Jewish World Review May 2, 2003 / 30 Sivan, 5763

Tresa McBee

Tresa McBee
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Consumer Reports


He, she, it: When pronouns exclude


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Man has returned. He has again entrenched himself, taking credit and ousting women. Typical.

Sheila Gibbons calls it "exclusionary language creep," where using masculine words to describe any old person without even once considering if that person is female has re-emerged after years of efforts to squash the insensitive practice. Gibbons writes of her annoyance at this "lapse into lazy terminology that excludes women" on Women's Enews, a women-centered news Web site -- the same site that last year carried a piece lamenting the return of "girl" in reference to a female beyond late teens. This year, it's the man-centric words -- fireman, newsmen, lawmen. Someone's gotta keep track.

Owing to my profession and a tendency to make fun of nonissues, I immediately noticed Gibbons' complaint. She targets newspapers in particular, especially major newspapers, where "executives should know better." Here in the sticks, apparently, we aren't expected to know better. Perhaps that explains my willful tendency to use "chairman" regardless of gender. My paper isn't major enough.

But I digress. Gibbons is the editor of Media Report to Women and has been keeping track of women and media for some 30 years. She's also an author and former news editor and director of public affairs for Gannett Co., one of the biggies in newspapers. She knows major.

And she's not happy. Gibbons cites several examples from such giants as The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, where gender simply wasn't considered. Offending phrases from various publications include "seasoned newsmen," "distinctions between man and beast," "losing touch with the man on the street" and "man and his wife."

And don't even get Gibbons started on "fireman/firemen," which was just everywhere after 9/11. That a large percentage of fire people who responded that day were men and that referring to fire people as firemen doesn't calculate with everyday folks as repressive, doesn't matter to Gibbons. The former journalism professor cites the Associated Press Stylebook, the reporter's bible, to point out that while fireman is acceptable, AP prefers firefighter. Because when my house is on fire I totally care if you shave your face or your legs. Oops. Caught me. That's stereotypical. My AP Stylebook says so.

Gibbons' point, other than providing examples of the myriad ways in which the patriarchal machine of wordsmith oppression works to subjugate women onto an unequal linguistic field, is that attention to efforts to suffocate women underneath the weight of the "he" pronoun has faded. Doesn't anyone care anymore, man?

Oops. Sorry: Doesn't anyone care anymore, gender-neutral personage?

Not enough. With such exclusionary terms still stubbornly in use at newspapers despite the suggestion of more acceptable language in our own industry's stylebook, Gibbons can only conclude that the language of subjugation and a persistent disregard for pronoun-appropriate references indicate a "lack of genuine respect for women and girls." People who care, Gibbons sniffs, "remember to do things correctly."

Now I know. Not only does my ongoing use of "chairman" despite gender indicate I don't care to do things correctly, but, as a female, I'm repressing myself.

People like Gibbons will tell people like me that we don't understand. That words matter and humanity -- never mankind -- is affected. That women are debased when writers just don't care enough to get it gender-neutrally right.

But I don't see myself among the group of women people like Gibbons insist on casting as victims of whatever conspiracy continually strives to keep women down -- in this case, man-ending words.

No, I don't see myself, and I don't see my friends. I see one mother struggling to cope with a behaviorally troubled child. I see a friend working to chart a new career and seek happiness. Another is a first-time mother striving to cast off shadows from her childhood in her new role. And still another friend works and takes care of a new baby while fulfilling her position as the family caretaker. Pronoun usage is low on the list.

So it's no surprise that Gibbons writes in her media report that it's a tough environment for "feminist media," where founding editors are aging and there might not be anyone waiting to carry on the cause.

That's because the cause has changed, and the founders haven't.

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JWR contributor Tresa McBee is a columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Times. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Northwest Arkansas Times