You know how it is. You go to school, you get a degree, find a career, maybe you meet some cute girl . . .
Wait—what? If you’re like me, you only too often find yourself reading something like this sentence above, describing some supposedly potential universal human experience only to find out mid-message that it’s been crafted, explicitly or implicitly, by and for men (at least, straight men). From novels to scholarly texts to departmental advertisements language that is meant to appeal to people in general too often ends up excluding over half of the population. And it’s not some little thing—the exclusion is felt like an invisible punch to the gut. At least, that’s what happens to me. I’ll start reading a work of philosophy, or a [male] academic’s webpage, or really pretty much anything at all, and at some point, usually right when I’m starting to empathically nod along to the flow of the narrative, I’ll stumble across an often unintended reveal of the male-ness of the intended “you,” and I’ll get a jolt of recognition. It’s not the interpolated recognition of inclusion into the larger social narrative that I thought I was part of, but the recognition that I’m actually not included after all—that I’m an “other,” the extra category that people are too often trying but failing to incorporate into the thread of society. It reminds me that the protagonist of popular culture and academia is too often men, and that the implicated reader is male, too. In the era of #MeToo and Times Up, when the ubiquity of explicit forms of sexual harassment is becoming more and more visible (more visible, that is, only to those in power who had previously convinced themselves it wasn’t so pervasive), let’s take a moment also to consider the more invisible, even unconscious obstacles that women face while working to succeed in their chosen paths in life. As we know, language matters. Saying “he” to mean “everyone,” or “man” to mean “human,” isn’t some quaint shorthand for the universal person, to be dismissed with an eye-rolling shrug when exclusivity is pointed out. Talking about “you” when the you being talked about isn’t everyone excludes as much as it includes. This is why virtually all academic journals no longer allow the use of “he” to cover “all”—and it’s why we need to do even more to recognize the unstated assumptions that go into our words. This is as true for Black History Month as it is for Women’s History Month, reminding us as always of the fact that when we talk about one month to represent such a large amount of people it may be better than nothing in our current era, but also that the rest of the months are unmarked as belonging to straight white men.
As a psychological anthropologist I struggle with how much to fight against these issues, especially when there is so much more to think about in life. As an Ithacan I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the truck driver driving in the lane next to me was as likely to be female as male, and where I rarely felt constrained by my gender. I was fortunate to receive an undergraduate education at a women’s college, too, where it wasn’t an issue whether and how a professor would give more opportunities to the male student than the female one next to him. But my upbringing couldn’t prepare me for the dense, ubiquitous layers of sexism in my professional life, even as I surround myself with men and women who are actively working to change it. I try to be mindful of my language in writing (choosing, for example, the still-contentious single “they” instead of “he” or “he or she”). I point it out when a man says something a woman just said and is listened to more. And I stop my students mid-sentence if they ever accidentally talk about “man” when they mean people. In my work on Buddhism in Southeast Asia I write about gender as one among many of the factors that influence how people are understood, trying when I do to avoid the liberal feminist assumptions that may not play out the same ways I’m used to with informants. Yet I often take pause with the idea that because I’m a woman I should spend extra, precious time on women’s issues when men, simply, just don’t have to.
In the end, Women’s History Month reminds us all to do our part, in whatever ways we can. It reminds us to speak up for equality and diversity, to not stand by when small and large obstacles are put in the way of our own or anyone else’s success, and to advocate for change in whatever ways we’re able. From questioning our assumptions about who the “you” is that we’re writing for, to drawing attention to the many insidious ways that words work to cause harm—in everything from women’s name changes at marriage to the feminized voices responding to A.I. commands to whatever we each find important and possible to address—this month is a time to remember that we can each call attention to gender inequalities, in whatever ways you and I can. Maybe that can be how it is.
J.L. Cassaniti is the author of Living Buddhism: Mind, Self and Emotion in a Thai Community, and Universalism Without Uniformity: Explorations in Mind, Self, and Emotion. Her new book Remembering the Present: Mindfulness in Buddhist Asia is out this month.