Dr Úna Kealy

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Dr Úna Kealy: My terms for gender are as diverse as our ways of identifying

It is the responsibility of those who believe in equality to learn and speak the language of equality. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ do not suffice, says Dr Úna Kealy

Dr Úna Kealy: My terms for gender are as diverse as our ways of identifying

It is the responsibility of those who believe in equality to learn and speak the language of equality. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ do not suffice, says Dr Úna Kealy

MOST dictionary definitions of the word ‘woman’ suggest a ‘female human being’, but it’s no longer that simple.

Prior to the 20th century, the world was divided into women and men — the words ‘female’ and ‘male’ indicated a distinct sexual designation and were considered appropriate descriptors in everyday language, and not just in the biological sciences.

It was generally agreed by the beginning of the 20th century, however, that the term ‘female’ was disparaging, as it made no differentiation between humans and animals. The term ‘female’ thus became offensive to many feminists.

They objected that its placement as a qualifier before other nouns emphasised the sexual designation of the individual rather than her role (eg female doctor, female pilot, female barrister, etc.).

The practice of qualifying nouns in this way, though grammatically correct, was not similarly used to describe men’s roles (eg male doctor, male pilot, and male barrister).

Consequently, there arose a debate over how the words ‘female’ and ‘woman’ were used.

This was political, but also grammatical, and it was questioned whether the word ‘woman’, which is a noun, could be used as an adjective in place of the word ‘female’.

The words ‘female’ and ‘male’ present much more than biological terms or grammatical niceties, however, and we now appreciate that we live in a world of multiples, which include biological and psychological diversity.

As such, we must begin to make changes to the way we think and talk about gender to ensure that we promote inclusivity within our personal and professional lives.

The sex binary assumes that all bodies are easily assigned to one of two sex categories, ‘female’ or ‘male’, even when sex asymmetries are present.

It may be necessary for those who work within the biological sciences to use definitions based on physiological fact, but to apply that terminology in a social context where gender is now recognised as various is to continually erase from our language our friends, colleagues, co-workers, and children who challenge this binary, or who may biologically present as either male or female, but identify themselves, and wish to present to the world, differently.

The way we use language is not simply ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ according to grammatical rules: language frames, articulates, and inculcates attitudes, but it also contests and challenges the prevailing status quo.

Language exists in a continual state of change, increase, and evolution and it is the job of those who value, and wish to promote, inclusivity to use it with care.

Language changes with the times and so must our terminology.

My preferred gender modifiers are no longer ‘female’ or ‘male,’ but ‘transgender’, ‘gender diverse’, ‘men’ and ‘women’, for the time being — until I learn, or I am advised, that I can be more inclusive.

Furthermore, I commit myself to finding out, for myself, what inclusive language is and to apologising when I use language in such a way that I inadvertently exclude anyone.

No-one should be confined to, or identified by, their biology, if they do not wish to be and anyone who is prepared to take on the joys and challenges of womanhood is welcome to the party.

Dr Úna Kealy lectures in theatre studies and English at Waterford Institute of Technology.

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