Gratuitously gendering everything

One thing that becomes apparent when you have children is how lots of stuff is gendered. There are boys’ and girls’ versions of toys, colours, bedclothes and movies. And when you start to look, you see it everywhere in the adult world too. We have male moisturiser, for instance. How, exactly, can a moisturiser be male? The mind boggles.

Until now, I had never heard of educational words and phrases being dichotomised into male and female. However, that’s exactly what Sue Cowley has done in a recent post. We read that ‘every child matters’ is female whereas ‘grit’ and ‘rigour’ are ‘forceful’ and male. Really? If you want to see real grit in action then I suggest being present when a woman you love gives birth.

It is tempting to write-off this rhetoric as sheer silliness. But there is a sinister side. Imagine that you are a female headteacher who is trying to implement a ‘no excuses’ (male) approach in your school. Does this make you less feminine? Is this the point, to apply a subtle kind of pressure?

It is clear that Sue is not a fan of the terms and practices that she labels as ‘male’. We all know the game here; it is an attempt to frame the debate. Males are violent creatures, responsible for wars, sex crimes, oppression and destruction. Females are nurturing, sharing, collaborative and consensus-building people. Men are bad. Women are good.

Therefore, if a practice, idea or term can be labelled as male and maleness is bad then, by implication, that practice is bad.

This clearly represents the bankruptcy of an argument. If ‘no excuses’ is a bad approach then the most obvious thing to do is to explain why. Personally, I am unconvinced about trying to inculcate character traits such as ‘grit’ in schools, preferring to use the time to teach academic subjects and I have explained why.

Let us not allow others to manipulate and control the language that we use – the very thoughts that we are allowed to have –  just because they have run out of valid arguments.

8 thoughts on “Gratuitously gendering everything

  1. ” If you want to see real grit in action then I suggest being present when a woman you love gives birth.” You could have ended the post right there and have made your point. The funny thing is, when the authorities in my jurisdiction tell me and my wife that they don’t feel like they have to teach my kid how to hold a pencil (or form letters) because… the future and Ipads, I am the one who is sent in to discuss it as my wife is afraid that she’ll go all “Mother Bear” on them if it was her (her words, so obviously not a real women). Maybe the next time I go hiking in the Rockies I’ll leave the bear spray at home as I can just trust in the mother bear’s naturally collaborative (feminine) nature will overcome the patriarchal “No excuses for being near my cubs” attitude that has been enforced upon her by the male appropriation of language. I may even do some action research this weekend. *Just a note, this post will have no meaning to you unless you have some background knowledge of female bears and their Cubs and what happens to those who come between them.* Interesting statistic: there were a few years here where over 50% of the people who were mauled by bears were foreign even though they represented only 10% of the tourists. Apparently no records were kept on how many were English educationalists trying to teach the Cubs how to discover- on their own- what is a threat and what isn’t… Again, I blame the use of words for that. A mother bear would never use the word “grit”.

  2. Exactly. Of course being female, it’s not possible to be sexist…

    My favourite male word is ‘intellectual’, preferably being spat at unsuspecting women teachers (which it kind of is in some primary schools!!). Let’s just stop women from studying because being intellectual is male.

    Hang on… how will that help women gain equity?

  3. I agree with you that words like’ grit’, ‘rigour’ and ‘forceful’ are not exclusively male and that by suggesting them this is not helping gender equality. I’m not sure about all words -or maybe more important- activities though. Maybe it’s not right to call it male/female especially but can hardly say -even though at least both genders can join- the Army really is a gender-neutral place. That’s fine by me, by the way, there just are differences. That’s the substantive comment.

    I do think you are doing the same thing you acuse others of: framing. For example when you claim the ‘sinister’ side and then suggest that ‘Sue is not a fan of the terms and practices that she labels as ‘male’.’ to conclude with ‘We all know the game here; it is an attempt to frame the debate.’. This is a frame in itself and argued very poorly. It speculates about intentions and chooses the one of a specific intent to the use the argument. It further collides with one of your recommendations on your posts: charity. This is a bit silly.

    1. You are entitled to your opinion about how well or poorly the post is argued. However, I do think Sue’s argument – if accepted – makes the position of a female pursuing supposedly ‘male’ concepts a difficult one. I have chosen to label this as ‘sinister’. It is also apparent from much of Sue’s output that she is not in favour of these supposedly ‘male’ ideas. I therefore genuinely do think it is an attempt to frame the debate. Of course, we all do that to an extent by the language we choose to use. However, gratuitously gendering all educational terms is excessive and needs to be called-out.

  4. This is a complex area. It is clear that language can be, and often is, used to oppress, and to suppress people. It is also clear that historically there has been significant gender inequality. I think this is starting to change, but gender equality has not arrived yet. There are lots of other inequalities, too.

    In the UK, there is also the disagreement between neo-trads and neo-progressives. This is partly political, with the current government being identified as neo-trad.

    So, clearly it is possible to use language to attack, polarise and frame the disagreements. I think this has been done by neo-trads (especially government), but also by neo-progressives. To claim that a whole set of words is now explicitly tainted and should not be used in the education debate seems to me to be unhelpful. But perhaps Sue was just thinking out loud, as she claims. It is true, though, that these words can be used to oppress or suppress.

  5. I saw the original post of hers and thought it was one of the most ridiculous posts I have ever read. Talk about spoiling for a fight and just completely making up some petty grievance in order to feel hard done by. A clear example, not of the alleged meanness of men, but of a victim mentality.

    It is also a complete insult to those women around the world who are genuinely persecuted or discriminated against. Try being female and going to school in a country where ISIS is marauding around, then you’ll know the real meaning of discrimination and persecution.

  6. It is interesting that to make the arguments about words work those making them have to switch to an argument about who is used to exemplify a concept. In other words those making the case that words matter have such a weak argument that they use something else to make their case. A worthwhile conclusion is that the issue of word gender is so irrelevant even its proponents don’t have a good case for it.

    Even the who exemplifies it example is not a very useful argument. A female rugby player or soldier would be a really good example of someone with grit as they have to perform under the hardship of physical and mental exhaustion and overcome societal ideas about what is right for them. Whether this does any good when trying to get kids to try harder in math is another question.

    The sad point here is the argument made is a distraction. There are better debates to be had on the infantile use of simple words to describe complex situations. We could ask whether Lance Armstrong showed a lot of grit in hiding his doping and then continuing to proclaim his innocence with all the claims about him. Did he lack grit when he finally came clean and admitted he had been hiding the truth all that time?

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