Yesterday the Massachusetts House of Representatives gave its initial approval to a bill that would require all future legislation to use gender-neutral language like “he/she” and “his/her” instead of the general use of “he”. Finally there will be justice for anyone who has ever read state legislative documents and felt subordinated by pronouns!
The gender-neutral law was introduced by State Representative Cory Atkins of Concord, who has a gender-neutral name him/herself. Atkins spearheaded the bill after he/she read a bill about nursing that used masculine pronouns. “I thought I must have picked up the wrong legislation because it was all, ‘he’ this, ‘he’ that, when nursing is predominantly a female profession,” she/he said. Actually, nursing is done exclusively by women out of biologic necessity, which I imagine made the generic “he” in the breastfeeding bill even starker.
As a wordsmith, the use of concatenated pronouns offends my inner sense of diction. It’s inelegant and jarring to the eye, and legalese hardly needs any more idiomatic clutter. Agreeing with me is Rep. Robert Hargraves of Groton, who told the Boston Herald “I think it’s (expletive)… We’ve got too much to do here with actual items to be fooling around with this crap.” Obviously he is not a man given to pondering linguistic nuances.
The issue is not precision, of course, because when Chapter 265, Section 26B forbids “Drugging persons for kidnapping” (here) by repeatedly stipulating “against his will,” we all intuitively know that women cannot be legally be drugged and kidnapped either. The issue is if the use of the “generic he” in legislation truly discriminatory. I chalk it up to linguistic convenience , but one bourn out of a long history of systematic sexism. So if Rep. Cory Atkins is willing to risk accusations of frivolity by crusading for against gender bias in legislation, I say, you go girl/guy!