Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was a radical feminist theorist, writer, and campaigner. In this excerpt from her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin discusses the power of naming. In her analysis, the development of the culture of patriarchy has empowered men with almost sole access to the power to define language. This control over language allows for expansions in ideological hegemony, and has serious implications for women over the centuries. 

By Andrea Dworkin

How Patriarchy Works: The Power of Naming

Men have the power of naming, a great and sublime power. This power of naming enables men to define experience, to articulate boundaries and values, to designate to each thing it’s realm and qualities, to determine what can and cannot be expressed to control perception itself.

As Mary Daly, who first isolated this power, wrote in Beyond God the Father “… It is necessary to grasp the fundamental fact that women have had the power of naming stolen from us“.

Male supremacy is fused into language, so that every sentence both heralds and affirms it. Thought experienced primarily as language, is permeated by the linguistic and perpetual values developed expressly to subordinates women.

Men have defined the parameters of every subject. All feminist arguments, however radical in intent or consequence, are with or against assertions or premises implicit in the male system, which is made credible or authentic by the power of men to name.

No transcendence of the male system is possible as long as men have the power of naming. Their names resonate wherever there is human life. As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so feminists will have to steal the power of naming from men, hopefully to better effect. As with fire when it belonged to the gods, the power of naming appears magical: he gives the name, the name enjoys she gives the name the name is lost. But this magic is illusion.

The male power of naming is upheld by force, pure and simple.

On its own, without force to back it, measured against reality, it is not power; it is process, a more humble thing. “The old naming,Mary Daly wrote, “was not the product of dialogue – a fact in advertently admitted in the Genesis story of Adam’s naming the animals and the woman.”

It is the naming by decree that is power over and against those who are forbidden to name their own experience; it is the decree backed up by violence that writes the name indelibly in blood in a male dominated culture. The male does not merely name women evil; he exterminates nine million women as witches because he is named them evil. He does not merely name women weak; he mutilates the female body, binds it up so that it cannot move freely, uses it as a toy or ornament, keeps it caged and stunted because he has named women weak. He says that the female wants to be raped; he rapes. She resists rape; he must beat her, threaten her with death, forcibly carry her off, attack her in the night, use knife or fist; and still he says she wants it, they all do. She says no; he claims that means yes.

He names her ignorant then forbids her education.

He does not allow her to use her mind or body rigourously, their names her intuitive and emotional. He defines femininity and when she does not conform he names her deviant, sick, beats her up, slices of her clitoris (repository of pathological masculinity), tears out her womb, (source of her personality), lobotomizes or narcotizes her (perverse recognition that she can think, though thinking in a woman is named deviant).

He names antagonism and violence, mixed in varying degrees “sex”; he beats her and names it variously “proof of love“ (if she is wife) or “eroticism“ (if she is mistress). If she wants him sexually he names her slut; if she does not want him he rapes her and says she does; If she would rather study or paint he names her repressed and brags he can cure her pathological interests with the apocryphal “good fuck“. He names her housewife, fit for only the house, keeps her poor and utterly dependent, only to buy her with his money should she leave the house and then he calls her whore. He names her whatever suits him. he does what he wants and calls it what he likes.

He actively maintains the power of naming through force and he justifies force through the power of naming.

The world is his because he has named everything in it, including her. She uses this language against herself because it cannot be used any other way. […]

Whatever contradicts or subverts male naming is defamed out of existence; the power of naming itself, in the male system, is a form of force.

You can read Andrea Dworkin’s full works on the Andrea Dworkin Online Library: