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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.

Let's go.

Originally posted to JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 08:18 AM PDT.

Also republished by Sex, Body, and Gender and Political Language and Messaging.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (15+ / 0-)

    "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

    by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 08:18:52 AM PDT

  •  'Congresscritter' (8+ / 0-)

    ... seems to have some currency on the left blogs.

    There are some objectionable women in both chambers of Congress, even on our side (I'm looking at you Dianne Feinstein). But overall a lot of the best additions in recent years have been women. So, OTBE, more is better, IMO.

    "The smartest man in the room is not always right." -Richard Holbrooke

    by Demi Moaned on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 08:39:44 AM PDT

  •  One just had a baby (4+ / 0-)

    Pray for her...

    Congresswoman’s ‘Miracle’ Baby Defying Potter’s Syndrome Odds

    http://abcnews.go.com/...

    Facing long odds after a heartbreaking prenatal diagnosis, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has announced the birth of her daughter, Abigail Rose Beutler, who suffers from a rare medical condition known as Potter’s syndrome.

    “With great joy, gratitude and hope, we are pleased to share with you the news of the birth of our daughter, Abigail Rose Beutler,” Hererra Beutler, R-Wash., wrote on her Facebook page today. “She is every bit a miracle.”

    The baby was born July 15 about two months premature. She weighed 2 pounds, 12 ounces at birth. She is now two weeks old so the congresswoman decided to share the news on her Facebook page.

    Learn about Centrist Economics, learn about Robert Rubin's Hamilton Project. www.hamiltonproject.org

    by PatriciaVa on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 08:45:33 AM PDT

    •  I pray her baby lives a long and healthy life... (5+ / 0-)

      ...and has every bit of the happiness, security, community, and love that every child born into this world deserves.

      I also hope that as of January 2015, her mother finds herself with a lot more time to spend with her daughter and continue her private-sector career, because the voters replace her with a progressive Democratic woman in Congress.

      "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

      by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 09:31:40 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Some terms (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    doc2, hnichols, Aspe4

    which started out gender specific have become non-gender specific through the change in usage.

    For example: "Actor" no longer means a male who acts, the term means any one who acts, regardless of gender.

    "It's never too late to have a happy childhood." - Tom Robbins - Political Compass sez: -8.25, -7.90

    by ARS on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 08:59:12 AM PDT

    •  And words like mankind, (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Aspe4, ARS

      or yeoman, or hangman. Just because the root -man is in a word no longer means that the word exclusively refers to a male person. Most people would call her Congresswoman Pelosi, but if she is in a crowd then they'd refer to all of them as congressmen (the alternatives would be to say "the congressmen and congresswomen", which is a mouthful, or "the congresspeople", which is very uncommon).

      •  There are other alternatives. (4+ / 0-)
        Just because the root -man is in a word no longer means that the word exclusively refers to a male person.
        Except that for the most part, those in the enlightened circles of our society have recognized that using words like "mankind" or "man" to refer to the generic of the human species does exclude half of the species, choosing instead to refer to "humankind" or "humanity."
        if she is in a crowd then they'd refer to all of them as congressmen (the alternatives would be to say "the congressmen and congresswomen", which is a mouthful, or "the congresspeople", which is very uncommon).
        Other alternatives include "the representatives," "the Congressmembers," "the Congressional representatives," "the House members," or "the members of Congress." None of those is particularly uncommon or particularly difficult to say.

        Given that, wouldn't continuing to refer to generic members of Congress as "Congressman" not only be gender-exclusive, but gratuitously so?

        "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

        by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 09:36:50 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm confused - (0+ / 0-)

          are you saying the word humanity is okay, or not okay?

          •  "Humanity" is okay. (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            churchylafemme, Joy of Fishes

            "Man" is not.

            "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

            by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 09:44:49 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  I get the Congressman thing, but (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Whatithink

              why is humanity then NOT an issue in your opinion? Is it not inconsistent to apply humanity to women when other uses of -man to apply to women is viewed as unacceptable? Why are you okay with humanity?

              •  Part etymology, part construction. (3+ / 0-)

                First off, etymologically, human isn't derived from man (unlike the term Congressman).

                Human comes from the Latin word homo, which came from the term for earth or ground to refer to humans as earthly beings in comparison with the gods. Though its usage was gendered at times, it was also a generic term referring to people as a whole. (The root word for human, incidentally, is still present in English as humus, organic matter that has deteriorated into soil.)

                Man, on the other hand, is Germanic in origin, and the OED entry for its etymology didn't indicate any direct connection in origin to the Latin homo; man and its Germanic antecedents have always specifically referred to males.

                Second, construction. The way Congressman is constructed makes the meaning clear: Congress-man, a man who is in Congress.* It's similar to other compound words or word sets constructed in that fashion, like highwayman or con man (both of which also function as synonyms for most members of Congress).

                Human is not constructed as such: a man who hu-s? A who man? A hew-mon? Even if the word human were etymologically derived from a reference to a man (which it's not), it would no longer be recognizable as any kind of compounded and gendered word today.

                * Or a really shitty comic book about a superhero who spends half his day on the phone asking rich people for money.

                "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

                by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:23:33 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  But there's a difference... (5+ / 0-)

      ...between "actor" and "Congressman" as generic terms.

      If one looks at the construction of the word itself, "actor" simply means "one who acts."

      The gender isn't specified in the term itself; it was entirely usage and context that led to "actor" to mean "man who acts," differentiated from "actress" as "woman who acts." That means that de-gendering the term back to "one who acts" requires only that the usage change.

      The construction of "Congressman," however, does specify gender, referring not to a generic person in Congress, but specifically to a man in Congress. "Man" is right there in the word itself. Even usage changes can't de-gender the word.

      For the most part, we've started to recognize that "man" is no longer acceptable to use in place of "humanity," and started to use "he or she" or "they" instead of the generic "he" in the "one must do this" construction. That's because we recognize that even if we like to think otherwise, there's no way that words like "man" or "he" are ever going to be de-gendered, and we don't want to exclude half of the human population when referring to the whole of humanity or to the generic subject.

      The gendering of the term "Congressman" is only reinforced by the fact that it's not just a descriptive term, but an honorific. Members of Congress are referred to as "Congressman Cantor"* or "Congresswoman Edwards"—another indication that the term "Congressman" is gendered, not neutral. We would never refer to Donna Edwards as "Congressman Edwards," because she's a woman.

      * I'd much rather refer to him as "Former Congressman Cantor."

      "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

      by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 09:25:08 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Much appreciated, JamesGG. nt (3+ / 0-)

    Dwell on the beauty of life. ~ Marcus Aurelius

    by Joy of Fishes on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:12:32 AM PDT

  •  The correct term is "Representative." There (4+ / 0-)

    are two Houses of Congress. The Senate, which is populated by Senators and the House of Representatives, which is populated by Representatives. Both groups are "Members of Congress."

    This reality is seldom reflected in public discourse, which is why we have the problem you are trying to address. But the easiest way to solve the gender issue is to refer to members of the House by their actual name, "Representative," which, of course, is gender neutral.

    Further, affiant sayeth not. 53959

    by Gary Norton on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:20:18 AM PDT

    •  Sometimes it's useful not to differentiate. (3+ / 0-)

      When we ask folks to "Call your member of Congress," we often want them to call the person who represents their district in the U.S. House and the two people who represent their state in the U.S. Senate.*

      However, in most situations, you're right in that "Representative" specifically refers to House members as "Senator" specifically refers to Senate members, even if the colloquial usage tends to reserve "Congressmember" for representatives in the House.

      * That is, if they get voting representation. Incidentally, please call your members of Congress and demand they take action on DC statehood.

      "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." --Dom Helder Camara, archbishop of Recife

      by JamesGG on Tue Jul 30, 2013 at 10:30:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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