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Friday, May 27, 2011

Language and Gender: Kate Swift

As I mentioned in a post last month, the Sapir-Whorf theory holds that the words we know and use impact how we conceptualize our world and, perhaps, act in it. I was reminded of this after reading the obituary of Kate Swift earlier this month. Swift, a feminist wordsmith and writer, spent much of her professional life, along with her long-deceased partner Casey Miller, shedding light on gender assumptions in language.

Swift and Miller were awakened to gender bias in language when they were asked to copy-edit a sexual education textbook in the 1970s. Describing their awakening, Swift and Miller noted in the introduction to one of their later books, "everything we read, heard on the radio and television, or worked on professionally confirmed our new awareness that the way English is used to make the simplest points can either acknowledge women’s full humanity or relegate the female half of the species to secondary status." They found, for example, that many authors assumed all police officers are men or refereed to women by the color of their hair.

The obituary notes that Swift and Miller had a profound yet limited impact:
Some of the authors’ proposals gained traction. Many newspapers, textbooks and public speakers avoid “fireman” and “stewardess” nowadays. Other ideas fell by the wayside, notably “genkind” as a replacement for “mankind,” or “tey,” “ter” and “tem” as sex-neutral substitutes for “he/she,” “his/her” and “him/her.”
Swift and Miller's work demonstrates the ability we have—as individuals and as societies—to reflect upon and change the words we use.

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