Identify the main points of the Sherryl Kleinman's article "Why Sexist Language Matters."

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Sherryl Kleinman begins by saying that sexist language is one of the least understood areas of feminist discourse. She singles out the popular expression "you guys" as one to which most people never give a second thought. However, such expressions, while not intended offensively, reinforce the idea of "man" as the abstract and default. Kleinman refers to a thought experiment by Douglas R. Hofstadter in which he substituted racist terms for sexist ones to show that a sentence such as "All men are created equal" was really as exclusionary as "All whites are created equal."

Kleinman suggests that women accept and embrace such terms as "you guys" because they want to be included. She cites the example of a fraternity which began to accept women, in which the new female members preferred to be called "brothers" (as all members had traditionally been called) rather than "sisters." She points out that it is invariably an insult for a boy or man to be called a woman or a girl. Women should insist on their own descriptive terms, rather than continuing to allow themselves to be described as a subset of men.

Kleinman says that she works on many issues, but people often tell her the linguistic issues she tackles are not important and that she should be dealing with more serious matters, like violence against women. However, she replies that linguistic inferiority is one step toward violence and facilitates gender inequality.

The author concludes by saying that these linguistic problems are eminently and almost uniquely fixable. She cites an example of a card she designed with two former students which explains the problem with "you guys" and suggests giving such cards to anyone who uses the expression. More broadly, we can all reevaluate the language we use and start employing non-sexist expressions immediately.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on November 26, 2019
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Sherryl Kleinman writes about everyday sexist language, discussing terms like "firemen," "congressman," "mankind," and "you guys." She says recognizing and dismantling this is important because it creates a society where male is the default and where men are privileged over women. She thinks that language that privileges men can be changed to create a more inclusive and welcoming society for everyone.

One major point she makes is that if you call your male boss a "chairwoman," then you'll be met with scorn and possible negative consequences. However, women are often made to accept default male terms. An entire group of college students are called freshmen, but if you call them freshwomen, they'll be upset at the term. Being referred to as a woman is an insult for a man, but being referred to as a woman is not an insult to a woman.

Kleinman says that regional practices aren't necessarily right. When she brought up the problem with "you guys" to people, they told her it was only a regional thing. She says that even accepted norms can be changed when they aren't the right thing to do.

She believes that some women are drawn to keeping the male term because it gives them a sense of being in the higher-value group. One example she gives for this is a fraternity that began to accept women; the women who joined wanted to be called brother rather than sister.

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In Kleinman's article, "Why Sexist Language Matters", Kleinman explores and analyzes the relationship of sexist language to the reality of misogyny on a broader scale in society. Kleinman argues that sexist language is a significant reflection of societal sexism. Kleinman insists that language matters, as it reinforces sexist behaviors. Sexist language that exists on a blatant and casual basis in society continuously normalizes sexist actions. As such, Kleinman argues that sexist language must be seriously addressed, as language is a fundamental pillar of culture. In order for a culture to go through a fundamental change, its fundamental pillars must be addressed. Kleinman makes the powerful argument that in order for a true societal shift to occur, both language and action must be addressed.

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Kleinman's basic point is that there is a privileged status that is associated with men in modern society.  This status is foundational in allowing the exploitation and degrading of women to second class status.  It is a basic firmament. For Kleinman, the use of language as a social construction helps to reaffirm this.  The "manning" of language subconsciously yet actively makes men superior to women.  Sexist language matters because it serves as the basic pretext to all sorts of social privileging that men are able to appreciate more than women.  For Kleinman, the conditions that women endure to make them secondary to men in modern society must be examined in the widest form possible, including the construction of language:

Because male-based generics are another indicator -- and more importantly, a reinforcer -- of a system in which "man" in the abstract and men in the flesh are privileged over women. Some say that language merely reflects reality and so we should ignore our words and work on changing the unequal gender arrangements that are reflected in our language. Well, yes, in part.

With such a demonstration, Kleinman concludes the article by making the point that there should be a dialogue about why such language exists and what its implications are.  Through this, a worthwhile exercise in attention can be evident about why gender bias is something that needs to be actively confronted and transformed into equality.

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