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Return of Gendered Language

Despite decades of effort, the mainstream media are returning to such words as "mankind" and "firemen" in stories and headlines.
 
 
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Let's call it exclusionary language creep--the re-emergence of masculine words to describe people who may be female or male. Despite years of effort by women's groups, linguists and educators to encourage speakers of English to adopt words that are gender-neutral, they note, and I note, a lapse into lazy terminology that excludes women. This slippage is occurring even at major newspapers, where their executives should know better.

A few examples:

"For seasoned NEWSMEN, trained to see though political spin, the spectacle is cringe-making." Richard Spertzel, "Iraqi Mind Games," The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 4, 2002.

"There's nothing to connect to the reader or enable HIM to feel a real part of a public debate." Jay Harris, the former San Jose Mercury News publisher, complaining of news media failure to engage ordinary citizens in discussions of public policy. Quoted by David Shaw in The Los Angeles Times, Nov. 24, 2002.

"[Desmond] Morris was the British zoologist who in 1967, when most scientists and philosophers were still trying to draw distinctions between MAN and beast, shocked everyone by declaring that Homo sapiens, hairlessness notwithstanding, was still an ape and thought and behaved like one."

"In the years since Morris, meanwhile, a number of other scientists have been working to erase the MAN-animal distinction from the other end--to suggest, for example, that language might not be unique to humans, and that primates may have culture, something we also believed was uniquely ours." Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review, in "Gone Ape: What Does It Mean That Orangutans Have 'Culture'? That, Like Us, They Just Want to Play," The New York Times Magazine, Jan. 19, 2003.

"Journalists losing touch with the MAN on the street." Headline on a David Shaw article, The Los Angeles Times, Dec. 8, 2002, although the phrase does not appear in the article itself.

Wall Street Journal readers criticized a reporter, Tara Parker-Pope, for referring to a married couple as "man and wife." Mary Temple of New York wrote to say the phrasing "denotes possession of the wife by the man, not an equal partner . . . I know this is a subtle point, but your wording does send a message of inequality" (Aug. 20, 2002).

So did an article in the twice-weekly county newspaper I receive. This paper, the Enterprise, owned by The Washington Post Company, described an auto accident that injured a "man and his wife," repeating the reference to "his wife" until halfway through, when the story finally gave her name.

"Lawmen" has found new favor not just among headline writers, who might like its brevity, but among reporters on the police beat. I noticed more frequent use of the word during the Washington-area sniper crisis last year.

And "fireman/firemen" was everywhere after 9/11. The Associated Press Stylebook, most journalists' vade mecum, says that while "fire fighter" is preferred, "fireman" is an acceptable synonym. Not to Rosemary Bliss, retired fire chief of the Tiburon Fire Department in the California Bay Area, who made history when she became the state's first career female fire chief in 1993. "This can be a very touchy issue with many women working as fire fighters and in other male-dominated trades where language can be very exclusive," she says.

Serious Movement Derided as 'Feminazi' Propaganda

A little history: The editors Casey Miller and Kate Swift homed in on the problem in 1970 when they copy-edited a junior high school sex education manual and were troubled by the use of masculine pronouns (his, him) throughout. Their concern led them to write "Words and Women: New Language in New Times" and later, "The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing for Writers, Editors and Speakers." In "Words and Women," they demonstrated the importance of using gender-neutral forms: "The way English is used to make the simplest points can either acknowledge women's full humanity or relegate the female half of the species to secondary status."

In his tribute to Miller after her death in 1997, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd said: "Postal worker, artisan, police officer and restaurant server are just some of the words that enter the glossary of modern English because of Casey Miller. While many falsely see these words as political correctness gone awry, they in fact represent a genuine effort to place America's women on the same linguistic standing as men."

Journalists gradually incorporated these sorts of gender-neutral forms into their writing. Don Ross, senior editor at the Newseum in Arlington, Va., wrote the USA Today style guide when he was the newspaper's copy desk chief in 1990. He developed a special section on sexism that offered examples.

"Part of it is that as a group, the USA Today staff was largely, with a few exceptions, a bunch of 30-somethings," he says. "They were very attuned to these kinds of issues, not just sexism, but ethnic references, disabilities, homosexuality, ageism and all that. It was very much in the forefront . . . a hot-button issue at that time."

Educators got into the act as well. In 1975 the National Council of Teachers of English composed "Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language" to "help educators see and correct language that silences, stereotypes or constrains others." The organization's Women in Literacy and Life Assembly released a revised version last year, updating the examples and offering suggestions on gender-fair course materials and teaching methods.

A number of recent books dissect conversational conventions that are hurtful and demeaning to women. One is "Wimmin, Wimps and Wallflowers: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Gender and Sexual Orientation Bias in the United States." Author Philip Herbst, provides pages of analysis of words that "objectify, silence, belittle, or debase women and even sometimes dismiss their existence."

A discussion of the degrading words used to refer to women will have to wait for another time; I'm concerned here with the problem of exclusionary language in mainstream periodicals and why vigilance seems to have waned. Even after 30 years of attention on this issue and no lack of guidelines for inclusive language, we still hear and read the old forms: "Manning" battle stations, snowfall estimates from the "weatherman," political prognostications from "Congressmen," and lectures about the achievements of "mankind," even though plenty of research exists to show that people who hear and read these words picture males, not males and females. Some of these usages stem from habit--others are stubbornly adhered to by those who scorn repairs in the fundamental biases of English, believing it's a silly exercise proposed by "feminazis."

When exclusionary terms such as those above appear in newspapers whose own stylebooks discourage them, I can only conclude it's from a lack of genuine respect for women and girls. If you care, you remember to do things correctly, just as you check facts and double-check figures. Journalists, whose profession requires completeness and accuracy, and whose word choices influence millions of readers each day, should be the ones to fix the problem of gender-biased language--not perpetuate it.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing.