Why is it that earth is referred to as female (‘mother’ earth), yet mankind is referred to as male (‘man’ kind)?
To help me answer this, admittedly random question that popped into my head the other day, I will be getting out the history books, (well, my laptop anyway), and going back many hundreds of thousands of years, to the time at which the English language as we know it today was first created…
Looking at mother earth first, the earliest reference of the term dates all the way back to the 12th century (1266, to be precise), with this reference having been noted in Greece. Greek mythology around at the time states that a Goddess, Gaia, gave birth to nature and everything that exists within it (everything there is, has ever been, and will ever be.) Nature is therefore referred to as ‘mother’, because everything and everyone ‘stemmed’ from nature, in the same way that all children ‘stem’ from their mothers. Nature is also referred to in such a way due to the lifegiving and nurturing aspects of it. Like a mother is expected to always be there for her children, nature too is expected to always be there for its inhabitants of whom, quite ironically really, are referred to as ‘mankind.’ This- the female personification of nature- is something that I can understand, what with women being the only gender who can bring life into the world. Something that I can’t understand, however, is why, if ‘mother nature’ is the creator, we still refer to ‘God’ (the creator) as male. Surely, like ‘mother nature’, God should be represented as female. To do that though, to refer to God as a woman, would undermine the position that men have held over women for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. If we were to say that God, the ‘all-powerful being’ was in fact a female, then this would mean that the patriarchy that has existed for so long would no longer have any grounds for existence, what with us needing to accept that it is in fact women who hold all the power, not men. Fortunately, many of the ‘new age’ religions that are around today do incorporate such changing attitudes towards gender equality into their belief system. For example, many religions today do not view God as a person, but as an energy force and, as energy is genderless, God is therefore not spoken of as being either male or female in such religions. This further helps to diminish the completely farfetched idea that men are the ‘all-powerful beings’, whereas women are somehow the ‘subordinates.’
Dating back to the early 13th century, ‘mankind’ was a term coined to describe humanity in its entirety (i.e., it was a gender-neutral term.) It wasn’t until the 14th century that the meaning of the word changed, with ‘man’ being used solely to describe men, and a different word- ‘female’- being used to describe women. Knowing this then, one must question whether the term is still appropriate today, or if it should be altered, what with ‘man’ not being an inclusive term that refers to both men and women these days…
Something else that knowing the origin of the term ‘mankind’ causes me to question, is why we have seemingly gone ‘backwards’ in terms of the way in which we view gender equality. If, prior to the 13th century, there wasn’t even separate words for men and women, and therefore there was also no written differentiation between the two, then why, in modern day society, are we so caught up in fulfilling gender stereotypes to ensure that we fit into neat categories of what it means to be a ‘man’ or what it means to be a ‘woman.’ Why can’t we take the stance of the people of the 13th century and before who didn’t see a difference between the two and thus didn’t feel a need to live up to such stereotypes and expectations of the genders? If we could do this, if we could all place less importance on conforming to gender stereotypes, then I’m sure that we would all be so much more accepting (of ourselves and each other) and, in turn, so much happier, too.
To conclude then, whilst it is true that ‘mother nature’ and ‘mankind’ are ‘just words’, as is often argued, what is also true, though much less commonly argued, is that such words can cause potentially life limiting harm, such as the further subordination of women, for example, something which no one wants, or at least, I certainly hope they don’t want. We should therefore all be collectively striving, not just as individuals but as a society, to show greater mindfulness when we attach genders to certain words, thinking about what these seemingly ‘harmless’ associations can do. To put it bluntly then, age old phrases such as ‘mankind’ and ‘mother earth’, phrases that are arguably no longer relevant or appropriate today, should be scrapped. They should, instead, be replaced with more inclusive terms, terms that do not contribute in any way to gender stereotypes, nor, and this is particularly important to emphasise, the continuation of patriarchy, something which has no place in today’s society, or in any society, for that matter.