The Impact of Language — Gracelee Lawrence

As we move through our days, thousands of words slip from our tongues, filter through our ears, and brush past our eyes. With such constant besiegement from the media, text messages, e-mails, and many other sources, it is easy to discount the power and importance of the words around us. As a person interested in creating and fostering an equal world, language automatically sets a precedent and creates a tone. How can we, as people in the process of creating a new way of being, use language in a positive way?

Take, for example, this letter that I received in the mail in February. As you can see, my mother got to it first and marked it up. Coming from the National Association of Professional Woman, I expected more. This was my first impression of their organization and, I must say, it left much to be desired. Using sexist terminology does not create equality, instead it encourages stereotyping and implies that women are expected to fit in to a “business world” rife with phrases and expectations relating only to men.

As we look more carefully at the language surrounding us, many common words have shifted in the past hundred years. A great example is “Doctor” and “Doctoress”. In 2013, how would a female doctor feel about being called a “Doctoress”? A woman sculptor being called a “sculptress”? These words originally had gender specific forms that were later changed in search of equilibrium. The gender specificity, in many cases, has faded into the past and the new gender neutral has turned to what was traditionally used to specify a male. While I understand the importance of those shifts in terms of women’s rights and the feminist movement, I question the continuity of this language. Examining other languages, especially Neo-Latin languages, grammatical gender differences are used to reference men and women separately. What feels more equal, a shift to one side, allowing for two parts of a whole, or creating new gender-neutral terminology?

Since 2007 Washington State has been working on a series of bills to change gender-biased terminology in their state laws. Even though a 1983 mandate required that all laws should be written in gender-neutral terms unless a specification of gender was intended, it has still taken extensive effort and more bills to create forward motion. Washington State is the fourth state in the nation to eliminate gender boas from its official language, following Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. Seven other states have passed constitutional mandates and at least nine others are currently considering changes. While it is a challenging and painstaking process, it is heartening to see that there are people working hard to make changes.

We are in a new era. The world has shifted and we must work to create positive change. How can we foster a celebration of differences rather than accept a complete shift to one side?



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