About two years ago now, my brother decided to apply for a job at a sailmaking company. He wanted to indicate his sewing experience on his resume, and he asked me for help with what word to use to define himself in that way. He did not want to put himself forward as a tailor, because the things he sews aren’t clothing. “Stitcher” seemed too tied up with making stitches by hand, or embroidery and threadcraft, which was irrelevant to the job and also something he knew nothing about. Sewer–although correct–is, as he put it, an unfortunate homonym. “Person Who Sews” looks and sounds awkward. Seamstress was basically the thing he needed, but did not want to use a gendered word on his resume. It would introduce a lot of unnecessary confusion and distraction into the job screening process, and confusion and distractions rarely help anyone get hired.
Had there been another gender-neutral term for “person who sews” he’d have never encountered this problem. And it’s a common problem–people find themselves in situations where they are doing the same job everyone else is but with a title that excludes them. My brother had trouble communicating efficiently to a potential employer that he had relevant sewing skills, simply because the best term available limited itself to women. The word’s construction excludes men by its very definition, and men who want to be recognized for their sewing-but-not-tailoring skills have a layer of obscurity they have to work through that does not affect women doing the exact same work.
Seems perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? He came up with the word “seamstro” (you heard it here first!), which has a nice ring to it, and expresses pretty efficiently what he wanted to express (although in the end he went with “sewer” on the resume and hoped context clues would apply). He encountered a problem with a gendered term and so coined a new word to include everyone. No big deal, right?
Except, for some reason, when women coin gender-neutral terms (at least in English) to solve the same problem for themselves, it becomes a big deal; it frequently balloons into controversy. You’d think that feminists were trying to overturn all traditions and rules of English grammar to appease a small, radical group of activists at the expense of everyone else. The title “Ms.” (versus Mrs. or Miss) was consciously adopted by women who wanted an equivalent to “Mr.”–a title that did not indicate their marital status (ie, sexual availability) in professional or social settings. The term is older than Ms. Magazine, but that magazine’s popularity put it into common knowledge by the 1970s. The media fought it hard, though, and some newspapers (I’m looking at you, New York Times) flat-out refused to use it. Then the “problem” of writing about vice-presidential candidate Mrs. John Zaccaro–I mean, Geraldine Ferraro–came up, and language columnist William Safire (very grudgingly) conceded that the solution to the problem would be to just use the damn title Ms. (my phrase, not his) and be done with it. It broke his heart, he said (his words, not mine), that the time had finally come for it, that newspaper editors were finally out of the business of disclosing whether women who made the news were sexually available or not, and were putting the responsibility of finding out on the readers who cared to find out. (You can read all about it in his column “Goodbye Sex, Hello Gender” from 1984, which I found via Google News at the Lakeland Ledger.) Despite all the brouhaha and handwringing and end-of-an-era sentiments over it a few decades ago, the title now is so ubiquitous it appears in the United States on everything from government forms to online surveys, and nobody bats an eye. People use it out of habit even with women they know the marital status of. Nobody is confused, nobody is marginalized, everybody wins.
The same thing happened with schoolmarm (teacher), aviatrix (pilot), stewardess (flight attendant), Women’s Army Corps (Army), fire- and policeman (firefighter and police officer), and waitress (server, at least at the family restaurant chains I frequent). Chairman (chairperson or simply chair) is more recalcitrant. Every so often I’ll be at a meeting when the person who is actually acting as chair of a committee makes some grumpy, grumbling remark about how he’s a human being and not a piece of furniture and how burdensome the extra syllable in chairperson is. It’s annoying. It’s annoying because it is far more burdensome to explain how burdensome the word is than to just use the word, and it’s annoying because it’s a reminder that the term this person who is the leader prefers is one that excludes by definition the women who have volunteered their time and effort (and sometimes money) to support this particular venture.
Women don’t come up with gender-neutral terms because they are offended by the old term, or want to push some “feminist agenda”–they just find themselves doing tasks that are identical to tasks men are doing, and want to be recognized for their efforts. Clinging to the old term out of spite because you wanna or because you think it better meets some objective standard of efficiency, or derailing a conversation for the purpose of questioning the need for the new term in the first place actually is offensive, though (you’re telling women to their face that they don’t need to be recognized for work they do), so if you end up in an argument about the gender-neutral term anyway, realize that it’s an argument you started and it’s an argument that’s not really about the usefulness of the word.
I don’t know what gender-neutral term is coming down the pipeline that women will start using and will start expecting everyone else to use, but when it appears, and when you find out why women prefer this new term over the common term that has been excluding them, just start using the new one. If you forget and someone reminds you about the new term, just toss out a quick “sorry” and then repeat your sentence with the new word in place, so you can actually have a discussion about the topic you actually wanted to talk about. It’ll be as easy to pick up the habit of the new word as it was to pick up the habit of the word “blog” (a word coined on purpose to represent a new kind of activity that very few people were familiar with once). Give it a few months, and the new gender-neutral term will sound natural and the old exclusionary term will sound archaic.
Just think of the seamstros! Or maybe seamstroes. (I’ll wait for the OED to figure that one out.) Regardless, do it for them, and also for all those women you wish were more actively involved in skepticism, and all those women in the skeptical movement who are tired of talking about stupid crap like why gender-neutral terms are valuable instead of the skeptical business of the day.