The Power of Words

Why Diary of an Invisible Woman?

I’ve been asked that question a few times and there’s a couple of answers I give:

  • I’ve reached that age when I’ve become sexually invisible to men and can’t remember the last time I was asked out on a date
  • I drive the invisible car that everyone cuts in front of, disregards when it comes to road safety, and doesn’t see at crossings or traffic lights

But the real reason is:

  • I’m rendered invisible by generic language

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when terms like ‘man’, ‘he’, ‘mankind’, ‘chairman’ etc knew nothing about gender scrutiny. When I married at 19 I was earning twice as much as a civil servant than my husband who was still an apprentice. We had to wait till he finished his apprenticeship before we were able to get a mortgage because only 10% of my wages were taken into consideration.

He worked away from home and I managed the house, our finances and then the children when they came along. Yet when the boiler broke down the plumber wanted my husband present because I was obviously too thick to understand what he was telling me. When I wanted to buy a new settee on HP the salesman wanted the ‘head of the house’ to sign the contract, and that, according to him, wasn’t me. If my husband wasn’t available, didn’t I have a dad who could sign for me?

When we got divorced I didn’t revert to my ‘maiden’ (yuk!) name, I kept the marital name because I didn’t want to have a different surname to my children. It was the norm for the woman to have to change her name to her husband’s and in those days there was no way to officially keep your own name. Unlike today. Resentment and emergent feminism made me take the title ‘Ms’ because I wanted to be known as a woman, (like Mr denotes a man) not as someone whose status was dependent upon whether or not she was tied to a man in marriage. However, to work colleagues, new acquaintances, older family members, the title meant ‘divorced’ and someone not to be touched with a barge pole.

I’ve recently started to learn Italian. The word for ‘son’ is figlio, for daughter ‘figlia’ , the plurals being figli and figlie respectively but the word for ‘children’ (rather than ‘babies’)is figli, whether that’s all boys or a mix of boys and girls. And it’s not only Italian that does this. All over the world, in lots of small, seemingly inconsequential ways, girls and women are eroded, rendered invisible by their language.

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is something my mother tried to get me to say to myself when I was in trouble for fighting. My family moved a lot because of my dad’s job and I attended nine different schools in total. I was bullied mercilessly and punished viciously by teachers for fighting back, (corporal punishment rules OK) thereby gaining a reputation that followed me to each school. The words they used as they punished me were, ‘GIRLS do NOT behave like THAT!’ as if the word ‘girl’ held some sort of code of behaviour that I had to ascribe to. I can still feel the stick on my fingers.

My best friends were all boys, and possibly the reason why I was bullied so much by the girls in secondary school. One of the things we did was to look up all the ‘dirty’ words in a dictionary. But when it came to a word I didn’t understand, I carried on and looked that up, found another and looked that up, and so on in a word chase that lead me to strange places and stranger-sounding names.

Which I suppose is why I became a writer. I love words. I love the feel of them in my mouth, the sound they make when mixed with my breath, the meanings they have. And as a writer I get to choose the words I want, control my literary situations, manipulate the emphasis and meaning of texts. And avoid using generic language.

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