As we learned (and some of us to our shame only recently), the New York State Unified Court System has put its seal of approval on efforts first undertaken by the New York State Task Force on Women in the Courts culminating in all-out efforts to cleanse our language of its male domination. Thus, the booklet entitled “Fair Speech—Gender-Neutral Language in the Courts,” appeared in 1991 and the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts” (the Committee) published a second edition. The booklet is being distributed in a number of court rooms. Its purpose is lofty: One should take note of the long-enduring discrimination against women in the courts and make an effort to employ speech that promotes evening the playing field.
Lest we think that only New York women are concerned with this issue, we point to “Guidelines for Practicing Gender Neutral Courtroom Procedure,” by the Supreme Court of Texas Gender Task Force and the Golden Gate University School of Law, GGU Law Digital Commons have weighed in. The latter’s author, Leslie M. Rose, in “Supreme Court and Gender Neutral Language,” suggested that the Supreme Court should be more forceful in setting standards employing gender-neutral speech. In short, a virtual revolution in the employment of court room language is taking place. How is the implementation of this new language fairing? What is the level of compliance? Do the ends justify the means? What does the opposition have to say?
The New York booklet gives helpful hints to readers, some of which are perfectly sensible. Use “police officer,” instead of “policeman;” use “reasonable person” instead of “reasonable man.” Others may appear less desirable, resulting in gross violations of the English language. For example, would a person, man or woman, heading a committee enjoy being called a “chair,” as in a piece of furniture? Many English speakers are affronted by this appellation, thinking that the word “chairman” is perfectly suitable. The College of Staten Island has solved the problem differently. It labels the entrance to an administration building as belonging to the “chairperson.” The jarring use of some of the Committee’s recommendations is one of the problems not well addressed by its booklet. A word like “statesmanship,” which the Committee would like to see replaced by “diplomacy,” removes from our vocabulary a respectable word understood by everyone and a word not generally associated with men only. We can all agree that Mrs. Thatcher and Angela Merkel displayed “statesmanship,” even if they were not always diplomatic! The Committee surely is aware that the word “man” encompasses woman if used at the right time and in the right place. Thus, “mankind,” refers to men and women. When Neil Armstrong took that first step on the moon, he took “one small step for mankind,” and did not leave the little woman in the kitchen. The booklet urges not to use the address “Ma’am,” as such may denote the marital status of a woman—a matter of no one’s business. Of course, this word does not connote marital status, whatever its derivation, as the address “Sir” does not imply marital status. Instead, these are forms of address one bestows upon mature persons, denoting respect.
The Committee recommends that the word “housewife” not be used. Instead, say “homemaker.” This may well be nicer, but there are no men “homemakers.” Have we queried them? Men “work from home”; they are “semi-retired”; they are “working on their learned treatise.” They are never “homemakers,” who change diapers and run to the market.
The Committee suggests that when a personal pronoun produces an undesired result, i.e., “A juror must make his own assessments of the credibility of each witness,” use a plural instead: “Jurors must make their own assessment of the credibility of witnesses.” Yet, the incorrect version does reflect the notion of a lone juror struggling with his/her assessment. The desirable versions result in a dreary parade of plurals marching across the page. Try it and you’ll see.
Efforts to cleanse and reform language in keeping with circumstances then prevailing, or as an aspirational effort, are not new. Slaves escaping from the cruel South often took a new name upon their arrival in the North. We saw, in the ‘60s, deliberate steps taken to rid our language of ugly references to a whole segment of society and, by and large, these efforts have borne fruit and have prevailed. Nadine Gordimer, noted South African anti-apartheid author, attended a conference in the early years of the new, black, State of Zimbabwe aimed at cleaning up “offensive terminology.” In her “Letters From the 53d State,” she recommended there was agreement that terms like “kraal,” whose literal meaning is a place where cattle are confined (think “coral”), but which had been used throughout colonial English speaking Africa to denote a village consisting of the homes of rural black people, should be dropped by the media, since men in independent Africa “are not regarded as cattle.”
Language tinkering is not without hazards, however. Good words may be lost, along with the knowledge carried within. As reported in the Wall Street Journal of Aug. 6, 2016 by Tom Shipply, the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary deleted a whole set of words, like “acorn,” “buttercup,” “heather” and “willow.” “Modern kids,” the editors believe, don’t need to know “what natural objects are.” What they need are words from the digital world, like “attachment,” “blog,” “celebrity,” and “voice-mail.” What are these kids going to make of a whole school of children’s literature? What will they do with “The Wind in the Willows?” “If one has no vocabulary for things, one notices them less. So one starts thinking they’re not important. Then they are destroyed. Language deficit leads to attention deficit. Yale University President Peter Salovey announced that he is creating a “Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming … ,” (One is tempted to inquire about the to-do calendar of a major university’s President, permitting him the leisure time to deal with such weighty matters, but that is a whole other story). In the French Revolution, leaders restarted the calendar at zero and renamed the months of the year, making mashed potatoes of history. The Soviets renamed cities, erased the names of political enemies from the historical record and banned scientific theories that conflicted with Marxist doctrine. Cleaning up, may mean clamming up. Celia Capuzzi, in an article published on Aug. 9, 2016 in the New York Times Education Life titled “Helping America Speak Its Mind,” related that not long ago, New York’s former Police Commissioner, Raymond Kelly, was invited to speak but was silenced by an audience of college students.
The Committee’s mostly harmless suggestions are clearly not of the pernicious sort just outlined. However, clarity of speech is always desirable. In short, before we “rename,” we must give careful scrutiny to even unintended consequenses. William Saffire, no slouch in the word department, in “The Right Word In The Right Place At The Right Time,” complains the Associated Press having finally endorsed the courtesy title “Ms.” has dropped this form of address, preferring, as it does at the time of his writing, the full name of the person to be addressed. Thus, one may refer to Emily Jones, or Margaret Smith, etc. William’s problem, and ours I may add, is that one can no longer tell the boys from the girls, as a host of first names are gender neutral: Pat, Ashley, Chris, for example. “Cameron Jones today bench pressed 300 lbs. in the Olympian trials. Are we reporting here on a well turned-out male athlete, or a modern miracle?” asks Saffire.
What is the level of compliance? Here is a rub of humongous proportion. On July 29, 2016, no less a paragon of feminism as Diane Feinstein, when asked about her sentiments of seeing a woman named as candidate for president of the United States, noted how far women have traveled since they were given the vote, stating that women had come a long way, “they are chairmen of companies …” Yes, Senator Feinstein actually used the plural of “chairman.” The very persons who are to be the beneficiaries of these efforts, do not always quite “get it.” In the political forum, where gender neutral speech should be avidly sought by modern women, they often display a complete lack of appreciation for the struggle—women members of the Senate often being introduced, without objection, as “The Gentle Woman of … [name the State].”
I respectfully suggest, that there are psychological factors not always well understood by the Committee. We see that actresses when asked about their craft proudly refer to themselves as “actors.” They are eschewing the word “actress” with its, one assumes, whiff of disrepute, possibly not wanting to be confused with pole dancers. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a suitable, gender-neutral word for their profession, the word “performer,” women actors prefer to the use the word “actor,” presumably because it implies seriousness and a sturdiness of pursuit. Interestingly, Julia Roberts is an “actor,” as is Glenn Close, but Stormy Daniels is an adult film “actress.” The Nov. 11, 2018 Travel Magazine, reported that male ballet dancers, elaborating about their gender identifications, wish to be called “ballerino,” rather than the gender neutral “ballet dancer.” Similarly, many women actually insist on the female version of a word. One need only point to the LGBTQ advocates. No group can boast of a larger circle of proponents of progressive causes. The organizers have deliberately chosen the word “lesbian” in the title of the organization. The gender-neutral word “homosexual,” which refers to both men and women whose preferred sexual partners are members of their own sex, does not suffice for men either. They wish to be called “gay,” and they have a right. This is America with a treasured First Amendment and notions about personal liberty. Furthermore, author Mary Norris in “Between You and Me” maintains there are a few English words where the feminine ending is strong and useful—“heroine,” from the Greek, and, from the Latin, “dominatrix.”
In addition—and this, too, is not a new phenomenon—those who urge the use of gender-neutral language in the court room, may be quite vociferous in defending their orthodoxy. Witness an exchange in a New York state court room between the female Judge and an elderly female attorney. The latter, in the midst of a passionately argued summary judgment motion in a heavily contested case, referred to the “attorney draftsman,” Jane Smith “and was immediately admonished by the Court: “I think you meant “drafter.” Then followed a further exchange and additional correction as the attorney, flustered, continued her argument and finally referred to “the attorney draftsperson” and was told, once again, to say “drafter.” Ultimate, the attorney apologized, noting she was “old-fashioned” being of a “certain age.” The court graciously allowed there was “no need to apologize.” What was going on there? Jane Baker Miller, M.D., in her treatise entitled “Toward a New Psychology of Women,” diagnosed a clear instance of “mother blaming,” that long-standing, psychoanalytic manifestation of barely suppressed anger by the younger generation of women at the cowed utterances of the older woman, who refuses to adhere to the posture of the brave, young, female.
Could it be allowed that there are competing voices in this debate? Can we dispense with the dour recitals of correct speech? Can we agree to engage in cordial discourse about these weighty matters and extend a measure of personal freedom? Could the spirit of personal liberty (let alone courtesy) penetrate the murky waters of the pursuit of gender neutral language in the court room?
Lainie R. Fastman is a partner at the Law Firm of Hall & Hall. The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the view of the firm.