‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl”,’ the American politician Shirley Chisholm once said. Exposed in this insight is the miraculous power of language; all that is required for something so fateful to be determined is not biological nature, not even social imposition, but, simply, speech. So seemingly simple is this mechanism, in fact, that some are doing their best to change it. It was revealed this week that a pre-school in Sweden has decided that the use of gender-specific pronouns such as ‘him’ (‘han’) and ‘her’ (‘hon’) is to be prohibited, in favour of gender-neutral terms, in an attempt to reduce the effects of linguistically determined gender-stereotyping.
The school, aptly name Egalia, is tackling an issue which has been firmly on the feminist agenda since Dale Spender’s influential book Man Made Language appeared in 1980. There Spender argued that, far from passively capturing the way that the world appears to us, language actively constructs the way that the world is. More specifically, the state of language, according to Spender, structures the world in a way that promotes males and inhibits females, whether by exclusion, alienation, control, or construction. The claim was supported by the famous studies in linguistics carried out by the American anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose extensive research on Native American languages led to the hypothesis that the structure of language restricts and determines our cognitive categories. It is hard to report an event in English without using the tense-marked words that the grammar requires, and it is hard to encode a fact in Hopi without marking its testimonial status, that is, whether it is first-hand knowledge, second-hand, third-hand, and so on, as required by the structure of the language. Importantly, it makes it hard to think outside of these limits, and, consequently, hard to behave outside of them. The way that we mark gender according to our grammatical structure is no different, an assumption which the new Egalia policy operates on.
Not everyone is convinced of this revolutionary scheme, however. Jay Belsky, a child psychologist at the University of California, Davis, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying:
The kind of things that boys like to do – run around and turn sticks into swords – will soon be disapproved of…So gender neutrality at its worst is emasculating maleness.
But Egalia are not the only ones to have challenged gender stereotyping recently. Last month, Canadian parents David Stocker and Kathy Witterick hit headlines by announcing that their new born child, Storm, would be raised as ‘genderless’. The decision, they claim, concerning Storm’s gender will be down to Storm, if and when Storm decides. It may be a controversial approach to parenting, but the couple claim that:
If sex is what is ‘between the legs’ and gender is what is ‘between the ears’, neither is confused for any of our children.
What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious.
Once again, however, not everybody is so sure of the idea. Both Professor Melissa Hines, a neuroscientist specialising in gender development, and Dr. Brenda Todd, a Clinical Psychologist and lecturer at City University, pointed out that it may be a little too ambitious to try to make a significant impact on the systematic construction of their children’s identities, because a child’s development is by no means determined just by what happens in the home. Until a wider societal change is achieved, once into the big wide world there is no hiding place for those seeking to live free from gender and all of the restrictions and expectations that come with it. Perhaps a schooling in Sweden is little Storm’s best chance…
Related Philosophy Compass Articles:
Volume 2, Issue 1, January 2007, Pages: 93–108, Ron Mallon
Volume 4, Issue 6, December 2009, Pages: 1022–1032, Maria Francisca Reines and Jesse Prinz
Volume 5, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages: 635–644, Robin R. Wang