1. Introduction: Linguistics and Feminism
Feminist linguists have been in dialogue with feminists in other disciplines since the field's formation, yet this historical relationship and its implications for current work are only occasionally highlighted in scholarship. This chapter reaffirms the feminist foundations of a wide range of research on language, gender, and sexuality by highlighting and illustrating the numerous, sometimes clashing, and often not fully articulated feminist positionings taken up within various studies over the course of the field's development.
Because the term “feminism” is often misunderstood, I offer the following definition:
Feminism: a diverse and sometimes conflicting set of theoretical, methodological, and political perspectives that have in common a commitment to understanding and challenging social inequalities related to gender and sexuality.
Although “feminism” often appears in the singular, its reference is always plural; there is no unified feminist theoretical, methodological, or political perspective. Yet, despite the often vigorous and heated debates between different versions of feminism, they share a commitment to addressing social inequality. Furthermore, the field of language, gender, and sexuality is both unified and divided in precisely the same way as is feminism itself: more or less unified in its general political goals, divided in the perspectives it takes toward achieving those goals. But despite this broad scope, not all scholarship on the intersection of language with gender and sexuality is part of the field, because not all of it shares a political commitment to social justice. Indeed, a sizable body of traditional social science research seeks
simply to correlate language patterns with categories of gender and/or sexuality and does not engage meaningfully either with feminist theory or with feminist linguistics.1
The chapter is organized according to three significant bodies of feminist thought that emerged in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: difference feminisms, which take gender difference as their starting point and focus on the position of women within structures of gender; critical feminisms, or critiques or extensions of difference perspectives that nevertheless share certain commonalities with them; and queer feminisms, which refocus the field on the problematization of gender and its relationship to sexual identities and practices. Although a rough chronology could be imposed on these frameworks, the following discussion is not primarily a historical account, since all of the feminist theories considered here remain in active use and development by feminist academics and activists of various stripes. Feminist studies is an extremely dynamic field, and inevitably all of these theories have come in for a great deal of critique by those that have come later (as well as by their predecessors). Nevertheless, all of them have value for current feminist linguistic scholarship and activism. For this reason, researchers must be wary of unreflexively privileging certain forms of feminism over others in our study of language, gender, and sexuality.
The following discussion focuses on linguistic scholarship and feminist theory in the English-speaking world, and particularly in the United States, the tradition with which I am most familiar. It is hoped that this preliminary sketch will inaugurate a larger discussion of the relationship between feminist theories and empirical research on language, gender, and sexuality in diverse intellectual traditions around the globe. For the most part, I have set aside approaches that have been influential in feminist theory but have had relatively little impact on the empirical linguistic study of gender and sexuality. Most prominent among these are the poststructuralist theories of language advanced by French feminist literary theorists and philosophers influenced by the psychoanalytic work of Jacques Lacan (Marks and de Courtivron 1980; for some empirical linguistic perspectives on this general approach, see, e.g., Hass 2000; Livia 2000; Livia, Chapter 30 in this volume).
The brief descriptions of each theory presented below are intended to give a sense of the varied concerns of different branches of feminist thinking rather than to provide absolute criteria for one approach versus another. The discussion foregrounds individuals whose work has become iconic of particular theoretical perspectives; more detailed overviews of feminist theory offer a fuller account of the issues explored here (e.g., Beasley 1999; Jackson and Jones 1998; Tong 2009). Likewise, my discussion of specific linguistic studies in relation to specific brands of feminism necessarily highlights some aspects over others and focuses on only a small subset of the scholarship of the researchers under discussion. The reader should consult these scholars' full body of work for a more complete picture.
The following discussion is in some ways a continuation and extension of a conversation between feminist theory and theories of language that Deborah Cameron launched over 25 years ago. Her pathbreaking book Feminism and Linguistic Theory (1985) articulated the theoretical and political grounds for linking language and gender in both scholarship and activism and demonstrated the deep linguistic roots of feminist questions. Cameron's work was an important early step in what became a revolution in feminist linguistics. Thanks to developments in feminist theory that are further discussed later in the chapter, by the 1990s language had become central to feminist theorizing not only in France, where the issue had long been explored, but also in the English-speaking world. In the same period, feminist theory became more explicitly central to empirical linguistic investigations than ever before. Before examining this turn of events, however, it is necessary to consider the feminist foundations of language, gender, and sexuality studies from the very beginning of the field.
2. Difference Feminisms
Many Anglo-American feminist theories of the 1960s through the 1980s grew out of the political movement that has been dubbed second-wave feminism, which built on the advances of the first-wave feminist movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although primarily fueled, like all feminist thought and action, by real-world political goals, second-wave feminism had intellectual underpinnings in a range of feminist theories that responded both to the political changes of the time and to developments within the academy. These theories include liberal feminism, cultural feminism, and radical feminism. What unifies these forms of second-wave feminism is a focus on gender difference as the foundation of feminist thinking. Where they diverge, however, is in their understanding of this difference and how it should be addressed by feminists.
2.1 Liberal feminism and women's language
The form of feminism that is currently most widely advocated by nonfeminists—albeit generally not under this label—is liberal feminism. The primary goal of liberal feminism is to establish equality between women and men in all aspects of society by eradicating barriers to women's full participation; thus, it does not seek to change the structure of society but rather to provide equal opportunities for women within existing social structures. Unlike many of the other feminist theories discussed in this chapter, liberal feminism has taken its primary inspiration from public advocates and popular commentators rather than from the academy (e.g., Friedan 1963). At the same time, much of the mainstream—as opposed to overtly feminist—scholarly research on gender continues to be directly or indirectly informed by broadly liberal feminist goals.
Indeed, the success of liberal feminism in integrating feminist viewpoints into public discourse and policy during the latter half of the twentieth century is evident in the fact that it is often no longer recognized as feminism at all. For example, as many feminist linguists know only too well from our experiences of teaching undergraduate classes, many younger women—and men—reject the label “feminism” for themselves while embracing its goals (Houvouras and Carter 2008). And even a number of conservative political figures in the United States espouse liberal feminist principles of gender equality, although they do not generally support policies designed to uphold these principles.
While liberal feminism has made important strides in establishing equality for all women through its focus on such fundamental issues as equal pay, abortion rights, and domestic violence, its impact has been particularly significant for middle-class women, who have benefited from liberal feminist efforts to expand women's access to traditionally male institutions of influence and power such as politics, the law, and professional workplaces. Given its concern to bring women into men's spheres, liberal feminism has generally aimed to eradicate gender inequality by eradicating or at least reducing gender difference. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, some attempts to advance this notion, particularly in middle-class workplaces, had the unintended consequence of encouraging women to look, act, and speak more like men, producing a widely circulating stereotype of “ball-busting bitches” dressed in broad-shouldered power suits. Thus, despite some liberal feminists' early advocacy of androgyny for both women and men as an escape from the constraints of gender roles, in practice, efforts to eliminate gender differences have sometimes resulted in societal expectations that women must adapt to male norms.
Liberal feminism was also extremely influential in the early foundations of language, gender, and sexuality research, an impact that continues to the present day. Perhaps the most widely discussed aspect of liberal feminist linguistics has been the controversial—yet at least partly successful—effort to eradicate the most overt forms of sexism in the English language. These include the use of the mascu...