(2nd in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)
American schools have long taught the English grammar rule that allows the words “man” and “he” to refer to both males and females. This practice has evolved along a convoluted path.
According to Carolyn Jacobson (English Department, University of Pennsylvania), "man” was once a truly generic word referring to all humans. One document even refers to a seventh-century princess as “a wonderful man.” But the meaning of the word “man” has gradually narrowed to refer only to males.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, upper class boys needed help preparing for their Latin studies, so English grammar rules were created. As a result, "he” officially came to mean “male, only," not “male and female.”
Then a problem arose with using “they” as a singular, rather than plural pronoun. Eventually, grammarians drafted legislation that included establishing “he” as a generic pronoun. An 1850 Act of Parliament officially stated that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”
The new law sanctioned "he" as a generic pronoun, but application of that law was quickly ignored. In 1879, for instance, female physicians seeking admission to the all-male Massachusetts Medical Society were denied acceptance because wording in the Society’s by-laws referred to members only as “he.”
English, like other languages, is still evolving. In the 21st century, pronouns like “man,” “men,” “he,” “him” and “his” are officially generic, but in practice they are usually male-specific. Studies show that, despite knowing traditional grammar rules, both adults and children tend to think of male, not female persons when hearing or reading masculine pronouns.
Author Carol Becker (Leading Women) observes that our grammar rules promote a double standard which allows both men and women to hear male language as neutral and female language as gender-biased, noting that "Our habit of using masculine pronouns reminds us constantly that men are active in human history. …Using 'he' to talk about humanity works in favor of men and contributes to the invisibility of women."
In O Come, Let Us Bow Down and Worship, author Deborah Moore Clark adds that we must choose our words carefully, because "language often warps and filters meaning and understanding. …Words, like mirrors, reflect our attitudes…bear witness to our beliefs…influence our behavior and the behavior of others."
That is why gender-inclusive language is foundational to the issue of "women's place" in church and society. The way we speak shapes the way we think and act. Women will never achieve full equality and opportunity as long as female gender is absorbed into male terminology and imagery.
It's not a matter of being politically correct; it's a matter of putting our theology into practice. The gospel message of inclusion cannot be delivered adequately in the vehicle of gender-exclusive language.
The good news is that we can begin changing the status quo, one individual at a time, by adjusting the way we speak and write. It will take sustained effort, akin to becoming fluent in a second language, but it can be done.
Where to begin? People often stumble over feminine imagery for God (a theological issue for some, which I will address in an upcoming article in this series). So it seems easier to start with using gender-inclusive terms (rather than male-oriented terms like "man" and "he") when speaking of males and females as a combined group.
1. A short list of terms that excludes females:
he males lords guys
him man/men brotherhood gentlemen
his boys mankind fellowman
sons lads fathers brothers
2. A short list of terms that excludes males:
she woman/women gals lasses
her females girls ladies
daughters sisterhood mothers sisters
3. A short list of terms that includes both females and males:
person parent people
internationals sibling nations/nationals
multitudes people of God child/children
everyone/everybody one/one's humans
child(ren) of God anyone/anybody community
mortals human race souls
they/their all creation family/familial
humankind/humanity human beings saint
all/some/many/most co-worker lovers
laborers together sage neighbor
group/people group friend loved ones
world/worldwide folk all races
kin/kindred all generations team
flock/sheep tribe heir
all ages all lands
The idea is to select inclusive terminology from list #3 (avoiding list #1) when speaking of women and men together.
Remember there will always be naysayers who dig up awkward grammar problems (most of which can be worked around) created by substituting gender-inclusive language. But with practice, everyday usage will become second nature for those who are intentional about including women linguistically.
As author Brian Wren (What Language Shall I Borrow?) notes: "Language, like tobacco, is habit forming. Some patterns of writing and speaking are addictive and may damage both the user and others who breathe the same linguistic atmosphere. If we . . . decide to kick the habit, we may get withdrawal symptoms and hostility or derision from other smokers. But in the end, we shall enjoy breathing fresh air.”
Sunday, 23 September 2012
Thursday, 21 June 2012
(1st in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)
Language is powerful. In the broad sense, language as a communication tool takes many forms: behavior, expression, gesture, tone, words. Language has power to bless or curse, inspire or deflate, heal or wound, clarify or confuse, include or exclude.
Theologian and hymn writer Brian Wren, in What Language Shall I Borrow?, says that “language has limited power ‘by itself,’ but it gains considerable power—to enable, oppress, or liberate—in the hands of powerful users.”
The most obvious form of language is words. Words may be written or spoken, read or sung, whispered or shouted. Language not only puts our thoughts into words; language shapes our very thinking.
The nuances of language evolve within cultures and subcultures: countries, regions, cities, even churches and families. In every culture, young children absorb the basic language—including words, phrases, idioms, gestures, inflection, tone—of their parents and siblings, intuiting meaning and usage as they begin to mimic words and phrases.
Formal education then fine-tunes children's inherent language skills, teaching them reading, writing, spelling, vocabulary and rules of grammar, all reinforced through repetition. One's primary language becomes second nature at a very early age.
Once language patterns are set, it then becomes difficult to make adjustments. Editing our primary language is more difficult than learning a second language because the words and idioms of our primary language come to mind so easily that adjusting the verbiage feels awkward, unnatural.
Making changes that are lasting also requires constant intentionality over long periods of time, which many regard as unnecessary and "too much work."
Such is the difficulty when trying to establish gender-inclusive language as normative in patriarchal cultures, where gender-exclusive language has been the primary language for centuries. Ingrained habits are extremely difficult to overcome and replace.
When someone points out another's use of gender-exclusive language, the response is often, "Well, English grammar rules say it's okay to use the word 'man' and 'he' to mean 'everyone.' Everyone knows what I mean." [Then why not just say what you really mean; why force people to interpret your words?]
We sometimes forget that those default grammar rules were themselves created by men who were educated and powerful. Women--who were not allowed a formal education--had no voice in making them. It is no surprise that the rules favor men over women.
Most likely, the rule-makers didn't intend to be "anti-women"; it's just that no one thought to include women in the process. That's one of the biggest problems with women's equality issues, anyway. It's often not so much that women are openly rejected; it's more likely that they are "invisible," simply not thought of.
Then when women object to being constantly overlooked, they are quickly labeled as "aggressive" or "domineering," both considered undesirable traits for women who are expected to be "passively pleasant" in the realm of males.
It is when women speak up that patriarchal society resists, pushing back towards the status quo. As Wren puts it, "Power over others is usually clung to rather than surrendered."
The more patriarchal the culture, the more its women are discounted, overlooked, rejected, considered unimportant, not worth the effort of intentional inclusion. Patriarchal grammar rules are just one of the ways that women are kept "in their place."
Some may argue that perpetual use of outdated grammar rules (i.e., gender-exclusive language) is but a minor problem within efforts to raise the worldwide status of women. That "talk is cheap" and "actions speak louder than words."
On the one hand, that is true. But consider that gender-inclusive language is foundational to the entire question of "women's place" in church and society.
Language shapes thought; thought precedes action. Until the world speaks of women differently and thinks of women differently, women will not be treated differently in the long term.
Gender equity will never be fully achieved in church or society as long as gender-exclusive language is the norm. Only if enough people think gender-inclusive language is important enough to sustain intentional usage long enough will any real progress be made.
The larger question is, "Are women worth it?"
Monday, 20 February 2012
In 1978, Frank and Evelyn Stagg's groundbreaking book, "Woman in the World of Jesus," gave impetus to the modern Women in Ministry movement. The Staggs' meticulous research effectively poked large holes in prevailing Scripture interpretations that advocated male domination of women in church and home.
An uproar ensued among conservative pastors and husbands. The ground shook beneath the status quo platform of "women's place." Today, after decades of passionate debate, the controversy remains heated.
Shortly after the Staggs' book was published, one of my pastor colleagues was attending a conference at Southern Seminary, Louisville. He happened to be sitting with the Staggs at dinner one evening. The conversation drifted to their popular book.
At some point he asked Evelyn how she felt after completing all the research for their manuscript. She looked him square in the eye, set her jaw, and gave a one-word reply: "Mad."
Several years later I was gathering materials for an article* I was writing on Women in Ministry. By then I'd been full-time Minister of Music in a South Georgia church for over a decade--against all odds, considering the climate against women ministers.
Earlier, I'd become certified to teach public school choral music. But my circumstances changed unexpectedly and I "fell into" professional church music ministry instead.
Though I hadn't attended seminary, I found that I was well-prepared for music ministry. In addition to my formal choral training, I was the child of a church-planter Baptist preacher, and grew up doing all sorts of leadership tasks in mission settings. Also, for two summers during college, I conducted music schools in churches throughout Florida.
Unknowingly, I'd been preparing for a career in church music ministry all along. Yet, I'd never considered being a minister, and had no women music minister role models.
Since childhood I'd been taught to follow wherever Christ leads. So Christ called, I followed, and I've thrived as a Minister of Music for 30+ years.
In preparation for the article I was writing on "women's place," I sent a survey to Baptist women ministers throughout Georgia, garnering about twenty intense responses.
My plan was to fashion a mostly anecdotal article from their responses, including a section dealing with women's ordination issues.
Just one problem: I didn't feel qualified to write that section. No biblical scholar here--I hadn't even been to seminary yet. And the survey responses regarding ordination were only moderately helpful.
I remember sitting with KJV Bible in hand, wondering if I'd been wrong about "women's place." Certainly, what I was experiencing was different than what I'd been taught.
My instincts, satisfaction, and affirmation from the saints around me--not scholastic exegesis--had given me confidence in my calling.
With some trepidation, I breathed a quick prayer asking God to reveal whatever it was that I needed to know. Opening my Bible, I decided to focus on Jesus' words and actions.
Yeess!! There it was, clearly shown, even in the KJV. Affirmation after affirmation. How could anybody miss it?
Jesus didn't restrict women; he demolished the status quo. Jesus reserved his strongest admonitions for the religious power brokers, who usually got things wrong.
Jesus made no distinctions between women's and men's roles. He even freed Martha from the kitchen.
Jesus had women disciples. God gave the Good News of Jesus' resurrection first to women, and told them to proclaim it.
Women's "place"--just like men's--is next to Jesus' heart. Knowing Jesus brings boundless freedom, fulfillment and joy.
I can hear Jesus saying, "Follow me. Develop your gifts. Become the wonderful person God created you to be. I'll love you, be with you and partner with you always."
When the Holy Spirit reveals to women (and men) that the status quo they've bought into for so long is a lie--despite well-meaning instruction by trusted parents, religious leaders and mentors--their responses are varied: Shock. Betrayal. Bewilderment. Frustration.
Evelyn Stagg, after discovering truth through her own scholarly research, felt anger. Righteous anger at the misguided teachings of so many churches. Her response? Co-author a book that shares her findings.
For myself, after discovering biblical support for what I'd known all along in my soul, I felt relief, validation. My response? Write a blog advocating for women, especially women ministers--and be the finest Minister of Music that I can be.
Countless other women (and men) also use their little corner of the world to empower women: Activists. Politicians. Authors. Preachers. Social Workers. Mentors. Parents.
Some create websites and utilize social media; others organize conferences and give speeches. Some create informative reading materials; others mentor young women.
Some provide emotional support for battered women; others elevate the physical circumstances of needy women. Some are in-your-face activists; others advocate from behind the scenes.
Whatever the mode of our responses, our message is always the same: "The truth shall set you free."
[*Subsequently published in The Christian Index (GA) and The Southern Baptist Church Music Journal, which devoted the entire 1985 edition--including sensitive commentary about women's ordination--to articles by women music ministers. My, how the SBC's official stance has devolved since then.]