Monday, October 13, 2008

Road Signs, Gender-Neutral Language, and Sexism

I recently posted an ad for a blogger to join me at Reclamation Feminist. I’ll be moving the site to its own domain soon, and I want to grow the site as something bigger than just me sitting at home sharing my thoughts.

One of the people who applied sent me a sample with a story I hadn’t heard about before now. I was surprised actually. Not only is it an interesting feminist story, but it happened in Atlanta. I grew up in Georgia. I did my undergraduate work at Mercer University in Macon and was in graduate school at the University of Georgia. So I tend to keep up with what’s going on there.

But I digress.

The link was about Cynthia Good, the owner of PINK magazine. The magazine is headquartered in Atlanta, and Good pointed out to the city council that using “Men Working” on road signs is sexist. I recall vaguely this issue coming up elsewhere a few years ago, and I’m pretty sure some states now use a generic “people working” or “city workers on the job” or something similar. So Good’s idea wasn’t news to me.

According to the press release on PINK's website, the suggestion has been in effect since 1978 for road workers, and many states use people, workers, or flaggers.

The story did make me rethink how much we, as feminists, should care about semantics. I’ve read a number of essays recently suggesting that we shouldn’t care. A women's issues editor on a site I visit recently explained that using gender-specific pronouns isn’t a problem. We just shouldn’t give a damn if something says “he” instead of “one” or “he or she.” We shouldn’t care if something says “manned” instead of “staffed.” We shouldn’t care if an essays says “mankind” instead of “people” or “humanity.”

But you know what? We should care! It is important.

When we read, we internalize what we’re hearing or reading. We either actively oppose it, or we accept it. Studies on viewing violent pornography, for example, show that men who watch it internalize the message and become desensitized to violence against women even if the men at the beginning of such studies indicate an opposition to violence against women. Children playing video games do the same. They come not to care about the violence they’re experiencing the game and don’t react to it.

So, why wouldn’t the same be true for non-violent reading and watching? If you’re reading “he” all the time in a text about doctors, doesn’t that suggest to you – if only subconsciously – that “he” and not “she” goes with “doctor”?

Why do people think using gender-neutral language is so offensive? If you don’t have a problem with saying “men working,” you’re entitled not to care. But why get up in arms when someone else does care? If it doesn’t matter, then why not keep quiet and let the change take place? Of all the money the city of Atlanta spends every year, I don’t think buying a few new road signs is going to break the city’s budget.

A compromise would be to replace signs with new ones saying “people working” or to put gender-neutral language on the digital signs lining the interstates around the city. The digital signs are changed as traffic conditions change, so using gender-neutral language costs nothing.

Changing the signs does have benefits, though. It empowers girls and women who may consider a career in construction. It recognizes the contributions of the women who work in the field already. And it moves us one step closer to equality.

Words matter. It's time we stop backing down from that fundamental truth.

1 comment:

kat said...

how 'bout just "roadwork"?
What would be wrong with that?