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Gender Loaves and Fishes

Who Ate All the Pie?


Ten years ago, my daughter was born in the early morning of a cold and dark November. I was quietly confident. I had been mothering for 15 months by then, I was cured of frights, like the saying goes.


Ha! Turns out, I knew nothing. I was the Jon Snow of parenthood, a fool at the gates of the new world. Nobody and nothing has schooled me in the meaning of life like raising Child 1 and Child 2. Assumptions about love, education, identity and the self were shredded and used to compost acceptance and open-mindedness. Indeed, on our decade-plus tour of life together, suppositions and presumptions have fallen much the same as the cast of Game of Thrones, especially those around the concept of gender.


Gender. It’s all the rage lately to discuss it, debate it, downright celebrate it. The word ‘gender’ can be traced back to 1882 when it first entered The Oxford Etymological Dictionary, defined as: “kind, breed, sex, derived from the Latin ablative case of genus, like genere natus, which refers to birth.” And that is pretty much how it has been used since then- to refer to the biological sex of a species or the genus of a word in a gendered language. We had masculine and feminine nouns, but not masculine and feminine people. Women were womanly and men were manly and that’s just the way it was.


Or perhaps the cultural assumptions around gender roles and gender performance are so deeply engrained, so much in and of us, we don’t even see them anymore. Like privilege, or the water in which a fish swims, when a concept or construct becomes so normalized it is imperceptible because of its pervasiveness. The idea of a gender binary- male and female expressions of gender- is so embedded in our culture, the concept wasn’t even included in the dictionary until 1955 and not mentioned in the Journals of the American Physiological Society until 1982. Since then, it has been stirred around in the pot of filling for the Equity Pie that remains elusive even in the progressive era in which we live.


As recently as September 2021, Merriam Webster, the USA’s oldest dictionary manufacturer, gatekeeper of lexical correctness, added the pronoun “they” to the dictionary to reflect the growing awareness of the complexity of gender identity as distinct from biological sex and sexual orientation. Confused? And well you might be.


Gender became common parlance in the 1970’s when the Second Wave Feminist movement embraced it as helpful in articulating the distinction between assigned sex- that which is assumed at birth as being coherent with the physical and biological characteristics of each individual when they are born, and gender expression- the behavior, mannerisms, interests and appearances that signify gender to the world at large. Those whose personal sense of identity corresponds with their birth sex are known as cis-gender.


There are advantages to moving through life with a sense of personal identity that matches the bells and whistles of mother nature. Assigned gender is very much imposed upon the most innocent and helpless among us, newborn babies. Even the most articulate of them is a good five or six years away from any kind of expression of self, and even then, it is far from pure and unfettered by that stage. Experts agree that gender stereotypes and gender roles, these prototypical scripts for males and females in every culture on the planet, are embedded as early as 18-24 months. So a two year old can already clearly divide across the gender binary, and three year old’s are able to articulate basic gender stereotypes.


That, in itself, is not problematic, especially if you are one of the winners of the heteronormative lottery and happen to be cis-gender and heterosexual. Winners of this lottery move through the world unchallenged and accepted for who they are, just as they are. And that is a wonderful thing. No one is advocating for making life more difficult for anybody. But equity and equality are not pie, giving some to others does not mean less for those who currently have all the pie. Sharing the pie is more like the Jesus with the Loaves and Fishes analogy. There is enough pie for everyone, when the attitude towards sharing changes.


The first step towards more equitable pie distribution is a recognition of how much pie one actually has, and who has a moldy crumb. Merriam’s Webster’s inclusion of the pronoun “they” for gender non-binary singular, third-person pronoun (instead of she or he) is but one example of this acknowledgement of privilege. Peter Sokolowski, an editor and lexicographer with Merriam-Webster says, ”The dictionary, after all, is more of a rearview mirror than a vanguard of change.”[1] If the usage of “they” as a pronoun is so commonplace in current usage, then it is fair to say that the dictionary is not the only place where recognition of non-binary gender expressions should be made manifest.


Sadly, this is not yet the case, and one of the moldy crumb holders are still the Female sex. A recent petition created by Maria Beatrice Giovanardi in the UK decries the synonyms for “woman” listed by Oxford’s Dictionaries: “biddy”, “wench” and “piece.” Much the same as dismissing gender-neutral language as being ungrammatical or difficult to learn, the inclusion of pejorative terms to define and refine the concept of ‘woman’ is a clear refusal to share the pie.


Amanda Montell explores this and other nettle patches in her highly enjoyable romp through the socio-linguistic and etymological meadows of gendered language, Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back The English Language, (Harper Wave, 2019). Montell does not mince her words, “That we have used language to systematically reduce women to edible, nonhuman and sexual entities for so many years is no coincidence. Instead, it makes a clear statement about the expectations, hopes and fears of our society as a whole.” She was using other examples of gendered language; tarts, cupcakes and cows, but the principle remains sound.


If language is the means by which culture is created and communicated, then it must be through language that change and inclusion are championed and cultivated. Non-normative gender and sexual identities still remain taboo in many parts of the globe, many without even a moldy crumb to their name. Parenting two wildly distinct mini humans has been a daily adventure in gender assumptions and equity. I have a child that sings and one that drums, one that cries at sad movies and one that hates kissing scenes, one that cooks and one that inspects wounds with clinical curiosity. Neither of them like U2, or call the rubbish ‘the trash’ at home, which is all I really ask of them.


Ten winters into parenting on the gender spectrum, I am still pretty clueless. I get it wrong more than I get it right, and for certain sure what I don’t have are any answers. Questions, though. Now that’s a different story. Pockets are the emblems of the patriarchy, you say? I am on it! Mx. is a new gender-neutral form of address? Tell me more! There are more men maned John employed as CEO’s of Multinational companies than all women? Challenge accepted.


Change doesn’t start with answers. It starts with questions. Will anyone at all be alive at the end of G.O.T.? How is it possible to conceptualize change in a linguistic system designed to marginalize and oppress? Where does the Equality Pie recipe need tweaking to make one big enough for all to partake? Or do we all just need to share a piece of the pie on our own plate?


Tríona Ryan (she/her)


First Published in The Nanjinger, November, 2021

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/style/they-nonbinary-dictionary-merriam-webster.html

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