"[O]ne of the reasons Hunt’s words mattered and resonated with so many women [is that c]asual sexism, even if unintentional, has a wearing drip, drip, drip effect. The wrong choice of words can undermine women in so many ways." (Sue Nelson)
The Tim Hunt case brings to light the axioms of a particular kind of "feminist linguistics". There is, after all, a particular theory of language beneath the assumption that "unscripted and thoughtless" words can do a great deal of harm. This theory of language rejects what we might call the "folk theory" of linguistic action, often expressed in a slogan about the difference between sticks and stones, on the one hand, and words on the other.
In her essay, Sue Nelson has given apt expression to one of the theses of feminist linguistics. We can call it the "drip, drip, drip" thesis. The idea here is that a woman—presumably her self worth—can be "undermined" by the careless use of language—perhaps especially by a man, and especially if the words (wrongly) chosen somehow take aim, not at her person, but at her gender. On this view, it's not wrong to ask a woman to calm down if she's irate, but it is wrong to imply, by saying "Calm down, dear," for example, that the reason she is irate is not that she, herself, is being irrational, but that her irrationally derives in some essential way from her femininity.
I agree that such an implication is wrong. But it takes a particular theory about both language and women (i.e., a feminist linguistics) to believe that to imply such things "can undermine women". "The idea that women cannot think logically is a not so venerable old stereotype," Rosmarie Waldop once said. "As an example of thinking, I don’t think we need to discuss it." A feminist linguist of the kind I'm thinking of would disagree with Waldrop. There is much here to discuss, Nelson would say.
The "drip, drip, drip" thesis, I presume, suggests the metaphor of a dripping faucet in the kitchen, which, if left unfixed slowly wears down your mood with its tiny, almost imperceptible interruption of your attention. (Nelson invokes a "wearing down" not a "running over".) If you let it go, I guess (though I'm not quite sure this is true of dripping faucets) this annoyance becomes a part of your general comportment, your demeanor, your personality, your way about the world, presumably making it less pleasant than you'd like. Metaphorically, of course, the solution lies in replacing the washer (O-ring), which is a simple and inexpensive operation. I have found that fixing a leaky faucet is a good way of reconnecting me with the machinery of my ordinary life, offering a Zen-like understanding of the "things" of practical experience. But it's also perfectly legitimate to call in some "professional help", a plumber, to carry out the repair, if you want.
Perhaps you know where I'm going with this. A "feminist linguist" (of the particular kind that Nelson represents, of course) clearly has a very different take on the metaphor. Sue Nelson, it seems to me, thinks that the local linguistic plumbing in the minds of actual women is beyond regular repair and ordinary maintenance and the only solution is to call the water company and get them to turn down the pressure until the washer is able to handle it. Literally, all men have to stop saying things that might "dismay" any woman because the resulting "harm" simply cannot be dealt with in the situation. It will, as Nelson say, eventually, inevitably "undermine" her.
Please don't tell me I'm "trivializing" sexism. The dripping faucet metaphor is not mine, but Nelson's. We are here talking about, precisely, trivial, i.e., "casual" acts of sexism. We're not talking about violent physical aggression ("sticks and stones") or even boisterous verbal abuse.
But I do, of course, have a more serious point in mind. If we solve the problem of your dripping faucet by turning down the pressure in the pipes throughout the whole city we're going to be unable to do a lot of the things we normally like to do with water (like take our showers at the same in the morning). Likewise, if we take the "pressure" out of our language—if we lower the intensity—we're not going to be able to do the things with words we'd like to be able to do (like insult or seduce each other). Even some of the things that feminists, I'm sure, would like to with words will become impossible. Since there wouldn't be enough "water", perhaps we could start doing them with tears. Male tears?