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The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

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The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

Political Linguistics: How Language Disadvantages Women

Political+Linguistics%3A+How+Language+Disadvantages+Women
Graphic: Valeria Reyes

When asked to think of a leader, what image comes to mind? What does a leader look and sound like? 

Or, perhaps I should specify, what does he look like? Because the word “leader” implicates the masculine pronoun. Many associate leadership with traits of assertiveness, strength and competence — all traits that our society has deemed to be masculine. In looking to elect a leader with these qualities, many are consequently looking for a man as an ideal candidate. Our linguistic bias makes descriptors of ambition, strength or competence in reference to a woman taste foreign in our mouths. Thus, there is a cognitive dissonance in seeing a woman in a position of power; she does not embody our preconceived image of a strong leader.

Our rhetoric surrounding politicians connotes an association between leadership and masculinity. Female politicians have a dual role in not only leading a campaign that convinces voters that they are the best candidate for the position but also one that persuades them that they are worthy of being considered as a potential candidate in the first place. In a country stated to be established by founding fathers, steeped in patriarchal rhetoric, we are socialized to believe that politics is a space reserved for men. Thus, female politicians must disrupt the status quo in order to imagine themselves with political prowess.

We learn in school to associate leadership with George Washington on his white horse or with the men who have fought in wars. These early history lessons can prime children to adopt gendered political socialization, where girls learn from society that participation in politics conflicts with their assigned gender roles. According to The New York Times, when both children and adults are asked to draw what they believe a leader to look like, they overwhelmingly create an image suggestive of a man and validate this by describing these images using masculine pronouns. Societal expectations require women to work twice as hard to challenge established mindsets and to be conceivable as leaders. 

Our use of language impacts not only how we picture leaders to appear, but also how they sound and act. As we associate masculinity with leadership, politicians will invoke a linguistic attack on their opponents by feminizing their opponents. Historically, U.S. politicians have asserted their own masculinity and painted their opponents as “unmanly” by describing them as being physically smaller, weaker and prone to fear. To be a strong, competent leader, therefore, is to be the most masculine. A study by Meredith Conroy of the Washington Post compared newspaper articles from the 2000 to 2012 elections to see whether candidates were characterized by masculine or feminine traits. She found that 30 percent of the traits used were associated with masculinity compared to 14 percent with femininity, identifying the remainder as neutral traits. Masculine traits included labeling leaders as “aggressive” and “confident,” while feminine traits ascribed leaders labels of “weak” and “inconsistent.” This linguistic bias rooted in gender stereotypes and misogyny feminizes politicians to present them as fickle and incapable. Politics is perceived as a world that is fast-paced and cutthroat — a world that women do not fit into. 

While there are women in high-ranking positions in politics, they are few and far between in comparison to men. When political language treats femininity as an insult and associates masculinity with strength, competence and perseverance, how are women expected to compete? How is the world of politics welcoming to women when people are printing shirts espousing that “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica,” according to the New York Magazine? Or when, according to the Washington Post, Donald Trump writes on Truth Social that Nikki Haley’s South Carolina rally was “an embarrassment to her wonderful husband in Africa”?

I wonder whether political language is inherently entangled in misogyny. In a country where the founding documents were written by men, voting was initially only permitted for men and, therefore, all of the decisions that initially shaped our country had been made by men, it is difficult for women — even today — to find a place for themselves within the avenues of leadership and politics. A country that has laid its foundation in patriarchy continues to uphold patriarchal institutions and rhetoric. Removing gender from political rhetoric would be a step towards changing politics from a man’s world to a world of equal opportunity. Leadership and power should be associated not with gender, but rather with merit and qualifications.

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About the Contributor
Amanda Krowitz, Commentary Editor
Amanda Krowitz is a sophomore from Short Hills, NJ concentrating in English. She has previously served as a contributing writer for the Commentary section. On campus, Amanda is involved in Her Campus and the Writing and Speaking Center.

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