Co-munication creates the mutual inclusion of
co-municators, regarding all the different parts of their world.
The naming of gender divides the co-municators into two
mutually exclusive, oppositional categories from the
beginning, contradicting the mutual inclusion of co-munication. Like
the opposed modes of giftgiving and exchange, the genders enter
into a kind of complementarity, though they are not a perfect fit.
The over-valuing of domination makes mutual inclusion and
bonding according to creative giving and receiving difficult.
Bizarre developments, like viewing dominance and submission as mutual inclusion, sometimes appear to be the resolution of
this contradiction. Giving to the dominator can become a
stable pattern--as occurs with so-called 'family values.'
What happens in the distinction of gender is that the
aspects of language which involve giving and giving-way are identified
as the behavior of biological females, while the aspects
of substitution and categorization are assigned to males. These
two roles eventually develop into dis-empowered nurturing on
the one hand and domination/exchange on the other. The
mutually exclusive aspect of gender comes from language
itself,1 where 'female' and 'male' are connected by direct opposition. In order
to carry out behavior which is supposedly appropriate for a bearer
of one's own gender term, one could conceivably look at
the behavior of the other gender, and simply do the opposite.
In a founding text on the universals of language,
Joseph Greenberg2 discussed 'marked' and 'unmarked'
linguistic categories, which are found at the phonological, grammatical,
and lexical levels regarding terms in opposition. For example,
like 'short' and 'tall,' or 'wide' and 'narrow,' 'up' and
'down' imply opposite ends of a continuum. One of these opposites is
usually the linguistic norm.3 We ask, 'How old is the girl?' not
'How young?' 'Old' is the norm, what linguists call the 'unmarked'
term. According to Greenberg, 'man' is the 'unmarked' term,
while 'woman' is 'marked.'
To me, the meta-linguistic expressions 'marked'
and 'unmarked' seem to be backwards. It would seem that the
more general, more inclusive term should be
'marked' (calling our attention to it) and the less inclusive, 'unmarked.' Instead,
the term which is less important has an extra 'mark,' a prefix or
suffix, while the more important term, which is called a 'zero sign,'
is without additions. For example, in English we add an 's' to
the singular to form the plural. The plural is the 'marked'
category, the singular 'unmarked.' Even the two terms themselves
have their meanings strangely crossed. 'Marked' is un-marked,
while 'unmarked' is marked.
Greenberg cites Jakobson's article that defines
the distinction: "The general meaning of a 'marked' category
asserts the presence of a certain property 'A;' the general meaning of
the corresponding 'unmarked' category does not assert
anything regarding the presence of 'A' and is used principally but
not exclusively to indicate the absence of 'A.'" Then Greenberg
goes on to say, "Thus in Jakobson's terms 'woman' asserts the
presence of the 'marked' category 'feminine,' while 'man' is used
principally but not exclusively to indicate the absence of 'feminine.'"
This analysis is counter-intuitive for women who have
been taught by 'the school of hard knocks' that it is being a male
that is the important property, the lack of which defines us
as women. Greenberg continues, "'Man' therefore has
two meanings, to indicate the explicit absence of 'feminine' in
the meaning 'male human being,' but also to indicate 'human
being in general.'" Thus, according to Greenberg, the term
which indicates the absence of the feminine also includes the
when it is used in general. Women are included while
the feminine is explicitly indicated as absent.
It occurs to me to fantasize that if men and women were
words, men would be the 'marked' term, with the prefix of the
phallus--so according to this theory, less important, different--while
the women would be 'zero' signs, without a prefix, more important,
the norm. If it is true that 'man' is defined according to the absence
of the feminine property, what is this property? Women's property
is just the absence of the distinctive property, the 'mark,' and
(added to this) the absence of property in the sense of private
property. Women are indeed the norm, as the lacking and
unaccepted 'samples' of the human species.
It is on the basis of the absence of the female sample that
men define themselves and define humanity. The phallus would be
the double negative, the absence of the absence. (Jacques
Lacan talks about the 'lack of the lack.') It is not surprising that both
children and linguists are confused. And the word 'wo-man' itself is
'man' marked with a prefix which perhaps hides the fact that the
mother doesn't physically have one. The difference, her not having
a 'mark,' is seen as her difference, a lack with regard to the norm
to which the male child instead is similar. The word
'mankind' demonstrates the problem. By taking the phallus as the 'mark'
of men, and men as samples of the species, women appear to
be 'defective,' members (sic) of an inferior kind.
Being the norm has itself become a male gender characteristic, and the phallus has become, paradoxically,
a 'mark' of the norm. The word 'male' and all other words
which are used for domination through definition become
phallically invested, because of the similarity of the male gender
mandate and the definition (from which it derived). The word
'male' over-takes males, those who have a 'mark,' who
become themselves over-takers, and who use their 'mark' to dominate
or take over. Placed in positions of 'author-ity' by their
'marks,' they use their words to define and conquer.
Verbal communication among males and females thus
must attempt to create mutual inclusion among those who
are culturally defined as polar opposites, one pole being defined
as 'superior' to the other, the marked norm and the sample for
the species. The logical contradictions involved in this
situation create damaging double binds which society has not
yet resolved. In fact, many meta messages about gender are
ego-oriented, constructed upon the exchange logic, and confirm
the superiority of the male gender. This book is an attempt at
an alternative giftgiving meta message about gender
categories which would serve the need for abolishing them.
Since more value is socially given to masculated males,
more attention is socially given to the substitution side of
language, which therefore holds sway over the gift-giving side, in
our understanding. A number of self-reflecting patterns develop,
which both express the contradictory character of language-based
gender and perpetuate it. Substitution or taking-the-place-of
becomes domination and repeats itself, taking the place of giftgiving,
which nurtures it. The male takes the place of the female as model of
the human, and women continue to give to males and to give value
to the male model. Male behaviors of domination and
competition take the place of noncompetition, of giftgiving and
giving-way. These behaviors replay aspects of the service and
substitution mechanisms which we saw in the definition. Giving value is
an aspect of giving that continues to support
substitution-domination in our society.
At the level of language, we give value to the substitute
gifts which are words, while at the level of genders we give value to
the substitute, the male who takes the place of women (and
other men). Our attention becomes focused on the place-taker, and
we no longer look at Mother Earth or the mother, or any
gift-giverthe one whose place is being taken. Giftgiving itself appears to
be inferior (value is not given to it) when compared to
which has usually been stripped of its gift aspects so as to
appear more completely the opposite of giving. Then in
economics, exchange--which is a mechanism of substitution and
giving-way--self-similarly substitutes the whole giftgiving mode,
which gives-way. (See Figure 10.)
Another expression of masculation is the use of the
definition and naming to control the behavior of others through
command and obedience (the giving-way of the will). After the members
of one half of humanity have been given the mandate to be
non-nurturing, it is difficult to convince them they should do it
at appropriate moments and to a limited degree. Thus children
may paradoxically be beaten (a physical over-taking) for not giving
and giving-way, for being disobedient or disrespectful. Morality and
the law are also structured according to command and
obedience, domination by the word. Revenge and reprisal are the
consequence of disobedience. 'Just' punishment is given in exchange
for breaking the law. Giftgiving is made to seem unrealistic,
while what is actually needed is not justice--based on the
definition, masculation and exchange--but kindness, the restoration of
the gift paradigm and the mothering model.
A Divided Community
Virtually everyone in the co-munity takes turns in the roles
of speaker and listener (linguistic giver and receiver).
Co-munication takes place also among people of the same gender, of course, so
that speakers and listeners (givers and receivers) can also be of the
same sex. Each gender develops its own kind of co-munity of
mutual inclusion with those of the same sex while attempting to bridge
the mutual exclusion, by forming a co-munity with those of
the opposite sex.
There are thus two different processes for each gender.
If forming the co-munity also produces our individual identities
at the same time, there will be two kinds of identities for
each gender--an identity constructed by co-municating with
the same sex and one constructed by co-municating with
opposite sex. (The givers give to givers. They also give and
give-in to those who are engaged in taking-the-place-of;
the place-takers form a community of similars who also compete
to take each other's place.) The basic functioning principles of
co-munication--giftgiving and substitution are acted out in the
two opposed gender roles.
The misuses of definition and naming--which would otherwise have been relatively neutral and
collectively beneficial linguistic processes and mechanisms--are
made possible by the invisibility of giftgiving in language and in
life. These are both causes and results of masculation and
the cancellation of the mothering model. Restoring giftgiving
to our view of language and life (and restoring the idea of
service and co-municative need-satisfaction to the definition
and naming) can debilitate the patriarchal possession of a
reified and de-humanized definition process, while taking away
the phallic investment of the word.
In practice, the mothering model has been kept in
the family and dis-empowered, not extended to the rest of society.
It has been interpreted by the ideological Right as subservient
to the dominant father model. Families built upon such
oppressive 'family values' are the cornerstone of patriarchy. In them,
the caretaker and giftgiver is captured in the (permanent) service
of one who dominates her and usurps her position of model for
her sons--a fact which at the same time makes her a model
of weakness and subservience for her daughters. Instead,
mothering could provide the reasonable, workable basis for our
social institutions, and giftgiving could be liberated as the principle
of a better social order.
I do not mean by this that the patriarchal state should
co-opt nurturing, as has already been tried in many kinds
of exchange dressed up as gift and welfare programs. In the US,
aid to the 'Third World' at home and abroad is almost always
hidden exchange to the benefit of the 'givers' and to
the detriment and humiliation of the 'receivers.' Nurturing from
the male model, even the collective male model, has not worked,
as many costly examples of communism (state capitalism)
and bureaucracy have shown.4
Rather, governments should be re-organized to rid them
of competition for dominance, so that individuals and relatively
small groups could take part in nurturing one another. A
transformation of this sort would also require the creation of abundance
through the cessation of waste. Presently scarcity is being artificially
created through waste-spending on products which do not nurture
life--armaments, drugs, symbolic luxuries. These expenditures
deplete the economy of the many in order to allow the continuation
of patriarchal socio-economic systems of exploitation and the
over-privileging and power of the few.
It is important to look at language for clues about how
to organize society, because language has the characteristic of
being both individual and social, both in our own minds and in
those of our groups. As a major creative factor in the formation of
our individual and collective identities, it helps to bridge the
gap between the single person and the multitude.
Exchange, constituted by a mechanism of substitution
and giving-way as a derivative of the definition, is a very strong
self-reflexive template which pulls us towards
interpreting everything in its image, while at the same time hiding
giftgiving. If we can point out, understand and de-mystify its
mechanisms and restore the principle of giftgiving in abundance to our
idea of language, we can then use language as a guide
towards creating a Mothering Society at home here on Mother
Earth. Giftgiving and its values are already available. We must
only alter our perspective and take off our patriarchal glasses to
Figure 10. Taking-over and giving-way at different scales.
Even when we talk about the 'Good' or 'Justice,' which
seem like 'unmarked' and gender-neutral terms, we still have males
as the unacknowledged models. The 'Good' is loaded with
images of male God figures, while 'Justice' usually depends upon male judges and male law. The value given to equality, which is
an important factor in the one-many concept form and a
main principle of masculation and exchange, also perpetuates
the male model. (Mothers nurture babies who are different
from them, not equal.) The male images and actors bring with
them the values they have been given socially, including the
privilege of their 'mark.'
Moreover, the seemingly neutral categories are given
a nobility as categories to which we should try to belong. They
are a sort of artificial, 'unmarked' state of being, a broader norm
to which little boys who had to leave the category of their
mothers can as adults strive to return--without going through the
terrors of the illusory need for castration. By behaving according to
the laws, commandments, rules and regulations of the fathers,
they can become similar to their father and brothers, who are
not really different from their mothers in this, since the rules are
valid for all, even though the males have more authority.
By this, boys as they become adults can partly
divest themselves of the invented difference that ruined their
primordial integrity, the wholeness and identification with their
mothers--the original true experience they had to deny when they
found out they belonged to the other category. Their mothers and
other females are 'raised' to a level of equality with them, following
the same rules and supposedly having the same privileges.
The neutral, objective ('unbiased') categories promise a
sort of utopia to which children can aspire if they behave correctly,
or if all people behave correctly. By acting in such a way that we
can belong to the category of 'good' (or even 'Democrat'
or 'American'), we seem to have a chance to overcome the
original estrangement due to the 'mark' or lack of the 'mark,' the
difference. I want to insist here that this sad journey
is unnecessary, because the original estrangement is unnecessary.
It is the social interpretation of gender that estranges the little
boy from his mother because of his 'mark.' And we can change
a social interpretation. The little boy really is still a member of
the category of the human with the giftgiving mother as model, as
is the little girl, and the 'mark' really is irrelevant to the category
of the human from the beginning.
Adults socialize children into these roles both by their
own behavior and by actively telling the child he is a boy, pushing
him towards his father's identity, away from the interactive
giftgiving identity he experiences every day with his mother. (The
problem is even worse if the father is not available at all, but the
child only sees other men on the street or perhaps on television.)
We adults divide his conceptual identity from his experience. He
is just trying to use language with regard to himself as he uses it
with regard to other things to understand what they are.
Similarly, a little girl learns from society that the category
to which she and her mother belong is 'inferior,' that it is often
not even visible as a category, and that her mother, who is still
her model, probably values the male with his 'mark' more than
she does her daughter, herself or her gender.
Another effect of masculation is that privilege of one kind
or another appears connected to a 'mark.' Money, cars,
possessions function as 'marks' of class; skin color, height, and other
physical differences function as 'marks' of racial or cultural categories,
but all of these dynamics originate from the
phallic 'mark,' and from defining the boy's difference from the mother as a
physical difference. They promote the idea of a privileged 'deviant.'
Then it may appear that we should behave in a masculated
obsessive way because we are connected to (or own) a 'mark.'
Money for instance, like the phallus, is the 'mark'
which appears to identify the norm. It disqualifies the (giftgiving)
whose place it has taken, making those who do not have
it 'inferior.' Other kinds of biological characteristics like white
skin, can function as the culturally imposed 'mark' of the
norm, interpreting other skin colors as 'lacking' or 'less
normal' categories. We all act according to our definitions just as boys
and girls do. We blindly follow the self-fulfilling prophecies of
the names of our categories, which bring with them the
erroneous social readings of our physical and non-physical differences.
Or we have to grapple with the prophecies and contradict them.
It would be much easier to change the definitions than it is
to change the lives and social patterns that have already
been distorted in their image.
Both women and men can learn (and many are already
doing so) to speak to children from a meta level about gender,
telling them something like "The words we use to talk about
ourselves are not quite right; we are a little different from the way it
sounds. Even though we say 'male' and 'female,' 'boy' and 'girl,'
'mommy' and 'daddy,' we are all human. We are really all part of the
same category." In fact, when children are small, they have to
also overlook some other major physical differences (such as size)
in order to be able to grasp the category 'human' and themselves
as part of it. Surely they are open-minded enough to overlook
the difference in genitals for their definition if we don't impose
it upon them.
Listen to how people with young children talk about
gender. With clothes on, boy and girl babies look very much alike,
and the gender is the first thing people ask about. "Is the baby a boy
or a girl?" Even the practice of distinguishing babies according to
the colors they are dressed in, pink and blue, is
misleading.5 We should not impose stereotypes upon our children, but rather
allow them to grow up through giftgiving interactions, and to
become conscious of what they are as they grow. Perhaps we should
allow children to choose their gender at puberty according to
sexual preference, enhancing their choices with rituals and
We should not burden them with a self-fulfilling prophecy
which alienates them from us and from themselves.
We may think children are not smart enough or
logical enough to catch these distinctions. But if that is the case, it
is probably because we have confused them from the beginning
by loading the terms of their identities with such difficult and
false differences. We are not doing this only individually; it is
part and product of the whole misogynist social drift.
Categorization itself has become a tool of oppression linked with the
economic evaluation of everything according to its price. But
giftgiving and need-satisfaction are more important than categorization
for the well-being of humanity. Categorization has just
been distorted and over-emphasized as a consequence of masculation.
We could also avoid masculation by abolishing gender
terms altogether for children. We could call children 'hums,'
for instance, short for 'humans.' We could say, "How's my
little hum?" To the question, "Is your baby a boy or a girl?" we
could reply, "E's a hum." Or perhaps we could just hum. Maybe
adults could finally begin to refer to ourselves that way as well.
This would solve the problem of separation-based
masculated identity, of the definition of females as inferior and of the
over-evaluation of the neuter or objective, by not imposing
false distinctions in the first place. The penis is not a special gift or
a 'mark' of a superior category. It is only a body part.
I do not mean by this to take the positive and
life-enhancing character from sexual differences, but to
liberate them from the stereotypes and especially from the obsession
of masculation that is murdering us and our Mother Earth. Is
it perhaps because we cannot hear Earth saying, "You are like
me! You are in my giftgiving category," that we have done this? Or
is it that we cannot hear her because we have the obsession? As
a species, we have defined ourselves as something ('Man') that
is 'other' than the Mother and have to act according to our
In other words, we have done the same thing
regarding Mother Earth that we have done as little boys regarding
human mothers. We have denied our similarity and
identified ourselves as 'something else,' but we don't quite know what it
is (so we end up identifying with the word itself). Our sample
seems to be a male god a lot like us, up in the sky and bigger and
more important than the Mother. We try to act according to what
he tells us to do, invent a hierarchical great chain of being, of
over-taking and giving-way, and forget about the giftgiving impulses
of our hearts.
Trusted and allowed to play according to their own
lights, however, children become enormously intelligent and creative
as Maria Montessori discovered. We need to let our definitions
of ourselves grow up from our experiences of our free
activities--play, creativity, interactions of giftgiving--filling our
sensitive learning periods with living reality. We should not make
our children have to try to become adequate to
pre-existing oppositional adult gender categories. All this is easier where
there is abundance and the experience of the child is not blighted
by abuse or scarcity.
Maybe 'hum' could also stand for 'humus,' part of earth,
the ground which we and our whole cultures are for one another,
the foundation from which we grow and to which we return.
Maybe we can finally act according to giftgiving, in a continuation of
the original mother-child situation, which we can finally allow
to flower sanely and untwisted in the whole society.
A Personal Experiment
It is really not difficult to change the language we teach
to children. I tried it myself in the 1960s with my oldest
child, Amelia. I avoided using the possessive pronoun with her,
not teaching her 'my' or 'mine,' 'his,' 'hers.' Since the mother really is the original sample, a child learns from what she says better
than from others. I did ask the other people who were with us to
avoid these possessives also. Of course, Amelia heard them when
we were with people we did not know well, on the radio, and
so forth. I got around the difficulties in ideas by saying, "Daddy
that," for example, instead of "that's Daddy's." It was
interesting that she did not learn possessives until she was around
three, though she was talking well by then.
I know how she learned. She wanted to play with
some dishes and another person there told her, "Don't touch
those; they're your mother's." I always felt that the illogical
reason (actually she was not supposed to play with them because
they would break--not because they were mine) coupled with
the fact that the person who possessed the dishes was me,
the mother, finally made my daughter start to use that category.
It would be hard to say whether not learning the possessives
made my daughter any more generous than she otherwise would
have been, or whether it had any effect at all. In fact, the
experiment ended too soon, there were too many variables, and doing
it alone was not terribly effective.
On the other hand, it didn't hurt her either. Possession
is not as basic as gender, and anyway, the fabric of life
absorbed any negativity that might have been involved. Avoiding
gender terms at an early age, however, could really have a
far-reaching effect in children's self-concepts, at least if it was done in
their most sensitive language-learning periods.
We could also use androgynous terms in nursery schools.
We could talk to children about gender terms from a
meta level on Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's
Neighborhood. We could give TV examples of mothers and children (boys and girls)
using genderless terms to define their categories as part of a
common humanity. I believe that here, too, the fabric of life
would correct any unknown negatives that might be involved in
Women have made such a difference in language in the
last decades, eliminating sexist terminology. Surely we could
devise new ways of talking to and about our children which would
let them continue to identify with us in an ongoing way outside
of stereotypical gender concepts. Then perhaps all of us
could recognize and acknowledge our kinship to each other, to
our mothers and to Mother Earth, returning to the giftgiving norm.
1For Saussure, ibid, Chapter IV, langue is a system of purely differential
oppositional units. Each word is related to all the others by mutual exclusion. Each is identified
as itself by not being the others. When signifier and signified are considered
together, other associations and oppositions also apply, such as binary oppositions and
regular paradigmatic variations.
2Joseph Greenberg, Language
Universals, The Hague, Mouton, 1966.
3Op. cit., On Language, Roman Jakobson, "The Concept of 'Mark,'" Chapter 8.
4Though communism may be seen as an attempt to satisfy needs, it has been
undermined, like capitalism, by patriarchal structures.
Marx, and other male economists up to the present day, did not understand women's free labor as value-producing work. If
women's work were counted (See Marilyn Waring, If Women Counted, A New Feminist
Economics, Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1988), we would have to add on at least 40% to
the GNP of most Western countries, more to Third World countries. Economists who
leave aside such macroscopic elements must be skewing their analyses, as if a student of
the solar system were to leave aside 40% of the planets. S/he would have to find
other explanations for their effectsirregularities in orbits, for example, and would not be
able to map an itinerary for successful space travel. Feminism is a more complete
analysis, deeper and farther reaching, and a better basis for social planning than
communism or capitalism, because unlike them it gives value to free labor.
5Distinguishing sexes according to the color of their clothes is like
distinguishing (and privileging) races according to the color of their skin.