There are certain sayings and phrases in English that refer purely to women. The ones I am going to discuss today are “She’s the cat’s mother”, “A woman’s place is in the home”, “A Scarlet Woman”,”A woman’s work is never done”, and “Don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs”. I have picked these because there is no equivalent sayings that refer to men. These are not the only examples, I could have included “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” or “the little woman”, but those I picked cover the most common discourses that entagle women in their daily lives.
She’s the cat’s mother:
I’ve never heard anyone correct someone using ‘he’ by saying ‘He’s the cat’s father’. For some reason, women are held to a higher standard of grammatical English than men. Women aren’t supposed to swear; our language is meant to be lady-like. This is reflected in sayings like this, with the underlying discourse that women are more polite and speak correctly – this was pointed out in Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place. Reading this book was a revelation to me, particularly as I was only just learning how gendered English was as a language.
A woman’s place is in the home:
Aspects of form, topic, content, and use
of spoken language have been identified as
sex associated. – Adelaide Haas
I am imagining a lot of people frowning at their computer screens as they read that idiom. Until recently, that was the argument everyone used when women tried to enter the public sphere. It was the greatest argument used against the suffragists and suffragettes in the Victorian era. You don’t hear of where a man’s place is supposed to be; but the inference is the woman should be cooking him dinner and caring for his house & children. A woman is NOT a refrigerator, and a wife is not another item of white goods.
A Scarlet Woman:
This is the old double standard; a man who plays the field is sewing his wild oats, whereas a young woman doing the same thing is a slut. This is an underlying assumption built into the very foundations of our language. Ponder the difference between the concepts of a male ‘pro’ and a female ‘pro’, or a ‘master’ and a ‘mistress’. That status of women in our culture is reflected in our language. We need to start redefining these terms to take away the negative implications. Women can be assertive without being aggressive, and talk loudly without being shrill.
A Woman’s Work is Never Done:
This saying is actually part of a couplet: A man he works from sun to sun (sunrise to sunset), but a woman’s work is never done. This saying originated in the days when women were unable to go out into the workforce in the public area, and were basically unpaid slaves. This perception of unending tasks was because of nature of the unpaid labour done by a wife and mother, which involved caring and feeding for the said ‘man’ and their mutual children, as well as cleaning the house and doing the laundry (and possibly caring for the garden as well). If the woman had actually been paid for this work, no one would have been able to afford her salary.
Now that women can go out to work, the burden of domestic labour still falls on the shoulder of women. This happens even if both partners work full time.
It is frustrating that our language and culture still encapsulates this discourse. Who does the Christmas shopping in your house, as an example?
Don’t Teach Your Grandma to Suck Eggs:
For those who haven’t come across this say, it means that inexperienced people should try not to give advice to experts in their fields. However, the depreciating humour in this idiom never pokes fun at Grandpa. And sucking eggs sounds disgusting.
“So a girl is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. If she refuses to talk like a lady, she is ridiculed and subjected to criticism as unfeminine; if she does learn, she is ridiculed as unable to think clearly, unable to take part in a serious discussion: in some sense, as less than fully human. These two choices which a woman has — to be less than a woman or less than a person — are highly painful.”
Robin Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place (1975)