Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An Amendment That Matters

Upon opening this month's edition of the Chicago Bar Association Record, I was surprised and delighted to read Judge Michael B. Hyman's thoughts in his brief article "A His and Hers Constitution." (Sorry, no internet link is available).

Noticing the Constitution's abundant use of the male pronoun to the exclusion of the female one, Hyman laments:

"Women are non-existent in the Constitution. Written in the manner of the day, the Constitution is decidedly masculine based, with only male pronouns and not a single reference to women."

If you're a man, you may have never noticed that the Constitution does not once mention women. Most of us, in fact, just take it for granted that most of our laws, including our nation's charter, refer only to men. And, I know what some of you are thinking. "But, we all know that the Constitution really refers to men and women. So it doesn't really matter that it only speaks of men." Such thinking, of course, begs a question: Since the Constitution and our laws apply to women as well as men, then what's the big deal with going ahead and changing the Constitution and our laws to explicitly include women too?

Besides, the funny thing is that when the Framers wrote the Constitution, they didn't really mean both men and women. When they used male pronouns, they meant men. As Hyman writes, "The Framers never envisioned women voting, sitting on juries or holding elective office." Now, of course, society is a bit different. Women vote, sit on juries, and hold elective office. So now, there is no good reason for holding on to this outdated relic of our nation's sexist past. Our Constitution and laws should reflect reality.

Hyman, in fact, proposes amending the Constitution to correct this gender inequity for two reasons. One, the outdated use of the "double-duty" masculine pronoun renders the Constitution inaccurate. In today's "common style and usage" male pronouns refer only to male beings, unlike past usage in which male pronouns were sometimes used to refer to men and women. Writers take note.

Personally, I cringe every time I hear someone using only male pronouns to refer to all human beings. "Mankind" this and "mankind" that. Get with the program, people. Males are no longer the measure of all things that matter. Usually, these people don't even realize they are being offensive. Or, they don't care. On more than one occasion, I have called someone out for using the inaccurate generic "man"-voice only to be mocked in return. And, I specifically remember that it wasn't until my first year of law school that I encountered (a couple) textbooks that specifically included female pronouns in addition to male ones. Unfortunately, I overheard some of my male classmates ridiculing this usage and referring to the inclusion of female pronouns as "too distracting." Yes, really. It was as though the representation of females in legal textbooks was a hindrance to the legal education of some men. To which I could only say "Well, how do you think women feel when these books and laws do not mention them at all? Do you think that at all hinders their educations or careers?"

What is surprising to me is how opposed some men are to gender-inclusive language. I mean, is it really so audacious to them that women want to be represented in the language of our legal system too?

The usage of the generic "he" and "man" to refer to both men and women has lost favor because it is apparent that, throughout history, this "generic" male pronoun really did only refer to men. Men, traditionally, have been thought of as the default human being. Women, on the other hand, are the deviation from the norm. Thus:

"Despite its masterful design, enduring vitality, and historic elegance, the birth certificate of America is ultimately flawed as long as it includes only the masculine form of pronouns...."

It is a flaw. But, unfortunately, it is not one that has ever been taken seriously. People don't think it's a big deal. But I, for one, think it is a big deal. I know I'm not alone on this either. Such language keeps men at the center of our society and women looking in from the periphery.

Hyman's second reason for amending the Constitution is that:

"The freest people on earth should not live under a gender-insensitive charter.... As the 'law of the land,' a constitution should refer to all its citizens in appropriate language.... Our Constitution, to remain potent must be unbiased, fair, evenhanded, and accommodating to the sensibilities of 'We the People.'"


Considering that an amendment correcting this gender inequity would in no way change the meaning of the Constitution, it is unfathomable that anyone would oppose it for non-sexist reasons. This is a symbolic change, but if you're part of the 50% of our nation's population whose equal rights are implied, as opposed to explicitly stated, it's an important change.

I commend Mr. Hyman for raising this issue.

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