Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Language and Contemporary Feminism - The Problem of Neologisms that Divide Us

"Herstory"? Copyright Janet Cameron, Family Album


History v. herstory, seminar v. ovular - Does contemporary feminism sometimes go too far? Thoughts from Richard Dawkins and Christina Hoff Sommers.

'Herstory' is a neologism that arose in the late 1960s as a reaction to - and a pun on - the word history. Herstory seeks to tell about the past from the female perspective. During the early 1970s, the poet, Adrienne Rich, was increasingly identified with the Women's Liberation Movement and its activities. Her poem, Diving into the Wreck uses the extended metaphor of a dive, representing a journey, to a wreck, which in turn, represents the buried, female tradition – creating for the reader many images of the obstacles confronted by a woman seeking her path.
This was an important period for feminists, who became absorbed in recovering the feminine tradition, in rescuing, recognising and celebrating noteworthy women whose lives had, undeservedly, sunk into obscurity. Rich wrote about: “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.”
But - the word “history” in fact comes from Middle English. It is derived from the Latin historia and the Greek historía, meaning “learning or knowing by enquiry.” This is a derivative of hístor, "one who knows, sees or judges." Contrary to the implication, the first syllable of this word has no connection with the masculine pronoun 'his.'
A Gendered Pronoun that Raises the Consciousness of the Human Race
In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says, “It was the feminists who raised my consciousness of the power of consciousness-raising. “Herstory” is obviously ridiculous, if only because the “his” in history has no etymological connection with the masculine pronoun.” Dawkins compares this to the 1999 firing of a Washington official, who, on using the word “niggardly” was accused of being racially offensive.
It seems that Dawkins, in describing this term as ridiculous, is presuming rather more than is necessary. Angus Caldman (with Lizbeth Goodman) says in Literature and Gender, “Herstory is a term introduced by feminist scholarship to refer to the history of women. The creation of this expression was intended to be both serious and comic.” On the other hand, Dawkins does concede that the creation of herstory “…raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race… " Dawkins admits that as a young person, he did not realise women could feel slighted by a phrase like “the future of man.” He agrees that “English often seems to exclude women” - although “seems to” may strike some people as something of an understatement.
Seminars and Ovulars - a New Feminist Philosophy?
Christina Hoff Sommers claims that ' herstory' is "an attempt to infuse education with ideology, at the expense of knowledge." Hoff Sommers believes that feminism has made victims of women, all the while "making war" on men and boys. She is often accused of being anti-feminist.
Hoff Sommers opposes the label 'herstory' and other neologisms generated by the gender feminists. In her essay, "What's Wrong and What's Right with Contemporary Feminism," Hoff Sommers discusses her book, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women. She says, "In the book, I showed how feminism was being hijacked by gender war eccentrics in the universities. And when I say eccentric I mean it. To give one quick example, one of my colleagues in feminist philosophy referred to her seminars as “ovulars.” She rejected the masculinist 'seminar' because the root of that word is associated with, well, the very essence of male power. It is actually very funny when you think about it. But this woman was not kidding."
In her essay, Hoff Sommers says she does not wish to reject contemporary feminism. Deliberately, it seems, she rejects the neologism 'herstory' as, in her last paragraph, she concludes with a reference to 'history":
"We should reform it, [contemporary feminism] correct its excesses, insist that moderate and conservative feminists be given a voice, and then set about helping to write the next great chapter in the history of women’s quest for freedom."
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