If you’ve ever felt a twinge of anxiety at hearing someone use “humankind” as a substitute for mankind, or if you’ve winced at the proliferation of the politically correct suffix “person” — as in “chairperson,” or “policeperson” — when the more traditional “man” would be perfectly suitable, chances are you’ve suffered from the corrupting linguistic legacy of feminist writer Kate Swift. Swift, who died last week at 87, was one of a squadron of feminist language police whose crusade to remake language to suit their political agendas has wreaked havoc on everyday English.
Feminists had tried to reform language long before Swift and her fellow word scolds arrived on the scene. In 1949, feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir charged that language was “inherited from a masculine society and contains many male prejudices.” She advised that “women have to steal the instrument” and “use it for their own good.”
Swift and her co-author, Casey Miller, attempted precisely such a heist in their influential 1981 book, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. The book had two main premises, both of them dubious. The first was that sexism and sexual discrimination were embedded in the English language. The second was that the language needed to be radically revised in order to change society’s attitudes and make it more inclusive.
Informed more by feminist ideology than linguistic scholarship, the book’s suggested recommendations ranged from the awkward to the downright absurd. For instance, judging the word “mankind” sexist, the authors recommended that it be replaced with “genkind.” Not content simply to ruin existing language, the authors also proposed feminist-friendly neologisms. Thus, “tey,” “ter” and “tem” were to become the sex-neutral surrogates for “he/she,” “his/her” and “him/her.”
Swift and Casey’s more eccentric suggestions failed to catch on, but their book proved a giant leap for genkind, unleashing a wave of feminist assaults on the English language. Picking up where The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing left off, a “feminist dictionary” soon announced in all seriousness that the word “brotherhood” could no longer be used to describe non-fraternal kinship because “it ignores generations of sisters.” Emboldened, feminists insisted that women must now be referred to as “wimmin,” and that history had to become “herstory.”
Had such linguistic absurdities remained confined to the pages of obscure feminist tracts, they would have been a merely an illiterate footnote to the history of modern English. But they became part of the cultural mainstream when the professional arbiters of language embraced the feminist reformation. And so the American Library Association adopted a resolution pledging to avoid supposedly sexist terminology, while the Linguistic Society of America established a Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics for the same purpose. Universities turned feminist recommendations into campus policies, and the worlds of publishing and journalism followed suit, ruining language use for new generations of speakers and writers.
Not the least of the problems with the feminist theories of language popularized by Swift is that they were based on a fallacy. Contrary to feminist claims, there was nothing sexist about generic nouns like “man,” which had been used for centuries to describe humans collectively. Nor did pronouns like “he” exclude women, a point author E.B. White made in his classic style guide for good writing, the Elements of Style:
The use of he as a pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensable. It has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect.
Now it was. History may have been on White’s side, but the culturally ascendant “herstory” was not, and it was feminist pseudo-linguists like Swift who won out in the end. The result was a steady decline in clarity and a surge in the kind of reader-proof, politically correct verbiage that today defines academic jargon — a writing style “somewhere to the left of gibberish,” as an exasperated graduate student once put it.
Feminist theories of language also had spillover effect that contaminated other academic disciplines. Just as language had to be revised to be more gender inclusive, so too did history have to be rewritten to accommodate feminist demands. The result, as Christina Hoff Sommers has documented, was the proliferation of “filler feminism,” in which “non-sexist” texts exaggerated and embellished the role of women in history in order to compensate for their regrettable but real exclusion. So what if women did not play a central role in Native American societies? Feminist historians could claim in the interest of non-sexism that such societies were actually “matriarchal.” Righting historical wrongs was now more important that writing accurate history. Not only did this do a disservice to history but it ill-served students, of both genders, and fueled widespread cultural and historical illiteracy.
Less radical than her feminist followers, Kate Swift always disclaimed being a part of the “word police.” But The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing in many ways served as a model for later attempts to make language an instrument of feminist politics and political correctness. And if she played a part in the transformation of everyday English, three decades on its hard to make the case that it was a change for the better.