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What happens when a woman swears

January 13, 2019

When I taught journalism at Southern Connecticut State University one particular class, toward the end of the semester, would begin this way: I would shut the door.

Always the door was open, so this piqued some students’ curiosity. Next, I would put on a cap that said Trust Me, I’m a Journalist. Then I would open a book and start reading matter-of-factly. Seven words. The seven words you can’t say on television, made famous by the late comic George Carlin.

“Sh*t. ... P*iss. ... F**ck. ... C*nt. ... C*cks*cker. ... Motherf*cker. ... T*ts.”

With the first two words, the students would be shocked. They knew me by then; they knew I never swore. They would glance nervously at each other with what’s-going-on looks. Invariably, by the time I got to the fifth word — C*cks*cker — they would start to laugh.

The power of forbidden words was gone.

This is a family newspaper, so I’m not printing those words. And I choose to not use them (unless for a lesson on censorship). But I will defend on a copy of the First Amendment anyone’s right to swear. Especially women.

It seems to me we have a double standard in society. Men in high positions swear nonchalantly; consider the vocabulary of our president. But when a woman swears in public — it’s shocking! Outrageous! And oh-so improper.

I’m thinking, of course, about the reaction to a comment made by freshman Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a progressive Democrat from Michigan, at a swearing-in party 10 days ago.

She was describing the personal significance of her victory. “And when your son looks at you and says, ‘Momma, look you won. Bullies don’t win.’ And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t, because we’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherf*cker.’”

Republican men swooned, Democrats, too. The president, who famously said he could grab women by their genitals, fumed.

“I thought her comments were disgraceful,” Trump told reporters during a press conference. “She dishonored herself and dishonored her family,” he continued. “I think it was highly disrespectful to the United States of America.”

If we’re going to talk about disgrace, dishonor and disrespect, well, those admonitions apply more to the person who is holding government workers hostage to get billions for an ineffective wall than to the new congresswoman who uttered an inelegant word.

Tlaib, who said she was “passionate about fighting for all of us,” apologized, not for using the word but for the distraction it caused.

“What I can tell you is I am a person that is authentically me,” she said. (How refreshing!) “And I understand I am a member of Congress, and I don’t want anything that I do or say distract us. And that’s the only thing I will apologize for, is that it was a distraction.”

Certainly there are plenty of issues that need addressing by our elected leaders, too many to list here. To focus on whether one swears or another one dances deflects attention from the growing threat to democracy of unchecked power.

I’m not exactly fighting for the opportunity for women to be as vulgar as some men. I choose not to swear — Carlin’s seven words or others less coarse — because there’s always a better, generally more precise, word to use.

But if another woman wants to swear in public, so be it. That’s her choice. And if it’s not shocking for a man to use that kind of language, then it should be no big deal when a woman does.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jacqueline Smith at jsmith@hearstmediact.com

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