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Current Events & Hot Topics Current Events & Hot Topics

Is gender neutral language important?

Wash. state considers gender-neutral language bill

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — In Washington state, dairymen, freshmen and even penmanship could soon be things of the past.

Over the past six years, state officials have engaged in the onerous task of changing the language used in the state's copious laws, including thousands of words and phrases, many written more than a century ago when the idea of women working on police forces or on fishing boats wasn't a consideration.

That process is slated to draw to a close this year. So while the state has already welcomed "firefighters," ''clergy" and "police officers" into its lexicon, "ombuds" (in place of ombudsman) and "security guards" (previously "watchmen,") appear to be next, along with "dairy farmers," ''first-year students" and "handwriting."

"Some people would say 'oh, it's not a big thing, do you really have to go through the process of changing the language,'" said Seattle Councilmember Sally Clark who was one of the catalysts for the change. "But language matters. It's how we signal a level of respect for each other."

About half of all U.S. states have moved toward such gender-neutral language at varying levels, from drafting bills to changing state constitutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida and Minnesota have already completely revised their laws as Washington state is doing.

The final installment of Washington state's bill already has sailed through the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee with unanimous approval. The nearly 500-page bill has one more committee stop scheduled before full Senate debate.

Crispin Thurlow, a sociolinguist and associate professor of language and communication at the University of Washington-Bothell, said the project was admirable.

He said that as language evolves, such efforts are more than symbolic.

"Changing words can change what we think about the world around us," he said. "These tiny moments accrue and become big movements."

Clark and former councilmember Jan Drago — the Seattle City Council has long eschewed the terms councilwoman or councilman — brought the issue to Sen. Jeannie Kohl-Welles in 2006 after they came across references to firemen and policemen in the mayor's proposed budget, as well as in state law dealing with local-government pensions.

Clark and Drago's findings sparked the initial gender-neutral language law that was passed in 2007, immediately changing those terms and directing the state code reviser's office to do a full revision of the rest of the code. A 1983 Washington state law had already required all new statutes to be written in gender-neutral terms, so state officials were tasked with going through the rest of state statutes dating back to 1854 to revise the rest.

As in past bills on the issue that have tackled sections of the state code, some revisions were as simple as adding "or her" after "his." Others required a little more scrutiny. Phrases like "man's past" changes to "humankind's past" and a "prudent man or woman" is simply a "prudent person."

Kyle Thiessen, the state's code reviser who has been working on the project along with two attorneys since 2008, said that the work was not without obstacles.

Words like "manhole" and "manlock" aren't so easily replaced, he said. Substitutes have been suggested — "utility hole" and "air lock serving as a decompression chamber for workers." But Thiessen said those references will be left alone to avoid confusion.

Republican state Rep. Shelly Short, of Addy, has voted against earlier gender-neutral language bills and said she plans to do the same this year.

"I don't see the need to do gender neutrality," she said, adding that her constituents want her to focus on jobs and the economy. "We're women and we're men."

Kohl-Welles, who has sponsored each of the gender-neutral language bills, said that while this project hasn't been her top legislation every year, "overall, it has important significance."

"I believe," she said, "that the culture has changed."

by on Feb. 3, 2013 at 10:27 PM
Replies (11-20):
Mommy_of_Riley
by Jes on Feb. 3, 2013 at 11:41 PM
Man refers to the huMAN race...

I think the whole thing is silly...
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stacymomof2
by Ruby Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 11:46 PM
2 moms liked this

I absolutely think that gender neutral words are important.

Do people really not see how the words fireman and policeman effectively discourage girls and women from seeing themselves in those positions?  Words are culture, they reflect and influence culture.

I don't think it's that hard to say police officer or fire fighter, or congressional representative rather than congressman.  

Human or human being rather than "mankind."

Worker instead of "workman."

People love to make this more complicated than it is so they can snigger at it.  Many words become shorter and more concise just by cutting out the "man" at the end of it.  It is not as though it's stupid to reference the fact that not every person is a man.  If we are women and men, then why wouldn't we make sure to refer to gender neutral terms to make sure not to exclude half of the population?  

stacymomof2
by Ruby Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 11:52 PM
1 mom liked this

There is also the well understood aspect of differentiating between a standard and the "other" version. Not too many years ago people said things like "woman doctor" and "female construction worker."  Those kinds of differentiation affect how people perceive the world.  It limits people by unconsciously enforcing a standard view of how things "should" be.  I would hope as a society we would avoid reinforcing those types of stereotypes.

kailu1835
by Ruby Member on Feb. 3, 2013 at 11:58 PM

I'm torn.  I understand the thought process, but I think that it's a bit overdone.  I mean really, manhole, manlock?  That's getting absurd.  And then there are femal alternatives for the others mentioned, such as firewoman, policewoman, etc.  We are not its, we are men and women.

annelauer
by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 12:06 AM
1 mom liked this
Some may say this is not a big deal, but really it is. Our language frames our perspective and affects how we see the world. Have any of you read George Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By"? It expands upon this concept. Anyway, I'm all for such changes.
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LAHnTAH0812
by Bronze Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 12:10 AM
yes, THIS is our biggest fish to fry.
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meriana
by Platinum Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 12:18 AM
1 mom liked this

The whole thing is rediculous. I wonder just how far they're willing to take this gender neutral idea...are we, at some point, no longer going to refer to children as girls and boys because that denotes a gender. People really need to get beyond seeing everything as stereotyping, excluding, offensive, etc. There are differences between girls and boys, men and women no matter how many try to deny it. Those differences used to be appreciated, these days it's all about making everyone the same.

squeekers
by Bronze Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 12:22 AM

 sounds good to me

GoddessNDaRuff
by Silver Member on Feb. 4, 2013 at 12:22 AM

are we that anal?

annelauer
by on Feb. 4, 2013 at 12:31 AM
You are completely missing the point. There are differences between men and women. And there are words to make that distinction. The problem is when a title presupposes only those belonging to a particular gender group are capable of fulfilling a role or inaccurately attributes certain characteristics only to one gender. This has a profound effect on how we view ourselves, others and our places within the community.


Quoting meriana:

The whole thing is rediculous. I wonder just how far they're willing to take this gender neutral idea...are we, at some point, no longer going to refer to children as girls and boys because that denotes a gender. People really need to get beyond seeing everything as stereotyping, excluding, offensive, etc. There are differences between girls and boys, men and women no matter how many try to deny it. Those differences used to be appreciated, these days it's all about making everyone the same.


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