Down the Manhole: State Officials Grapple with Gender-Neutral Language

Sometimes there's just no substitute for a man. States have moved toward using gender-neutral language, but revisers have found that certain words aren't so easily replaced

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Yuriko Nakao/REUTERS

A pedestrian passes a manhole in Tokyo on July 20, 2012

Sometimes there’s just no substitute for a man.

About half of the states have moved toward using gender-neutral language in their official documents, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. State lawmakers in Alaska have attempted for years to change to their constitution so it contains fewer masculine pronouns, while states like Florida long ago passed directives forcing revisers to go through state laws line by line to purge it of gender bias. In states such as Nevada and New Mexico, lawmakers have proposed bills in recent weeks tackling similar issues.

Yet overhauling the code isn’t as simple as it may sound. A bill on the docket in Olympia, Wash., for example, is full of revised legal language, the result of a line-by-line campaign. The 500-page proposal is the fifth such behemoth making its way toward the Washington state governor’s desk, and if it passes, the law will mark the end of a long journey toward political correctness. Almost. Governmental editors are finding that some gender-specific words just aren’t that easy to replace.

Basic updates were a breeze, says code reviser Kyle Thiessen, who led the project. Search the code for he and add “or she.” Search the code for him and add “or her.” Other replacements required slightly more creative solutions: ombudsman became ombudsPenmanship, perhaps the least offensive gender-biased word known to man or woman, became handwriting. Watchmen became security guards. And freshmen became first-year students, a move that echoes controversial changes by schools such as the University of North Carolina.

But Washington state officials balked at some the code revisers’ proposed changes. Military types objected to changing airman, Thiessen says, because to them that word is already a gender-neutral rank and changing the title might cause problems with designating their troops. The Washington code also references behavior unbecoming “an officer and a gentleman.” The prospect of changing this to “an officer and a gentleperson” did not pass muster. There was no clear alternative to manhole either, Thiessen says. Revisers considered utility hole, but that doesn’t connote size like manhole does. One might only be able to stick a wire through a “utility hole,” he says, but a manhole — that’s for humans.

While changing man to person might seem like a universally easy fix, that swap can lead to awkward constructions because terms have almost idiomatic meanings that get lost in the process. Faced with man lock, the revisers could only propose the cumbersome “air lock serving as a decompression chamber for workers.” “They were worried that it might upset long-standing understandings,” Thiessen says of agencies resisting replacements. For some words, he says, “there just don’t seem to be good ideas out there.”

Florida was one of the first states to go back through its code, completing the gender-revision project in the late 1990s. Edith Pollitz, the head of revision for the state, doesn’t remember encountering airman, but she does remember recasting servicemen as service members and fisherman as fishers. She remembers alternating “he or she” with “she or he” to make sure everyone was getting due precedence. Despite the state’s best efforts, some lawmakers still propose bills with gendered language, she says, so the office is always going back through to make equal-opportunity edits. “They continue to slip in,” Pollitz says. “This project is never going to be totally over.”

In Alaska, lawmakers attempted to pass gender-neutral changes to the state constitution last session and failed. The historic document remains full of references to governors and lieutenant governors and voters that are all accompanied by male pronouns. “There shall be a lieutenant governor,” reads Section 3.7. “He shall have the same qualifications as the governor.” The sponsor, Republican Representative Carl Gatto, died last April. Asking for support for similar changes in 2009, he released a statement explaining why he felt an update was important: “Some of our oldest and youngest states in the union such as New York and Hawaii have amended their constitutions to reflect gender neutrality … We seek to modify our constitution in recognition of the work done by both parties.”

The lawmaker appointed to replace him, Shelley Hughes, reviewed measures that her predecessor had proposed and decided that focusing on economic problems was more important, says her legislative aide Ginger Blaisdell. That choice reflects the attitude that many have about such PC projects, which can tie up state resources in an era when women face less gender prejudice than ever before: after all, the language about male officials certainly didn’t keep Sarah Palin out of the governor’s office. “Some people would say, ‘Oh, it’s not a big thing, do you really have to go through the process of changing the language?'” a Seattle council member told the Associated Press. “But language matters. It’s how we signal a level of respect for each other.”

Those who think changes in language reflect important changes in attitude are keeping an eye on other branches of government too. In a women’s-rights journal, University of Louisville law professor Judith D. Fischer assessed the words used by Supreme Court Justices and found that while Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a solid “he or she” type, Antonin Scalia is not — which is unsurprising given that he has argued that “he is the traditional, generic, unisex reference to a human being.”

Back in Olympia, the debate is nearly moot. After passing four bills full of revised code, the legislature has little reason not to pass the fifth and final installment. Meanwhile, Thiessen says, they’ll keep looking for alternatives to those masculine bugbears that remain.