One of the ways we can all work towards a more just and equal society is being conscious of the language we use. Where do common phrases come from and who uses them? “Battle of the Sexes” was not a feminist slogan. It became common from misogynist Bobby Riggs, who challenged female tennis player Margaret Court and then Billie Jean King to tennis matches. Bobby Riggs may not have invented the phrase, but the misogynist connotations hold true today, no less than they did when he played (and lost) against Billie Jean King in a fight to prove which sex was superior.
Here’s why this phrase doesn’t hold water for feminism and is particularly harmful today.
- Battle has a male connotation. To describe moves toward gender equality as a battle imposes violence and a long history of male dominated warfare. It’s not that women never participated or participate in wars, or that men are naturally more aggressive or prone to violence. However, to present the movement as a battle places it firmly in masculine territory. Women are excluded from the conversation before the conversation has even begun. For more information on how words are gendered and a feminist space in the English language take a look at The Feminist Dictionary as well as Dale Spender’s book, Man Made Language.
- Battle means there’s a winner and a loser. A battle is a zero-sum game. One side wins and gains the spoils of war and the other side loses and capitulates. Therefore, if women win equal rights, men have to lose their rights, which is not accurate at all. Relinquishing privilege to stand on equal footing is very different than being moved to second class citizenship and landing in the place of the oppressed. Without Patriarchy, there wouldn’t be anyone in the place of the oppressed.
- The sexes refers to only two sexes. Theoretically the phrasing “Battle of the Sexes” could refer to a multiplicity of sexes, but typically this phrase is used to put a distance between men and women as two separate ends of a spectrum. The “Battle of the Sexes” pits men against women, and clings to traditional gender norms and the sex binary. Until we drop words that are exclusionary we’ll continue to view media representations that place men with the power tools and women with the hair dryer.
I cannot speak for all feminists, nor do I claim to. But I’ve heard people casually throw around the phrase “Battle of the Sexes” when speaking about feminism as if the two are one and the same. They’re not. And believing the feminist struggle is a zero-sum game doesn’t do anyone any good. I’m currently searching for better words to describe the feminist movement that don’t talk about it as a battle or a fight but I too am trapped within male language.