Brain Pickings

Gender Politics and the English Language, Pete Seeger Edition


“Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.”

“Since the only test of truth is length of life,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her meditation on language, “and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest.” Indeed, language and culture are in constant osmosis, feeding and shaping each other.

From Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 (public library) — that remarkable collection of “social media” from the second wave of feminism, which gave us many brave women’s epistles of empowerment — comes this charming letter by legendary American folk singer and political activist Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014). At the time in his mid-fifties, he explores with equal parts wit and insight the gender politics of language:

The words congressperson and chairperson are awkward words, typical of the ugly words created by scholars and scientists. Working people traditionally simplify language. God bless the English peasants who gave us a hand, if irregular slanguage, by combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French and discarding the formalities of both.

Why not use a vowel like o: congresso or chairo? And for those who don’t’ want to use the syllable man, likewise change foreman, boilerman, anchorman, newspaperman. et cêtera.

The language, agreed, needs more neutral words. Now’s the time to make the changes more creatively. Incidentally, we might as well face it: we’ve got to invent some neutral pronouns. Saying “his or her” all the time is awkward unless we want to slur it into “hizar.”

As a man, perhaps I have no right to make such suggestions, but as a user of words, I think I do. Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes.

P.S. I’ve been the chairo of many committees, and I like the word.

Pete Seeger
Beacon, New York
February 5, 1974

It’s always a bit disorienting to consider the history of the things we’ve come to take for granted, but Ms. editor and reconstructionist Mary Thom reminds us in the chapter on language, in which Seeger’s letter appears, that the cultural shift toward gender neutrality took a long time. June 19, 1986, was a major turning point for one such thing that shapes modern gender politics: Even after the Second Wave of Feminism had gathered critical mass, The New York Times had been a major holdout against using “Ms.” as a courtesy title for women, clinging instead to the only then-accepted addresses: “Miss” for single women and “Mrs.” for the married. But on that fateful spring day, the Times finally capitulated and joined, after having failed to helm, this seminal and symbolic shift toward women’s independence.

Though Letters to Ms., 1972-1987 is long out of print, used copies are luckily still floating around and are very much worth a grab — the collection is absolutely fantastic from cover to cover.

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