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Yes, you are allowed to be sexist. And yes, I’m going to call you a sexist.

Posted in Uncategorized by marcnaimark on 2014/12/18

I’m a member of a Facebook group about language usage. A fellow member started a thread asking whether it was OK to use the word “freshman”, and if not, what alternatives exist. Just to be clear, the issue at hand is whether the “man” in “freshman” excludes women students.

There was some good discussion. I noted that I’ve recently heard many women students use the term “freshman” for other women students. Others wrote that terms like “first year” or “frosh” were favored in the schools they know.

And of course, there were the regular lot of men (only men) complaining about having to be “PC”. In their mouths, “politically correct” is an insult. For me, it means being inclusive, sensitive to others’ feelings and history, being gracious to others. For such traditional guys, it might even be described as simply being a gentleman.

Instead, we get stuff like: “So why don’t you take the ‘son’ out of ‘person’ and say ‘per-child’? Or the ‘man’ out of ‘human’ and say ‘huperson’? Together than means we should be saying a ‘hu-per-child being’!” These know too little about etymology. There are others who remind us that “man” originally meant “person”, only gradually coming to mean the male of the human species. Those know too much about etymology, because “man” has a clear meaning today, one it has had for ages.

The sexist men in the group long for the good old days when they didn’t have to deal with these ornery womenfolk. Back in the day, “fireman” and “policeman” were understood to be inclusive, except of course for the fact that for most of the time when those terms were used, women could be neither firemen nor policemen. And while “chairlady” existed alongside “chairman”, that was a thing around 1940, and was, I believe, reserved for women’s groups, and not the head of companies or other general-interest organizations.

chairlady chairwoman

To the man who claimed that “freshman” had a long history of ungendered use (despite the fact that as late as the 1970s some Ivy League universities still excluded women), a member replied that when she uses the women’s rest room in her engineering school, she finds a row of urinals, so recent was the near total absence of women in some fields of study and the corresponding professions.

Some of these men insist that women-inclusive terminology is a minor matter, and that “we” would be better off working on the “real problems”. Perhaps, but I think we can fight battles on several fronts at the same time. I also fear that the men calling on society to deal with the “real problems” of sexism are themselves doing squat. It’s easy to say partisans of equality and inclusion are fighting the wrong battle when you have no intent to fight any battle at all. It’s rather like those who justify lower salaries and limited promotion for women on the grounds that women give birth and care for children. Yes, let’s justify sexism with more sexism.

A woman in the group said that she had faced discrimination in the early days of her career, but that this was no longer the case. Perhaps, but I do wonder what would happen if she compared her compensation with that of men with equivalent experience and qualifications.

A man in the group claimed that the “man” in professional terminology does not refer to gender. If that’s the case, after centuries of using “man” in professional terminology, he surely won’t mind that we use the equally ungendered “woman” in it’s place, and call him Mister Chairwoman when he presides a meeting.

One man pointed out that in Spanish, in a mixed group of people, it only takes one man in the group to make the gender used for the group masculine. He believes that those wise Spanish-speakers have better things to do than to worry about such trivial matters. The same rule applies in French, but at least in French we have a clear historical record that this rule is fairly recent, as is the abandonment of feminine versions of professions. Many are making the effort to use inclusive language in French, in particular for professions because it is essential to use language to open minds.

In a group of people who are interested in language, it is strange that some members fail to recognize the power of language to transmit a message. The message of exclusive language is that women cannot be a fireman, a policeman, a chairman. We all know the story of the father and son victims of a car accident, with the father dying and the badly injured son taken to the nearest hospital, where the surgeon on duty says: “I cannot treat this boy because he is my son”. For those who don’t know this “puzzle”, the context will make the answer clear. But I urge you to try it on those around you. I have had people go through extreme mental twists and turns to reach an answer (the surgeon is a stepfather, a sperm donor, a clone…) before seeing the eminently obvious solution. Such is the power of our mental images of men’s and women’s roles in the professions. (And it works both ways: “flight attendant” is more inclusive of men in the profession than was the rarely used “steward”.) For women, and for girls who imagine their future, it’s of even greater importance to see a world in which their professional options are not pre-constrained by outdated terminology whose only justification is a sexist past.

3 Responses

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  1. iamnotmakingup said, on 2014/12/18 at 16:27

    Great post! (The last line makes me think, “The Ghost of Sexist Past.”) And there is also a long past of considering and addressing the intersection of gender and language, but these discussions so frequently get hurtled back to square one with the sort of antics you report.
    —Bearer of Urinals

  2. iamnotmakingup said, on 2014/12/18 at 16:28

    Reblogged this on I Am Not Making Up and commented:
    Thoughtful post by Marc Naimark.

  3. […] the gender-neutral titles post, I wanted to share a couple of short observations about things that kind of irk me. One is the […]

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