A Woman Got The "Femininity" Entry Changed On Merriam-Webster With One Powerful Tweet
Gender stereotypes are incredibly pervasive, so I’m usually not surprised to find them cropping up in all sorts of weird places. I was startled, however, to see outdated gender conventions showing up in the dictionary itself. Yesterday, one woman got the “femininity” definition changed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary by pointing out that their example of how to use the word perpetuated antiquated notions of what it means to be “feminine.” Thankfully, Merriam-Webster recognized the error and promptly took action to correct it.
According to Cosmopolitan, L.A. based writer Ali Segel was recently collecting submissions for a zine when one submitter sent her some poetry and a screenshot of Merriam Webster’s definition for “Femininity” with the comment, “P.S., isn’t it insane that this is in the dictionary?!” And it was crazy: For the “Use the word in a sentence” portion of the entry, the dictionary had the statement, “[S]he managed to become CEO without sacrificing her femininity.”
Yikes. Way to suggest that being CEO and being feminine are fundamentally incompatible, Merriam Webster. As Segel pointed out to Cosmo, this is not the kind of comment that anyone would ever make about a man. “Can you imagine: ‘He managed to become a CEO without sacrificing his masculinity’?” she asked. Of course not — because no one would assume that a man’s gender identity would be at odds with holding a major leadership position.
Segel tweeted about the dictionary entry yesterday, and people started talking about it — and tagging Merriam Webster. Fortunately, once it was brought to the company’s attention, Merriam-Webster recognized that the entry was inappropriate. “Someone ended up contacting Peter Sokolowski, who is the Lexicographer at Merriam-Webster,” Segel told Cosmo. “As soon as he caught wind of it they promptly addressed the situation and removed the sentence.”
It’s encouraging that Merriam-Webster responded so promptly to the complaint (although I’m still giving them a little side-eye for having that sentence up in the first place). The words we use matter. Depending on how we use them, they can perpetuate or help dismantle the gender stereotypes that limit and often harm both men and women. So kudos to Segel for pointing out the inherent sexism of defining “femininity” in opposition to being an executive, and kudos to Merriam-Webster for changing their tune.