In the gaze of the other

"My mistress' eyes are nothing…"

Don’t Call Me a Mistress

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Language Matters: Alamy

Language matters. When newspapers call women mistresses or “homewreckers”, they are not just using an identifying term. They are also making a value judgement about what happened in a relationship – a judgment that often places the blame on women, even though there are two people involved in an affair.

So writes Jessica Valenti of the Guardian in an article entitled “Why we need to lose biased words like ‘mistress’ for good.” Her argument based on Paula Broadwell’s campaign to get news media to stop using that word to characterize (and vilify) her relationship with ex-CIA director, David Patraeus, goes something like this: ‘Mistress,’ which has no male counterpart is one of those words used to blame women for behavior of two consenting adults, presumably male and female, that society condemns.

When we use words that prop men up for the same behavior that we disdain in women, we are sending a very particular message, one that causes harm whether you’re a reporter writing for readers or a parent talking to your kids.

She throws in other loaded terms targeting women like spinster and Oxford Dictionary’s ‘rabid feminist’ as a word definition example along with the usual words used against men to suggest womanly behavior like ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ that she concludes are sexist, outdated and harmful. 

So let’s lose “mistress” and words like it. Our language should reflect the world we want, not antiquated ghosts of sexism past.” 

She’s right. The word “mistress” has no male counterpart and denotatively and connotatively female words used to ascribe enculturated female behaviors as insults are loaded with history’s carryover sexist world. She’s also right that “language matters.” 

But history also matters, for that matter. So, rather than cut ties with history by eliminating language that survives the ephemeral fashions, behaviors and ideas of long ago, why not use language to educate people? Rather than deny distasteful history, say, slavery or holocaust, by eliminating the hate words that derived from those horrific institutions and events (nigger, kike, etc.), how about we teach people to be aware of how we use language and why? 

Jill McCorkle writes in the essay, “Cuss Time,” the story of how she resolved her nine year old’s forbidden fruit fascination with profanity by allowing him a 15 minute cuss time each day, a free-to-say-anything break in the day to let it all out. Risking a bad parent label (or even a referral to child protective services, I would imagine), she allowed her son the freedom to swear like a sailor rather than censor his language and lose the power, resource and history of language by eliminating words from her son’s vocabulary. She writes:

 Word by single word, our history will be rewritten if we don’t guard and protect it, truth lost to some individual’s idea about what is right or wrong. These speech monitors–the Word Gestapo (speaking of words some would have us deny and forget)–attempt to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not.

Valenti also opens her article with language parenting by mentioning her careful language selection, words she wants her children to use like firefighter instead of fireman. I believe these two authors hold the key to the problematic power inherent to language: teach children by mindful use and education rather than by a negative, censorship. The children wield the power to change future language, meaning, action and society.

(Thanks to Laura Steuer of  infidelity counseling network for sending this article my way). 

2 thoughts on “Don’t Call Me a Mistress

  1. Language is our bread & butter, eh Gaze? A quick side-comment up front. My ex-wife is from Liverpool, England. She married her first husband over there. Her marriage certificate lists him as a single man and her as ‘spinster’ instead of single woman. The word ‘spinster’ has nothing to do with age. She was 25-ish at the time of the marriage. It was used to indicate a single woman never married. It was a simple description but over here it has a different connotation. Probably over there, too.

    50 years ago when I was in elementary school it was common for a story in a newspaper to say, “A car crashed and the driver was black.” But my 5th grade teacher said at the time that that was changing. Soon the news would just report that a man crashed.

    The point is that the words we use are constantly changing to assuage some sour puss or another. I mean, who wants to be a secretary when she can be an Administrative Assistant?

    • Language changes as the people who speak it change their beliefs, attitudes and social consciences. The pendulum of political correctness and censorship swings from left to right, loose to tight. Words are just letters of the alphabet, but yes, as you point out by your example of calling oneself an administrative assistant rather than a secretary, they carry vestiges of the political and social climate in which those words are used. It is not a mere nicety or ego booster to call one an admin as opposed to a secretary. The latter is outdated as secretaries are not only women any more nor pieces of furniture, which is also an antiquated meaning of the word secretary.

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