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A PROVERB A DAY KEEPS NO CHAUVINISM AWAY

WOLFGANG MIEDER

A PROVERB A DAY
KEEPS NO CHAUVINISM AWAY

A cursory glance into The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs reveals at once the basic anti-feminism of proverbs. Almost every proverb that touches upon women contains a severe negation of the value of women in society. This is easily illustrated by such proverbs as "A woman is the weaker vessel", "A woman’s answer is never to seek", "A woman’s tongue wags like a lamb’s tail", "All women may be won", "Women are as wavering as the wind", "Women naturally deceive, weep and spin", "Women in state affairs are like monkeys in glass-houses" and of course the often quoted "Women are necessary evils". These examples amply show that the proverb makers of the past centuries were misogynists, who in the bitterness of old age and regret could seemingly think of nothing better to do than to discredit the women who most likely had served them very well. Yet, these unflattering expressions of folk wisdom have been handed down to us from generation to generation, and it obviously will take time to break down the barriers of tradition in these anti-feminist slurs.

 In fact, magazines continue to abound with anti-feminist headlines of articles and advertisments. Taking the well-known proverb "Four things drive a man out of his house: too much smoke, a dripping roof, filthy air and a scolding wife" as a basis, a plumbing business varied its content but kept the basic structure of the saying for the following chauvinistic customer handout: 

FOUR THINGS
A WOMAN SHOULD KNOW 

How to look like a girl
How to act like a lady
How to think like a man
And how to work like a dog.



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The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 9:1999 & Issue 10:1999, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Two final examples will bring to light how an old proverb such as "A woman’s place is in the home" can suddenly take on a very relevant meaning, one that is politically of greatest importance. Junior House fashions brought the following advertisement:

A WOMAN’S PLACE
IS IN THE HOUSE
(Picture of the White House and Congress)

Even some of the die-hards are beginning to say Amen!
Women have finally let their brains come out of the closet
because there’s an awful lot of mess that needs cleaning up:
After all, isn’t that what everybody said girls were born to do?

A basically chauvinistic proverb is here given an entirely new meaning, by changing the original text from "home" to "house", and thereby referring to the White House and the House of Representatives. Of course, this country needs more female politicians, and the day will come, when a woman will finally occupy the White House itself. In the meantime one can purchase T-shrits with the inscription "A Woman’s Place is in the House... And the Senate!’" Realizing the effects such advertisements have on all of us, it becomes more and more conceivable that some of the old prejudices will be destroyed soon.

Such examples of "liberated" proverb usage and proverb alteration are relatively rare. Unfortunately, people are much too quick to accept the stereotyped proverbs as ultimate truths without analyzing their texts properly. Modern mass media helps in keeping many of the one-sided views concerning women alive by not discriminating more carefully in their slogan choice. But by shrewdly varying existing proverbs some advertisers have in fact created proverbial slogans that are more befitting to the modern age. Much more could be done by changing old and sexist proverbs into new and more meaningful statements. Keeping the basic proverbial structure, these altered proverbs carry with them the authority of the old proverbs and have the opportunity to become truly new proverbs. Many proverbs continue to hold true today, but some need to be changed in order to keep up with our modern society. Verbal stereotypes have done and still do much damage to the relationship between the sexes, and much time will still have to pass until all people realize that the proverb "All men are created equal" should in fact be called" All people are created equal".

NOTE

Permission to publish this article granted by Proverbium (Editor: Prof. Wolfgang Mieder, University of Vermont, USA).
Previously published in Proverbium 2 (1985), pp. 273-277.

Wolfgang Mieder
Department of German and Russian
University of Vermont
Burlington, Vermont 05405
USA

 


 
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