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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The backlash over making state laws gender neutral in Washington

Good for Washington state and its state Legislature!

In a guest column in the Seattle Times, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles responds to criticism of approved legislation that updates old state laws with gender-neutral language:
The legislation simply reflects society’s steady progression to update outdated or insensitive terms. Words matter, and language that accurately references gender should not be threatening to anyone.
A Democrat, Kohl-Welles explains that the legislation had overwhelming bipartisan support. It passed unanimously in the state Senate and by a 70-22 vote in the state House. She writes:
If anything, the hysterical and misogynistic reactions to my bill suggest the need for intelligent, reasoned discussion that advances mutual respect for gender and common courtesy. ...
I can understand that someone who has gone through life using terms like “policeman” might feel defensive when it’s suggested that such a term is outdated. But I also wonder if society’s gender history were reversed, whether a male firefighter wouldn’t chafe at being called a “firewoman.” Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how others feel unless you take a walk in their shoes.
Kohl-Welles notes that other states are also changing the language of their statutes:
[T]his is not unusual. Florida adopted gender-neutral laws in 1993, North Carolina in 2009. California, New York, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Utah have gender-neutral state constitutions. Legislatures in Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming are deliberating comparable changes.  
Her column reminded me of my advice under sex, sexism in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual. Here's an excerpt:
Avoid the outdated use of words that restrict meaning to males. Include all people in general references by substituting unbiased, asexual words and phrases: informal agreement for gentlemen's agreementhomemaker for housewifeemployees and their spouses for employees and their wives. 
Here are other examples: hours worked, staff hours or working hours for man-hours; people, men and women, human beings, the human race, civilization or humanity for mankind; physical strength, resources, human effort, staff, workers or work force for manpower; artificial, synthetic, manufactured or handmade for manmade; and large, big, generous or formidable for man-sized. 
And as I note in the Using suitable words section of Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide:
Use inclusive language
Sexist writing builds a barrier between you and half your readers. Use sex-neutral terms by avoiding words that suggest maleness is the norm, superior or positive and that femaleness is nonstandard, subordinate or negative. 
Kohl-Welles also explains that Washington began using gender-neutral language in new legislation under a 1983 state law. For all laws written before 1983, legislative staff updated the language between legislative sessions, when their workload was less hectic. Doing that was also less time consuming and less costly than updating the statute language piecemeal when new laws modify old laws. 

And she notes:
The new law pertains only to statutes. It does not require anyone to use gender-neutral language in conversation, in the workplace or in other everyday venues. Schools are not required to refer to students as “first-year students” instead of “freshmen.” Individuals are not required to use the term “fisher” instead of “fisherman,” or “handwriting” instead of “penmanship.” The law does not ban the term “man” from the English language.

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