Washington state’s Legislature recently decreed that all statutes be rewritten to incorporate gender-neutral language. “Freshman” became “first-year student,” and “penmanship” (note the middle syllable) became “handwriting.” A Reuters report indicated that Washington had become the nation’s fourth state “eliminating gender bias from its official lexicon,” joining Florida, North Carolina and Illinois.
Minnesota adopted a similar mandate for its legal manuscripts back in the mid-1980s. That maneuver did the state proud, said St. Catherine University sociology Prof. Nancy Heitzig,
“Language is power, right?” she said. “When we had gendered language, even if we’re not constantly thinking about it, the message is that that’s the norm and implies that it’s a man’s world and that’s how it should be.
“Language apes culture. Language helps structure social and cultural categories. However trivial it may seem, [switching to gender-neutral language] does reveal a social and political position that gender inequality is unacceptable.”
But others consider linguistic changes simply a first step.
“You can get people to change their language,” said Amy Sheldon, professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll change the way they view men and women. It doesn’t automatically change whether people are acting sexistly and non-sexistly.”
The process of rewording Minnesota’s statutes took two years. In 1984, the state’s Office of Revisors was tasked to alter all “nonsubstantive gender-specific terms.” Master indexer Maryann Corbett said that while her office couldn’t manage to make all the statute manuals genderless, it came pretty close. “We decided to stay with ‘Work that has to be done in a workmanlike manner,’ ” she said.
After exhaustive research and consultation with other organizations that had made changes, in 1986 “we sent many, many boxes of information to the secretary of state’s office,” Corbett said. “I think they’re still there.”
The Washington bill sailed through its Legislature, but there was more than a little debate, both in the Legislature and the public arena, in Minnesota in the ’80s. Often, it was anything but mannerly. Corbett said she received a piece of hate mail, “the only one I’ve ever gotten.”
Along the way, the phrases “airmen” and “sportsmen’s club” were removed, then reinstated. The mandate eventually passed, but not without a bit of pointed humor. An article in the Lake County News Chronicle of Two Harbors, Minn., recounted one such incident:
“At one point during her debate with Sen. Bob Lessard, DFL-International Falls, who opposed the bill, Sen. Ember Reichgott said she received an unsigned note from another legislator that said, ‘Dear Ember: Go ahead and shoot him. The worst you can get is people-slaughter.’ ’’
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