A Womanly Perspective on Gender-Inclusive Language

Santa Rosa Junior College

For the benefit of mankind, can someone please man-up and agree to man this table, which is man-made, because we are one man down and need more manpower tomorrow.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, where I have worked for 20+ years, I have been in meetings and presentations where gender exclusive language was used by educated professionals, both male and female (although mostly male), including many liberal-minded faculty, administrators, and staff who otherwise seem sympathetic to the issue of gender equality. Why? Is this diction just years of sexist conditioning that is hard to break?

Take two: for the benefit of humankind, can someone please step-up and staff this table, which is hand-made, because we are one person short and need more people power tomorrow.

For those who lack gender equality consciousness, or who easily lapse into old habits and retro language, have no fear. There really are easy alternatives to “man” or “he.” All it takes is practice. My guess is that, if you recite the take-two sentence above twice a day for five days, you will have it down. Policeman can be police officer; fireman can be firefighter; the mailman can be mail carrier. Not really that hard, right? 

Perhaps the better question is: how important is this? As someone who has had 56 years of experience as a gender-queer female in a “man’s” world, I believe it is pertinent.  As an experiment, let’s imagine that we use the opposite gender pronoun when referring to both sexes; in other words, all generic or general pronoun usage defaults to “she,” and that we instead use womankind, womanpower, woman-made, and so on.  Consider how this diction might be perceived by boys and men. Try it for a day and see what happens. My guess is that males would feel invisible or not included or even insulted. Yet, this is the reality we impose on girls and women from the day they come into this world.

Perhaps, you might think, it is just a triviality. However, the effect of this distinction cumulates over time to reinforce the message, however subtle, that the norm is male, that women and girls are less-than, and that it is not important for woman to be included or visible. I would also suggest that this pronoun bias trickles down to how girls and women are treated by their male counterparts, as well as female self-development.

In gendered languages, like Spanish, there is a current movement to adopt gender-inclusive language and habits. For example, when referring to both sexes, it is best to use Latinx, or Latinas y Latinos.  When welcoming a group of both women and men, it is more inclusive to say bienvenidas y bienvenidos. These movements recognize the negative impact of gender bias and the importance of more inclusive language as a solution.

For this same reason, it is no longer okay to use the male-only version of words when referring to men and women. College campuses across the country and elsewhere are beginning to embrace the use of a third, gender-neutral pronoun for those people who identify as bi-gendered or gender-neutral. Our habits need to change to account for the diversity of our communities and student body.  

The language we use matters. It always has, and it always will. As educators, it is up to us to take the lead in the movement for gender equality.  Educators have a responsibility to embrace and promote changing societal norms, especially when it comes to issues of justice, inclusion, and equal rights.  This starts with the language we use every day with both our students and our colleagues.