RIP Kate Swift, The Woman Who Stopped Us From Saying “Stewardess”
Once upon a time, a flight attendant was called a stewardess. Police officers and fighterfighters were policemen and firemen. And all women were addressed based on their marital status as “Miss” or “Mrs.” But not anymore, in large thanks to writer Kate Swift, who died on Saturday at age 87. In 1970, two writers were asked to copy edit a sex education manual for junior high schools. It was then that it struck Kate Swift and Casey Miller how the pronouns were “overwhelmingly masculine,” according to The New York Times. (Odd, given how sex ed is a subject where the genders should truly be represented in text 50/50!) The women submitted copy edits with many changes to make the text less sexist: they avoided pronouns where they could and added in more references “she” and “her.”
The publisher didn’t take all their edits, but Kate Swift and Casey Miller were “revolutionized,” as Kate put it. They went on to write Women and Words and a style guide, The Handbook For Nonsexist Writing. Both books sought to provide substitutes for common words and phrases, thereby tweaking the English language so men and masculinity were no longer “the default setting,” so to speak. Their argument was that sexism could be eradicated if we paid more attention to the way we use language, such as not assuming a flight attendant is a woman and therefore not using the term “stewardess” and refusing to identify women by their marital status with “Miss” or “Mrs.” and instead use the more ambiguous term “Ms.”
The two women also wrote an essay, “De-Sexing The English Language,” which was published in the feminist magazine Ms., and “One Small Step For Genkind,” which was published in The New York Times Magazine. Wait, what’s “genkind”? Oh, that. Yeah, some of their tweaks to the English language have not been entirely embraced. Substituting “genkind” for “mankind” never took, nor did “tey,” “ter” and “tem” for “he/she,” “his/her” and “him/her.” (However, some LGBT advocates and feminists use do gender-neutral terms in their writing, although I have predominantly seen “zhe” and “hir.”)
Casey Miller died in 1997. Sadly, this weekend, Kate Swift died at age 87 in Connecticut.
I actually own a copy of The Handbook For Nonsexist Writing (I think my mom got it at a tag sale?) and now I’m dying to dig through it to see what other gender-neutral suggestions never quite took — and which ones did.
[NY Times Magazine: Letter To The Editor On “De-Sexing The English Language”]
[Abstract on “One Small Step For Genkind”]
[Amazon: Women And Words]
[Amazon: The Handbook Of Nonsexist Writing]