Thursday, March 4, 2010

Word Wonder - woman

Thursday, March 4, 2010

During the 1970s I was in my twenties, and women's liberation  was gaining a foothold. Many young women were not content to follow their mothers into what were seen as narrowly defined and restrictive roles of housewife and mother. More women were seeing that as workers they were often -- I think I can safely say, usually -- paid less than men were for doing the same job. In addition, women weren't "supposed" to aspire to be carpenters or doctors or backhoe operators; they "should" be happy to be the secretary, the nurse or the teacher, if they were going to work outside the home at all. Women rebelled against sexual mores that restricted, judged and punished actions that were acceptable for men but not for women.

This movement included the examination of language -- the words that were used to describe women. It became unacceptable to refer to an adult female as a "girl." Other previously ordinary terms came under the microscope of social change. Why "man and wife" instead of "husband and wife?" Why use male pronouns to describe all of humanity? Why use the term "chairman" when that position was held by a woman? And so on. Usages that have become more or less the new normal in the 21st century were changed during the turbulent decades since the mid-1960s.

I was one of those young women who questioned old expectations. I examined my thinking and my language and my goals. I talked with friends, family and coworkers, encouraging them to do the same. "Just think about it," I'd say. "There's a lot of inequality going on here." In the early 70s I did a research project called "Sexism in Children's Literature" and was surprised at the overwhelming lack of female characters as protagonists and heroes in those books. Like many in my generation, I became a parent who sought gender equality in my kids' upbringing, through books, toys, pastimes and conversation.

As a lover of words and equity, I decided today to look for the origin of the word "woman." I was surprised by much of what I found. It turns out that, contrary to what I always believed about the word, it was not originally a derivative of or an attachment to the word "man." It is certainly not a combination of "womb" and "man," as I've sometimes heard. Etymologically speaking, the words "woman" and "man" are connected only in their earliest histories.
In fact, the story of "woman" begins with the ancient Indo-European root mem-, meaning "to think." Mem- lead to the Latin mens, "the mind" and to the Old English mann. These words referred to male and female humans of all ages.

Speakers of Old English wanted to be able to distinguish between a female human and a male human, so they came up with wif-man for female-human and wer for male-human. By the way, it was only later that wif (meaning "female") became our word "wife."

During the Middle Ages, the pronunciation of wifman slowly changed into  wimman, possibly because it was easier to pronounce without that f in the middle. Various dialects changed the spelling to wummon, wumman, wommon and womman. These changes probably account for the spellings we now see: woman and women. Through those same years, the male wer was supplanted by mann to refer to a male person. The only common vestige of wer in English today is found in "werewolf."

Just as mann started as a gender neutral term for "human" and only later added the specific sense of a male person, the word "girl" followed a similar path. It also started out as a gender neutral word, though for a young person of either sex. It wasn't until the late 1300s that it came to mean a female child.

This little investigation has led me to drop my assumption that the word "woman" is another example of the many ways women have been seen as secondary, afterthoughts and "also rans." Though oppression of women cannot sanely be denied, I know that some things have changed in the last few generations. Some things most certainly have not.

The point for me is to remind myself that I can only help myself (and others) move forward if I open my heart and mind to new information, to changing realities and ancient truths. Being willing to examine my assumptions helps. Drawing on youthful enthusiasms as well as aging perspectives helps, too.

I'm proud and grateful to be a woman. This was not always the case, but it is today.


Virginia said...

Thank you Kate, for this reminder that it is important to challenge our assumptions. In this way we learn, and learning is key to personal growth. It also clarifies which battles are worth the fight and which ones we should let go. A very important lesson.

Kate Thompson said...

I really like your point about choosing our battles, Virginia. I keep being reminded, too, that some battles aren't even mine, so I need to take my hands off and get out of the way. Thanks for your comments.

ALYNE said...

oh and thanks for the origin of the word woman. very interesting!

ALYNE said...

hey kate, great blogs and thanks for the reminder about womens week! living in india right now has reminded me of how far we have come in the west but even more so how much further we have left to go on a global scale. i am living in a very very progressive city, but women for sure do not enjoy the same level of respect as men here and some of the inequalities seem incredibly unfair. it felt good the other day though when the family i live with told me how grateful they are that women like me travel alone in their country. they said they want their daughter to see that women are strong and capable and that she can do anything she puts her mind to.

Kate Thompson said...

Thank you for your comments, Alyne. I appreciate the little windows you've provided into the current realities where you live. I think that's part of what International Women's Day is about -- to observe, think, feel, notice, and help.