Language and Gender

In her essay "Literary Paternity", Susan Gilbert examines the way in which male- dominated authoritarian society has imposed masculine meaning upon language. In doing so, she develops the Sapir-Whorf theory, which argues against the view that the categories and distinctions of any given language are natural and given by external reality*. Instead, it posits language as a finite array of formal (lexical and grammatical) categories that group an infinite variety of experiences into usable classes, vary across cultures, and, as a guide to the interpretation of experiences, influence thought. With specific reference to gender in language, it argues that the fact that language has, to a large extent, been put together by males has led to a situation where females are at a disadvantage linguistically. Gilbert's article looks specifically at literary history to find that an overwhelming number of male authors have attributed their creative capacity directly to their bodily configuration: the pen, as Gilbert documents, is a metaphoric penis, and vice-versa. This metaphoric equation between pen and penis is important, Gilbert asserts, because such metaphors shape how we are able to think about the process of writing, and about creativity in general. By linking writing with having a penis, male authors insist that writing, and thus being creative also, is a biological act: one rooted in the body - and specifically in the male body. Gilbert shows that this equation is not an isolated incident, but rather is one of the dominant metaphors of creativity in Western culture, for both male and female writers.

* [It is significant that long after the majority of Sapir and Whorf's conclusions about words being a prerequisite of thought had been disproved, feminist critics continued to plunder them to "prove" the innate inequality of androcentric (male-dominated) language. Objective feminist linguists should thus approach Sapir- Whorf with caution.]

This physical equation of the penis with creation may seem somewhat contradictory: surely it would be more logical (and even more self-evident) to say that creativity comes from a female body, since that is, after all, the body that actually gives birth? But it is specifically woman's role as mother which has led to this imbalance: throughout Western cultural history, women have been confined solely to the role of giving birth, of being mothers of human beings; men, meanwhile, have signified their creativity as giving "birth," as being fathers/progenitors, of things immortal - such as books - and not being connected to beings that perish (like humans). There are many ways to read this assertion of male creative fatherhood / authorship / authority. It can be seen as an anxious response to the male inability to know for sure that they really are the father of biological children (since only the mother knows for sure who the parents of the child are). It can be seen as a reaction to the threat of castration, by asserting the predominance of the penis as creative organ. It can be seen as an attempt to reduce what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence," the feeling that one will never be as good as (as powerful as) one's father, and particularly as good as one's literary forebears, one's literary "fathers." Or it can be seen as a conscious attempt on the part of male authors deliberately to exclude women writers (and women in general) from membership in their exclusive club, by defining the only "good" writing as coming from men.

This equation between pen and penis has been a powerful metaphor in Western thought - one which many women authors internalised (and which countless women who might have been authors may have internalised and believed, and allowed it to prevent them from attempting to wield the pen). On the other hand, however, many women writers used their status as 'other' to give their work particular significance. Julian of Norwich used the role of female mystic to give herself a voice in an otherwise entirely patriarchal fourteenth century. In A Revelation of Love, she creates a 'mother text' in which, not only images of motherhood are employed, but maternality and the text become inextricably interwoven. Gilbert suggests that, as women could not use pens (associated as they are with the penis), they could write "with milk, with blood, and on leaves and bark". It is remarkable to see how closely Julian epitomizes Gilbert's vision. In Chapter 12 of A Revelation of Love, Julian associates herself with Mary, watching the bleeding Christ on the cross. Her description of Jesus employs feminine images until the distinction between Mary and her son becomes blurred: "faire skynne", "tender flesh". If we then consider the numerous references to Jesus as mother-figure in the text (and in medieval art), we can interpret the "hote blode" of Christ as milk, nourishing the Church and his spiritual children. If we further recognize that medieval medicine considered breast milk to be processed blood, then Julian's feminisation of Christ is complete.

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