Thursday, August 10, 2017

"Speaking Freely"

(Unlearning the Lies of the Fathers' Tongue)
-by julia penelope
As a student, penelope was expelled from two home-state colleges (FSU and UM) within one year, for suspected lesbianism and lesbianism...though curiously, not in that order (i'd make an accuse/suspect Clue joke, if it all weren't so vomitously shameful). She persevered and got a doctorate, but her teaching career was slow-tracked because of her "too narrow" focus on lesbian studies. "Speaking Freely", one of her twelve books, deconstructs all the grammatical tricks of the english language which demean, marginalize, or render women invisible, plus those structures which serve to conceal the male exploitations and brutalities perpetrated against them. Misdirecting modifiers, vague pronouns, euphemisms, agentless passives...for example, if a newscaster were to cite a rape statistic, he or she might say, "There were seventy-three cases of rape in Berks County today". But that construction completely conceals the rapists and victims. A more honest syntax might give us "Men raped seventy-three women in Berks County today". The first version doesn't hurt or bleed, and it makes the events feel like rain, something that just happened to happen. Or think about the assumptions and roles revealed in the difference between "to mother" and "to father" - always, men are active agents and women passive tools of male initiation. Or take the verb cuckold - there's no female equivalent. Eggs are therefore less important than sperm, no? Or why do we have "emasculate", but not "effeminate"? Because there is no quality or measure of womanhood that has relevance in languages constructed by men.
Julia owns up to the fact that by writing in english, she's committing many of the offenses she's trying to out. She talks about laadan, a woman's language constructed in the 70s, completely free of patriarchal assumptions and biases. She talks about the feministly-correct changes in our language since the 70s, some of which have merit, but none of which get near the core of the problem. Absent a total woman's revolution, she talks about attitudes and tactics that can better this world, for women and men - above all, the need to reshape language so that women are allowed to be active agents, free of the motherhood/sex object boundaries.
I wish i could tell you this amazing book has lost its relevance twenty-five years later. It's a challenging read. And worth it.

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