Pedantic Feminism?

by aronjerrison

Sitting down to read several hundred lines of Ancient Greek poetry, I realise that I ought to introduce myself in a way closer to that of my fellow Gadflies Naomi and Eddy. It may be the procrastination talking, but I think that knowing more about me might enable you, the reader to understand more about my perspective on the topics about which I hope to write.

I am a third year classics major here at unnamed small liberal arts college, which has unfortunately manifested in a great deal of pedantry in my everyday interactions with the world. Please, allow me to elaborate.

There has, on our campus, been a sign reading “Men Working” placed over the cover of a manhole. The sign is double-sided, and on each of the sides, the word ‘man’ has been altered. On one, it has been crossed out entirely and replaced with the word ‘people’, and on the other the prefix ‘wo’ has been added. I find these “corrections” to be indicative of a larger problem in our society.

Let me be clear, I have no problem with political correctness. In fact, I am a huge fan. It frustrates me when I hear the more “traditionally” gendered terminology used at dances or dance classes, when referring to people as ‘leads’ and ‘follows’ would be less ambiguous and more politically correct. The problem that I have is with a misunderstanding of etymology.

In Old English, the word ‘man’ was gender neutral. The feminine form was ‘wifman’ and the masculine, ‘werman’. Over time, the labiodental dropped out, and wifman became the modern ‘woman’, while man started to be used as masculine while werman fell out of use.

I agree with the principle that the gender norms implied by the “men working” sign are a problem. I do not, however, think that the solution is to change the sign. I think that in order to deal with this problem, we need to bring back werman. I do not want to hear the phrase ‘humankind’ used when mankind would be preferable, I want man to be gender neutral again.

When I have discussed this with Eddy, he has expressed some reservations about the potentiality of this sort of endeavour. He does not think that we can expect to effect a change in our language when we could just go along with what is currently in use. My problem with that approach, is that it leaves us with changing ‘manholes’ into ‘maintenance holes’ and ignoring the rich history of the language which we hold so dear. It leaves us with poets talking about the Herstory of Womankind and ignoring the potential of embracing what was once a fully gendered language.


(this post will be continued with an examination of how this applies to my feminist identification)