Founding ‘Fathers’ Had Company

Words have power - gender nuetrality in language is still an issueWhen I heard Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the president of Afghanistan, refer to America’s “founding fathers and mothers” at a March 24 press conference, he really caught my attention. What gender-inclusive talk from the head of state of a country that is not known for exemplary treatment of women!

Yet it was refreshing how easily the reference seemed to roll off his tongue. It caused me to pause and think how often I have heard government representatives from the United States refer to “our founding fathers.” It also reminded me of a blog I wrote a few months ago about John Wayne’s maiden name.

Because gender-inclusive / gender-neutral language is of interest to me as a ruthless editor, I recently ordered The Elements of Nonsexist Usage, one of several books by writer, editor and PR specialist Val Dumond.

It was published in 1990, and it struck me how careless many people still are when writing or speaking about gender in government, in the workplace, and in general conversation. Dumond claims that good communicators need not “supply gender when none is indicated, or when to do so excludes half the population.”

She deals with U.S. founders this way:

This country’s pioneers, founders, trailblazers, and innovators were not all men. Writers of history need to include women in the wording and connotations of those who came before. Founding fathers can be changed easily to forebears. Pioneers usually are defined in masculine terms, when the facts clearly show that many pioneers were women.

She notes that even the order of gender-specific terms can convey a subliminal message. It’s common to put males in the lead: male and female, boys and girls, men and women, husband and wife. She encourages reversing the order from time to time to achieve balance: female and male, girls and boys, women and men, wife and husband.

The book ends with an extensive glossary of terms that can be substituted for those that are inappropriately gender-specific.

There no doubt are some who consider gender sensitivity much ado about nothing. I’m not one of them. I side with those who would agree with this concise statement from a website that outlines Canada’s Department of Justice Reports and Publications guidelines:

Gender neutrality is important when writing about people because it is more accurate — not to mention respectful — and is consistent with the values of equality.

Considering the number of years Dumond’s book on gender-inclusive language has been available, it’s surprising that there still appears to be so much room for improvement when referring to all of our citizens — past or present — with accuracy and respect.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)