Nine Gender-Based Double Standards in the English Language


Over the past few decades, there's been a concerted effort to make English less sexist. For example, whereas proper English dictates the use of "he" when referring to a generic third person of unknown gender, today we employ the less grammatically correct "they" in most cases, and sometimes still the awkward "he/she". Stewardesses and stewards are now clumped together as "flight attendants". Even waiters and waitresses are slowly becoming gender-neutral "servers". And because "mailwoman" never quite sounded right, today we use the androgynous "mail carrier". (Though if your mail carrier is male, it's likely that you still refer to him as your mailman.) But there are many common English terms that stubbornly cling to our sexist roots. Note that I cite these nine examples as linguistic – as opposed to societal – incongruities.

  1. There is no male equivalent of "mistress". It's curious that a husband's female lover should be called his "mistress", as the word itself is the female variant of "master". But in any event, you certainly don't call a wife's male lover her "master". In fact, you don't call him anything.
  2. There is no female equivalent of "cuckold". While we're on the subject of infidelity, let's unearth this somewhat archaic term for a man whose wife has been unfaithful to him. "Cuckold" is not only a noun that describes the humiliated husband, it is also a verb: "The lord of the manor was cuckolded by his wife and the gardener." But when a wife is cuckolded? Well, in the dustiest corners of our language there does exist an equivalent: "cuckquean". But few have used the word since the 1700s.
  3. There is no special title for an unmarried man. English, like many other modern languages, makes a clear distinction between a married woman (including widows and divorcees) and an unmarried woman with "Mrs." (an abbreviation of "Mistress"!) and "Miss", respectively. Over the last four decades, the generic prefix "Ms." has become a widely-accepted alternative, and is used by unmarried women as well as married women who have kept their maiden names (another term for which there is obviously no male equivalent). Unmarried men never had this problem. They are "Misters" no matter what. "Master" was once a common prefix for prepubescent lads, but never for adult males, and it has been out of regular usage for decades.
  4. There is no male equivalent of "spinster". As you can see, many words on this list stem from the institution of marriage. And since marriage has for centuries defined a woman's status, the somewhat derogatory term "spinster" was used to describe an unwed female past her childbearing years – or indeed, even over thirty. I suppose "bachelor" is the closest variant for an unmarried man, but ever since "bachelorette" was coined in 1935 (and popularized by The Dating Game in the late '60s), "spinster" has been justifiably mothballed, except for those who use it ironically.
  5. There is no male version of "distaff". Now here's a word that isn't used in everyday conversation, but English majors love it. "Distaff" essentially means "the female variant". (The word itself derives from a tool used in wool spinning – traditionally woman's work.) For example, someone might write that Thelma and Louise is the distaff Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or that Batgirl is Batman's distaff counterpart. The outdated but proper usage of "distaff" meant the female side of a family. The male side was the "spear" side. But one doesn't say that Batman is Batgirl's spear counterpart.
  6. There is no female equivalent of "avuncular". Another five dollar word, "avuncular" literally means "uncle-like". It's used to describe an older man who has a warm, comforting personality, yet who is too disengaged to be outright fatherly. Anchorman Walter Cronkite was often called avuncular. So was Ronald Reagan. But what do we call a woman with "aunt-like" qualities? Well, as you've no doubt noticed, when I say there is "no" female equivalent, I often mean that there is an obscure female equivalent that we never use. In this case, the equivalent is "materteral".
  7. There is no female equivalent of "ladies' man". You've heard the old feminist complaint that men who sleep around are usually admired (at least by other men), whereas women who sleep around are called sluts, whores, skanks, etc. In any event, we sure don't say "gentlemen's woman". The closest we have is "vamp" or perhaps "femme fatale", but those both have darker connotations. Similarly, whereas history and literature provide us with many names for male seducers – Don Juan, Casanova, Romeo – we come up empty for seductresses. "Mata Hari" doesn't quite cut it.
  8. There is no opposite of "phallic". The phrase "phallic symbol" has been tossed around for decades. It's an old Freudian term that refers to seeing penis imagery in things. Apparently, Freud, in his sexist worldview, didn't think there was any "vaginal" imagery anywhere. Today, linguists lamely offer terms such as "yonic" or "vulvar" to define visual symbols related to the female reproductive organ, but there remains, shall we say, a wide gap between the frequency of "phallus" usage and of the opposite.
  9. There's no male-targeted opposite of "misogyny". For once, men get the short end of the stick. The words "misogyny" and "misogynist" are freely applied to anyone who does or says something construed as woman-hating – be he a rapist, an anti-abortion activist, a sexist writer, or even just an average dope who mocks chick flicks and book clubs. But the technical term for man hating, "misandry", is rarely employed in normal discourse.