A few months ago, in an exercise for an upcoming project, I looked up ‘woman synonyms’. The result was a display of patronising, misogynistic, sexist or offensive definitions of ‘woman’.
My first search was ‘woman synonyms’ on Google, and I found the following synonyms (amongst others): ‘filly’, ‘biddy’, ‘bird’, ‘bint’, ‘besom’, ‘frail’, ‘piece’, ‘bit’, ‘mare’, ‘baggage’, ‘bitch’, ‘maid’, ‘wench’, ‘petticoat’. Incredulous, I looked up ‘man synonyms’. Expectedly, I found the results to be quite different.
Curious to view how women were defined across the internet, I decided to explore other dictionaries – Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam Webster, and Collins. Unfortunately, misogyny and sexism could be found in all my searches. It was shocking to discover how biased the dictionaries are against women.
Personally, I found Oxford’s Dictionary and Thesaurus (via new website lexico.com) to be the most sexist and worrying case. The text of the dictionary and thesaurus seemed way too familiar and that’s when I realised they were the same synonyms and definitions I had seen on Google! So I hurried to Yahoo and Bing to search ‘woman definition’ and/or ‘woman synonyms’ and boom – there was Oxford’s definition, yet again.
Surprisingly, in Yahoo’s search results you can see ‘powered by Oxford Dictionaries’. Oxford’s licensing deals allow other sources to use its content (i.e. Yahoo, Google, and Bing), demonstrating how the misogynistic definition of ‘woman’ can become extremely widespread.
On Oxford’s website it gives more information about licensing of content to third parties, such as Google. This is dangerous, because it can influence algorithms and the way that women are spoken about online.
Here’s how Oxford University Press portrays women:
A woman is subordinate to a man. Example: ‘male fisherfolk who take their catch home for the little woman to gut’, ‘one of his sophisticated London women’.
A woman is a sex object. Example: ‘If that does not work, they can become women of the streets’, ‘Ms September will embody the professional, intelligent yet sexy career woman’.
A woman is an irritation to men. Example: ‘I told you to be home when I get home, little woman.’
‘Woman’ is not equal to ‘man’. The definition of ‘man’ is much more exhaustive than that of ‘woman’. Example: Oxford Dictionary’s definition for ‘man’ includes 25 example phrases’ , ‘woman’ includes only 5 example phrases.
It is okay to denigrate women. The fact that Oxford Dictionaries are licensing out this type of content is not only an endorsement of misogyny but also a magnifier of it.
In their defence, Oxford University Press say Oxford’s dictionaries “give a window on to how language is used today.” Sure, sexist language has been used throughout history and is still used today. History is important and shouldn’t be washed out of the dictionary, but isn’t it time to be courageous enough to ask ourselves some hard questions?
I, together with the Fawcett Society East London, believe it is not okay for an institution like the Oxford University Press to portray women this way. We believe the dictionary should immediately stop discriminating against women. That is why we launched a petition.
The petition asks Oxford University Press to…
- Eliminate all phrases and definitions that discriminate against and patronise women and/or connote men’s ownership of women
- Enlarge the definition of ‘woman’ and equal it to the definition of ‘man’
- Include examples representative of minorities, for example, a transgender woman, a lesbian woman, etc.
Can you help us?
- Fill their inboxes: contact Oxford Dictionary here demanding inclusive and non-sexist definitions
- Sign the petition: Change Oxford Dictionary’s Sexist Definition of ‘Woman’;
- Send the campaign to your friends and connections
- Share the campaign on social media using #IAmNotABitch and/or #SexistDictionary
- Reach out to influencers: are you (or do you know) an Oxford University alumnus/ professional, or an influencer in the field? Ask them to email in an official capacity
Together, I am positive we can succeed in removing the offensive and damaging definition of women from the dictionary. Thank you in advance!