In fifth or sixth grade I went out biking with my church. Once our small group of cars arrived at the beginning of the trail and we began to unload our bicycles, one of the boys in the grade above me started talking about his new bike to a friend. After pointing out which one it was, he proceeded to ask his friend, “Isn’t she beautiful?” I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly. Did he really call his bicycle a “she?” At the time it seemed quite strange, but after several years I was exposed to more examples of giving inanimate machinery a female gender (planes, cars, especially ships) and realized that what I heard was somewhat normal.
Jump to second semester of my freshman year at EMU when I was taking a class on Shakespeare. I chose to do the research paper for the class on “Much Ado About Nothing,” specifically the play’s marriage expectations. One of the key points in my argument was that the women in the play were treated as commodities, valued and devalued by the male gender and traded from fathers to husbands in order to reinforce the patriarchal power systems in place. In “Much Ado About Nothing,” men claimed ownership over women in order to establish their power.
It was during the process of writing that research paper that I connected patriarchy in “Much Ado About Nothing” to categorizing machinery as female. Could I draw a parallel between the females objectified in the play and objects feminized in a common custom? Could feminizing machinery be a means of establishing dominance and ownership over inanimate objects?
Before sounding the feminist alarm too quickly I decided to do a little research. Here are my findings: 1) Other objects are personified as fe- male, such as the earth or the moon. 2) In many Romance languages, all nouns have a gender, ships just hap- pen to be “la” instead of “le” or “el.” 3) A ship is nurturing (like a mother), sailors depend on it for life. 4) All ships were once dedicated to goddesses, and female figureheads were regarded as luck — ironic given the superstition that having an actual woman on board was unlucky. 5) Cars need to be tended to and cared for with a gentle hand. 6) Many navies have transitioned from using “she” to using “it,” in reference to their ships. Although I found many sexist articles in discussion of ships and women, it turns out that no rock solid basis exists for my theory. I still will avoid, however, using exclusively female language for personal possessions. My iPod is named Peggy and my flash drive is named Reggie. I like to keep the devices that I plug into my laptop gender balanced.
The lesson to be learned here is not to let inequality slide by, even if it is a tradition. By no means wrench
sexism out of every situation, or think of male and female as identical, but do not settle for gender inequality in everyday life. Use both she and he in reference to God. Notice when a school board is filled with only men.
I was at a volleyball game a few weeks ago when the referees paused to resolve a disputed call. One ref was female and the other male. The woman walked over to his side of the court to talk about the call, and as they were finishing, the male referee put his hand on her shoulder and kept it there until she turned around to walk back across the court.
–Emilie Raber is a sophomore history major.
Tags: Emilie Raber