I had been thinking of giving up my campaign against chairperson and its fellow absurdities, but I am encouraged by my mail to believe that sanity may yet prevail.
I had thought of myself as sounding in time like one of those forlorn Bible-thumpers who stand on downtown street corners warning of Judgment Day.
But the signs are favorable. By a majority of five to one, my correspondents appear to oppose the attempt to displace occupational titles that end in man , such as lineman , fireman and flagman .
I’m not kidding about flagman . Char Chenoweth of San Diego reports that while driving in an area where streets were being repaired, she was stopped by a sign that said “Flagger.” So much for flagman , which Webster’s defines as “a person who signals . . . with a flag.”
“I agree with you wholeheartedly,” writes Jean F. Melrose of Enterprises in Learning, Unlimited. “There really needs to be a breakthrough in gender-think. . . . The English language has already provided the word for ‘an individual of the human species,’ as the U.S. Navy seems to have realized. . . . “
“You are absolutely right,” writes Peg Morell of Buena Park. “Constructions such as ‘Everyone should adjust his seat belt before driving’ refer to females as well as males, and one simply learns this. In fact, I am so accustomed to the words he , his and him in such cases that I am mildly surprised when I read a magazine such as Working Women . . . and see the feminine pronouns used instead. . . . “
She does raise a provocative question, though: “I rather enjoy thinking about what happens to the rule in a sentence such as ‘Once a customer has worn a dress, he cannot return it.’ ”
Of course when the person referred to is obviously a female, she is required.
I have always wondered how the feminists could accept the word woman itself, since it ends in the hated man and originally meant wife person . Tracy Cummings of Rowland Heights reports a dismaying innovation on that front:
“I was in Berkeley protesting against apartheid South Africa . . . and I found the ‘Womyn’s Caucus’ up there. (Because it is) a group of feminists, I immediately deduced that womyn is the feminist term for female--plural. I don’t know what the singular would be--perhaps womin . . . . The feminist word I don’t like is herstory for history .”
Robert D. Specht, of the Rand Corp., calls my attention to “A Handbook for Scholars” by Mary-Claire van Leunen, which deals with the mechanics of scholarly dissertations.
In her introduction, Van Leunen notes: “My ‘his’ is generic, not gendered. ‘His or hers’ becomes clumsy with repetition and suggests that ‘his’ alone elsewhere is masculine, which it isn’t. ‘Her’ alone draws attention to itself and distracts from the topic at hand. . . . “
She concludes: “Rather than play hob with the language, we feminists might adopt the position of pitying men for being forced to share their pronouns around.”
Denis Hickey Ph.D. sends a quote from his philosophical work, “Home From Exile”: “Throughout, I use the term man to designate not a male human, but a human, and the corresponding pronoun is ‘he.’ Words do not have sex (that is a matter of biology); they have gender (a matter of grammar).”
I have heard from two letter carriers, formerly known as mailmen, or postmen.
“I was very amused,” writes June Kilbourne of Ojai, “by the letter carrier who wanted to be addressed as mailperson. I was a rural mail carrier for 18 years. I was called mail carrier, post lady, postman. . . . I answered to all of them and was proud to do so. I did a job that had traditionally belonged to men but I loved it. I was usually treated with respect and felt really needed and welcome. So, what’s in a name. . . ?”
“I carried mail for 15 years,” writes Norberta Fullen, executive secretary-treasurer of Branch 1100, National Assn. of Letter Carriers, Orange. “And I am a female. I have never been insulted by the use of the term mailman when referring to me. I much prefer mailman to some of the other names I have been called over the years. . . . I am with you. We are all members of the human race. I get excited when someone calls me ‘girl’ in a demeaning way, but not when they call me ‘mailman.’ ”
Meanwhile Richard Mitchell, that brilliant scold of educationists and proprietor of the Underground Grammarian (P.O. Box 203, Glassboro, N. J. 08028), derides John Rousmaniere, a writer of “how to” books on sailing, for renouncing (in a letter to the New York Times) the word helmsman in favor of helmsperson or steerer .
“No one who knows any history at all,” Mitchell writes, “can deny that many women have been subject to men and treated like property or dependent children, or even domestic animals, for most of recorded history on most of the face of the Earth. Shall we now treat them like simpletons to be cajoled with puny offerings of words like helmsperson and herstory ?
“Are they imbeciles, that we can con them into buying our books, and anything else we want to sell them, by changing a word here and there? Are they so dim of mind that we must make allowance for the fact that the poor things do indeed suppose that the word helmsman is a slur devised by men in order to remind them of their inadequacies? Can we buy them off with a few he/she’s ? . . . “
Who knows what my mailperson will bring next?