by Raelene Gorlinsky
I am passionate about the power of words. Words not only educate and inform, they powerfully influence beliefs, emotions, actions. Words can change the world by changing how we see the world. I collect quotes, and among my favorites are:
All words are pegs to hang ideas on. ~ Henry Ward Beecher
Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs. ~ Pearl Strachan
Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. ~ Elie Wiesel
The words we write and speak are indeed the way we define and promote ideas and opinions. Analyze the underlying meaning and the “ulterior motives” of words to determine the stand and beliefs of the author of those words. The most famous and moving speeches are just as powerful when read on paper—because the incredible word phrases do not need the “live presentation”, they influence us just as much when merely ink on paper.
First-generation feminists (did you know we're now said to be in the third generation of the feminist movement?) objected loudly to the generic use of he/him and words like "mankind". Why? Many people claimed the feminists were going overboard in attaching such significance to common, well-understood terms - after all, everyone knew that "mankind" meant all humans of either gender, homo sapiens sapiens. Ah, but - that word subtly and subconsciously does have the power to make 'man' the male more important and primary than the other, non-male half of humankind. Same thing with the continual use of 'he' to represent any generic person.
Yes, it's clunky to always write "he or she", "her or him", "humankind". (And let's not get into the efforts of some to create new words, like 'shim'.) But there are lots of resources available to help you craft non-gender-specific language. I recommend reading Gender Exclusive Language, from Empire State College:
If you are referring to a generic person or group of people, or a role or position that could be either gender (that includes everything except sperm donors and birth-givers), then don't influence your reader toward a specific gender. Remember the power of your words and use that power wisely. Be careful what ideas you let hang from the pegs of your words.