America is not a ‘she’

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Referring to the United States of America as female has largely fallen out of vogue since Women’s Suffrage one hundred years ago. But this outdated language reemerged during the Republican National Convention in late August.

At the conclusion of her speech, Kimberley Guilfoyle stated, “Stand for an American president who is fearless, who believes in you, and who loves this country and will fight for her.” This rhetorical technique stood out to me, a human rights attorney with an expertise in hate speech, as equally subtle, deliberate and dangerous. It is applying a female personification to America that leverages biases against women for political gain. 

It is not the use of feminine pronouns that is inherently problematic. Romance languages commonly designate a female gender to concepts of nation and country. Other nationalistic language, like “motherland,” evokes parentage and feelings of home. Traditionally, feminine pronouns are also commonly used for ships and people often refer to their property, like cars, as female.

Additionally, history and popular culture provide even more of a reason to refer to America as a motherland. From the late 1700s to the early 1920s, Uncle Sam had a well-known feminine counterpart, known as Columbia. She looked like an armored Lady Liberty and the District of Columbia is her namesake. However, the female personification of the United States lost popularity around the time women gained the right to vote in 1920. Today, feminizing the country is seen as archaic and “she” and “her” is relegated to poetic use.  

Except when it is not. Language is deeply tied to our worldview in ways that impact what we accept as normal. Feminists have long argued that gendered language contributes to sexism, and research supports this. One study found that speakers of Spanish and German, both gendered languages, expressed more sexist attitudes than English speakers. Furthermore, advocates like myself have encouraged and counseled tech companies to think about the implications of using female names, like Alexa and Siri and feminine voices for AI home assistants.

Our words — and the implications that underlie them — are our worldview in miniature. Considering this, Guilfoyle’s deliberate portrayal of the nation as female cuts deeper than flowery language. It provides a window into unconscious biases and deeply-held misconceptions about women and how those ideas are being politically leveraged.

The key to interpreting Guilfoyle’s underlying message is the context of the speech. The feminine personification of America occurred alongside the heavy-handed law-and-order theme running through most of the RNC. As President Trump explicitly said in his nomination acceptance speech, “We will defend America against all threats and protect America against all dangers.” Gendered stereotypes functionally reinforce the portrait of a “female” America, who is weak and in need protection in the dangerous place the United States has supposedly become. 

Feminizing the nation is a trope that scholars of hate speech and historians will recognize. Hallmarks of “dangerous speech,” meaning hate speech that incites violence, include attacks on the purity of a group and threats against its women and girls. This tactic is powerful because it is difficult to ignore a warning of violence against those who are traditionally viewed as vulnerable. Calling America a “she” may emphasize that type of vulnerability. It implies America’s traditions, way of life, honor and ideals are under attack.

This is where language paves a familiar path for a narrative where Trump places himself as our only hope. Following Trump’s acceptance speech, critics were quick to dub the president a wannabe “strongman.” But this “strongman” technique has proven successful in other countries. In Latin America, a former president ran on the platform that he was a murderer, and thus could be entrusted to protect the country. President Trump’s obsessive focus on communal violence, harm to the suburbs, guns and defending America’s honor has a similar tone, placing him as the means of salvation from these existential threats to America. 

Language has long been a reflection of ideology. When public figures use a gendered pronoun, it is a signifier, not a slip of the tongue. It is a reference to a set of societal values for a specific purpose. What was problematic about Guilfoyle’s use of the feminine pronoun was the logic it introduced. America being described as feminine becomes precarious when the feminine is shorthand for weakness. The use of female pronouns during the RNC amplified gender-based biases and adopted rhetoric that placed women as the body politic for political gain.

America is not a damsel in distress. And as our society continues to grapple with an increasing awareness of diversity, and how to build a more equal society, our words matter.

Brittan Heller is counsel in the Global Business and Human Rights practice at Foley Hoag LLP. She was a 2019-2020 fellow in Technology and Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Tags anti-feminism Donald Trump female personification Gender gendered speech Hate speech Kimberley Guilfoyle Lady Liberty Rhetoric RNC Sociology of gender suffragettes Uncle Sam Women's rights women's suffrage

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