As a young reader I took umbrage at authors who insisted on referring to mankind and men when discussing all humans including women. It didn’t help when librarians and teachers patiently explained to me that the words mankind and men were meant to include women. I didn’t believe it and I just stopped reading those writers. But I was still angry at the dominant paradigm. You couldn’t escape it.
When I found feminism, I found sisters who agreed with me. Women were being left out of history and the present by the use of sexist language. Several feminists developed genderless languages and pronoun replacements, which unfortunately never caught on. Today transgender activists seem to agree on replacing “she” and “he” with “they,” but I find it cumbersome and difficult to adopt.
Gender specific job titles have always rankled women who work in or aspire to work in male dominated jobs. If a job title ends in man like lineman, mailman, policeman, craftsman, draughtsman, we get the point that women do not belong and are not welcome in these jobs. Girls and young women understand that they should seek careers elsewhere.
Sisters in the Brotherhood
I was just lucky that electrician, my own trade, is already gender neutral. Visiting Mexico, I was delighted to learn that electrician in Spanish is electricista. We haven’t had to fight battles about carpenter, plumber, ironworker or sheet metal worker. Unfortunately, however, all these unions are brotherhoods by title and all except the painters, bricklayers and the longshore workers have refused to consider changing to a neutral term. Instead of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, how about International Union of Electrical Workers? Over the years sister electricians have floated the idea of getting the International to change its title to a more inclusive one, but the men in power refuse to entertain the idea. My one defiant act was to write my dues checks to the “International Sisterhood of Electrical Workers.” No one ever said anything and the checks were always cashed. I guess the bank doesn’t care what term we use.
The one union to do battle with its membership about the brotherhood issue was the Teamsters, 30 percent of whose 1.4 million members are women. A proposal to change brotherhood to a more inclusive term was put forward by the progressive president Ron Carey at an international meeting in 1996. Members were consulted about the idea and debated the issue for months in union publications, but Carey’s rival, James P. Hoffa opposed the change. He famously said, “It’s gender neutral. The definition of brotherhood is that it’s neutral.” Supporters of inclusion lost the vote, Hoffa took over as president, and the Teamsters remain a brotherhood.
Taking an Ax to Fireman
Feminists have spent many years trying to retrain reporters and speakers to use the term firefighter instead of fireman. Mostly we have been successful, but it takes letters to writers in all genres to make a change. The New Yorker magazine is one recalcitrant actor. I think those New Yorkers must look at their own backward fire department and think, “Why should I use a gender neutral term? There are no women.” And this is almost true. But their response should be embarrassment at their city’s failure to integrate its fire department.
I’ve written many letters to my daily newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, about this issue over the years. One of the most grievous examples was a column by Rob Morse, a writer with liberal politics whom I read regularly while he was published. After a big fire destroyed one of the buildings at the old Ghirardelli chocolate factory, Morse thanked the brave “firemen” who extinguished the blaze. Ironically, the photo of one of the working firefighters that appeared on the front page of the Chronicle was a picture of a female. You just couldn’t tell the gender because of all the protective gear she wore. My outraged letter to the editor was published but only with poor edits which made me look stupid. Still, it brought the issue to the editors’ attention. The Chronicle eventually changed its style to firefighter.
One example of the prevalence of this misuse of the word in the culture is in the comics. I’m a regular reader of the comic Luann, whose central character is a teenage girl (kudos!). I was heartened when the artist, Greg Evans, introduced a female character who becomes a firefighter and eventually dates Luann’s older brother. In the comic she also must contend with an abusive boyfriend, an issue that doesn’t often make it into the comics. Still, the artist continued to use the term fireman even when referring to that character. In my letter I praised the artist for creating this female character and tried to explain how using a gender-neutral descriptor would make her an even better role model for girls who read the comic. Presumably mine was not the only complaint. The comic eventually changed the term.
The firefighter argument is closest to my heart. Feminist activists in San Francisco battled for 16 years with the SFFD before women were allowed to work as firefighters. Then for 12 years I was partnered with a female firefighter who eventually became the SF fire marshal. I don’t always fault women in the gunsights for not fighting this battle. Working in a male-dominated culture you have to pick your battles and descriptive terms may not be the most important issue. That’s why it is imperative that feminist activists outside these workplaces pile on to push for change. When I worked in the SF Department of Building Inspection I had a cordial relationship with the fire inspectors I worked with (that’s where I met my now ex-partner). I didn’t hesitate to correct their language. When they didn’t change, I would greet them in the elevator, “How are the firewomen today?” That got their attention.
During my stint as the “fire marshal’s wife,” I saw these guys at parties and social events. Just like in the building trades, they had no second thoughts about insulting me or women in general, right to my face. When you first hear “Women can’t do the job, women shouldn’t be in the fire department,” etc., you are shocked, but the fortunate thing about continually being subjected to insults (as with sexual harassment) is that it gives you practice in responding. I was never great at quick retorts, but I got better with lots of practice.
My ex-partner said: “Every time I read the word fireman, it’s like a punch in the stomach. It reminds me of when my brother (four years older, bigger, and stronger) would punch me, then hold me at arm’s length by putting his palm on my forehead and I’d be swinging away at him, never able to land a punch back.”
Fishing for Fishers
Lately I’ve been addressing writers about the term fisherman. Fisher is such an obvious and easy choice and I can’t understand why speakers and writers are so resistant to change. It’s not just men. Women are just as argumentative. Except there’s not a very good argument. “We’ve always done it that way,” the typical response, just doesn’t cut it.
The last few times I’ve written to the Chronicle’s writers about the term fisherman (I love that the writer’s email address is listed at the end of the article), one didn’t reply, one wrote back to say simply “thank you,” and one wrote that she had thought of fisherman as a gender-neutral term.
Perhaps the reason this choice of words is ignored is that the fishing industry has been floundering and dying now for decades. Few choose to be fishers anymore, but I personally know women who integrated this industry in the 1970s and women who continue to make a living fishing. It’s still an important industry on the California coast, so the Chronicle runs fishing stories often. In recent stories, writers have used both the terms fisher and fisherman. I think my letters must have made an impact. They seem to be breaking their readers in slowly.
One wonders what they would think if all reporters were referred to as “newsmen.” Oh, wait. They were. And not that long ago.
News flash: From a story in The Guardian about the discovery of four new elements in the periodic table: “This article was amended on 4 January 2016. The reference to the new elements being “manmade” was changed to “synthetic” to follow Guardian style guidance on the use of gender-neutral terms.”
Postscript: This essay must be updated. Some unions have changed names but most are still brotherhoods. The laborers union changed to Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) in 2012. The Ironworkers do not use brotherhood in their name.
6 thoughts on “Sexist Language is a Bitch”
Excellent food for thought! Loved all of it. Thanks, Molly.
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Goes to the heart of it!! Thank you!
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Go figure! http://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/01/07/navy-looks-remove-man-all-job-titles/78415190/
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Melissa, thanks for this. I hadn’t seen it. But in reply to the Navy’s request for comments, I sent them a copy of the essay. Now I’ll repost it on tradeswomen Facebook groups.
Single-pronoun “they” didn’t originate with trans. Shakespeare used it.
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