Why we need to lose biased words like ‘mistress’ for good

language
 ‘Language matters.’ 

As mother to a young daughter, I find myself correcting my own word usage quite frequently: I try to say “firefighter” instead of “fireman”, “police officer” instead of “policeman”. It’s a small thing, but knowing how impressionable kids are, combined with the far-reaching impact of gender stereotypes, it feels like the least I can do.

So I was pleased to learn that one woman is teaching a similar sort of lesson – not to kids, but to adults in the media. Paula Broadwell, best known for having an affair with David Petraeus that led to the then-CIA director’s resignation, is fighting back against the sexist word that was used so frequently to vilify her.

In a New York Times profile, Broadwell talks about her behind-the-scenes campaign to get media outlets to stop using the word “mistress”, a term that has no similar male counterpart.

“On the one hand, I don’t want to define myself by this” she told the Times. “But on the other hand, I’ve been defined by this. So if I can change things for the better because of it, then why not?”

To date, Broadwell has persuaded Politico, the Associated Press and her hometown newspaper to stop using the word.

Why stop at “mistress”, though? It’s hardly the only word reserved for women. What about “damsel”, or “vixen”? “Diva” or “slut”? It seems especially important to do away with gendered terms when you start to notice that all of the words that refer specifically to women aren’t all that flattering. A man is a “bachelor” but a woman is a “spinster”. (Please spare me the argument that “bachelorette” is a word ever used outside of reality television and drunken parties.)

We even use “female” words to insult men. On the first day of an English class I took in college, for example, the professor asked us what words were the worst things you could call a woman. In minutes, the board was filled with misogynist invectives – words like “slut” and “cunt”. When she asked us to do the same thing for men, the board filled up again: all the worst words you could use against a man – “bitch”, “pussy”, etc – were also distinctly female.

This exercise is one I’ve written about before, and one I imagine that teachers still use in classrooms. If students can get it, why can’t we?

It’s not just inherently sexist words either; it’s also the way we use language more generally. Oxford Dictionaries came under fire earlier this year when someone noticed that their word use examples – “rabid feminist”, “nagging wife” – were sexist.

Language matters. When newspapers call women mistresses or “homewreckers”, they are not just using an identifying term. They are also making a value judgement about what happened in a relationship – a judgment that often places the blame on women, even though there are two people involved in an affair.

When we use words that prop men up for the same behavior that we disdain in women, we are sending a very particular message, one that causes harm whether you’re a reporter writing for readers or a parent talking to your kids.

So let’s lose “mistress” and words like it. Our language should reflect the world we want, not antiquated ghosts of sexism past.

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