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Adventures in Gender-Specific Language

My mother once called me from Chicago to ask, “What’s another word for manhole?” No introduction, no context, just the question.

I offered “utility cover” and we both hemmed and hawed as it was a replacement but not the same. She pulled the phone about a millimeter from her face, yelled the suggestion to someone I presume was standing a mile away, gave me a harried thanks, and hung up.

Later it would emerge that she was the editor on a wiki project and helping a team update text. The round discs embedded in roads that cover access points to utility services had nearly brought the group to blows. Did the first syllable imply gender? Did it even need to be changed? These are things my mother worries about in her retirement and I hope it remains the most stressful thing she worries about.

Language is a wonderful, messy thing. It can lift us up but it can also hold us back. Whoopi Goldberg once said in an interview: an actress can only play a woman. I’m an actor I can play anything.

The words we use, the titles we describe can have an impact on how we see the world. One of my recent favorite reads, The Notorious RBG talks about Justice Ginsberg’s first argument before the Supreme Court. Not yet an “Honorable,” she used Ms. as her title, even after getting married in 1953. The court’s security knew she was a female lawyer and handed her a bar admissions card that read, ‘Mrs. Ruth Ginsburg.’ No doubt, for the Notorious RBG it was NBD as she won her argument on behalf of a husband who had been denied equal benefits by the Air Force.

Niki Nakayama is not a chefess, she’s a chef.
Ava DuVernay is not a dictoress, she’s a director.
John Williams isn’t a composer, he’s a …. [record scratch]

[I’ll admit I didn’t search terribly hard but I wasn’t able to find any titles that implied male and evolved to be gender-neutral. Heck, I couldn’t even think of what a masculine suffix looks like in the English language. The closest I came was –bro but I don’t think that counts.]

Frustratingly enough, gendered words persist. In the midst of this great article about Graham Windham is the phrase, “Mrs. Hamilton served as its first directress for 27 years.” It’s a fantastic piece and rather than thinking about the story, I wandered off into: what information do the letters -ss serve that the title Mrs. doesn’t? Didn’t Mrs. and “widow of Alexander Hamilton” effectively communicate she identified as female?  Did someone add those letters because she held the position in the early 1800’s? Did the editor sneeze when reading and missed it? How might Carly Fiorina react to being called a “candidatess” for president?

Musing on that article aside, the inverse linguistic habit often pops up frequently. When gender is unknown, we’re predisposed to default to “he“, even when the writer is a cis-gendered woman or girl. We’re so used to “he” and masculine as the default, that we notice “she’s” or experience observational selection bias wherein we notice several female names or stories in a row. (As an aside, the women of the Missed in History podcast are fantastic at calling out readers’ letters when they complain about “too many women.”)

Cast a group of funny men in a movie and it’s a comedy.
Cast a group of funny women in a movie and it’s a “chick flick.”
Write a novel about a man and his family? It’s literary fiction.
Write a novel about a woman and her family? It’s “women’s fiction.
Boys play district-supported sports? Give them a mascot.
Girls play district-supported sports? Add Lady or -ette to the mascot.

Chris Lehmann brought it up this summer on Twitter and received several “yeah, we do that” or “Well, what about?” responses. In each case, it raises a compelling question about how we talk about, define, and describe the things that girls do. What are the implications when we define their sports teams or clubs by the fact they’re not boys? There’s evidence to suggest that it’s harmful for girls and it serves little purpose other than to say, “the body under this uniform belongs to a girl.”

While writing this post, I wandered through some of my old Tweets and once upon a time, I used to call out gendered language like it was the reason I thought Twitter was invented. Then I got smacked down. And told I was wrong and didn’t get the author’s intent. And slowly, I stopped. Now when I do it, I often add a ” 🙂 ” at the end to mean,  “Look, I know you’re not a sexist prat. But come on, please think about what you’re saying and the words you use.”

My new habit is to climb right into threads, uninvited, when I see a series of white, male avatars talking about problems with the teaching profession and all the things that a profession that is 75% female has done wrong. I’m thinking it’s the next level of the work: to figure out and unpack to how feminism, especially intersectionality, can be a force for addressing many of the problems in the modern education system.

But, hey, whadda I know? I’m just a bloggess. And not even the cool one.

Postscript 1: None of this is to say we shouldn’t attend to sex and gender or should ban related words. The US women’s soccer team call each other “girl” and talk about their “girls club.” Rusty Young, Katie Youngs, and Sarah Thomas were all the “first female” to hold their particular job titles (flight crew chief on a carrier, Blue Angels pilot, NFL ref.) You cannot be what you cannot see is one of my favorite sayings as for me, it speaks to the need for children to see what’s possible. It’s our job as adults to elevate and celebrate voices, names, and faces that are “firsts.”

Postscript 2: “Gender-specific language” describes words that imply gender such as “actress.” As our language evolves to include, rather than exclude, members of the trans* community and as our understanding of the relationship between sex and gender expands, a new moniker may be coined.

Postscript 3: If you’re a fellow podcast junkie, I strongly recommend adding PostBourgie to your feed and start with Episode #38: Race is Always the Issue. Tressie McMillian Cottom guests to speak about her article in The Atlantic of the same name. Her article paired with Black Girls Should Matter, Too should result in any self-professed feminist realizing that if the work isn’t intersectional, it ain’t the real work.

Postscript 4: Soraya Chemaly gave a TedX talk on this very topic!

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2 thoughts on “Adventures in Gender-Specific Language

  1. bobdog54 says:

    I learned that phone trick from my children.
    I take part in conversations where the pronoun ‘zhe’ is used because the gender is unknown. It is critically important that conversations like this continue to happen. Language is important and words have immense power.
    I am proud to be part of this conversation.

    Your mother

  2. Pingback: Learning To Defer | When 140 just isn't enough...

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