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Linguistic expert speaks of word choice, gender

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Robin Tolmach Lakoff, a professor at University of California, Berkeley used her expertise in linguistics to analyze the progress toward equality of opportunity for all people in the United States on Tuesday as part of the fourth Provost Distinguished Women Lecture Series,Lakoff began her lecture by introducing her basic argument, “redrawing the gender line in the sand” and then by explaining what linguists have to say about social changes.”Language is the means by which we understand the world and the way we communicate to one another what we believe the world to be like,” Lakoff said. Language functions, according to Lakoff, serve as a “universal donor” or medium especially with regard to the other social sciences and specifically, gender discussions. Language based evidence is one way of making sense of social changes, said Lakoff. “We look at the situation of women in part by words that have come and gone.””Language is often the clearest way of understanding what is going on, what is working and what isn’t working, and we can chart progress by what goes in and out of language,” said Lakoff.She then spoke more specifically on the implications that language has with regard to narratives, the media and the roles that they have played both in the past, present and will play in the future. Lakoff narrowed her focus further and said that “more and more we are reliant on the media to be the medium of story telling” and that then novel TV sitcoms such as “I Love Lucy,” gave “additional reinforcement of the post World War II message to tell women to get back home and stay back home.”Lakoff also spoke of the changes in academia and her own personal challenges upon entering the academic world with no role models to guide her in her pursuit of an academic career and how the same situation rang true with regard to law, medicine, and politics. She talked about the implications of the changes in the roles of women in the 1970s to 1990s and how these women were given more choices, pressures and ambiguities than there mothers had ever encountered. These same women found themselves in time crunches, energy drains and identity crisis and sought to, quite reasonably, blame the women’s movement for these situations they found themselves to be unprepared for. “People sometimes turn on the women’s movement as the evil genie of all of this,” said Lakoff.Instead, according to Lakoff, they actually “experienced nostalgia for a past that, in fact, had never existed.” Lakoff gave detailed examples of the major changes for women in the 1970’s and 1990’s, including Roe v. Wade, Ms. Magazine, “Thelma and Louise” and even Hillary Rodham Clinton whose terms as first lady, according to Lakoff, “made a great deal of rethinking about gender roles.”She concluded by showing the redrawing of the line in the present and illustrated this with examples such as Martha Stewart being sent to prison, the attitude toward Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” and the media treatment of Teresa Heinz Kerry.Lakoff then left the audience with three unresolved questions relating to the present understanding of role-sharing in couples, equality between the sexes and finally, the implications of starting off at a “lower level.”The goal of the lecture series was established in order to create a number of small and large settings for faculty, staff, students and the community members to interact around some interesting topics, this one being the so called “gender line.”