language equity

Deb Britt Deborah_Britt at
Tue Nov 26 13:37:14 EST 1996

In article <ebrown-2311962242340001 at>,
ebrown at (Ellie Brown) wrote:

> Last week I attended a joint meeting of AWIS (Association for Women in
> Science) and SWE (Society for Women Engineers) where the discussion topic
> was Gender Equity in the Classroom.  One thread involved the perceived
> meaning of words such as "mankind" or the generic pronoun "he".  The women
> in this group were generally between 30 and 60 years old, and almost all
> said that they had always felt included by these terms.  What we finally
> agreed was the more relevant question is "How did the boys in our
> elementary school classes view these terms?" 
> Does anyone here have any insight they would care to share?
> Ellie Brown
> ebrown at

The generic use of masculine pronouns never used to bother me, or at least
only occassionally, until I had kids.  It struck me when I started reading
parent magazines and baby-care books, because they shift from he to she,
sometimes in alternate paragraphs. I realized then that it seemed odd to
see the "she".  

The other thing that bothers me is that in kid's books the overwhelming
majority of characters are male, not just the main characters, but the
supporting casts of bears, ducks, bunnies, dogs, mice etc. are all
referred to as "he".  Where are the females?  Same holds true for
cartoons- where did all those smurfs come from if there is only one
"Smurfette"? Often the token female is a nitwit, or only present to get
into trouble and be rescued.  From day one kids are immersed in a world
where all the important players, it seems, are male and this influence is
insidious.  I'm sure an elementary school boy would tell you that "he" is
the appropriate term not only for people, but for animals and inanimate
objects as well.  I try to make a conscious effort to broaden my sons'
view of the world.  I look for books with female characters, and when we
see an animal of indeterminate gender I often refer to it as she.  Gender
catagorization starts very early in life - my son can tell you
unhesitatingly, of the toys he sees on TV, which are for boys and which
are for girls.  Fortunately, at age four, he is not locked into
stereotypes, and when he asked for "Ocean Magic Barbie"  I bought it
without thinking twice.

Deb Britt

Deborah Britt, Ph.D.
Department of Medical Oncology
Rhode Island Hospital

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