The Power of Words

The Power of Words

“….but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God”. – Spoken by Benedick, Act II, Scene iii, Much Ado About Nothing.

William Shakespeare wrote these words in the 16th Century. Today, we read this and marvel at what unrealistic expectations of femininity held sway hundreds of years ago. Benedick was seen at the time as a fine example of young masculinity, wooing the fair Beatrice and ultimately winning her hand. This ideation of perfection, and the expectation of what women should be has evolved to some degree, but sadly, still remains too common.

The language we use around gender identity, roles and expectations – in Shakespeare’s day and today – holds enormous power to influence social structures. How we talk about each other matters just as much as how we talk to one another. Benedick’s male privilege is apparent in his expectation of perfection in a woman.  In some ways, our use of language is reflective of our common cultural values. The power of language lies not only in that the spoken word itself carries the attitudes and values of the speaker, but also those words are an attempt to create similar attitudes and values in listeners.

The use of the word “prostitute” is one example. Until recently, this was a widely accepted description of what most people assumed was a criminal, a drug addict, a woman who had chosen this life however regrettable it may appear to us. We now know better. We now have an understanding that a woman who has been prostituted is a victim of a crime of violence. Assigning her the title of the crime committed against her allowed us to distance ourselves from her, to relegate her to a group that had made bad choices but somehow created their own troubles. Not our problem, right? Recognizing her victimization as a result of larger systems of racism, sexism, inequality, and classism suddenly makes it our problem. Our language around the issue of prostitution is only one example of the power of words.

The language we use to explore our commonalities and differences in the Move to End Violence also has power.

At Convening 5 we wrestled with the language, focus, and messaging we wish to share as we come to the end of the first cohort. Our reaction to certain descriptive words or phrases varied, influenced by many factors. Each of us comes to this work with our own experiences, our own lens. Yet, we each come with the shared goal of generating powerful messaging that will ultimately lead to the creation of communities and systems where equality and justice are core values, where we can embrace the Beloved Community entirely. With the keen insight of the experts at Spitfire Strategies and Lake Research Partners, we were largely successful in identifying the common language we chose to use to build the critical mass needed to end violence against women and girls.

Since that gathering, we have been confronted by new examples of the urgency for our success. In Pakistan, a schoolgirl is targeted by assassins for daring to advocate for education for girls. In Minnesota, a young mother is chased down and shot to death in a strip mall parking lot by her husband. A candidate for Congress from Indiana states that pregnancy resulting from rape is “God’s Will” and that the woman violated has no right to determine her own life’s course. These are all acts of violence that reflect the reality that in some ways, the words of Benedick continue to reflect an all too common reality. These examples galvanize us to end violence in all its ugly manifestations.

These examples energize us toward our goal of ending violence in all its ugly manifestations.

At Convening 5, the strategic importance of framing the language of our movement was highlighted. The language we gravitate toward and embrace must be well understood and embraced by allies and potential allies. Lake Research Partners’ focus group results gave us the information that human rights language resonated well. Our friends from Spitfire Strategies urged us to develop five main talking points to motivate people to take action to end violence against women and girls. Going into our final gathering at Convening 6 next week, we are well positioned to expand the work of the past 18 months, to energetically ignite the movement to end violence with new tools and concepts, and with clear language. Armed with targeted messaging and new personal tools to deepen our individual and organizational capacity to create communities where every last girl is valued and respected, and with our deep respect and affection for one another, we carry hope forward. We will use our linguistic and collective power well to achieve our goal.

Suzanne Koepplinger
Suzanne Koepplinger
Catalyst Initiative Director
The Minneapolis Foundation

Suzanne Koepplinger, M.A., is the Catalyst Initiative Director at The Minneapolis Foundation. Before joining this foundation, Suzanne served as Executive Director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. Learn More

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