Teaching About Sexism with English Composition in a Nigerian Classroom

November 1999 — Volume 4, Number 2

Teaching About Sexism with English Composition in a Nigerian Classroom

Dr. Yisa Kehinde Yusuf
Department of English
Obafemi Awolowo University
Ile-Ife, Nigeria


This paper reports how language and gender issues have been integrated into the discussion of letter writing, speech making/writing and the long essay in the course EGL 205: Advanced English Composition in the Department of English at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria. The teaching was done with the main goal of enhancing students’ writing skills while also making them sensitive to the feelings of women and responsive to their cause.

Letter writing created the opportunity to define sexism, outline some of its manifestations in the English language and present some of the equitable alternatives to the linguistic manifestations. Reference to corresponding aspects of the Yoruba language of southwestern Nigeria facilitated the discussion of these dimensions of sexism in English. In addition, speech making/writing facilitated the examination of some of the beliefs underlying the general oppression of women and some of the feminist arguments against them. Moreover, the long essay created an avenue for stimulating individual contributions to the attempts to eliminate sexism through the reformation of its linguistic vehicles.

The paper then lists what may be regarded as the salutary effects of the described teaching of the course on the students, the teacher, the course itself, and two other courses in the department. It finally suggests how gender issues can be incorporated into more courses.


Sexism is the belief that one sex is superior to the other. In many societies, it is more commonly manifested in behaviour that implies that the male are superior to the female. Since language generally-speaking reflects thought, language structure and usage have been examined by feminists as a means of gaining insights into the sexist philosophies governing conduct in various societies (Martyna, 1980; Spender, 1980; Cameron, 1985 & Bate, 1988). For example, feminist analyses have revealed that the English language reflects the assumptions that the female are of less social relevance than the male, that they are in fact more of an appendage to the latter, and that they are of an inferior physical, moral and spiritual constitution (Nilsen et al., 1977; Schulz, 1975; Chesire, 1985; Mieder, 1985 & Yusuf, 1994).

Specific instances of the way the language reflects the belief that the female are of less social relevance are found in the use of the masculine words man and his to represent both the male and the female in the sentences

  1. Man proposes, God disposes.
  2. A doctor should always be gentle with his patient.

This usage is believed to ignore the female or regard them as “a human subspecies” (Bosmajian, 1977, p. 100). The assumption that the female are an appendage to the female is found in the formation of feminine words (e.g., princess) from the attachment of feminine suffixes (e.g., -ess) to masculine words (e.g., prince). It is also found in the prefixing of a married woman’s name with the title Mrs and in the standard placement of feminine words after masculine ones in such conjoined pairs as Mr and Mrs, he or she and boys and girls. Moreover, the misogynous belief that the female are physically, morally and spiritually of low quality is most blatantly expressed in English proverbs. Consider, for example,

  1. Women are necessary evils.
  2. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law are a tempest and a hailstorm.
  3. He that has neither fools, whores nor beggars among his kindred is the son of a thundergust.
  4. Who has a fair wife needs more than two eyes.

Feminists have understandably made diverse and sustained efforts to eliminate sexism from the language. For example, gender neutral terms such as person, people and human being are now used in place of the sexist man; the singular they is used in the place of generic he; feminine words are placed before masculine ones in some cases (e.g., she or he and girls and boys); the feminine title Ms which does not reveal a woman’s marital status and does not present her as a man’s property the way Mrs does has been introduced; and new proverbs (e.g., `A woman’s place is in the House… and the Senate’) have been created to counter misogynous ones (e.g., `A woman’s place is in the home’) (Bodine, 1975; Thorne and Henley, 1975; Mackay, 1980; Van Den Bergh, 1987; Mieder, 1989 & Yusuf, 1998a).

In addition, feminists have made sexism in English a pedagogical issue either by incorporating women related topics into traditional English curricula or by creating new `language and gender’ courses. For example, Demure (1994) reports how, over the years, she had introduced issues on women, feminism and sexism into an English as a foreign language (EFL) classroom in a science and medicine university in France, and Ponterotto (1995) presents an account of her introduction of the question of the presence of gender marking in English into an EFL classroom in the School of Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Molise in Italy with the aim of showing that the language fosters ideologies of sexual difference and discrimination against women. In a related fashion, in an English as a second language (ESL) course organised by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) Regional Language Centre in Singapore for teachers, materials writers and curriculum planners from Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, the issue of language and gender was discussed under the general heading of sociolinguistics (Jacob et al., 1996).

A notable example of the creation of a new course completely devoted to gender issues and entitled Women, Men and Language in the Linguistics Department of Montclair State College in New Jersey, U.S.A., is reported by Freed (1992). A similarly remarkable one is found in the Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom which, around the mid-90s, introduced a course entitled Language and Gender as part of its new M.A programme in `Women Studies and Language’.

It is in line with such efforts to keep students up to date with the changes that have been taking place in the English language that I have been introducing language and gender issues into a second year course EGL 205: Advanced English Composition which I have been teaching in the Department of English at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, since 1992. What follows is an account of the teaching of the course to a set of mixed sex classes and the general impact of the instruction.

The Teaching

EGL 205 is designed to improve students’ skills mainly with respect to the writing of letters, speeches, minutes of meetings, reports, public announcements and long essays. It is one of the courses included in the minimum curricular/academic standards set for English language teaching for Nigerian universities by the National Universities Commission (NUC)- the university education regulating body. In other words, it is expected to be or to have been taught to all students who desire to or have taken a first degree in English language in Nigeria from around the mid-’90s.

In the harmattan semester of the 1992/93 session when the course was taught for the first time in the department, I started with a discussion of paragraph development techniques such as rhetorical questions, definition, repetition, exemplification, comparison and contrast, which are used essentially to enhance clarity in the presentation of the message of a text. Next, summarization strategies which include discounting rhetorical questions, repetitions, unnecessary definitions, dispensable exemplification, unnecessary comparison and contrast, and stating the main idea(s) in ones own words were discussed. It was pointed out that the acquisition of efficient paragraph development skills are especially invaluable to such skills as letter writing and speech making/writing and that effective summarization skills are essential to the writing of minutes and reports.

After this general introduction, a detailed discussion of letter writing was opened and it was at the point of examining the structure of the formal or official letter that the opportunity to mention the issue of language and gender arose. It was precisely the receiver’s name or designation in the receiver’s address that was used for the purpose.

It was noted that the address could begin with a name, e.g., Dr. O.A. Odunola, Mrs. B.J. Salaam, or a title, e.g., The Chairman. It was further observed that feminists object to some of such names or designations because they reflect a double standard and the belief that the male are superior to the female. For example, Mrs B.J. Salaam implies that the bearer is not just the wife of Mr. Salaam but an unequal partner in the marriage, since the addition of the marital tag Mrs is similar to writing the owner’s name on a newly acquired property. Reference was then made to the creation of the title Ms which is like the title Mr in that it does not signal the marital status of the user.

Some of the students noted at this point that they had thought that Ms implied that the user was a divorcee or an aging spinster. Since the bulk of the students belong to the Yoruba ethnic group which predominates in Ile-Ife like the rest of southwestern Nigeria, they were referred to the Yoruba feminine title Arabinrin which is the equivalent of Ms and is used to refer to any adult or respectable female, irrespective of her marital status. In other words, the use of Ms establishes equity in naming between the female and the male who use Mr whatever their marital status may be.

The students’ attention was also drawn to the fact that in an ideal or completely equitable naming situation, both of the first and last names accompanying the title Ms would be feminine, just as all of such names following the title Mr are usually masculine. Moreover, both names would be the personal names of the bearer, since surnaming is also regarded as an antifemale practice. The students were again referred to the traditional Yoruba naming system within which people, irrespective of sex, bear only personal names all their lives. In other words, in this culture, marital renaming is absent. They were further informed that the acquisition of surnaming among many Yoruba people today is a sexist consequence of Westernization, arising from the British colonization of Nigeria (Yusuf, 1989).

The question of the sexist chairman was then examined, and the students were made to realize that the use of this word to refer to women heads of establishments or women presiding at meetings has been linked with the belief that the male are the standard human creation and that leadership is therefore a male prerogative. Examples of equitable gender-neutral alternatives were then given: these include chair, chairperson and president. One of the students wished to know whether chairperson did not actually refer to a female. I responded that it is designed and increasingly been used to refer to a member of both sexes and has an equivalent in the Yoruba word alaga (literally, `owner of a/the chair’) which is also gender neutral. In other words, chairperson, along with its nonsexist English alternatives, is meant to symbolise the acceptance of the belief that leadership is a function of ability and accomplishment rather than sex. They were further told that other examples of the sexist philosophy underlying the generic use of chairman include the word man which is being replaced with nonsexist alternatives such as person and human being.

The opportunity to extend the discussion of language and gender, begun in the receiver’s address, was created in the opening or salutation of the letter. I observed that some of the books on letter writing which they were going to encounter would state that they should begin formal letters with Dear Sir or at best Dear Sir/Madam. Like Chairman, Dear Sir ignores women (see Hormell, 1976), and Dear Sir/Madam ascribes a secondary status to women like such word pairs as men and women and he or she. The students were then presented with the equitable option of addressing the office of the receiver; for example, Dear Vice-Chancellor, Dear Chairperson, Dear Personnel Manager and so on, as is commonly the case in journalese with the title Dear Editor. They were also made aware of the alternating of pairs such as women and men and she or he with men and women and he or she in some cases in modern English usage.

It was at this point that I introduced the singular they to the class. They were bewildered to hear that there was nothing wrong with referring to the PhD degree of a single person as `their doctorate’ in the sentence

To be eligible, the applicant must be a researcher outside the United States and Canada who has received their doctorate or its equivalent within the last 5 years.

Incidentally, this is a sentence in paragraph 1 of an April 2, 1993 letter written to one of my colleagues in the Department of English by the International Reading Association based in the United States and which the receiver allowed the students to photocopy. I explained to them that it was becoming the trend for singular nouns with a referent who could be of either sex to be referred to as they in stead of the sexist he or he or she. I also noted that the singular they already existed in the Yoruba language, and it (i.e., awon) is used to refer to a person about whom one wishes to talk respectfully.

In both of the 1992/93 and 1993/94 academic years, the manner of introduction of language and gender issues into the course was limited to the discussion of letter writing as described above. This was so for two reasons. First, I needed to be able to determine the effectiveness of my method. Second, I co-taught the course with another person in each of these two sessions and so had limited control over how the topics allocated to the other lecturers were presented to the students. As a supplement to the discussion of language and gender issues in the two sessions, I gave out the following reading materials, among others, to the students:

Chesire, J. (1985). A question of masculine bias. English Today, 1, 22-26.

Nilsen, A. P. (1987). Guidelines against sexist language: A case history. In J. Penfield (Ed.), Women and language in transition (pp. 37-52). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

The next time the course was mounted, in the 1995/96 session, I had the opportunity to teach it alone and to explore ways of incorporating gender issues into more aspects of it. For example, in addition to bringing them up under letter writing, they were mentioned in the discussion of speeches which began with an outline of the types or functions, features and style of speeches. Three sample speeches were then analysed. The first is the Thursday February 22, 1996 speech of President Bill Clinton of the United States congratulating muslims the world over on completion of the year’s one month of fasting. The second is the speech delivered by the Vice-Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, Professor Wale Omole, on June 22, 1995 at the triennial congress of the Parents-Teachers Association of Nigeria (PTAN) in Abuja, the country’s capital. While President Bill Clinton’s speech was used to represent speech making in a first language context of English usage, Professor Wale Omole’s speech represented a second language case. The third is the speech which Sojourner Truth, an elderly 19th Century African American woman delivered at a Feminist Convention in Akron, Ohio, in the United States in 1851 (Shanley, 1987, pp. 5-6).

The highly rhetorical speech was in response to the claim by some of the Christian ministers at the Convention that women did not deserve equal rights with men because the female are weaker and less intelligent. She noted, among other points, that “I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head! And a’n’t I a woman?” With regards to intellect, she stated as follows: “What’s dat got to do wid womin’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yourn holds a quart, wouldn’t ye be mean not to let me have my little half-measure full?” (p.5). She noted further: “Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as men, `cause Christ wan’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?… What did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid him” (p.5). Moreover, she argued that “If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, dese women togedder… ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to do it, de men better let ’em” (pp. 5-6). The speech was presented to the class in standard contemporary English, and the female students were obviously quite fascinated, since it brought to the fore in a quite perspicuous and forceful manner some of the bases for the suppression of women and feminist efforts to reveal the unsustainability of the reasons.

A further opportunity for the inclusion of language and gender issues in the course was provided by the discussion of the long essay. The components of the long essay (i.e., aim, objectives, hypothesis, procedure, references/bibliography appendix and so on) were examined. With respect to choosing a topic for the long essay, two women-related examples were given. The first is “Eliminating Sexist Language from English Proverbs”. A possible aim of a long essay on this topic was then stated as the attempt to remove generic (or sexist) language (e.g., he and man) from English proverbs with general themes. The second illustrational topic is “Countering Misogyny in English Proverbs” and the aim was given as the attempt to remove the anti-women thoughts expressed in English proverbs about women.

The topics and aims were given to show the students that proverbs, which are quite influential in propagating anti-women philosophies, can be challenged and re-written. For example, they were shown that with respect to the first topic, the sexist proverb `One man’s meat is another man’s poison’ could be changed to the nonsexist `One person’s meat is another person’s poison’ and the sexist `Man proposes, God disposes’ could be modified to yield `To propose is human, to dispose divine’ (Yusuf, 1997). Concerning the second topic, it was noted that the misogyny of the proverb `Women are mutable’ could be removed by changing it to `Wise women change their mind, foolish men never do’. This counter proverb is patterned after the existing English poverb `A wise man changes his mind; a fool never does’ (Yusuf, 1998a).

The Impact of the Teaching

What the foregoing account shows is that by integrating language and gender issues into the discussion of letter writing, speech making/writing and the long essay, an attempt has been made to make students familiar with the bases and manifestations of the debasement of women and some of the strategies for countering it. The first main impact of the effort is that some of the female students who took the course dropped the title Miss and adopted in its place the title Ms as reflected in their communication within and outside the classroom and in their registration cards, at least for one subsequent course. The second is that the Obafemi Awolowo University Literary and English Students Society (AVLESS), to which the EGL 205 students I had taught also belonged, organized a seminar on `Feminism’ in 1996 and invited me to talk on `Language and Gender’. The third is that some of the former students of EGL 205 wrote their final year projects (supervised by other lecturers) on gender-related topics. Such projects include:

Ako, O.O. (1998). Language and feminism: Sexism in the slang expressions of Obafemi Awolowo University students. Pearse, M. O. (1997). Feminism and language in Nigeria:

Media role in sexist language use and the case for desexed writing.

Sotayo-Aro, A. O. (1998). Attitudes of female undergraduates towards selected English misogynous proverbs: A case study of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

Temilola, O. Y. (1998). Male chauvinism: Linguistic and cultural portrayal of female characters in Chinua Achebe’s Things fall apart.

The fourth and probably the most significant impact of the course is that gender issues found a place in another course EGL 408: Contemporary English Usage taught by another lecturer to final year students. In fact, one of the questions set on the course in the rain semester of the 1997/98 session is: “Illustrating your answer with copious examples, examine the influence of feminism on the English language.” Encouraged by the effects mentioned above, I included a section on `Gender and English’ into the general introduction to the EGL 205 class for the 1998/99 session that I am currently teaching. Aspects of the issues discussed in the section were then mentioned at relevant points in the teaching of the main topics of the course.


In this paper, I have attempted to report how I introduced gender issues into an English Composition classroom at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. In the class, the discussion of letter writing provided the opportunity for describing various aspects of sexism in English and for revealing ways of eliminating them. The exercise was facilitated by reference to the nonsexist nature of corresponding aspects of Yoruba language. In other words, it supports Pugsley’s (1992, p. 9) view that, in a nonnative environment,

The obvious way of drawing students’ attention to the significance of this [sexist] dimension of language use, without leaning too heavily on abstract metalanguage, is via simple contrastive analysis. Their own first language (and the local variety of English of those whose second language is English) will offer different but comparable examples of language about, or used by, women and men.

The discussion of speech making/writing facilitated the description of some for the sexist thoughts which the anti-female language reflects and seeks to sustain, and also the illogicality of the sexist philosophies. Moreover, the discussion of the long essay provided an avenue for outlining some of the strategies for challenging and rejecting the misogynous principles.

One of the ultimate objectives of the teaching was to make sure that, in addition to becoming more skilful writers, students also became sensitive to the feelings of women. This is important because sexist language is being increasingly regarded as a defect of writing. For example, in 1975, the United-States-based National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) approved a set of guidelines for nonsexist use of language in the Council’s publications (see Nilsen et al, 1977: 181-191 for the guidelines). More recently, in December 1997, the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) published a set of guidelines for non sexist language practices to be adopted when preparing oral and written presentations in linguistics.

Besides EGL 205 and EGL 408, language and gender issues can be conveniently accommodated in other courses taught in the department. In fact, in a pedagogical report, Yusuf (1998b) describes how he incorporated such issues, especially as they relate with misogyny and proverbs, into the discussion of connotations in a Semantics of English (EGL 208) class he taught between November 1996 and March 1997 in the department. Gender and language issues can moreover come under the topic ‘gender and language contact’ in EGL 302: The English Language in Nigeria, under ‘language change’ in EGL 303: History of the English Language, and under `language attitudes’ or `language and sex’ in EGL 309: Sociolinguistics.


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Bate, B. (1988). Communication and the sexes. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.

Bodine, A. (1975). Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular `they’, sex-indefinite `he’, and `he or she’. Language in Society, 4, 129-149.

Bosmajian, H. (1977). Sexism in the language of legislators and courts. In A.P. Nilsen, H. Bosmajian, H.L. Gershuny and J.P. Stanley, (Eds.), Sexism and Language (pp.71-106). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

Cameron, D. (1985). Feminism and linguistic theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Chesire, J. (1985). A question of masculine bias. English Today, 1, 22-26.

Demure, N. (1994). The difficulties of teaching a `man-made language’. Women and Language, XVII.1, 36-37.

Freed, A. F. (1992). A global perspective of language and gender research: A bibliography. Women and Language, XV.2, 1-7.

Hormell, S. J. (1976). Speaking of people: Teaching about sexism in language. In D. Dieterich, (Ed.), Teaching about doublespeak (pp. 166-171). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

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Linguistic Society of America (LSA) (1997). LSA guidelines for nonsexist usage. LSA Bulletin, (December), 66.

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Martyna, Wendy (1980). Beyond the `he/man’ approach: The case for nonsexist language. SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5.2, 482-493.

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Mieder, W. (1989). American proverbs: A study of texts and contexts. New York: Peter Lang. National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) (1977). Appendix: guidelines for nonsexist use of language in NCTE publications. In A.P. Nilsen, H. Bosmajian, H.L. Gershuny and J.P. Stanley, (Eds.), Sexism and language (pp. 181- 191). Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English.

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Pearce, M. O. (1997). Feminism and language in Nigeria: Media role in sexist language use and the case for desexed writing. B.A. Long Essay, Obafemi Awolowo University.

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Sotayo-Aro, A. O. (1998). Attitudes of female undergraduates towards selected English misogynous proverbs: A case study of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. B.A. Long Essay, Obafemi Awolowo Unversity.

Spender, D. (1980). Man made language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Thorne, B., & Henley, N. (Eds.) (1975). Language and sex: difference and dominance. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.

Temilola, O. Y. (1998). Male chauvinism: Linguistic and cultural portrayal of female characters in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. B.A. Long Essay, Obafemi Awolowo University.

Van Den Bergh, N. (1987). Renaming: Vehicle for empowerment. In J. Penfield, (Ed.), Women and language in transition (pp. 130-136). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Yusuf, K. (1989). English imposed sexism in Yoruba language: The case of `baby’ and `aya’. Women and Language, XII.2, 27- 30.

Yusuf, Y. K. (1994). Proverbs and misogyny. Working Papers on Language, Gender and Sexism, 4.2, 25-45.

Yusuf, Y. K. (1997). `To propose is human’: Eliminating sexist language from English proverbs. Studia Anglica Posnaniensia, XXXII, 169-178.

Yusuf, Y. K. (1998a). Countering misogyny in English proverbs. Language, Gender and Sexism, (forthcoming).

Yusuf, Y. K. (1998b). A semantics classroom connection of connotations, stereotypes and misogynous proverbs. Unpublished manuscript.

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