The House of Representatives is going gender neutral. This week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced HR 5, a resolution rewriting the standing rules of the 111th Congress to eliminate generic masculine pronouns and any other linguistic remnants of this former government boys club.
In 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment enfranchised women, the suffragist and peace activist Jeannette Rankin (Montana) became the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives (thanks in part to Rankin, women began voting in Montana in 1914).
Woman on the floor: Jeannette Rankin making her first speech to the House of Representatives in August, 1917. Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress and the only member of the House to vote against U.S. participation in both World War I and World War II. The current House has 78 women.
By 1999, 120 women had served in the House. Since then the number has grown dramatically, and it is now true that a woman's place is in the House, and in the Senate: there are 78 women in the new 111th House of Representatives, and Nancy Pelosi is the first woman Speaker of the House.
But Congressional language hasn't kept up with this shifting gender balance, and until the new grammar rules go into effect, the House will operate under the old Rule XXIX, which states that "the masculine gender include[s] the feminine." Under the new rule, that phrase will be replaced by "one gender include[s] the other" – which suggests that the feminine includes the masculine and the masculine, the feminine, except perhaps in the Congressional bathrooms.
Keeping up with the sexual revolution: in the new unisex Congressional bathrooms, members may sit in separate tubs, but their prescription insurance will now cover RU-486 as well as Cialis.
Considering that the U.S. Department of Labor mandated gender-neutral job language way back in 1975, under Gerald Ford, the House has taken its sweet time reforming its own gendered language. But now that the energized Democratic majority has decided to coin words as fast as they're coining money, they're determined to prop up our failing vocabulary even as they're propping up our failing economy.
Here are some examples of the House's new rules:
- From now on, he will be replaced by he or she,
- or by a neutral expression: conduct himself becomes behave
- his expenses becomes the expenses of such individual
- chairmanship becomes chair,
- and his designee becomes a designee.
In addition, the House anticipates the day when the president will be a woman (an event which can also lead to a nominalized passive):
- the President submits his budget becomes the submission of the budget by the President
Sometimes cutting off the masculine pronoun simply makes sentences shorter:
- administer a system subject to his direction and control becomes administer, direct, and control a system.
And finally, gender-neutral language may require repeating the noun (the Chair, the Speaker, the Member) rather than using a gendered pronoun:
- the Member may attach the Member's amendment to the Member's own bill
- The Speaker may cut off the Member if the Member goes on too long.
The new gender-neutral rules get very specific: anticipating pickiness from the other side of the aisle, they cover both capitalized and lower case forms of words separately:
A) strike "chairman" each place it appears and insert "chair"; and B) strike "Chairman" each place it appears and insert "Chair" (except in clause 4(a)(1)(B) of rule X)
-- that exception, rule X 4(a)(1)(B), refers to the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, coined by the Executive Branch; under the theory of the unitary presidency, it cannot be altered by Congressional action.
These changes to the standing rules of the House are meeting with mixed reactions. While many observers think them long overdue, others deride the fact that Congress is paying attention to something as trivial as language when the country faces the challenges of unemployment, a failing economy, and two major wars.
But as Pres. Obama noted during the campaign, those who govern, like the rest of us, have to deal with many issues at once, and correcting a gender imbalance in Congressional language suggests that the House of Representatives may be capable of seeing the world as it really is, and actually doing something about it.
Not as enlightened as Congress? According to the rules of the instructional Pronoun Game, after a player spins and moves to the appropriate pronoun space, "Have the player tell about the picture he lands on." It's not clear that members of the House will be allowed to play this game, unless they're listening to the State of the Union address or hearing testimony from the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.