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The Chair and Who Sits in It: Gender and Language

by Harry W. Yeatts Jr.


The question:

"Who shall we elect chair of the meeting?"


The responses:

"Chair is such an ugly expression; it's as ugly as chairperson."

"What's wrong with chairman? It's a perfectly good word, means both sexes. We don't need a new word!"

"A corruption of the English language; I swear, it's going to hell in a handbasket!"

"Chair, chairperson...more feminist quibbling if you ask me."

"That sounds funny; whoever heard of someone being a chair?"

"Old Henry there would make a great chair--he's overstuffed and sagging!"

"My daddy was chairman once; he's probably rolling over in his grave."

"Better change that to chairman; the boys upstairs won't like it."


Obviously the respondents are ill-at-ease with chair used this way. But why such responses?

Is it really because it is new?

Actually, chair, meaning one who runs a meeting, is not new; it has been in existence for over 300 years. It may be enjoying a revival of sorts, but no one made it up recently. Some speakers of English decided that chairman wasn't doing the job, so they began using chair again (or they coined the word chairperson--in analogy to

to anyone (known or unknown, male or female) to hold the position.

Some "purists" would deny the addition of any word to our word stock. When electrocute was coined several decades ago to describe the new phenomenon of execution using electricity, the purists railed because the word was a hybrid of Latin and Greek. Then, when electrocute began to be used to refer to any death by electricity, they railed again, decrying the "imprecision" of the usage. The purists wailed--but to what effect?

Is it because chair is ugly?

"Ugly" is in the ear of the beholder, and that can be a very subjective thing. As for chair: "Who shall we elect chair of the meeting?" is no more awkward linguistically than "Who shall we elect to the board?" No one retorts: "What kind of board? A 2 x 4?" The use of chair in this way has ample historical precedent.

One of the charms of English is its adaptability, its flexibility to turn nouns into verbs--or to turn verbs into nouns or shuffle two forms into one or even make them up from thin air.

But discounting the purists for a moment and accepting the fact that a word may be ugly or beautiful depending upon one's preferences, what is it about chair (or chairperson) that distresses these people so?

To find the answer, we must go beyond the word itself, beyond its linguistic background, to the determined need for the word. Someone perceived a need for chair and chairperson because not everyone who heads a meeting is or could only be a man, as in chairman. But that's the rub: some perceived the need--but not everyone. Thus the conflict is not so much about the word itself, but about the need for the word.

When a word is coined (or adapted) to fit a new product or use, there may or may not be a negative reaction, and this seems mainly to depend upon the object itself. Rumble seat, for instance, was coined back in the 1930s to describe a new form of seat arrangement in a car. It was smiled upon because what it described was smiled upon. VCR (video cassette recorder) has found its place quickly and happily because what it refers to has been welcomed itself.

But some other new terms have found a bit of rough going. Computer terms--for example, floppy disk, software, access (as a verb), and others--are finding their place too, if not always by a grateful citizenry. Individuals excited about the technological revolution embrace these terms and throw them around as if they were gifts from the gods. Others, however, laugh or sneer at them, not so much because of the form of the words themselves, but because of what lies behind them. Anyone disdaining the new technology or afraid of having to work with computers also tends to shun the words associated with them.

Thus, the idea behind the word is at issue here, not the word itself. And so, in the case of chair/chairperson, perhaps we can piece together the reasons for the linguistic responses by looking at the social responses.

In a letter to the editor several years ago, a newspaper reader wrote that he was offended by the use of chairperson because it denied him his sexuality. He went on to say that chairperson was "by its nature" sexual because it contained -son. He exhorted his fellow readers to get rid of it "before more...Americans fall into the trap of expressing and promoting this insult as 'truth.'"

In his desire to stop the use of chairperson, the reader attacked the word itself (and he was etymologically wrong). He also overlooked the fact that other similar terms--president, treasurer, head, etc.--are gender neutral too, which is all the users of chairperson wanted when they coined it in the first place.

But what may indeed be the "truth" of the matter is that, although the reader was attacking the word, in fact he was really attacking the social implications it signaled. Somehow he figured that his sexuality was in danger. And that is a very telling notion.

Another aspect of the chair/chairperson/chairman argument involves whether getting rid of chairman as a generic description is really "just more feminist quibbling."

The essence of the "feminist quibbling" angle is two-fold: (1) man can mean either men or women, and (2) as long as a woman can "sit in the chair" and have the power that that entails, what does it matter what she is called? The power is there whether she is called chairman, chairwoman, chair, or chairperson.

Again, the linguistic argument is actually more of a social argument. We all care what we are called because of the connotations--the social connotations--of the words we use.

For example, what would be the connotations involved in the following: "She ran the committee like a man," (or: "He ran the committee like a woman.")? There are connotations implicit in these statements. "Like a man" can carry the connotation "not like a woman," for instance. To say, then, that a woman being called chairman, then, has no connection with these connotations is to miss how the language works.

Mailman, repairman, and salesman are all compound words with this connection: a man who __________. It is simple and direct, and goes on at the subconscious level. Given any compound, the speaker will connect the two parts. A long-distance runner is a runner of long distances. A gunfighter uses a gun to fight. A telephone book is a book for use with the telephone.

Subconsciously then, a chairman is a man who chairs (presides over) something. It takes a conscious effort to insert "or woman" into the equation. And conscious efforts are not accomplished as easily as subconscious ones.

Compounding this is the fact that chairman is the basic word most people use--and they use it precisely because they expect a man to be in charge (except in organizations where all the members are women). Being chair is a nontraditional role for women, just as chairperson or chair is a nontraditional term to describe the phenomenon. Fighting the new terms is an expression of the fight against the change in social roles.

Many women attaining--or attempting to attain--positions of power do not "quibble" over the words used to describe those positions. Indeed, because they are walking a very narrow path with many obstacles to overcome, they have their eyes set on the prize, not on the words describing the prize. Toughness is usually one of the attributes of the powerful, and it wouldn't really be "tough" to grouse about linguistic problems.

Whereas one might accept the realities of power in the games adults play, the connotative effects on the youngest speakers of English require a somewhat different view.

One of the earliest things children learn is that daddy is a man and mommy is a woman; it is a fundamental part of the social learning process. But later the child is also taught that man can be daddies and mommies both. How difficult, then, is this linguistic snarl to learn?

Take the following scene:

A young black boy approaches his mother and asks:

"Mom, what does this sentence mean: 'Now is the time for all good white people to come to the aid of their country.'?"

"Well, it means that there are times when we should all pull together against some threat to the country."

"It says white people, and you say all of us--black people too?"

"Yes, black people too."

"But it says white people!"

"Well, sometimes white people can mean both--white and black people."

"You mean white people can mean white people, AND white people can mean white people and black people?"

"Yes, son, it can. Do you understand now?"

Does he understand? He may indeed learn to make the interpolations involved each time he hears or reads the term white people, and he may learn to make the mental gyrations necessary to interpret meaning. But wouldn't his subconscious always tend to register the situation as being out of kilter? He couldn't help but notice that white people dominated, and that it wasn't black people that was being used to include both groups. And through simple deduction, he would perhaps understand that the statement originally meant just that: white people, and that the inclusion of the understood "and black people too" was done later. And though he may be told--and even believe--that there was no slight intended in this particular usage, could he really accept the equality he must strain to inject into the phrase?

In the power games this child might grow up to play, he could very well continue the traditional phraseology rather than be described as "thin skinned" or "quibbling." He may come to understand the game and play it as it stands. But what about his own children? What will they think when they come across the phrase?

What we are called affects us all--how we view ourselves and how we view others. If the terms used to describe us are blatantly negative, have negative connotations, or even slight us by omission, it has a deleterious effect on our self-image. Those who use these terms are affected negatively, too, for they are--consciously or subconsciously--cultivating bias.

Some negative language is easily spotted: kike, nigger, honky, polack. These are all clearly derogatory and show, if not unkindness bred of ignorance, then an intentional slur meant to demean and hurt.

And while the attitudes behind such slurs may not be easily changed, it is easy to point out why someone wouldn't like them. Telling Italians, for example, that Chicanos don't like wetback any more than Italians like being called wop gives them something to relate to, something that is personal and direct.

Gender-based language, however, isn't so easily discerned. For instance, calling the woman who delivers the mail a mailman just doesn't have the same obvious slur, the same personal angle as wop or wetback. Mailman, in itself, isn't a dirty name; it has no obvious, intentionally negative overtones. It is a very commonplace word established at a time when most jobs outside the home were restricted to men. It was only natural at that time for -man to be added to the title of those jobs (e.g., mailman, insurance man, fireman).

But the fact that it has become so ordinary, so seemingly innocuous, is part of the problem. It isn't thought of by most speakers as a slur, yet it is a reminder--at least on a subconscious level--as to who can do or should be doing a particular job.

Changing a gender-specific title to a gender-neutral one is only part of the process, however.

For example, now that more women are delivering mail, putting out fires, selling insurance, etc., makers of official policy are changing the designations appropriately: mail carrier, fire fighter, insurance agent. But only if and when the majority of people begin using these terms on an everyday basis can it be said that social views have changed.

* * *

"The captain was worried about the committee elections. Last year's chair had been a good leader, but John, the front runner this year, seemed indecisive. The captain knew she would have to be very careful with her vote."

Social views can also be indicated by titles that have no gender markers attached.

Even those of us who know that a woman could indeed be a captain hesitate when the word she pops up in paragraphs like the one above. We have an image of a captain, and that image--because of our upbringing--is almost always of a man. It will take time and greater awareness of women doing these jobs for the gender association to be rendered neutral itself.

Perhaps the younger speakers of our language won't have to backtrack like we do, though. Pioneers like Sally Ride, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Geraldine Ferraro make it easier for them not to have gender associations with astronaut, judge, and politician. This, along with gender-neutral titles like mail carrier, will help remove a subtle obstacle in their choice of careers.

Gender associations can and do change. Sometimes they can even swing from one extreme to another. For example, today secretary has strong female-gender association, but at one time the word had just as strong an association in the other direction. At that time all secretarial positions were held by men, thus the association was quite firm. When women began working outside the home, secretarial positions were a likely source of employment because they were at least more "ladylike" than others.

Nowadays, men are making as yet very small inroads into the secretarial profession, and the gender association remains.

Another example is teacher. The profession and the word underwent a similar transformation from male to female, but since more and more men are now becoming teachers, the gender association is weakening.

* * *

"Anyone can be chair if he wants to be."

Gender association is not just limited to occupational titles, either. It can also be found at one of our most basic linguistic levels: our pronouns.

Take the following sentence: "Anyone can be a doctor if he wants to be."

It's a straightforward sentence, clearly understood and grammatically "correct." That is, the anyone can mean a male or a female, and--according to custom--the he is also gender neutral.

Now, take this sentence: "Anyone can be a nurse if he wants to be." Another straightforward sentence? No, it isn't. In theory it should be, but the gender association of nurse makes the nurse/he combination awkward and somehow wrong. Thus if the referent word is gender associated, then the pronoun's meaning is affected. "Anyone can be a secretary if he wants to be" is rarely if ever used; instead, "Anyone can be a secretary if she wants to be" is used. The he doesn't mean he or she, it only means he.

Most doctors are "he's" and most nurses are "she's"; no one makes the "mistake" of using he when the antecedent is female-gender associated. (Male nurse and woman doctor also reinforce the crossing of gender-associated occupations.)

Thus, if one has to make explicit that the referent is female, then the customary he cannot be gender neutral. If she is not used in such constructions, speakers subconsciously assume that males are the referent--and speakers learning the language learn that, for example, all doctors are "he's."

When the referent is not gender associated, most speakers can solve the problem of gender by slipping into the plural: "Would everyone please leave their hats in the hall." In fact, this solution is centuries old--in spoken English at least; in written English, the "arithemtic equation" of everyone (one = singular) equaling his (singular) prevails, even though it is roundly acknowledged that everyone is plural in nature.

It is not uncommon to hear someone decry the everyone (anyone, etc.)/their construction as ungrammatical; it is also not uncommon to hear these same people use it themselves. The reason for this is simple: most everyone uses it--when talking at least--because of the nature of the thought. Speakers of English, not having a third-person singular, gender-neutral pronoun for a person, just use the plural form.

Arguments about "agreement" do not wash in this discussion of pronouns-- especially the arguments that an "arithmetic equation" applies. In everyday "grammatical" use, we say and write, for example, you were, when the you refers to one person. And we do this because a grammarian decided a couple of centuries ago that you was wasn't as pleasant sounding as you were, so now we use the plural were form for both singular and plural.

Also, aren't I is considered acceptable, though I are and I aren't are definite no-nos. Aren't I is a direct consequence of teachers deciding that ain't was being overused. Ain't, at the time, was the contraction of am not; in fact, it became so popular that speakers began using it all over the place: we ain't, you ain't, etc. If speakers had had their way, today we might indeed be saying ain't in this manner.

Thus, speakers of English have no natural contraction for am not--except colloquially. We may use the contraction I'm not declaratively, but that won't work interrogatively. Thus, we've borrowed the plural aren't to do the job.

Arithmetic, then, has little to do with usage. (This isn't to say that language isn't structurally mathematical; but that is another story.)

Reflexive pronouns offer another example of nonarithmetic constructions. Myself, ourselves, herself, and yourself, all use the genitive case prefix, yet themselves and himself use the objective case. And poor old it stands without any case at all.

Many of the "rules" of language, then, are not immutable absolutes; they change with the speakers (or even through misguided instruction by those in authority). There is no foundation for dismissing as ungrammatical a sentence like "Anyone can be a doctor if they want to be." So, again, perhaps the subject is not one of grammar at all, but one of social perception. Keeping so-called "precision" in language is really a quest to keep "precision" in our social world. When doctors are "he's" and nurses are "she's" and the boundaries clear, there is a type of precision and orderliness. When the boundaries become muddy and imprecise, there can be confusion and even fear over the properness of all manner of things. Keeping the language "precise" may be one way to try to counteract the imprecision around us.

* * *

"I nominate Mrs. Henry Smith to be chair."

Social perception through language is one of language's most important aspects. We use language regularly to tell others who and what we are, directly and indirectly. And this communication plays a large part in how we view ourselves and what is important to us.

There is social information, for example, in the above quotation; it says strongly that the woman is married and who she is married to. And since we have no courtesy title to indicate a man's marital status, it must be considered socially important that a woman's identity--but not a man's--be closely associated with her marital status.

In replying to a question about whether she was going to take her husband's name upon marrying, a young woman once said: "Of course I am, what a question!" When asked why, she responded: "Well, because I want to show that I love him." Then, when asked if her husband was going to take her name to show that he loved her, she was momentarily stunned, then laughed at the "little joke."

It was, then, not a conscious decision on her part to take her husband's name, but an automatic social response.

It is a question of identity, and using Ms. is not as clear an identification as Mrs. or Miss. When a woman's status is determined by whether she is married or not, the courtesy title is the linguistic evidence she can broadcast to other members of society.

* * *

"I'd like to discuss who we should nominate as chair. I'll have my girl call your girl."

Like courtesy titles for women, girl can carry indications of social status and connotation. In the above quotation, the "girls" in question may be forty or fifty years old, hardly fitting the denotation of a girl as being a very young female. Somehow, then, using girl to refer to a fully grown woman must have other social meaning, and it does: a lack of social status and power.

When "the girls" get together or "the boys" get together, it is nothing so much as an attempt to play, to get away from the cares of adulthood. But boy and girl can mean more than both its denotative meaning and this informal meaning. There are layers of meaning within these terms and they can carry precise status definitions along with them. Calling a black man a "boy," for example, has connotations implying inferiority or subservience. An eighty-year-old black man calling a twenty-year-old black man a "boy" means one thing: a reference to his youth. An eighty-year-old white man doing the same thing may not. There is imprecision in the latter, and a possible slur.

The boys upstairs is a deferential reference to the powerful, the decision makers. The girls in the office is not deferential, but is a reference to their function, which to many people is a subservient one.

The same words in different contexts determine their connotation. The same young black man who takes offense at being called "boy" by an older white man, may indeed be striving to be called "one of the boys upstairs." It is all a matter of context.

* * *

"Now, the nominees for chair of the committee are John Smith and Mary Jones. Let's look at their credentials to see which one is most qualified."

Language cannot be separated from the social perceptions of the people who speak it. Words carry with them indications of social status and power. How we use them tells about how we view ourselves, how we view others, and how we view the relationships between ourselves and others.

In matters of gender, then, there is a social-linguistic cycle. The more often a position (or occupation) is held by a person of either gender, for example, the less gender association will be attached to the term describing it. At the same time, the less gender association attached to the term describing a position, the less gender association there will be attached to the position itself--and thus will individuals of either gender be more likely to believe that they can hold those positions.

If a term or a usage is described as awkward or imprecise (or even ugly), one should look first not at the word itself but at the social perception the word symbolizes.

(By the way, the committee didn't like either nominee, so they're starting over.)

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