Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 4th: Reading (as if) without Feminism, (as if) without Gender (Read: "As If Without Women")

Too much is going on not to blog (and I have some time today, and today only perhaps).

Many of us are re-reading The Declaration of Independence of the USA on its 233rd anniversary this month. Rhetorician Stephen Lucas suggests that "one of the best-known sentences in the English language" (page 85) is from this text of the Declaration. That sentence is as follows:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I suggest that this sentence is also one of the most translated English sentences. So what?

So what? Translators and paraphrasers may open up the second meanings in the first (male only) text. Perhaps one of the most radical renderings of this sentence (of the Declaration) is the one in another Declaration of another July in the USA. It reads:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

And yet rhetoricians Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald suggest that "It is a line that does not seem so radical today but it shook the foundations of the U.S. government in 1848" (page 138).

Now, I'm asking:

If it doesn't seem so radical today, then

>why does Rebecca Honig Friedman seem so content that there are "only a few books by women on the list" of the best 50 books of Newsweek magazine recommendation today for "What to Read Now. And Why"? Only a few - count them yourself. Only a few. Why?

>why do Peter W. Bernstein and Annalyn Swan include so few books by women writers in their "Newsweek's Top 100 Books: The Meta-List"? So few - count them yourself. So few. Why?

>why in Bedford, Texas USA today so close to where I live, why is "Women's Ordination" in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) only, and only just now, "A Crack in the Cathedral"? Why is that a mere question"?" - a subtitle in the blog post article today by Katelyn Beaty?

What if it were to seem radical to us today right here and right now? What if always and for a long, long time now, the most-read texts actually included women as much as they include God and are included by their Creator?


John Radcliffe said...

Hi JK,

Can I wish you a happy Christmas and all the best for 2010? Just in case this happens to be your last post of 2009 …

"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal …"

Shouldn't that be "all people" or "all human beings"?

As I see it, while "all men" might have been intended as a generic reference to all human beings (rather than to just adult males), "all men and women" clearly refers to just adults, and so excludes children. Didn't the writers believe that children should have rights, too? Or were they just more concerned with protecting or obtaining their own rights (as we all tend to be)?

Kind regards, John

J. K. Gayle said...


Thank you for your fun and important comment! My apologies for the delayed reply. Yes, Christmas will be here all too soon, so Happy Christmas and New Year to you as well, my friend!

I believe Elizabeth Cady Stanton and colleagues were trying to point out how unmarked the use of "men" can be (i.e., in the Declaration of Independence). Don't you like "and women" as also a way to draw attention to the inattention to "women"? And, yes, I suppose "children" must be included, and, of course, they really are included eventually as are other minorities in the language of late amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The work of abolitionists and feminists seems effective over time.

John Radcliffe said...

I don't have a problem with "men and women" if people are just making a point (especially if the context is clearly referring just to adults). But in general, I'd much prefer a fully inclusive term such as "people" or "human beings".

The problem I see is that, when one starts a list, it's all too easy to end up inadvertently excluding as many as you try to include. By adding "and women" we force "men" to be understood non-generically. Then we need to add "children" so it's not just limited to adults. But is "children" inclusive enough? Does it include "infants" and "babies", or "teenagers" (who might not see themselves as children). What about the unborn? Where do we stop?

So it's a bit like those awful thank-you speeches at award presentations. For every name they add they realise there are two or three others who helped just as much ("… and a big thank you to the couple my English teacher used to baby-sit for when she was at school. If they hadn't encouraged her to forget bus driving as a career and to follow her dream of becoming a teacher, then I probably wouldn't be here today accepting this award …").

Of course, once upon a time I used to disparage the idea of avoiding the generic use of "man" and "men", and the generic use of masculine pronouns. People aren't that naïve, I used to think: they know the way these words work. Now my viewpoint has completely reversed: I feel uncomfortable just hearing that kind of usage on the TV news, or wherever. (When they talk about "the first men on the moon", is that "men" generic or not?)

Now as I see it, someone who "talks for a living" needs to know something about the language they're using in addition to the subject matter they're talking about. But I'd better not get started on people like newscasters and weather forecast presenters: just when did such people begin to see it as their job to entertain rather than simply inform?

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks, John, for your thoughts and questions.

What you say reminds me a bit of tagmemic linguistics, where the concern of the outsider linguist is in part to discern what the insider's conceptual unit may be.

It's sort of the Heraclitus problem: is the river I step in the same? When does a specific piece of data belong to an insider's category? Linguist George Lakoff observed, for example, that Australian Dyirbal speakers have a classifier that includes "women, fire, and dangerous things." This is a grammatical/ lexical classifier some like what you're after, I think, in trying to generally categorize in English, many variants included, by a "a fully inclusive term such as 'people' or 'human beings'."

In my native language Vietnamese, Xanh, is the color term for what in my native language English is called "blue" and / or "green." The fact is that language and cultural values in language help us to chunk our reality.

As an American, as a feminist, I like my English to have the kind of inclusion you suggest! Hence, traditional (gender specific) pronouns often get sacrificed in the interest of broader inclusion. And I like that! I like that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her male and female colleagues insist that the 1776 Declaration with its "all men" be revised in their 1848 Declaration as "all men and women." I like that Supreme Court Justices through the decades have agreed to revise legal code (i.e., language) to include various individuals as "human beings" and "people."

Thanks again for your thoughts, John.