Monday, February 23, 2015

Gloria Steinem and Language

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I have been giving thought to the lecture presented by Gloria Steinem at the San Miguel Writers Conference. It was entitled, “Writing Our Way to the Revolution.”

“Writers,” she said, “have the power to make the invisible visible.” By writing the stories of the ignored, the overlooked, the oppressed, we combat racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. 

She urged us to be aware, always, of the politics of language. “The less powerful person or place requires an adjective; the powerful get the noun,” Steinem said. “There are poets and

‘women poets.’ There are doctors and ‘African American doctors.’ There are activists and ‘gay activists.’”

She posed the following questions to the audience of writers:

  • In your writing, are you describing women’s bodies and clothes more than men’s?
  • Are you describing men as parents? Nurturers? Caregivers?
  • Are you using black to symbolize evil or evildoers? White for good and the good guys?
  • Do you think about individual words when you use them? For example, do you use ‘prostitute’ or ‘prostituted woman’?
  • Do you write about a people without recognizing their colonization?
“Change starts at the bottom, not at the top,” she said. “Behave as if each word you write or say matters.”

“This is 2015, isn’t it? I haven’t stepped into a time warp, have I?”

I have heard Steinem speak many times over the years. Not to minimize the importance of the message, I can say this was one of her more moderate speeches. That being the case, I was stunned by the initial questions in the Q&A session that followed. First person to the mic, a woman, no less, went into an angry tirade that went something like this, “Our brains are not like men’s. Their brains have been shaped for the role they have. For thousands of years, they have been in charge, have made the decisions, have borne the responsibilities, have cared for us and our children and it’s worked out pretty well so why are you trying to blur the lines? How does that help anybody?”

I turned to the woman next to me and asked, “This is 2015, isn’t it? I haven’t stepped into a time warp, have I?” Assured that yes, we are in the twenty-first century, I left while the ranting continued. I’m sure Ms. Steinem managed just fine without me.

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