A couple weeks back I was working on one of my romances and I couldn’t decide if I should use murderer to describe a character or murderess. Naturally, I asked my facebook friends. They all said murderer, and there was some small discussion about the sexism of murderess (yes, these are the kind of facebook friends I have, and I love them). Even as I type this, WordPress is trying to convince me that I mean murderers, not murderess. It’s an “old-fashioned” word from a time before our women’s rights’ society.
I went with murderess because I was writing in the Victorian period.
Question asked, answered, and solved, right? I wish it were. But it’s not. Because now I’m writing 274 years into the future and I have priests and priestesses. Should I not separate them, should I keep gender out of it and use the gender-neutral term priests?
Here’s the thing: when I was in grade school and learning the basics of writing I was told that when referring to an unknown person or a group of people in a singular way I should use the word he. Or him. Or his. Saying he or she was wrong and cumbersome, and the default was he. It irked me. It still irks me. To this day I fight it and either use the number-challenged “their” or go for cumbersome instead of forcing everybody into a male pronoun. I’ve seen people switch back and forth between paragraphs as a way to avoid that kind of sexism. I get that. It’s an equal thing. Know what I’ve never seen? People consistently saying “she” as an unknown person. Or her or hers.
Last night we heard that Boy Scouts is now allowing girls to participate in some things. My husband, a former committee chairman, heard that and his immediate reaction was “That’s stupid. I’ve been on campouts. You can’t do that.” I agree with that–for obvious reasons–but said I think (I didn’t research so this is an assumption) it’s more about the award of Eagle Scout. That girl scouts don’t get that. He replied that there is a high award for girl scouts. Before I even finished my reply to that, he finished it for me–it’s not the same. The Gold award might be the same in the eyes of girl scout leaders, but it’s not in the eyes of the world. I didn’t even know what the highest award for girl scouting is. I had to google it, and I was a girl scout. My mother was a leader.
We are all familiar with Eagle Scouts.
While I applaud this bending of the Boy Scout rules (if I had a daughter I would definitely be looking into it because Eagle Scout is cool), it shows us the inherent sexism in our society. We don’t raise boys up to the level of highest Girl Scout achievement, because who would want that? Our society won’t make that achievement mean the same as Eagle Scout, either. Instead, we raise girls up to the highest of Boy Scout achievement. That’s the gold standard. The best a girl can be is a boy.
We do the same thing when we make a choice for gender-neutrality in words–we go for the male version of the word. It “feels” right for many, but it reminds me of the laws that governed wives in the U.S. (coverture) before 1839 (first property rights for women law). The law of the land at that time was that when a wife committed a crime, often the husband would do the time because the wife had no agency. As a wife she was required to obey her husband, so how could she be at fault? When man and woman joined in marriage they became one, and that one was male.
Here we are in 2017 doing the same thing. Actoresses=actors, priestesses=priests. That’s what equality looks like, raising women up by letting them be men. Yay us. You know what equality would actually be? Calling male actors actresses. But we are never going to do that, because letting men be women is letting them lose their power. And until or unless we ever get to the point that we deep down–down to pronoun–believe that women have the same power as men, we are not equal. Not even close.
Conclusion: So in The PostPlague Trilogy my female priests are priestesses and I am going to cumbersome in that writing. I don’t have another word that works and as terrible as the PostPlague world is, I am not making my female characters be men in order to be strong. The torture and death is enough.