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During my first semester of college, I introduced myself as a “freshman.” But after a few months, the words “fresh” and “man” began to sound strange as they came out of my mouth. Then I realized that I am not a “fresh man” (a word that dates back to the 16th century). Instead, I am a woman who is new to Harvard and college life: a freshwoman.
Sometimes people laugh at me when I say that I am a freshwoman. Other times, I hear people adopting it in their own introductions. In either case, this word—seemingly so simple—makes people think twice about sexism in our language. In light of recent debates over women’s rights and in honor of Women’s Week, I think we could all benefit from a hard a look at the subtle pervasiveness of masculine language in our discourse that even most feminists subconsciously perpetuate.
Gendered language has long perpetuated sexism. One example is the difference between Miss, Mrs., and Mr. A woman’s status in life was originally determined by whether she was single or married—her title revealed all. The non-normative term “Ms.” first came on the scene in 1901, but it wasn’t until 1969 that is became widely used. The New York Times didn’t accept the usage of “Ms.” until 1986. Now it is a common and respectful title for all women. This two-letter word stopped defining women based on their relationship status and helped equalize the role of women in society.
Yet there are many examples of how similarly sexist language endures. A recent article from Scientific American notes “the general public just can't make up its mind about the existence of man-made climate change.” One glaringly offensive word sticks out: “man-made.” In the 21st century, after millions of women have fought to create equality for women in America, the commonly used term “man-made” blatantly does not include the female half of the species. How can modern rhetoric be filled with such sexist wording? Are editorial sensibilities simply lazy and indifferent to anachronistic language? Why are women not outraged at the continued use of language that fails to affirm their inclusion in society?
Here is another example: for the first semester of my freshwoman year at Harvard, the most read story on The Crimson was “15 Hottest Freshmen: All Summer Long.” The article featured 15 freshmen and freshwomen who were considered “hot.” Yes, both men and women were featured. But the idea that people of either gender are defined by their appearance undermines the respect for the individual that is at the very core of feminism. Judging people based on how they look is superficial and insulting, yet online viewers chose to click on this article and made it one of the most popular on the website. Despite our progressive modern age, people have an underlying tendency to revert to traditional views of women as objects to look at. Our language unfortunately supports this trend.
Feminists have won many battles: Women in America have more rights and opportunities today than they did even thirty years ago. But the strains of sexism that persist today are very subtle. Hidden in “most read” lists and the very words we use to describe ourselves, the masculine worldview still maintains a dominant presence. It seems that most people are either unaware of this or have let their moral outrage wither. One thing, however, is clear: The evolution of human rights from free speech to feminism has no room for complacency.
Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.
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