A certain Dr. Mack recently brought to my attention the fact that my current legacy in the blogosphere is a criticism of Dennis Kucinich’s eyebrows (albeit a poignant one). So after much soul-searching and grave, meditative reflection, I have decided that this is not the mark Oh Kermie is destined to make on the internet. Au contraire, mes amies (note the use of the feminine). I have far greater designs for this dear little blog of mine.
For today, that design shall include a much-overdue condemnation of the systematic use and abuse of gender-specific pro-nouns and nouns. Mind you – this is not a topic that is new to Oh Kermie (or my prolific friends The Colonic and On a Diner Napkin). What is more, the general point I am trying to make has been expressed time and again by feminists everywhere. But regardless, in the last few months I have become increasingly sensitive to the specific injuries that I am about to discuss – especially since the perpetrators of these crimes are often my would-be mentors.
Yeah, I’m talking to you: USC Political Science professors.
It is one thing for a professor to verbally acknowledge an anatomical difference between male and female students. For example: “Where is Jane? She did not show up for her paper conference today” vs. “Where is Dick? He did not show up for his paper conference today.” Similarly, the gendered use of pronouns and nouns is acceptable when describing the actions of political leaders, figures in history, or pertinent others who happened to identify as a woman or a man (i.e., “We should remember the women who championed the nineteenth amendment and be thankful for all they did for American daughters of the twentieth century and beyond”). I am not even offended (feel free to take issue here) by references to the “Founding Fathers” instead of the rather new alternative of the “Framers,” given that the names signed to the Declaration of Independence belonged to men. (The fact that it’s a timeless alliterative device also helps…As many of you know, I’m a sucker for alliteration.)
However, I am absolutely outraged to hear my supposedly distinguished and learned political science professors automatically revert to the masculine when speaking about unspecified or hypothetical political leaders. As a senior who is now completely immersed in upper division Poli-Sci courses, I would expect to find my esteemed educators more sensitive to the myriad stereotypes and implied social expectations embedded in the continual use of “he” when describing any situation in which an undefined political actor may operate. I am sick of hearing about how the ambiguous “he,” a member of California congress, would react to proposed amendments to “his” legislation from the Appropriations Committee… or how “he,” the as-yet-undetermined Democratic presidential nominee, will fare against Republican opponents in 2008.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, you should know that women make up a quarter of the seats in state legislatures across the nation, and the Democrat leading in national primary polls by about 20 points is Hillary Clinton – the proud owner of a uterus. Assuming that the professors leading my political science courses had to abandon the cover of their respective rocks to earn their PhD’s, I am profoundly upset that this discriminatory lexicon continues.
When half of the students (or more) sitting before you are ambitious women yearning for a quality education that will help propel them to careers in politics, law, and a host of other fields, you should be careful that your words do not reinforce limiting stereotypes of who may or may not participate in American law and government. While I am certainly not accusing any of my professors (male and female!) of utilizing such discriminatory language intentionally, I am disappointed that they routinely overlook verbal equality in the name of convenience or acquiescence to society’s default pronoun (“he”).
Furthermore, I am profoundly disturbed by a professor’s recent reference to the number of hours “girls” in his class presumably spend getting ready before coming to lecture (he pegged it at three – my, what use we Trojan women make of our time). It is truly unacceptable to belittle the exceptional women of USC by calling them as you would your ten year old “little girl.” If you must pick a term to counter references to the “guys” in your class, try to use the correct equivalent of “gals.” Don’t insult my age and maturity with a noun meant for school children.
Respect the capable minds of those you should teach and inspire; don’t disappoint us with limiting terminology and reveal your willingness to reinforce gender stereotypes.
(For more on this topic, read this 2005 piece from CampusProgress.org.)