Sunday, 17 August 2014

Is my degree sexist?

This is clearly not me. Did you know
women in mid air do well in exams.
I took my degree certificate to my parents house to show it off; after all, our parents are one of the few recrimination-free boast-audiences we have in life. "A Bachelors in Science with Distinction" my Dad read aloud, "but you're married!"

A typical Dad response. But his eye-rolling pun left me wondering: why bachelor? At the risk of sounding like a trigger-happy feminist shooting righteous indignation bullets in all directions, is this a term that a modern women like myself - forging a sexually equal life for herself in the 21st century - should be critical of?

Please don't laugh, it's a genuine question! I recently married, but refused to take the term Mrs. I also kept my surname. I don't see why I should change either if my hubby doesn't need to change his. But I'm also a reasonable person (no really), and I'm not purposely injecting controversy to be radical, simply to enquire.

If bachelor is a term for men, could we instead adopt a term for women, or a gender neutral term? Or does it not matter?

The history of language is quite clearly not my area of expertise (science is!), so as usual I turn to the mixed bag of insight and misinformation that is the internet.

Google patriarchal language, and you'll get over three and half million results. It's not a new topic, indeed some feminist thinkers lambast it as outdated. I would generally disagree. Dove did a great job of addressing some existing language and associated ideas that could do with a shake up, in their campaign #LikeAGirl . I remember in my strident youth reading a whole chapter on the inherent sexism of the term semester in regard to the educational system, with the suggestion to change it to ovester to create gender balance. The fact that semester comes from the Latin (via German) for six and month and not from the word for male reproductive fluid was lost on the author. (Maybe they could take comfort from the root of menster, which is the same as menses, or monthly. No wait, even that has men in it - will they ever stop oppressing us!*)

Scholars in manly medieval book huddle.
Joking aside, Bachelor apparently comes from medieval Latin, baccalarius or baccalaureatus. I say apparently because it's difficult to track down information online from websites you could consider authoritative or reliable, and my library is tragically short of entomological sources.  Most websites (including various reputable dictionaries) agree that bachelor comes from baccalaureatus, and that this referred to a young man training in a discipline, including early universities, on his way to becoming a master in his chosen field. As women didn't do such things (they were too busy having babies and being silly and dainty and so forth), it inherently came to refer to men. There are also references to the term being used to describe young knights and squires, also of the male persuasion.** Latterly, bachelor came to refer to an unmarried man, and hence to my question.
Medieval women, too
busy having babies.

Reflecting on all of this, it seems the term has been attached to men through the circumstance of the way society used to be organised, rather than a deliberate exclusion of women. It's just unfortunate that we missed out on the talent of 50% of humanity for so long. The composition of gender in education in the UK has completely changed since then. Recent statistics found more women gained university places than men and that they even outperformed men.

Despite this, there are still areas with far fewer women than men - and the reverse is also true. Science remains male-dominated (for now), and although women outnumber men at masters level, men outnumber women from PhD level upwards. Globally of course, trends are country dependant - take a look at this UNESCO slightly patronising animation on global education statistics for more info.

So, reclaim or reframe? I can see why a new term might be appealing, but I'm not sure it matters. I'm a terrible fence-sitter, so I'll leave it to more black and white thinkers to argue such issues. Next year I'll be a Master of Science instead, a word with enough gender neutral meanings to pacify the stubborn radical in me.

That's right, I memed.
I took the following from the equality and diversity guidelines for the British Sociological Association (2004). I know people who groan in anguish at this kind of thing, but connotations of everyday language is food for thought (a kind of healthy snack I'd say).



man in the street layman  
the rights of man

to a man
the working man
models of man   
one man show    
founding fathers 
old masters
master copy
Dear Sirs 
people in general, people      
lay person, non-expert
synthetic artificial manufactured peoples'/citizens' rights;         the rights of the individual
workforce staff, labour force, employees craftsperson/people
staffing, working, running
everyone, unanimously, without exception workhours
worker, working people
models of the person
one person show
police officer/ fire-fighter
classic art/artists
domineering; very skilful
top copy/original
Dear Sir/Madam
broadcast, inform, publicise
classical, formative

 *This is a joke.
**There are a couple of mentions of the adjectives baccalarius and baccalaria, which - a couple of unreliable sources claim - refer to male and female workers of the land, respectively. Whether this is true or has anything to do with Bachelors in our education system is unclear. It seems more like an internet rumourwish to me. Incidentally, Baccalaria natans is the previous name for what is now called Sargassum natans, a type of seaweed (below).
S. natans is on the right.
djectives, baccalarius and baccalaria
the adjectives, baccalarius and baccalaria, respectively describe male and female laborers who worked on the land - See more at:
the adjectives, baccalarius and baccalaria, respectively describe male and female laborers who worked on the land - See more at:

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