Feminists have always recognized the role of language in shaping human thought and perception and, consequently, our social and political landscape. We have worked to end biases that exalt or universalize maleness and negate femaleness. We have objected with some success to the colonizing use of the word “man” as a stand in for “humanity,” and to the pseudo-generic use of the masculine pronoun. We have altered double standards, such as the titles “Mrs.” and “Miss,” by creating the egalitarian alternative “Ms.”

We have insisted that job titles be female-inclusive, and that names for natural disasters, historically given feminine names only, be male-inclusive. Feminists have reformed many religious traditions by encouraging the use of gender-neutral words to refer to the Creator, or the use of inclusive language that refers to both feminine and masculine principles of the Divine. Some feminists are trying to reclaim words that have historically been used as epithets against women, the c-word and the b-word especially. Some have gone so far as to respell the derivative word “women” to “wimmin” or “womyn,” as a way of rejecting the linguistic delegation of women to the status of the second sex.

But there is one area of language that feminists have ignored entirely: the metaphorical “language of size.” Language of size refers here to the vast collection of commonly used metaphors that, regardless of subject matter, associate what is positive with “big,” and what is negative with “small.” For example, “You were the bigger person” means, “You were the dignified and righteous one,” though the qualities of dignity and righteousness have no direct or indirect relation to large physical size. “You’re so petty” literally means, “You are little,” but metaphorically means, “You are mean and spiteful,” though meanness and spite have nothing to do with physical smallness.

The language of size has political and social meaning similar to what could be called the racist “language of color.” As anti-racist activists have pointed out for many years, our everyday metaphorical language tends to exalt whiteness and denigrate blackness, expressing and reinforcing a value system that coincides with skin-color hierarchy in society. Though the language of color has become more complex in meaning, as has the racial dynamic in our society, historically “white” has been used to describe purity and goodness, while “black” has been used to describe what is menacing and unenviable. “Blackmail” and “black magic” have negative meanings, communicated through a color code. “White magic” and “white lies,” by contrast, describe what is well-intended and harmless. There are also metaphorical phrases that assign negativity to blackness, such as “the pot calling the kettle black.” In the old westerns, the good guys were signified by their white hats, the bad guys by their black hats. For decades, it was a matter of movie-making formula that the light-skinned and blonde characters were good and innocent, while the dark-skinned, or at least the dark-haired, were wicked. This tradition has changed significantly in recent years, in part because of vocal objections to the racist language of color.1

The language of size also exalts physical characteristics of a dominant group while denigrating the contrasting characteristics of an oppressed group. By constantly associating the positive with what is big, and the negative with what is small, this metaphorical language validates and exalts in the mind’s eye that gender which, on the whole, is significantly larger than the other, while denigrating, even dehumanizing, the gender that is physically smaller. The sexism underlying such language has a less obvious but probably no less powerful role than more explicitly sexist language in shaping perceptions of women and men, including perceptions of our effectiveness, our moral characters, and our significance.


The Merriam Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary gives the simple adjectives “big” and “small” a wide range of metaphorical meanings that are both polarized and sweeping in scope:

Big adj: 1 a: of great strength b: of great force (a ~ storm) 2 a: large or great in dimensions, bulk, or extent (a ~ house); also : large or great in quantity, number, or amount (a ~ fleet) b : operating on a large scale (big government) c : capital 3 a: pregnant, esp : nearly ready to give birth b: full to bursting : swelling (~ with rage) c: of the voice : full and resonant 4 a: chief, preeminent (the ~ issue of the campaign) b : outstandingly worthy or able (a truly ~ man) c : of great importance or significance (the big moment) d : imposing, pretentious; also: marked by or given to boasting (~ talk) e: magnanimous, generous (was ~ about it) 5 : popular 6 : full-bodied and flavorful — used in wine

With the exception of “pretentious” and “boasting” — which is about pretending to be “big” — the metaphorical (rather than descriptive) meanings of the word “big” begin and end in magnificence. Not surprisingly, the various metaphorical meanings of the word “small” do not.

Small adj 1 a: having comparatively little size or slight dimensions b : lowercase 2 a : minor in influence, power, or rank b : operating on a limited scale 3 : lacking in strength (a ~ voice) 4 a : little or close to zero in an objectively measurable aspect (as quantity, amount, or value) b : made up of few or little units 5 a: of little consequence : trivial, insignificant (a ~ problem) b : humble, modest (a ~ beginning) 6 : limited in degree 7 a: mean, petty b : reduced to a humiliating position

Aside from the meaning of “humble, modest,” which here is the result of having nothing of value to boast about, “small” is a metaphorical net of despicable or pathetic qualities.

Likewise, figures of speech based on physical size are both sweeping and polarized, and reach into every area of life:

“I’ve always looked up to him.” “She made me feel so small.” “I refuse to stoop to their level.” “I feel he looks down on me.” “That is so low.” “He stands head and shoulders above the rest.” “Think big.” “She has a small mind.” “Rise above it.” “It’s no big deal.” “He casts a long shadow.” “They fell short of expectations.” “It won’t be easy filling his shoes.” “He’s a giant in his field.” “Don’t play him small.”

Although qualities like talent, effectiveness, open-mindedness, appropriateness, dignity, confidence, integrity, sense of purpose, and generosity are not analogous or in any way related to large physical size, the use of metaphors and metaphorical phrases that consistently associate large size with these admirable qualities powerfully influences our perceptions of the group of people that is both dominant and physically large as compared to the group that is subordinate and small.

As we use these metaphors in our day to day life, we see women literally looking up to men, and we see men looking down on women. We see men standing head and shoulders above women. We see that men stand tall, and women, whether or not we feel “small,” are small. Men must stoop to be on women’s level. Men’s bone structure is not “petite,” a word related to the word “petty”. Women are petty, apparently, not men. Women are short. Women are low. Men are high up. Men are big.

The figures of speech based on size seem ironic, even absurd, when they are used to praise a woman who “stands head and shoulders above” her taller male competition; or a woman who is “looked up to” by male colleagues who physically look down on her; or a woman who is a “giant” in her field when her small size visibly distinguishes her from the men in that same field; or a woman who leaves shoes that are “difficult to fill” by a male successor who has feet nearly twice as large.

These figures of speech shape our assumptions about the nature of the most positive human characteristics, their origin and context, presenting a woman’s effectiveness, skill, power, accomplishments, courage, and generosity as contradictions to the appearance of a woman’s body.


The etymology of the two adjectives is also revealing. The word “big” is believed to have derived from the Scandinavian word “bugge,” which means “important man.” The word “small” is akin to the Latin word “malus,” which means “bad.”

Why would “big,” in and of itself, be considered “important”? What in the world does “small” have to do with “bad”?

The answer would be clear if the valorization of “big” and denigration of “small” in our language matched common, everyday experience — that is, if people found what is physically big in ordinary, day to day life to be better, more valuable, or benevolently powerful, and what is physically small to be insignificant, weak, or malignant.

Yet other than gender hierarchy — a hierarchy that people almost constantly observe and participate in — there is nothing in ordinary life that would give rise to a language that assigns such polarized and hierarchical meaning to the adjectives “big” and “small.” People do not uniformly, or even disproportionately, value what is “big” more than what is “small.” Interpretations of the value, power, and significance of size depend on the specific need, the circumstance, and moment in time.

Big shoes are needed by those with big feet, small shoes by those with small feet. Big machinery is needed for building the frame of a house, while small tools are needed for the doors and windows. People tend to like large flat screen TVs and small MP3 players. Some people like a small amount of spice; other people prefer a large amount. A big piece of pie is sometimes desirable; sometimes it is too much. A big pile of dollar bills is better than a small pile, but a big pile of dung in the yard is worse than a small one, unless it is needed as fertilizer, in which case a big pile is better — unless it is too big. Big cars were once a status symbol; later, small sporty cars became a status symbol. Gas-guzzling SUVs were once all the rage, and now small, energy efficient cars are admired. Gorgeous mountain vistas are big. So are landfills. High-powered CPUs, crop-saving ladybugs, and potent homeopathic remedies are all small. So are poisonous spiders, termites and viruses.

The value of size when it comes to the human body also depends on the particular context and need. Small hands work best for intricate tasks, while big hands are better at opening jars and carrying sundry items. Tall people can reach items in the top cupboards, while short people tend to be more agile. Short people have a better chance of living a long life, while tall people have a significant advantage in a one-on-one physical fight.


Perhaps that last example — the advantage that large size provides in a one-on-one fight — is so significant in the human mind and in social interaction that it eclipses the significance of all other mundane experience and therefore has, by itself, given rise to the metaphorical valorization of “big” and denigration of “small” throughout our language.

But even if the fighting advantage of large size were that overwhelmingly significant, people would not necessarily associate this advantage with what is good or virtuous because for every winner of a one-on-one fight there is also a loser. Why would a small man or a medium-sized man want to praise the one physical characteristic that enables a large man to beat or dominate him?

When the bad guys are the big guys, it is the qualities of the small guys that receive praise. Goliath is not admired for his big size. David is admired for being brave, skillful, and righteous. From the winning small guy’s perspective, the opponent’s big size is indeed a significant factor in that it is a vehicle for what is bad, evil, menacing. It is a measure of the obstacle overcome and, therefore, a measure of the small man’s power. The meaning of large size — whether “big” is considered good and admirable, or bad and destructive, or neutral and unimportant — is determined by context and perspective.

Except when it comes to gender. Gender hierarchy, which is fundamental to the structure of our society, rigidifies the meaning and value given to size difference. Here the meaning and value attributed to size difference does not depend on context or perspective. The good guys, the winning guys, the guys naturally in charge are the big guys. The great and the powerful are large, and the large people are men. The naturally powerless ones, on the other hand, the trivial, the mean, the petty, the ones reduced to a humiliating position are small, and the small people are women.


Gloria Steinem wrote in Moving Beyond Words that pretty much everyone she had conversations with about gender equality believed that the oppression of women resulted from the physical size and strength differences between men and women. “Sooner or later, even the most intellectual discussion came down to men’s supposedly superior strength as a justification for inequality, whether the person arguing regretted or celebrated it.”

But size and strength differences don’t explain other forms of oppression, she points out. In fact, this ideology is conveniently flipped onto its head to justify the oppression of men who are bigger or stronger than their oppressors, such as blacks in apartheid South Africa, or working class men. “Oppression has no logic — just a self-fulfilling prophecy, justified by a self-perpetuating system,” Steinem writes.2

The sexist use of language, including the language of size, serves the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and “self-perpetuating system” of sexist oppression. Through systems of language, the need for logic can be bypassed and substituted with subliminal association and hierarchical construction to “explain” why male domination is natural and justified.

The metaphorical language of size links not only a physical characteristic of a dominant group with what is “good,” and the opposite characteristic of the oppressed group with what is “bad,” a pattern shared by the racist language of color. The words “big” and “small” are also loaded with hierarchical meaning related to power and powerlessness, because size difference between men and women is widely seen as the cause of gender inequality.

As Steinem points out, there isn’t, in fact, any consistent correlation between group power and the muscle or size of the individual members of a group. But our system of language, which is controlled by those in power far more than the marginalized, directs people to subconsciously assume the correlation is a matter of cause and effect.

Following subliminal direction, the mind puts the many observed exceptions to the illogical “rule” into a separate category, leaving the basic ideology undisturbed. For example, although a male bodyguard is bigger or stronger than the male politician he is protecting, the bodyguard’s larger size doesn’t signify that he should have more power than the politician. The fact that a male laborer works every day as a subordinate in the home of a smaller, weaker man does not make the language of size seem ridiculous. We do not wonder why the laborer isn’t beating his employer, thereby gaining political and social control. Instead, the meaning of size is inverted for these “exceptions” based on class, a kind of addendum to the more fundamental, gender-based meaning of size, and adjustments are made to our language accordingly.3

Common phrases such as “big and stupid” and “big and clumsy” are used to “explain” the inversion of the meaning of the size code when it comes to differences in class power. However, the association of negative traits with large size are kept external to the system of the language of size. That is, the meaning of “stupid” or “clumsy” is never incorporated into the metaphorical meaning or the figurative use of the words “big,” or “tall,” or “large.” “You were the bigger person” never means, “You acted stupid,” or “You looked uncoordinated.” The hierarchy of gender serves as the bottom layer to all hierarchies among men, and composes the bottom layer to the language of size. The greater size and strength of the laborer or the bodyguard may be a negative or trivializing characteristic in relation to the smaller, weaker, more powerful man, but his size is still a matter of great pride, as it indicates the exalted status of his maleness in contrast to the degraded status of the female, a status “explained” by her physical smallness.


The hierarchical meaning of sex-based size difference, despite its actual significance in our culture, has been completely overlooked in studies on discrimination against short people. Not surprisingly, such studies have also focused primarily on the harmful effects of “heightism” on short males, overlooking the harmful effects of heightism on short females.

The studies show that short boys are more likely to be bullied, while tall boys are given more respect by both their peers and their teachers. Men who are shorter than average are at a disadvantage in many areas of life, from salary and promotion to romantic opportunities. Men who are slightly taller than average tend to receive the most advantages; taller than that and the advantages peter out. Men six feet tall and over are more likely to be Fortune 500 CEOs than short men. Male politicians also seem to have an advantage in winning a political election if they are taller than the average man, and taller than their opponent. Personal ads make clear that straight women prefer tall men.

Many theories have been put forth to explain these biases. Some turn to evolutionary psychology to explain the female preference for taller men, concluding that women assume tall men will make better protectors. Some use evolutionary psychology to explain other men’s respect for stronger and healthier men, which is supposedly signified by tallness. Some theorize that both adults and children give tall children greater respect because of the natural association of tallness with age. Perhaps people also tend to associate tallness with parental authority, carrying the subconscious association with them into adulthood even though it is no longer relevant. Some theorize that heightism exists because of the “natural” visual importance of what is big, though this theory contradicts the finding that the advantages of tallness among males culminate at slightly above average, and the very, very tall sometimes experience negative discrimination.4

There are probably many contributing factors behind the problem of heightism. Whatever those factors are, this form of discrimination should be taken much more seriously than it is, since the consequences for short people — both men and women, both boys and girls — can be so harmful.

Though the problem is indeed a serious one, it should be understood that heightism is not, in itself, a form of bigotry like sexism or racism. No group of people is organizing against shorter than average people. There is no institutionalized effort to target them, to objectify them, to categorically define them as inferior, or to systematically exploit their energy, their resources, their labor.

It seems very likely, however, that heightism is influenced by bigotry. That is, the negative bias against short people might very well be, in part, fallout from the long history of institutionalized bigotry against women, whose smallness is one of the most visible features that distinguish them from men. After all, if women and men were generally the same size, would height have the same hierarchical significance among men?

By ignoring the hierarchical meaning of sex-based size difference, the studies on heightism ignore the possibility that heightism among men is due at least in part to men’s competition with — rather than just for — women. In the same vein, these studies overlook the contradictory meanings of size and strength across class. Why, for example, is the greater size and strength of the manual laborer commonly perceived as appropriate to his lesser status?

The fact that the social meaning of size and strength differences among men can be easily altered to fit the hierarchy indicates that hierarchy of height and size among men is, in and of itself, pliable. Given this pliability, it seems likely that the more enduring social hierarchy of bigotry against women is the most influential factor behind denigrating attitudes toward short men. Men commonly degrade one another by calling each other “pussy,” or by suggesting that they physically resemble women in some way. Furthermore, the degrading of men (by men and women) who possess a female quality such as short stature does not have to be deliberate. Negative assumptions do not have to pass through the conscious mind to be acted upon.


Could sexism ever be measured as a factor behind heightism? Perhaps its influence could be assessed through studies that consider whether the possession of other implicitly feminine physical traits by individual men has a negative effect on them in terms of job opportunities, salary, promotion, and public perception.

For instance, if a man has a voice that is high-pitched, does he receive the same level of respect and opportunity that men who have low voices receive? If a man has female pattern body fat, is he less likely to be a CEO of a company or elected in a political campaign than a man who doesn’t?

Implicitly masculine traits possessed by some women — tallness, a low voice, and a masculine frame (such as low body fat and narrow hips) — generally signify social authority, and even beauty. Therefore, if studies found that men who possess an implicitly feminine characteristic are discriminated against, this would indicate that the response isn’t based on what is unusual and unexpected within a gender but, rather, on the inferior status imposed on women as a group.

Why haven’t studies on heightism examined the hierarchical interpretation of sex-based size differences? Perhaps this hierarchical interpretation is so socially ingrained that it is simply taken for granted as the “way things are.” Or perhaps those conducting the studies haven’t wanted to disrupt this area of the status quo. After all, if sexism against women proved to be a significant factor behind heightism among men, the findings would bring attention to men’s competition with — rather than just for — women. Exposing sexism as a fundamental drive behind the meaning of heightism among men would bring attention to the fact that men’s competition with other men is secondary to their more fundamental competition with women. It would shed light on the nature of that pervasive competition, a collective, unreciprocated competition of one group, men, who have historically gone to extraordinary lengths to maintain an institutionalized superiority over the other, women.


While men’s competition with women is kept invisible, or at least unnamable, men’s competition with other men is kept front and center stage. On the main stage, small men and large men and every size in between are expected to vie with one another for power in all kinds of ways from money to weaponry. Small men often win in this masculine drama. Like tall men, small men achieve status as billionaires, CEOs, politicians, dictators. No one categorizes these powerful men as “the richest short man in the world,” or ” the first short male White House Chief of Staff.” No one expresses amazement at a small man’s success.

Small men, like women, lack the ability to become professional football and baseball players. But small men sometimes own the team. They aren’t the hired thugs, but they are sometimes the godfather, the kingpin, the czar. There is no special category for small men that systematically excludes them from any route to power. Small men are expected to address any disadvantages in physical fighting power with strategy, with social organization, with distance, with weapons, with alternative routes to power. They don’t have to limit their right to freely roam the world. A small man alone on a hiking trail could easily be overpowered by a large man, effortlessly by two men, yet the small man doesn’t avoid hiking alone because other men could overpower him. The wilderness belongs to him as much as it does to other men. He might fear being targeted because of his skin color, or his religion, or his sexuality, or because he is carrying money, but not because he is small.5

The pretense, maintained in part through the language of size, is that there is a direct connection between size and power, and that this causal connection is gender-neutral. The sad consequence for women is the fault of nature, not men. Yet social interpretations of physical size and its connection to power are applied to women and men in very different ways.

A small man is always a subject, his own subject, and his size is merely an adjective, though usually a negative one. A woman’s small size, by contrast, signifies her essential powerlessness and confirms her lack of status as a subject.

The small size of a socially respected man is almost never a basis for public comment or discussion. His maleness alone explains his achievements and power. No one expresses amazement, for instance, that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was able to make billions of dollars as a short man, or handily win a landslide political election against a man six inches taller than himself.

If a small man has done something contemptible, however — if he has committed petty crime, for instance, or demonstrated professional incompetence, or married a woman much more accomplished than himself — people point out his small size with amusement and disgust. His shortness, his commonality with women, is highlighted as if this characteristic explains his failings — his shortcomings.

Conversely, if a powerful woman is short, her size is openly marveled at. What an amazing paradox that a tiny woman was able to write America’s greatest poetry; a wonder that a female singer who is only five foot two could win American Idol; an unexplainable miracle that a small woman was the first to shoot the mass killer at Fort Hood.6

News reporters emphasized again and again the supposed paradox that a small female police officer was the first to act, saving other poeple’s lives. The lead in the New York Daily News read, “Tiny but tenacious, Sgt. Kimberly Munley was a ‘tough cookie’ nicknamed Mighty Mouse long before her heroic takedown of the Fort Hood shooter.”7

If the first person to shoot the killer were a short man, no one would marvel at his size as if it were a contradiction to his bravery, quick judgment, determination, his willingness to put himself on the line for others, or his ability to use a weapon with precision. A short man’s size doesn’t in itself signify a lack of power, and therefore wouldn’t appear to contradict a show of power.

By contrast, a short woman’s size is the underlining of the lack of power of a gender class that supposedly lacks power — power in all its forms — because of small size. It particularly amazes, then, that a short woman can rise above “nature” by being powerful — by singing beautifully, by writing with genius, by bravely saving people’s lives — without even possessing the male quality of tallness.


The symbolic meaning given to women’s small size relative to men is as quietly pivotal in this culture as it is openly ignored. So long as the symbolic meaning is ignored, women’s small size is used to subliminally “explain” women’s subordinate status in relation to men. In this gendered size-code, women’s smaller size signifies both a lesser power of being and a lesser social power in relation to men.

It also signifies the military powerlessness that supposedly underlies that lesser power. The pervasive but unexamined “reasoning” behind this perception is based on the obvious fact that if an individual woman, weaponless and untrained in martial arts, were in a physical fight with an individual man, she would lose. Even if we never see such battles take place, our language and other social cues constantly inform us that women’s smallness causes women’s powerlessness, which results in women’s subordination to men as a gender class.

The metaphorical language of size constantly promotes and reinforces this social construct as natural, seemingly evidenced through the gender hierarchy we witness in day to day life. When women hear and repeat many times a day, through almost unavoidable metaphors, that “big” is rightfully and inevitably powerful, while “small” is “minor in influence, power, or rank… lacking in strength… of little consequence… trivial, insignificant… mean, petty… reduced to a humiliating position,” we are far more likely to view our inferior status as inevitable, as the result of nature’s unfairness rather than the result of men’s highly organized sexism. Going up against men, we are to assume, would be like going up against nature. The only way we could ever achieve lasting gender equality would be to ask men to rise above nature, and hope they acquiesce.

If we take a closer look at this size-based explanation for men’s domination of women, however, some basic questions arise. For instance, how does women’s small size lead to women’s subordination to men? What is the process? A simple rephrasing of the assumption reveals a need for some logic: men politically, economically, socially, sexually and religiously dominate women because individual men are bigger and stronger than individual women. In other words, the fighting advantage that men’s larger size gives them when they physically battle women results in men’s sweeping institutionalized power over women.

But wait a minute. Most men don’t physically battle women. Most men are willing to battle other men, but not women, right? Only aberrant, sick, or cowardly men physically attack women. Men in general want to protect women from sick, aberrant, cowardly men.

In fact, most men don’t use their larger size to commit violence against women, even if they do use many other weapons of sexism against women, and even if men’s violence against women is based in systematic sexism.

The widespread assumption throughout society, however, is that violence against women is neither committed by normal men, nor organized by men as a class. Most people believe that men as a class are protective of women, and do not organize among themselves to violently target women, even though they also believe that men’s larger size is the main factor behind male domination of women in society.

How do people arrive at the conclusion that men’s bigger size gives them power over women if they also assume that most men don’t use their larger size to commit violence against women?

If only aberrant, cowardly men use their larger size as a weapon against women, wouldn’t only aberrant, cowardly men have power over women — that is, over those specific women whom the aberrant men physically attack? That is, for as long as those women don’t respond by killing the aberrant men? If most men are not physically violent toward women, how does their larger physical size and muscular strength bring about their systematic social, political, and economic power over women?

These contradictory assumptions, which dress men as both innocent and as inevitable rulers over women, are able to coexist because most people simply don’t think the matter through. The assumptions escape analysis in part because they are subliminally promoted — including through the language of size — rather than critically argued. They remain widely accepted because they serve men’s interests, and because there are enormous social and economic and familial pressures on women to accommodate rather than challenge the assumptions that uphold the power of men. Logic, therefore, poses little — that is, almost no threat to the ideology of this “self-perpetuating system.”


Because the belief that men have power over women as a result of their larger size is so widespread, and because the consequences of this belief — the cultivation of resignation among women to a grossly inferior status, along with the subversion of women’s potential for identifying men’s organized targeting of them — are so serious, it is worth taking at least a cursory look at the correlation between size and subordination, both in nature and in the human world. Even common observation informs us that access to power is much more complex than an equation based on size.

As humans have known for millennia, group hunters such as wolves and lions prey on animals that are much larger than themselves. We also know that weapons of predation and self-defense in the wild are numerous, and include sharp teeth, claws, wings, speed, camouflage, shells, flippers, ferocity, intelligence, group organization, and extraordinary perceptions such as eyesight, hearing, and smell. Snakes use poison. Porcupines use quills. Rabbits use their small size to escape into holes. Scorpions use stingers. Skunks use a bad smell.

When one species uses its larger size as a fighting advantage against another species that lacks a built-in weapon for self-defense, the smaller species does not merely submit to the larger, but rather counters the advantage, if not with distance, then with strategy. One PBS Nature program showed a lion injuring an irritating hyena. The injured hyena, not one to forget, responded by organizing with other hyenas who then launched a surprise, nighttime attack on the group of much larger lions, killing them off.

Within a species, size can play a significant role in the vying for power and position, as many nature programs make clear. For instance, among Humpback whales, the males battle one other to qualify for the opportunity to be the female’s escort, and therefore the most likely to mate with her. As many as twenty males swim near the female, threatening one another, sometimes ramming into one another in order to get closer to the female. The biggest and strongest has a clear advantage in this battle to win the role as escort.

Female sexual selection has put evolutionary pressure on the males of many species, including primates, to become larger and stronger, as the males compete for the opportunity to mate. Gelada monkeys, for instance, are impressed by males that prove themselves strong and brave, dote on the young, and have a bright red patch of exposed skin on their chest. While the metaphorical language of size equates bigness with significance and smallness with insignificance, the most significant one in these competitions — to the males, and to nature itself in its concern for the propagation of a species — is the small one.

Female sexual choice impels males to develop physical and behavioral qualities preferred by females.8 Most contemporary human societies, of course, impose the reverse dynamic: human males increase their mating opportunities by convincing females that their small size renders them insignificant and relatively powerlessness, and that a female is “lucky” if she is chosen by a male.

Male lions evolved into their larger size through having to compete with other males for the opportunity to mate with females. The resulting size difference between female and male lions, however, is sometimes portrayed as an example of nature’s unfairness in its supposed design of gender hierarchy. One PBS Nature program highlighted the scuffle between a pride of lions over a fresh kill. The larger male lions fended off the smaller female lions, who had caught the prey, until they had their fill of the meat.

The narrator informed the viewers that this kind of sex-based inequality is, unfortunately, the way things are outside of our much more mannerly human civilization. But among lions, the males don’t rule over the females. The male lions don’t control the lives of the females, or define themselves at the expense of females, or treat the females lions as subordinates. When a lair of lions fights over a fresh kill, each lion is trying to satisfy an immediate hunger. The larger lions, who happened to be male, have the fighting advantage of large size, and so they satisfy their hunger before the females do. The human projection of symbolical meaning — of male supremacy and female subordination, of male triumph and female humiliation — is neither here nor there for the animals.

Interpretations of animal behavior have traditionally been corrupted by the projections and interests of the specific class of people allowed to be experts in the field, those who had the power to relay to the ignorant layperson: “You live this way because this is how nature designed it.”

In previous generations, for example, zoologists interpreted the power dynamic of the wolf pack as organized according to a strict hierarchy based on dominance and submission, with the biggest and strongest wolves violently winning power over the others, their victories symbolically expressed through sexual “humping.”

No longer a gender-segregated field from which women are excluded, contemporary experts now offer very different interpretations of animal behavior and group organization, including that of wolves.

Scientists now explain that these previous theories were based on observations of wolves held in captivity. In the wild, wolf packs are usually extended families with one breeding pair. Authority in the pack is not won through battery and symbolic rape, but is conferred by the group onto the elders, who are usually the parents of the other wolves in the pack. This pair isn’t necessarily the biggest and strongest, and they aren’t intent on violently maintaining a position of power over the other wolves. They have authority because they are the “parents,” and their wisdom and experience in group survival serve the interests of the whole pack. The rank of the other wolves is believed to be based on age more than any other factor.


Unquestionably, humans are more socially complex than any other mammal. We are a species that organizes through language; makes use of a vast array of weapons; functions inside of sophisticated political systems; has nearly unlimited capacity to manipulate through deception, and to counteract deception through exposure of the truth. We possess an inherent sense of moral justice (even if functionally repressed); we can sometimes choose to survive and flourish without engaging in battle; and we tend to value artistic expression, community, spirituality, religion, and a purposeful ritualizing of love.

In male supremacist cultures, love, art, spirituality, religion and community are thoroughly exploited to maintain male domination and control over females. These unique aspects of human life aren’t valued because they can be exploited for power. They are inherently valued, and that value is then tapped. None of these greatly valued aspects of human culture — whether exploited or treated with respect — results from bigness, or is in any way related to size. Likewise, the ability to use language, to invent weapons, to deceive, to tell the truth, to organize politically, socially, and economically with other humans is unrelated to physical size.

If humans were much simpler than other mammals — simpler than the wolves, the whales, the hyenas, the monkeys and the lions — and the size and muscular strength of individual humans were the main factors that determined who ruled over whom, power relations would not be partitioned into two basic groups, one with power over the other, gender being the coincidental dividing line between small people and large people. Size and strength among individuals vary enormously within each gender, with some overlap between the genders. If the big naturally ruled over the small, each person would have power over those who are smaller than her- or himself, and would be ruled by those who are bigger. Levels of power would be as numerous as there are individuals. Imagine the chaos! Humans, a weak species compared to other mammals, would quickly perish — or, rather, we would never have flourished to begin with. All the food-rich, shelter-rich territory we currently occupy would belong to the wild.

Obviously we do not live in a populated free-for-all in which whoever is larger and more muscular is dominant. We live within a highly organized political and social system that determines who gets to use what kind of force for what purpose, who gets to hurt whom under what circumstance, and who is punished for using force even in self-defense. The way that power is expressed is determined by political, economic, and social organization. One question that needs to be examined, then — the very question that the fallacious “big over small” ideology diverts us from — is how and why men politically, economically, socially, religiously, philosophically organize with other men, including with strangers, including with men they despise, against women, including women they like, including women they love, to maintain male dominance and the negation of women.


Catharine MacKinnon wrote in Are Women Human that gender “is a feature of most everything, pervasively denied.”9 The denial of men’s oppression of women, particularly the dynamic of the oppression, is key to making the oppression possible, as exposure would be its undoing.

Our system of language plays a central role in this — on one hand, by structurally highlighting gender while systematically erasing the female, and on the other hand, by subordinating the female gender while obscuring the gendered basis of the subordination.10

Because the language of size — the pervasive metaphorical valorization of big and the denigration of small — is not explicitly gendered, identifying this language as sexist, as a reflection of and vehicle for men’s competition with women, can seem far-fetched.

The widespread assumption is that women are too insignificant, too powerless, too degraded, too invisible to men — and at the same time, too valued and too loved by men — for men to compete with women at all, never mind as their primary targets of opposition. Most women have enough “street smarts” to leave this assumption alone. If a woman challenges it, and goes so far as to analyze men’s organized targeting of women, she becomes known as a “man-hater.” If she has no access to a feminist movement, she is isolated as an individual, treated with disdain, and punished institutionally, while rewards are doled out to women who mock and denounce her. She risks social isolation and punishment in every area of life needed for survival, and almost every area needed for survival is dominated by men. Most women, therefore, try to protect themselves and meet their needs alongside men without ever being so “hateful” as to identify sexist oppression.

Since it is taboo to identify the male-against-female competition that is central to the dynamic of sexist oppression, women often deal with men’s oppositional behavior through cooperation, assisting men in winning their contest with them in hopes that the confusing nastiness of sexist oppression will lessen, or be directed elsewhere, toward other women who are “different” from themselves. They give a little here, and participate over there in the effort to manage what many unthreateningly call “the male ego” (an inadequate term to describe the drive behind men’s collective undermining of women). Men are thus able to win their duels with women over and over again, leaving men insatiate, since their goal of winning actual superiority to women is never accomplished.

Almost everywhere in the world, men have succeeded in institutionalizing their domination of women. As a class, they physically and sexually and symbolically possess women. Economically they subordinate and sometimes claim ownership of women. They have academically theorized their superiority to women — recently launching a “debate” over whether it is their special brains that allow them to excel above women in science, a field in which women continue to face intense discrimination. Historically, men as a gender class have institutionally excluded women from positions of authority. Today, with institutional barriers partly removed, many men target female authorities with misogynistic contempt.

Long ago, men named one of their own gender as the unpartnered Father, creator of life. They established themselves as the real human beings, the ones worth listening to, the official and footloose authorities, those who get to have permanent last names, the ones who matter, with women as their addendums, their ribs, their helpers, their objects of sexuality, their vehicles for masculinity. Men have accommodated the powerful second wave of feminism by allowing a certain number of women into the masculine world of realness — but only on a visa. So long as these women remain a minority and remember their “femininity,” the masculine identity can continue with little interruption.

Men as a class have been almost universally successful in marginalizing and objectifying women — not because they are bigger than women, but because they deceptively target women in the context of being “on the same team” as women. They may have little else in common with one another, but most men share a common purpose in their desire to maintain male domination, which provides them with access to women’s sexuality, and creates for them a collectively recognized identity of superiority over women. Men may be enemies, they may be strangers, but they are allies with one another in this particular cause.

Within the established system of sex-based domination, which is both pervasive and denied, many men use their size as a weapon of violence or intimidation against women, often knowing they are safe from retaliation or socially enforced justice. These men keep their physical and sexual viciousness toward women out of public view, as is required by the state, or else they disguise it in very public pornography, thereby concealing the gravity of sexist oppression, and the risk to women of intimate integration with men within a male supremacist society.

Important efforts by feminists to stop this violence and abuse have focused on law enforcement, and on changing the attitudes of men so that they will be willing to refrain from their traditional option to physically abuse women. It is worth considering that women’s vulnerability to men’s violence could be also countered through a mandated, systematic physical empowerment of women. This approach would be relatively uncomplicated and immensely doable, so long as the social will to end violence against women is there.11


Finding any effective solution to the endemic problem of sexism, including violence against women, depends first on accurately identifying the problem. Yet identifying — persistently and accurately — the dynamic of men’s organized sex-based oppression is one of the most difficult hurdles women face in moving toward ending the oppression. In addition to the ubiquitous pressure on women to stay silent and to accept false justifications for sexist oppression, the interpersonal complexity between women and men makes this dynamic especially difficult for women to openly describe.

Most women have positive as well as negative experiences with men. Women and men share mutual interests and concerns. They share a history, a community, and common values. They face many of the same challenges, including other forms of oppression such as poverty or racism. In almost all cases, in every class and culture, men as individuals are women’s friends, lovers, relatives, neighbors, children. Women don’t just experience men’s oppression of them; women also experience men’s love, friendship, kindness, and generosity.

Feminists are often denounced for openly identifying sexist oppression, as if in doing so they are negating the positive interactions between the genders, and categorizing men as inherently “bad.” This leads some women to “brag” about “liking” men, and puts pressure on feminists to dilute their message and make their analysis of oppression less accurate to avoid being accused of “man-hating.”12

In reality, most feminists aren’t interested in writing off men, or in pigeon-holing individual character according to gender. (That habit seems to be much more common among non-feminists.) Feminists’ goal is to put an end to sexist oppression, not to advocate the notion that men are evil and women are good, as anti-feminists claim.

Almost all individuals, female and male, possess a complex mix of traits, including a capacity for integrity and compassion, as well as for cruelty and objectification. This human complexity, along with the interpersonal nature of sexist oppression, doesn’t make men’s organized oppression of women less real or less harmful; it just makes the dynamic difficult to understand.

Complicating the picture even further is the fact that men’s participation in sexism is not homogeneous. There are some men who venomously devote their lives to promoting sexism, many dressing like gentlemen and using academic lingo to do so. Other men participate more passively, quietly accepting the status quo, becoming agitated only when the status quo is challenged. Some men are outraged by the oppression of marginalized men, but defend or trivialize sexism. Some men are affable toward women, but undermine women’s personal power and make decisions “behind the scenes” to keep women down. Some men are “good” to particular women, while directing their misogyny onto others. Some men intuitively treat both women and men with fairness. A few extend that sense of fairness to the public realm and actively oppose gender oppression. A handful are committed for the long haul to countering and undoing male supremacy.

Making things even more confusing, women often experience other women as the ones who most fiercely carry out the sexist mandate, in exchange for a more secure place in society, or simply to cast onto other females what they have learned to despise about themselves.

However complex the interpersonal dynamic between women and men, there almost always emerges, in most societies around the world, a larger and unambiguous pattern of sexist oppression. This pattern of oppression requires widespread micro-participation, and a widespread “conspiracy of silence” — a near-universal refusal among men to publicly expose and denounce the real dynamic of sexism that they directly witness and understand through their “insider” status as males.13


Wherever it exists, whatever its shifting manifestation, organized male supremacy achieves a similar set of goals. It severs women from the authority of selfhood, removing from women a claim to humanness from the inside. It promotes the degradation and violation of a certain people for being female. It creates a social context in which females are targeted with harassment and sexual violation. To minimize the harassment and threat of violence, women restrict their movement in the world, which in turn affects their ability to act in the world. The pervasive threat of sexual violence also impedes women’s creativity, since fear and constraint inhibit the creative spirit. Sexism hinders women from fully developing their potential, and from being fully recognized for their contributions. It defines women as inferior to men, a life sentence they are usually praised for accepting and vilified for rejecting.

Although sexism takes many different forms around the world, wherever there is sexist oppression, men are always the oppressing gender class; it is never the reverse. There is no evidence that any culture ever existed in which women as a group possessed men, controlled men, targeted men in order to subordinate them — even though there are innumerable examples of societies in which groups of physically smaller men have dominated groups of physically larger men, and groups of men small in number have dominated groups of men much larger in number.

However, there are societies that still exist in which women hold the center of cultural and economic power. In these societies, women maintain their self-determination and their cultural and economic authority without force, without violence, without treating men as the enemy gender.15

This asymmetry in history raises a question: if men are not, at the individual level, inherently more corrupt than women, and if men’s oppression of women doesn’t simply “happen” as a result of men’s larger size, then why does it happen? Why does men’s systematic domination of women exist in most places of the world? Why are men collectively motivated to target women as a group? Why do women lack a motive to similarly target men?

Cross-culturally, women tend to see themselves as being “on the same team” with men, and most are willing to compromise their own rights and dignity, bit by bit, for the sake of survival and group cohesion. Men, cross-culturally, tend to build their identities on being “superior” to women, many acting as if their life hinges on the identity, with some willing to die to make sure that it isn’t revealed as a false one.

Using animal behavior to explain human society can be misleading if complexity, context, diversity, and the difficulties humans have in interpreting behaviors of a different species are ignored. It is indisputable, however, that a broad pattern exists throughout much of the animal world in which the males compete with one another, often fiercely — sometimes killing, sometimes dying — in the effort to win over the females. Is it possible that the human male’s competition with the female is a highly manipulative spin-off of that primordial urge to mate, a sophisticated dynamic in which men organize a conditional cooperation with each other to secure universal male access to female sexuality?

Or perhaps men’s competition with women is based in something more particularly human: a core insecurity that arises from men’s uncertain sense of relevance to community, tribe, family, and human males therefore compete with the significance that women inherently have, a social importance born of biology.

Perhaps men are burdened with an inherent insecurity because men’s need for women is not matched by women’s need for men. Yes, women need men, but the relationship, the attraction, the dependency is not symmetrical. Without the levers of patriarchy, men must win women’s affection and interest, not superficially — not through a relationship welfare program in which relationships with men are offered to women as a way to offset poverty and marginalization — but truly. In recent decades, as women have gained economic, cultural and social power, there are men who increasingly rely on pornography and the normalization of prostitution to maintain their “right” to on-demand access to female sexuality.15 On the more optimistic side, there has also been a transformation in the way many women and men relate to one another, based on mutual respect and support, and a belief in equal status and equal decision-making power within relationships.


It isn’t necessary to understand the reasons why men do what they do in order to oppose male supremacy. In fact, dwelling too much on their motives could lead to expectations that women accommodate men with more privileges, or to efforts by women to “change” men, when most men aren’t even willing to admit there’s a problem.

What is important to recognize is that male supremacy results from intentional, organized behavior among men, and not from the natural phenomenon of size difference between the sexes. Recognizing and exposing the strategies of male supremacy, and the specific goals behind those strategies, is what will put an end to their effectiveness.

In taking the approach of identifying and exposing the patterns, it is helpful to recognize that even in today’s world, men’s oppression of women is not universal, and there are credible theories that in the far past, it wasn’t even that common.16 There still exist many cultures that are called “matrifocal,” “matrilineal,” or “gynocentric,” in which women hold most of the cultural authority and economic power, though they survive under great pressure to change.17

The matrifocal or gynocentric cultures of today have all had to incorporate to some extent the values of surrounding patriarchies, simply in order to not be destroyed by them. The Minangkabau of Indonesia, for example, have had to adopt and incorporate Islam within their own local values and traditions. Nevertheless, the family name and land ownership are still passed down through the matrilineal line. The Kuna of Panama have militarily battled the Panamanian government to retain their autonomy. Inheritance is still passed through the matrilineal line, and women hold the center of cultural and economic power. The Mosuo of China have survived Chinese dictatorships, and the patriarchal values and economic pressures from the surrounding Han ethnic majority. Among the Navajo, descent and inheritance traditionally passed through the mother, and women owned the bulk of resources and property, such as livestock. The Navajo have endured devastating assaults and imprisonment in the nineteenth century, and today the culture is being transformed through the economic and cultural pressures of the surrounding society.

None of these traditionally matrifocal cultures has been a patriarchy in reverse. Men have not been defined in any of them as women’s ribs, accessories, or servants. The women haven’t sexually subjugated the men, symbolically possessed them, or organized themselves in gangs to violate them. They don’t economically coerce men into personal relationships. They don’t make pictures of men posed in humiliating postures while exposing their genitals. They don’t crush men’s sense of selfhood, or restrict their self-determination.

In these matrifocal or gynocentric societies, men have self-determination, but women are the economically and symbolically empowered keepers of culture. Men must win their relationships with women, without the help of institutional subordination and manipulation. If it is true that in pre-history such societies were the norm, then perhaps they reveal a natural pattern that human culture assumes when patriarchy isn’t forcefully imposed through organized terror and subterfuge.

It is hard to even imagine (though it doesn’t hurt to try) our own society transforming itself into one that resembles the few remaining matriarchies. But in the here and now, those successful, peaceful societies can remind us that sovereignty for women — the absence of gender oppression — can happen without countering nature, without requiring men to “rise above” nature, without trying to create a civilization that rises above nature. It is male supremacy that is out of accordance with — in fact, violent in every way toward nature. Given the level of psychological imbalance in every city and across the countryside, male supremacy is out of accordance with human nature, too.


It is certainly out of accordance with women, in all our diversity. Women are expected to strain and reshape our bodies and beings to fit into a world that is modeled on maleness, presented as the gender-neutral, or gender-free standard. In this world, male characteristics, including large size, are not only associated with superiority, they are used to define superiority, while female characteristics, including small size, are not only associated with inferiority, but are used to define inferiority.

This model does not accurately reflect our power, our worth, or our experience. We are constantly presented with a warped representation of who we are, not a genuine or inevitable one. Even our achievements are portrayed as paradoxical, given our small female size, given that we just don’t fit within the established norm.

This norm, of course, has been custom-made, structured and reinforced in part through language, one of the most potent forces in our daily lives. While abiding by the requirements of established language, which we must do to a large extent simply to understand and be understood, we are forced to participate in the colonization of our own minds. But we can also use language to reveal our reality, and to shape and direct our futures.

Feminists have made important progress over the past few decades in changing sexist language, an uphill battle all the way. However, the problem is so wide and so deep, and in many ways structural, that the fight has really just begun. The invisible forms of sexist bias and manipulation, such as the metaphorical language of size, are pervasive. Even the crudest forms of sexist language are still the official style at many of this country’s preeminent and politically liberal publications and media channels.18


Those defending the status quo claim, now as in the past, that objections to sexist language are frivolous. Sexist wording is benign, they maintain. After all, people “know” what the words and phrases mean — and they are right, of course, people do. For no other reason do these publications and media institutions choose to use sexist language rather than simple and accessible alternatives.19 Those in decision-making positions understand the powerful impact of sexist language. They also understand the importance of denying its significance.

With more and more women working in the established media, one might wonder why things haven’t progressed more quickly toward inclusive and non-sexist language. Why have things seem to have even gone backwards in some ways over the past decade or two? Don’t the women who work in the media know better? Can’t they stand up for the simple principle of non-sexist language?

Perhaps some women know the price they would pay if they pick this battle, so they decide to agree that the use of sexist language is insignificant.

Perhaps other women do object to the official use of sexist language, and they pay a price for doing so. Such a behind-the-scenes effort to replace sexist language with simple and obvious alternatives might resemble this fictional scenario:



by Wall Fly



Two hardworking writers, a feminist and a sexist, are together revising a script for a documentary about human evolution, The Evolution of Man, for the prestigious Nationally Geographic Channel.

FEMINIST: You know, the word ‘man’ really isn’t appropriate here. And it’s unnecessary, since we can just use ‘humankind.’

SEXIST: Oh c’mon! Everyone knows ‘man’ means both men and women.

FEMINIST: Well… but… why use it when we have an inclusive alternative?

SEXIST: It’s tradition.

FEMINIST: It’s a sexist tradition.

SEXIST: It’s standard usage. What’s the big deal, it’s just a little word. I mean, people are dying right now from _______ . I think there are more important things to worry about.

FEMINIST: Alright, well, if it’s not a big deal, we’ll change the little word to “woman.” People will know what it means from context.

SEXIST: You’re not serious.

FEMINIST: Oh, yes, I am serious. And we’re going to change these generic ‘he’s’ to, let’s see — not to ‘he and she,’ which gets a little clunky, right? Since it’s just a little word, we’re going to change them all to ‘she.’ People will understand from context that ‘she’ means ‘she and he.’

SEXIST: (sputters incoherently) …!

FEMINIST: It’ll be a new tradition.

SEXIST: You’re crazy!

FEMINIST: I’m crazy? But it’s just a little word. Like you said.

SEXIST: Okay, look. (Calms down, adopts a condescending tone) If it’s that big a deal to you to use ‘humankind,’ go ahead. We’ll see if the producer accepts it. I have deadlines to meet and I don’t have time for this.

FEMINIST: Then why did you waste our time, when you didn’t need to waste any time at all? I mean, this is 2010, and we still have to argue about this?

SEXIST: (under breath) B…ch.

The sexist saunters to the water cooler to share the news about what a “b” the feminist is — hard to work with, a fanatic who gets totally carried away. The feminist, overhearing a word hear and there, reminds herself to smile more often at people. She remembers that rule about picking and choosing battles, and decides ahead of time to let the next few encounters with sexism just slide.



It is a few days later. The producer is working at home after a long day at the office, going through papers, reviewing manuscripts. His wife is in the kitchen, cooking, trying to keep two energetic children from making too much noise while Daddy is working. The producer sits on the couch, tired, irritated, papers scattered around him, a tepid cup of coffee on the side table that his wife helpfully brought out a while ago now.

He picks up the manuscript that used to be called “The Evolution of Man.” His irritation soars as he sees that his employees changed “man” to “humankind,” not only in the title, but throughout the manuscript. It was that feminist, he instantly suspects. He had already noted, with some tolerance, that she doesn’t smile as much as she should, and she’s just so opinionated. Everything is a feminist issue to this woman. Everything is about gender. This is just one more example of that.

He picks up a red pen and circles “Humankind” in the title, and writes, “Did you forget to check our stylebook?” He slams down the manuscript, hungry for dinner, done with work for now. Nationally Geographic might be better off without that feminist. He puts down his pen, stretches, and walks toward the kitchen. It’s not easy to work so hard to support a family, but he is doing it. He puts his arm around his wife’s waist as she stands before the stove and he gives her a kiss.

PRODUCER: What’s cooking?

The producer is a good and gentle man. His wife knows it. He knows it too.



It is the following day. The producer pours himself a cup at the water cooler. Feminist approaches him with a paper in hand. The producer sees her approach, and walks off in the other direction. Feminist stops in her tracks, mouth open in dismay.



Four months later. Feminist is sitting on her couch, making notes on her resume. The television is tuned to the Nationally Geographic channel, though Feminist is intensely concentrating on her writing.

FEMALE TV ANNOUNCER: Coming up next — Where did Man come from? How did he separate from the apes six million years ago to become the singular modern creature that builds cities, creates light without fire, and eats like a king? The mystery solved during the next sixty minutes in “The Evolution of Man.”

Feminist drops her pen on her lap and looks up at the TV. She puts her papers to her side.

She, along with several million people across the country and around the world, spend the next hour observing the male figure on the screen as he transforms from an ape into a tall, bipedal genius that dominates all of nature, and protects woman — that is, when man isn’t himself a woman. Sometimes man is a man, definitely not a woman, and sometimes he is a man and a woman too.

There’s no point in trying to make sense of it, especially if you might lose a job trying. Besides, it’s only a little word, and the whole issue is not a big deal, and in any case, Feminist can no longer complain about it because she no longer has a job where she could make the complaint.



If one morning everyone woke up in a world where nothing had changed except, by wave of a magic wand, all sexist language were permanently reversed — everything else in the world would then change. Everything would not change right away, but it would change eventually, and a lot would change pretty quickly.

If one day we woke up and all references to the Great Creator were no longer “He” but “She,” no longer “Father” but “Mother”; if the generic “man” became “woman”; if the generic “he” became “she”; if the generous inclusion of both genders meant that the masculine always came last — then our perceptions, our assumptions, and sooner or later, our social and political and legal structures would change.

If men were consistently the ones who gave up their last name upon marriage; if heterosexual sex were described in terms of what women do and experience; if swear words invoked imagery of violence against male sexuality; if the word “pussy” always meant “courage” and the word “balls” meant “cowardice” — and so on — then our understanding of gender would change, insistently, stubbornly, at the most fundamental level, and then the world would change. It could not stay the same.

Imagine that on this same morning, by the same wave of a magic wand, the metaphorical language of size were also reversed. The definitions of “small” and “big” became:

small (adj) 1 : first and foremost 2 : meaningful or significant in dimensions, form, or extent (a ~ city) 3 : a : refined b : complex c : sophisticated 3 : conducted on a reasonable scale b: efficient c: effective (we’ll solve the problem by thinking ~) 4 : long lasting 5 : of great ability or worth (a truly ~ woman) 6 : boastful, pretentious (~ talk) 7 a : precise b : quick and coordinated 8 a : kind b : sensitive (a ~ word)

big (adj) 1 : having comparatively large size or gross dimensions 2 : inconsequential in influence, power, or rank 3 a : bulky b : wasteful c : excessive 4 a : plain b : obvious (it’s a ~ attempt to get ahead) 5 : naive 6 a : blundering b : dull c : inept 7 a : mean b : greedy 8 : grown to a state of humiliation

Our common, everyday metaphorical phrases have also been reversed: “Look down on” means “to respect.” “Look up to” means “to feel contemptuous toward.” “Head and shoulders above” means “out of touch.” “A big deal” means “a wasteful project.” “High status” means “dubious.” “Petty” means “witty.” “Stoop to their level” means “learn from one’s mentors.” “Be the smaller person” means, “Be the noble one.” “That is low” means, “That is extraordinary.”

Imagine that day in and day out, day after day, we used this metaphorical language without conscious reflection. Our perceptions would certainly shift in many ways, perhaps most of all in our understanding of the inherent power, value and potential of women in contrast to that of men.


Imaginary reversals can help expose the extent and harm of biases that are so old that they seem invisible. Feminists, however, have never pursued a reversal of abusive systems of power. Many of us are pursuing a redefinition and a transformation in the use of power.

Challenging the current metaphorical uses of the words “small” and “big” can be part of that process of redefining power.

There are so many glorified definitions of the word “big” in the dictionary, ones that have no relationship whatsoever to large physical size: “outstandingly worthy or able”… “of great importance or significance”… “magnanimous”… “generous”… “popular”… “flavorful.” What is left out entirely of the definition is: “bullying,” “dominating,” “intimidating,” even though such meanings are related to large physical size. In fact, the power to bully is what is being glorified by the other metaphorical meanings. Men’s power to bully women, specifically.

There is also an absence of metaphorical phrases that use the word “big” to describe a bullying dynamic. There is one size-based metaphorical phrase that expresses sympathy for the bullied “little guy” — not coincidently, the wrongfully bullied is a “guy” — but the word “big” is never used disparagingly in such a context. Phrases used to negatively refer to a bully don’t include the word “big.” The words “weight” and “muscle” are used instead: “They’re throwing their weight around again,” and, “He muscled them into doing something they didn’t want to do.”

Why is the word “big” avoided when metaphorically describing a bullying dynamic? After all, the imagery of a person using “weight” to bully is not clear at all. The imagery of a person using “muscle” to bully is clearer than “weight,” but it isn’t nearly as clear as the imagery of the big bullying the small. Metaphorical phrases that make use of “weight” and “muscle” are used to describe the wrongful dynamic of bullying because they imply a masculine against masculine battle, rather than a masculine over feminine power framework.

In the social world, large size doesn’t determine power relations, but within any context of institutionalized male domination, it makes men’s physical bullying of women easier to carry out and easier to hide. The sexist language of size both camouflages and exalts this gendered power-over dynamic. In this language, men’s physical domination of women is assumed but not exposed, used as the naturalizing metaphor for men’s organized domination of women. The language of size conceals the cruelty of the dynamic, whether it is carried out physically or non-physically, while glorifying the results. “Big” is, everywhere and in every context, glorious and powerful. But how did it get to be powerful? Why is it glorious? The language of size ceaselessly applauds the bullying dynamic of big over small, while at the same time disguising the unethical basis of the dynamic.

The traditional understanding of men’s “natural” power over women would no longer seem so natural if our language didn’t subliminally exalt men’s size over women, or naturalize men’s domination of women, but instead identified this domination for what it is: wrongful power. Perhaps because this dynamic takes place within society’s most fundamental construct — sex-based hierarchy — bullying, or domination, is often thought of as a genuine power. In fact, it is a parasitical power. Bullying does not generate anything needed by society. It does not produce anything innovative, beautiful, or desirable. It simply steals. It does not protect or sustain. It destroys, cripples, fragments. Bullying is not a quality of the “outstandingly worthy or able.” It is simply a vehicle for domination and theft.


Big size isn’t inherently a bullying power. There are many genuinely positive functions and roles for large size. There are also positive functions and roles for small size. But the intrinsic value of the human body is not simply a matter of function and service. The sometimes dehumanizing ideology that measures the value of the human body in terms of its external function coincides with the polarized values attributed to small and big.

Looking beyond external measurements of value, we can see that much of what is most powerful in our world is small. Potency is small in size. The seed, the power to grow food, and the power of life itself, is the power of the small and the subtle.

Smallness can also represent a formidable physical power. Small size is not conducive to bullying, but the small have always been naturally proficient at self-defense. The smallest of creatures, scorpions, bees, rabbits, turtles, and myriad others have survived and flourished for millions of years because they use weaponry; they move in swarms; they are willing to harm an enemy; they use intelligence, group organization, and the advantages of small size; they have a protective shell to safeguard their lives and well being.

Small is the power from which women act. It was the power of small people, people who were women who, some believe, invented and developed agriculture as an extension of their roles as gatherers and mothers. Women of the ancient past likely discovered herbal medicines, and created some of the first crafts, like spun cloth and woven baskets. Some even theorize that language developed among humans through the relationship between the mother and her small child, uniquely vulnerable and in need of nurturing for so long. It makes sense in many ways, both symbolically and pragmatically, that the power of a sustainable civilization should be associated with the power of the small.

Beauty and value exist in all sizes, small, big and every size in between. No size is inherently better or more significant than another.

When women — as women — attain empowered, sovereign status, the metaphorical language of size might reflect that future society’s value system. Metaphors based on “small” and “big” would most likely no longer have fixed and polarized value, but would instead be linked to context and perspective.

In the meantime, in the here and now, there’s a small (powerful) possibility that intentionally changing the language of size in our own speech and writing could lead to a tiny (enthralling) step toward gender equality. After all, language doesn’t simply reflect our world — it actively creates it. A short (efficient) change in the way we use these metaphors could make an infinitesimal (invisibly potent) contribution toward a little (significant) confusion, followed by diminutive (essential) discussion. And then, quite possibly, subtle and effective change.

Andrea Safran can contacted at agoldhorseATgmailDOTcom

(revised 11/16/14)


1. The “language of color” is not as consistent or polarized in meaning as the “language of size.” There are now many positive references to “black” and positive phrases that make use of “black.” Black Friday, for example, is associated with consumer spending and prosperity. This label originally derived from the color of pens used in bookkeeping — red for debt, black for solvency — but the fact that the phrase has been so widely embraced shows the increasing weakness of the historical bias against “black.” The color black is also widely considered the symbol for what is fashionable. The promotional phrase “the new black” is applied to something different every year. Unfortunately, the traditional bias against “black” hasn’t completely disappeared. Also, many people, in the guise of opposing racism, have embraced the bigotry in the racist language of color while shifting its target. For example, the Urban Dictionary uncritically offers hundreds of racist and misogynistic ways to use the word white.

2. Gloria Steinem, “The Strongest Woman in the World,” pp 95 – 96, Moving Beyond Words, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994. Though the book was published more than fifteen years ago, this assumption seems to be as widely held now as back then. I have had several conversations over the past few years with people of varying ages, from teens to forty somethings, in which they expressed this same belief, whether they felt gratified by it, or defeated by it.

3. Perceptions of women who are “big” by virtue of being fat are also kept in a separate ideological category. Many of those who advocate the acceptance of “big and beautiful” women try to take advantage of the language of size which exalts big and denigrates small. But the metaphorical meaning of the word “big” only superficially translates here, since the language of size is fundamentally gendered. In our culture and language, big shoulders and tall height, not big breasts and big curves, represent what is “of great importance or significance.” The exalted metaphorical meaning of “big” is about men, not women.

Also, the dictionary definition of “big” includes the example of “pregnant, esp : nearly ready to give birth.” This is a descriptive use of the word, but it carries connotations of the word’s glorified metaphorical meanings. The old-fashioned phrase “big with child” also has these connotations. It seems likely that if female pregnancy didn’t signify male virility, descriptive adjectives other than “big” would be used.

4. For more information on the problem of heightism, see Short Persons Support. For links to articles and studies on height discrimination, almost all of them focused on men’s and boys’ experiences, see Wikipedia. For an article that presents a tall woman’s perspective, see “How’s the View Up There?: A Q and A with the author of The Tall Book, by Dwyer Gunn, New York Times, March 2, 2010

5. Many years ago, I was having a conversation with a male acquaintance about good hiking trails and casually, out of genuine curiosity, I asked him if he ever worried about being attacked by other men while he was hiking. He was about my height, 5′ 5″, with a slight build, not much heavier than me, and of mixed race heritage. He repeated my question back to me, unable to comprehend its absurdity. It was as if I had asked him whether he ever worried about being abducted by aliens. I’ve posed a similar question to several women who regularly hike and camp alone in the wilderness. All of them, without exception, had given a great deal of thought to the potential danger, and they all had strategies to minimize or counteract it, such as carrying a gun, or always being ready to step off the trail and keep out of sight if they sensed something was “off.” Most women avoid hiking and camping alone in the wilderness solely because of the possibility of being attacked by men.

6. The introduction to a book of collected poems by Emily Dickinson reads, “We look away from the photograph intrigued and stirred: What’s going on in her mind? How could this slight figure be the author of some of the most passionate love poems, the most searing descriptions of loss, the most haunting religious lyrics ever written?” See The Collected Poems of Emily Dickenson, Introduction and Notes by Rachel Wetzsteon, (New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003), viii

7. New York Daily News, “Friends hail hero cop for taking down Fort Hood gunman,” by Rich Schapiro, November 6, 2009

8. The PBS Nature program “What Females Want, What Males Will Do,” produced in 2008, explains the central role of female sexual choice in evolution, and shows beautiful examples of the myriad criteria among diverse species by which females make their selection of a mate. For more info, see PBS Nature series, distributed by Questar

9. Catharine MacKinnon, “Postmodernism and Human Rights,” Are Women Human (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2006), 50

10. Gender distinctions are structurally highlighted throughout language, required in almost every sentence. Distinctions between male and female are made clear through first names, through titles, through occupation descriptions (postman, handyman, Congressman, and so on), and through personal pronouns, as well as through the words that refer to personhood, “man” and “woman.” Distinctions in economic class, race, abilities, etc., are obviously not highlighted everywhere in language, in almost every sentence. Distinctions in race, class, etc., are made when they are relevant. Yet it is gender distinctions alone that become “unimportant” when including “everyone.”

The effect and purpose of making gender distinctions central to language, while also making masculine specific words, “man” and “he” — which are used to specifically exclude females (“male, not female”) — as a supposedly gender-inclusive term, is to concretize a gender-based caste system while systematic negating the “insignificant” gender. The negation of women through language helps to undermine women’s potential for developing a sense of selfhood, an identity based on who they are, perhaps the most fundamental of human rights. Undermining women’s sense of female selfhood serves to undermine women’s resistance to the gender-caste system. The gender exclusion/inclusion approach to language is defended by keepers of the status quo as “logical” and “simple;” after all, we are able to determine when a gendered term is excluding or including, when the gendered term is gendered or non-gendered, by the context of how the term is used. If simplicity were really the goal, why the cumbersome obsession with gender distinctions when gender is irrelevant to a subject matter? Why isn’t a gender-neutral pronoun, and a gender-neutral term for “human” commonly used, with gender distinguishing terms used only when gender is relevant to the communication?

Imagine if, for the sake of simplicity, “left” meant “left, not right” as well as “left and right,” if “dark” meant “dark, not light” as well as “dark and light.” Imagine if “upper class” meant “upper class, not working class” and also “upper class and working class,” and “white people” meant “white people, not black people” as well as “white people and black people.” No language at all would be better than a language that incorporated that kind of simplicity and convenience, since such a language would render everything or nothing more not less also more and less confusing clear. Or maybe certainly context universality would render meaning nonsense perfectly chaotically confusing clear so there would be no problem solution.

11. Women’s strategies for systematic physical empowerment could be nearly universal, as well as safe and non-violent in both intention and effect. Violence against women could be reduced significantly by requiring all girls in public schools to take seven or eight years of practical martial arts training — while boys are perhaps required to take seven or eight years of classes in non-violence training, and non-combatative sports. Our government currently [2011] excludes women as a gender class from the frontlines of the military because women, on the whole, do not have the inherent physical fighting abilities — the larger size and the muscular strength — that men on the whole have. (In reality, individual women are used in the frontlines, but only unofficially, and without receiving the prestigious credit due to them for serving. See Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez’s amendment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow women to receive credit for their service.) By law, women — because they are women — are officially excluded from this role, a role which can lead to promotions and other benefits. The presented reasoning behind this official policy includes the concern that women are much more likely to be raped if taken prisoner. Our government is therefore legally enforcing a policy that discriminates against individuals on the basis of sex because women as a group are smaller and muscularly weaker than men as a group, and because women are more likely to be targets of rape. But women are much more imperiled by the size and muscular strength differences between females and males in the context of ordinary life. If the government took the same discriminating approach on behalf of women that it takes in excluding them from military combat, there could be great advances in countering violence against women, as well as in countering the pervasive threat of this violence which impedes all women’s lives, and detrimentally affects our entire society.

Many years ago I made a habit of mentioning the idea of requiring girls to take several years of martial arts in public schools in conversations with women, both feminist and non-feminist, and with progressive men. The most frequent response by the men and the women who didn’t identify as feminist was that those required programs would not be “the answer” to violence against women. Although they wouldn’t be “the answer” in totality, they would certainly be part of the answer, with no negative side effects. After all, sex discrimination based on the size and strength differences between women as a group and men as a group is currently practiced as a matter of official governmental policy.

Is it too radical to expect the people of this country to support such a measure to combat violence against women? It could be argued that those who would interfere with such a non-violent, systematic physical empowerment of women — who are not only smaller and muscularly weaker than men, but have been legally subordinated and specifically targeted with sexual and intimate violence throughout our society’s history — cannot credibly claim to be against the pervasive problem of violence against women. No longer could they point to the out-of-control lunatic as the problem, since they would be actively interfering with a safe and effective way to stop the out-of-control lunatic. Requiring all girls to take several years of practical martial arts training would be as fundamentally useful to girls, and the women they become, as classes in reading and math. “It’s only a dream if you say it’s only a dream; it will be reality if you say it will be reality.” — Anonymous

12. Conversely there are (far fewer) feminists who, in rejecting the placating, diluted approach, have at times used manipulative hyperbole at the expense of accuracy. This approach is alienating to many women because it inaccurately simplifies the truth. Such rhetoric also minimizes the harm of sexism because commonly experienced sexism falls far short of the raised bar of the extreme misogyny that this rhetoric characterizes as the norm. Of course, invaluable and accurate insights can co-exist with such rhetoric; criticism of the one aspect of such writing is not a dismissal of all of it.

13. Some rare examples of men exposing this dynamic include Guyland by Michael Kimmel (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), “Pornography and International Human Rights” by John Stoltenberg, and “What does pornogrpahy say about me(n)?: How I became an anti-pornography activist” by Rus Ervin Funk, published in Not For Sale, ed. by Christine Stark and Rebecca Whisnant (Melbourne: Spinifex, 2004)

14. Peggy Reeves Sanday explains that many anthropologists have declared that no “matriarchy” has ever existed “only because they were searching for the mirror image of patriarchy, an imaginary, empirically empty social form.” Feminists use a variety of alternative terms to matriarchy, such as matristic, matrifocal, matrix, gylany, and matricentric, to make this distinction. The scholars who have studied such matristic societies describe the sexes as “on equal footing, egalitarian, or ‘linked’ rather than ‘ranked,’ in a ‘partnership’ rather than a ‘dominator’ relationship.” Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy by Peggy Reeves Sanday (Ithaca: Cornell, 2002), preface

15. In Guyland, Michael Kimmel exposes the attitude of entitlement that so many young men have toward women’s sexuality. He describes how in their minds, women’s beauty is a form of aggression, even harassment and assault, while men’s sexual aggression and violence is understood as retaliation, a response to women’s “aggressive” desirability. He quotes a twenty five year old computer consultant: “Some bitch decides whether or not I get laid. I don’t decide, she does. It’s not fair.” Kimmel came across this attitude again and again in conversations with men. He writes, “Anger lies just below the surface of a conversation about sexual politics; it is remarkably easy to tap, and to activate into full-scale rage.” Guyland, 227 – 233

16. The many books on this subject include The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth by Monica Sjoo (New York: HarperCollins, 1991) and The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas (New York: HarperCollins, 1994)

17. One of the books that led the backlash against the growing awareness and feminist celebration of matrifocal cultures in pre-history was The Inevitability of Patriarchy by Steven Goldberg, published in 1973, revised and reissued in 2003 as Why Men Rule. Goldberg argues that human societies are inevitably patriarchal because men’s neurobiology causes them to more rigorously compete and strive for status — and therefore to rule women.

One of the many fundamental problems with Goldberg’s argument is that he does not distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of competition or uses of power. Some feminists have argued that women tend to want power not for personal gratification, not for the sake of being powerful, but to use it to do good. Some men are also motivated to gain powerful positions for ethical reasons. The desire to compete honestly, to express power in accordance with the collective good, to strive for a powerful hierarchical position while being accountable to those affected by one’s actions is quite different from the desire to dominate, to violate, to control a targeted people. The desire to be rewarded with status for one’s positive contributions is wholly different from the desire to “rule” over others. Furthermore, class domination isn’t achieved through individually motivated competition. In order for men to oppress women as a group, they must carefully cooperate with one another around that goal.

Goldberg does acknowledge that size and strength differences between the sexes are not a determining factor behind male domination, but this is not a surprising admission since he insists that nature has another way of making patriarchy inevitable.

The Inevitability of Patriarchy was a precursor to many backlash books to come, from Cynthia Eller’s Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory to A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. The book has been wrongly praised as a precursor to the popular “Mars and Venus” books by John Gray.

While John Gray argues there are biologically based differences in personality between women and men, he doesn’t argue that men are inherently or inevitably motivated to dominate women, or that patriarchy is inevitable. His books, despite their simplistic generalizations about men and women, promote mutual respect and a fundamental equality that deals with differences. Granted, Gray’s books don’t address existing hierarchies that result in particular “masculine” and “feminine” behaviors, and Gray’s books have been justly criticized by feminists for this. However, Gray’s approach does offer vision and strategy, even if imperfect, for cultivating mutual respect between women and men. Gray’s books fulfill to some extent a need in society for this approach. Feminists could strive more to present vision in response to this need in society to know, in the aftermath of so much feminist success in dismantling fascist systems of inequality, “Where to go from here?”

18. While finishing up this essay, I came across a wonderful article in the Minnesota Women’s Press“Nonsexist words” by Rosalie Maggio, author of nineteen books including The Nonsexist Word Finder and The Bias-Free Word Finder. Maggio reminds us how bad things were a couple decades ago, but unfortunately she overstates how much things have changed. For instance, she writes that nowadays one “rarely” sees the use of the pseudogeneric masculine pronoun. The New YorkerNew York Magazine, and many other top publications and broadcast channels still use pseudogeneric masculine referents and other sexist language as their official in-house style.

19. For example, The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift (London: Women’s Press, 1995) and The Bias-Free Word Finder: A Dictionary of Nondiscriminatory Language by Rosalie Maggio (Boston: Beacon, 1992)

– by Adriene Sere, 2010, revised 2014