we want to persist for a moment longer in teaching new generations of young people, particularly girls, into belonging within the language of salvation being “for all men”?

      • Patty Fawkner says:

        You’re right, Alice. The Church is falling behind the culture in its anachronistic use of language.

        • Sharon Lee says:

          The Church’s job is not to blindly and unquestioningly follow the secular culture down whatever blind alleys it wanders. Her job, as he Founder told her, is to be the light on the hill to enlighten the culture and cleanse it of its errors, to be the leaven that raises the culture up and gives it life, that shows it a better way to be.

  5. Ailsa Piper says:

    Thanks Patty, for a terrific article that echoes my sentiments exactly. or should I say my feelings? Whenever I raise this, I’m somehow made to feel that I’m over-reacting – which can be a kind of abuse, in itself. You’ve articulated why it matters. And what on earth is wrong with using the words we already have – it’s not hard to say “Good morning all/everyone” and still sound informal! Or to simply say that Jesus fed “five thousand”. Great article. Much appreciated.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Lovely to connect in cyberspace, Ailsa. Yes, the message you get if you raise issues about language feels like, “Back in your box”. It disturbs people, which indicates to me that this is not a superficial matter. Love to you.

  6. Helen Oxenburgh-Lowe says:

    It was so good to read your comments on sexist language Patty, I agree with every sentence. Thank you for ‘putting it out there’.

  7. Liz Wiemers says:

    So we’ll put Patty. Language shapes so much in our world and Church. I am happy to ‘sweat the small stuff’ and to keep taking the small steps. … In our society a in our Church at all levels. Do the other 50% realise how often they assume women will step in to the spaces? May the next generation reap the benefits of our questions.

  8. Denis says:

    Dear Patty,

    I came across your comments in Cath News this morning and then re-directed to the article above in Good Oil. I found both to be very thought provoking indeed. I get into all sorts of trouble with my stand against being politically correct, especially at work.

    Thanks for both of your commentaries.


    Denis Bristow

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      I’m glad you found your way to the Good Oil, Denis – worth subscribing to! It is so much easier, but lazier and less fruitful to label an opinion as being “politically correct”, than to engage in genuine dialogue.

  9. Thanks Patti for your thoughtful commentary. An area that seems to weave in with the power of language, exclusion and violence is the research on “unconscious bias” and “unconscious affinity” and how it relates to “otherness”. Apparently, we use a different constellation of neural pathways when interacting with people or groups that are perceived as different to us compared to to the neural pathways we use with our friends or “in group”. Maybe this can explain in some way why many groups of people, like refugees, Muslims, Aboriginal people, just to list a few, that are treated differently or in many cases inhumanely.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      This is fascinating, Bernadette, and makes utter sense. I suppose it explains our varying levels of comfort or discomfort with various groupings of people. I hope life goes well for you.

  10. Bronwyn Klease says:

    Thank you Patty, I totally agree with you and now I won’t feel so alone when I “sweat the small stuff” which I have been doing consistently for many years now.

  11. Jan Clark says:

    With ice pick in hand I say “Here! Here!” and thank you for keeping this important issue to the fore.
    Like others I am frequently chided for being “too fussy” or pedantic in this matter but this is usually by male friends whom I am sure would take offence at being called by a feminine title , name of form of address…..and when they hear of God as “Mother” they cringe!
    I remember the T-shirt of some years ago that read,
    ” ‘God’ is not a boy’s name” – amusing maybe, but it makes a point.

  12. Kristin Dawson says:

    Yes Patty, language is most potent and when consciousness is raised the exclusion based on gender is very loud and clear. Much of our language for which there is resistance to change comes from a period when women were actually excluded and there are interests which wish to maintain power and this exclusion. A group of men and women a number of years ago studying feminist theology involved themselves in an exercise where all references to God were ‘she’ and the use of the term ‘women’ to embrace both men and women who both had references in this word. After a few weeks the male members became very frustrated and began to experience the exclusion of the language Language is fundamental in conveying images of power and who has precedence in society and there are many with an interest in keeping it that way

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      I’ve heard about that exercise, Kris, when God was always referred to as feminine and “women” was used to include all people. It seems that experience of exclusion breaks the resistance. We need more men to advocate for inclusive language (as well as more women!).

  13. Leo Pitts says:

    Once more a thought provoking article, Patty. All last year I was immersed in childcare and discovered first hand what discrimination is really like – I was on the receiving end. While language has its shortcomings, it is the actions of people that are more telling. Churches are far too exclusive, but I don’t believe that women wanting to be priests is the answer. There should be no priests or hierarchy at all. Even when we say “God the Father” we should change it to simply: “Your Majesty” and so on. Some language is also misconstrued in its roots; for example “Chairman” has nothing to do with “man” as the “man” in this case comes from manere: to remain. While language offends, the practice of discrimination is even more offensive. It’s great to see young – and not so young- men accepting more hands-on roles in childcare these days. Maybe the old stereotypes are being challenged. Thank you Patty for telling it how it is.

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Leo, I am really interested in the derivation of ‘chairman’. Thanks for that snippet. I have to disagree with you about names for God. Give me ‘Father’ any day over ‘Your Majesty’. I hope life is treating you well and is not too discriminatory….

  14. Rosemary Grundy says:

    Thank you Patty. This has always been of major discomfort to me. Then I read in one of Elizabeth Fiorenza’s books that: In the second half of the 20th century, the generic use of man to refer … the result of skilled political lobbying in the nineteenth century. In 1850, the British Parliament passed the Interpretation Act 1850, also called Lord Brougham’s Act, which made the pronoun he universal to include both male and female. And presumably that also applied to such terms as “guys”!

    • Patty Fawkner says:

      Good old Lord Brougham! Thanks for taking the time to respond, Rosemary.

    • Sharon Lee says:

      Historical-revisionist nonsense. The masculine has always been the “unmarked” gender in English going back to Old English over a thousand years before this supposed 19th century invention. In fact it was even more pronounced then. e.g. A Middle English poet refers to his lady-love as “a very parfit Mann”.

      If there had been a political attempt to change the language in the 19th century, it would have failed, as all other such attempts have, e.g. Mussolini’s attempt to “correct” Italian pronoun usage and the current attempt to “correct” English pronoun usage. Languages change naturally and slowly. Top-down edicts to “improve” them never succeed.

  15. Beth says:

    Totally agree with you Patty, especially about being told that I shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”. Language is so, so important and the fact that we still have to talk about the lack of inclusive langauge in our Church in 2016 is just depressing. I shall keep talking…

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