Turning Tables With Creative Tongues

By taking control of language, women find ways to escape stereotypes and double standards

'I CAN remember,'' says lawyer Flo Kennedy, ''going to court in pants and the judge remarking that I wasn't properly dressed, that the next time I came to court I should be dressed like a lawyer.'' It was a moment painfully familiar to countless women: a demand that she conform to a stereotype of feminine dress and behavior, even though it would also mark her as an intruder, rising above her assigned station (as the saying goes, she dared to ''wear the pants'' in the courtroom).

How did Ms. Kennedy respond? She took one look at the judge's robe - essentially a long black dress gathered at the yoke - and said, ''Judge, if you won't talk about what I'm wearing, I won't talk about what you're wearing.''

Kennedy not only faced the trap that insists women cannot be both feminine and competent and then demands that they be feminine first; she undermined that bind with wry wit.

The first step in overcoming a double bind like that is seeing it for what it is. ''Reframing'' is one tool: Invite an audience to view a set of options from a different perspective and to confront the fact that the options being offered are false.

AT one time or another most female politicians have exercised such ''meta-communication'' - stepping back to critique the conventional rhetoric used to describe women's options. They expose the classic no-win ploy that first identifies women in relation to men and then discredits any choice they make or any circumstance in which they find themselves: ''If we are single, they say that we couldn't catch a man. If we are married, they say that we are neglecting him. If we are divorced, they say we couldn't keep him. If we are widowed, they say that we killed him.'' As audiences laugh, they discard a trap usually set for the female candidate.

What in my recent book, ''Beyond the Double Bind,'' I call the silence/shame bind is perpetuated by a range of pejorative words used to describe the speech of women and the limited number of positive ones. Eliminating ''strident,'' ''shrill,'' and similar words from use is one way to address it.

Another approach turns the tables and applies the negative words to men. In l993, senatorial aspirant Kay Bailey Hutchison dexterously turned stereotypes on her male opponent, Democrat Bob Krueger, saying in response to his charges, ''I think he's getting hysterical... .''

A third move creates a range of condemnatory language applicable to men that mirrors that for women. In l988, Dan Quayle felt insulted when a reporter identified him as a blond bimbo. The dig was also a slur on Mr. Quayle's masculinity. Suggesting someone who is brainless and sexually available, ''bimbo'' signals woman, not man. Sociologist Michael Kimmel strikes back with the term ''himbo.'' ''Himbos'' come in two forms, those created for women, such as the model Fabio, and those constructed for men, such as Sylvester Stallone. A ''himbo'' might, in the words of reporter Susan Campbell, be described as a good looking man who is ''two fries short of a Happy Meal.'' Similarly, pundits have found ''trophy husband'' on the other side of the ''trophy wife'' coin.

Language carries perspective in tow. A truckload of responsibility is shifted from men to women when our language is laden with unwed mothers but not unwed fathers, battered wives but not battering husbands. The trial of O. J. Simpson for the alleged murder of his ex-wife and a friend has been accompanied by a flood of commentary asking why women do not leave and prosecute batterers. When we talk more about why men abuse women in the first place, we will have turned another corner.

EVER since Adam called his mate ''Eve,'' the power to name has been held by those presumably in charge. By insisting that they be identified as ''pro-life,'' those opposing abortion demand the right to name themselves. So too do those favoring abortion rights when they insist on being identified as ''pro-choice.''

When we speak of ''reproductive choice'' rather than birth control, we again reflect a language change born of advocacy. Centuries of pejoratives ridiculing older women fall aside when the identification changes to ''gray panthers.'' And words such as ''ageism,'' ''sexism,'' and ''homophobia'' condemn behaviors that might otherwise be tolerated if unlabeled.

It is in this context that the language that casts women as victims is problematic. The label of victim invites resignation and passivity, not redress. At the same time the term hints that its wearer lacks the capacity to exercise the power that women as a group have gained over centuries of transcending double binds.

Double binds survive unscathed only so long as those caught in them grant their definitional power. Those who control language are more likely to be able to control their own lives and, as a result, break the binds that tie.

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