I'd like to write today about something that irritates me as a male feminist ally: Gender-exclusive language.
Specifically, I'd like to address something that occurs around here far too often: gender-exclusive language referring to members of Congress.
It's always been something I've noticed, but particularly over the last couple of weeks or so for some reason, posts or comments referring to generic "Congressmen" or asking people to "call your Congressman and tell him..." have really been jumping out at me.
I'm sure it's not going to be news to anyone here that not all members of Congress are men.
So why is it that when some members of this community write about generic members of Congress, they refer to "Congressmen"?
More about why this matters, and what I think we should start doing about it as a community, after the orange squiggly doodad.
Several points here:
1. Women are underrepresented in Congress. Despite the fact that they make up just over 50% of the American population, women comprise just over 18% of the 535 members of Congress—17.2% of the House (72 out of 435), and 20% of the Senate (20 out of 100).
I'm going to assume that anyone who self-describes as "progressive" sees the gap between the proportion of the women in our population and proportion of women in our highest legislative body as unacceptable, and something that needs to change.
There are, of course, myriad factors involved in this unacceptable gap, including the double-standard that continues to be applied to female candidates for office, sexist policies in our workplaces and society that hold back women's achievement, and the countless ways, both large and small, that male privilege continues to be a reality in our political, cultural, economic, religious, and community life.
But those problems—like gender itself—are the results of the linguistic constructs we've built around our visions of masculinity, femininity, etc. in our culture. Which means that linguistic change must be a part of the solution.
2. Language matters. There exists no shortage of resources out there, both scholarly and otherwise, detailing the ways in which the reality we perceive is shaped by the language we use to describe ourselves, others, and the world around us.
It's tempting to view the notion of linguistic construction as a layer of falsehood or artifice over some kind of underlying and objective reality, whereby one can get at The Truth if one strips away those constructions and just looks at reality. But even if you glimpsed that reality for a split-second, you couldn't talk about it with anyone else without again resorting to language, and thereby engaging in yet another act of linguistic choice and construction.
(Again, there's no shortage of scholarly work that makes that point in a much more cogent, and complete, way than I just did. I'm sure people can recommend further reading in the comments.)
So, we're left with the undeniable fact that the terms with which we define our community, our nation, our leaders, our politics, our economics, our species, our planet, and everything else matter, in very real ways. Linguistic constructions are real and have real effects on people's lives. (If you continue to doubt this, please tell me: Why are those little green slips of fabric with numbers and pictures of dead Presidents so damn valuable?)
When we talk or write about generic members of Congress, we're building one of those linguistic constructions—and when we refer to them as "Congressmen," whether consciously or subconsciously, we're painting a picture in which the archetypal "member of Congress" as male, with female members of Congress being seen as exceptions or noteworthy rather than as par for the course. Viewed less sympathetically, we're rhetorically erasing the 18% of Congress that are not men, telling them that they're not really full members of Congress.
That needs to change.
3. We can and must change the language we use—both as individuals, and as a community. In my 8+ years on this site, I've seen more than a few times when this community has been called to the carpet on certain offensive or exclusionary phrases, terms, or ideas that had been in heavy use around here, and I've seen the community respond with a new consensus to use less offensive and exclusionary language. This is another opportunity to do the same thing, as well as to find other concrete ways of closing the unacceptable deficit between women as a percentage of Congress and women as a percentage of the overall US population.
A. Stop using exclusive language ourselves. Like I wrote waaaay up there, I've noticed and been conscious of the gender-exclusive generic "Congressman" for quite some time now—and I still occasionally catch myself defaulting to the term as I'm writing, just out of sheer force of habit. Becoming aware of the problem, and self-correcting, is the first step. Start replacing the generic "Congressman" with terms like "member of Congress," "Congressperson," "Representative," or "Congresscritter." (Referring to individual men in Congress as "Congressman" is, of course, acceptable—just like referring to individual women in Congress as "Congresswoman.")
B. When you see someone use exclusive language, politely ask them to use inclusive language instead. I don't think it's a donut-worthy offense by any stretch of the imagination, but I do think the use of exclusive language has to be called out when it happens, in part because old habits die hard (as I wrote a couple of paragraphs ago) and in part because that's what communities do when they see other members of their community doing things that linguistically exclude half of the American population. The only way we're going to build a consensus on this is if we're calling it out as we see it.
C. Support the campaigns of progressive women and organizations seeking to help progressive women run for office. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to suggest that any woman deserves progressives' support over any man, but we really do need to support more progressive women running for (and continuing to hold) office—with our time, our labor, our voices, our money.
Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, running against the execrable Mitch McConnell, deserves our support. Wendy Davis deserves our support. And there are countless other women out there who deserve our support—not just women who are presently running for or holding office, but women who are just an early base of support away from running for office. We need to support progressive women at all levels, from school board and city council all the way up to the Senate and the presidency.