Why Women Should Keep Their Maiden Names (How Language affects Sexism)

This is hardly the spiciest hot take on this blog. It’s not even a particularly new one. Women’s suffrage icon Lucy Stone did this all the way back in 1856 before women could vote. Her original argument, written in 1847, still holds largely true:

“The custom of calling women Mrs. John This and Mrs. Tom That and colored men Sambo and Zip Coon, is founded on the principle that white men are lords of all.”

I would take this argument a step further; the tradition is not just a side affect of deeply imbedded patriarchy, but actually influences how people view gender roles on a subconscious level.

Language is a completely unique category of human knowledge. It is the only knowledge that fundamentally changes the way your brain processes information. If you think about how you learn language in high school as a sort of macro-level anecdote, it starts to make sense. Every high school spanish class gets around to learning about Dia de los Meurtos or Cinco de Mayo, and it’s not just for fun. Understanding grammar and vocabulary of a language without context is useless. The study of language is inherently the study of culture because speaking another language requires you to adopt a completely different perspective.

There are plenty of simpler, specific examples that illustrate this point. Several studies have been done on subconscious discrimination against foreign names. For example: A test was applied to bilingual Arab Israelis who spoke both Arabic and Hebrew (two cultures that have famously held a little animosity toward each other over the years) that asked participants to record whether words had negative or positive connotations. When the test was given in Arabic, the participants picked Jewish names as being intrinsically negative, but this effect disappeared when the test was given in Hebrew. In short, their bias against Jewish names arose from the fact that they were thinking in Arabic at the time, and not because they necessarily had any deep-seated bias against Jews.

It’s not just the difference between two different languages entirely that affects human thinking, but the language of subcultures as well. This is where we get into how language affects sexism.

Incels , short for Involuntarily Celibate, are a famous male reddit community centered around hating women because they are owed sex and never receive it. The definitive Incel documentary by ContraPoints does a great job of explaining in detail just how the subculture’s vocabulary becomes infectious and encourages misoginy, but for those without 30 minutes of spare time, I’ll summarize.

The incel subculture breaks down all female/male interactions into rough high school movie stereotypes. The “Chads” are the high school quarterbacks who get laid alot. The “Incel/Virgins” are the forum users who can never get laid because they are weak and ugly. “Stacies” are the attractive rich cheerleader types who sleep with the “Chads.” “Stacies” are the 6/10 average girls who won’t date “Incels” even though they’re “Nice guys” becuase all they want to do is get with the hunky “Chad.”

The point is that even by using this vocabulary repeatedly, you start subconsciously categorizing the world within the confines of the incel categories. When you start seeing eveyroen around you as two dimensional charicatures, it’s hardly a leap of logic to become a full-blown incel and assume effort to improve yourself is meaningless.

Knowing all this about language then, it shouldn’t be surprising that countries where there are fewer gender markers in language have greater on average female participation rates in the workforce. Let me explain what that means.

In Spanish (and many other languages) words are inherently “male” or “female” even when it is not specifically referring to a male or female animal. “Pollo” – Chicken in spanish – is considered a “male” noun while “Lechuga” – lettuce in spanish – is a “female” word. Where these gender markers in language become enforcers of patriarchal gender roles is when we look at group pronouns.

“Nosotros” in spanish is “us” for a group of males, while “Nosotras” is “us” for a group of females. However, for a mixed gendered “us” group, rather than having a mixed group term, Spanish (and most languages) refers to the mixed group as “Nosotros” – the male pronoun. Embedded within the language itself is the enforcement of malehood as both the presumed default and the dominant, more important gender.

The Western tradition of adopting the Male’s surname in a marriage has the same effect. Male is assumed default and dominant, the assumed breadwinner and “Lord” of his family. His male heirs pass on his surname while the spouse loses hers – her name identity subserviant to the husband.

To some extent, language and its connection to sexism is a chicken/egg question. However, in this case, it is largely irrelevant. The end goal of gender equality is to destroy the proverbial chicken in question all together. If your goal is to do that, you’re not going to have much success if you’re only destroying proverbial chickens or proverbial eggs.

Solving say, the gendered wage gap, for example, is an extremely complicated problem because it also requires a solution to ingrained societal behavios such as the fact that men are much more likely to ask for raises in the workplace than women. Solving the problem of marital name traditions enforcing sexism is much easier – just stop following tradition. There’s no reason not to other than people just not liking change. As I hope I’ve proven, solving the simpler problem will make the harder ones easier.

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