Dec 31, 2007

"Femonics": Legitimate Dialect or Linguistic Dictatorship?

Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 3: May 1997

"Femonics": Legitimate Dialect or Linguistic Dictatorship?

"Social Control is at the Core of the Sexist Language Question", Feminist Writers Say

by Susan J. Benofy and Helen Hull Hitchcock

Like the supporters of ebonics, advocates of the femonics "dialect" depend entirely on the force of their own rhetoric.

"Our task will then be to search out and identify the agents of change and arbiters of language in our national speech community." – Nancy M. Henley

"As English teachers learned to use ‘sex-fair’ language, they would naturally pass their attitudes on to their students." – Aileen Nilson , National Council of Teachers of English

"The goal of feminists … is to raise the status of nonsexist usage throughout society to that of sole official usage and to demote traditional usage to discouraged status." ­ Francine Frank, MLA

A public controversy arose recently when the school board of Oakland, California proposed to teach children using so-called "ebonics". The board made various assertions as to the origins of "ebonics" as separate language, "genetically based" or based in African language patterns. When serious criticism of this theory ensued, the board had little or no evidence to offer for its assertions and revised, but did not altogether abandon, its proposal.

Although less public discussion has surrounded the recent re-translations of the Bible using neutered English, or so-called "inclusive language", the rationale for revising English in Scripture and liturgical texts is based on similar assertions about the nature of language, and the aura of politics is just as pervasive.

This aura intensified last December, when unprecedented meeting took place in Rome. All seven of the active American cardinals met with Vatican curial officials to urge that a speedy decision be made on a proposed Lectionary for Mass, awaiting approval since 1992 when it was submitted to Rome for approval by the American bishops’ conference. The Vatican’s reluctance to approve the Lectionary, like the delay in the Catechism’s appearance in English, involves Rome’s objections to the new translation’s use of "inclusive language".

Controversy over Liturgical Translations

Feminists have long insisted that the English language is intrinsically biased against women, and demand that "inclusive language" be used in the liturgy, but the controversy over language, which has been building since the mid-seventies, has become especially intense in recent months. It has focused primarily on proposed revisions of texts used for Mass (the Sacramentary, or prayers, and the Lectionary, or selected Scripture readings).

Last December, seven American cardinals went to Rome to expedite the approval of a new Lectionary the US bishops’ conference had submitted for approval about four years ago. In March, three American archbishops met with representatives from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship for the same purpose. A Vatican communiqué after the meeting (March 11) said that "assurances were received that the revised draft would in principle be acceptable to the Holy See."

The proposed American Lectionary is based on the Revised New American Bible, an "inclusive language" version. But in 1994, the Vatican announced that the RNAB is not acceptable for use in Catholic liturgy. The Vatican also found unacceptable the New Revised Standard Version, on which a Canadian Lectionary is based. Both of these translations used neutered English, eliminating such words as "man", "mankind", "he", etc., whenever these words might be thought to refer collectively to persons of both sexes.

At the same time, a revision of the Sacramentary proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has been under consideration. The ICEL revisions also use neutered English. Unlike the US Lectionary, however, the ICEL texts affect all English-speaking Catholics throughout the world. Most of these texts have been approved by the various national conferences, and the American bishops are scheduled vote on ICEL’s final revisions in June at their semi-annual plenary meeting.

In 1995, after an earlier discussion with a delegation from the US bishops’ conference over the proposed Lectionary, the Vatican produced translation norms (known as "secret" norms) to govern revisions of the proposed texts. A year later the first of the two volumes of the proposed Lectionary, presumably corrected in accordance with these Vatican norms, was submitted for approval. Still the text was not approved.

In mid-March of this year, following the latest Vatican consultation, and final revision of Lectionary by Holy See, was presented to the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). It, too, is scheduled to be introduced to the rest of the bishops at the June meeting.

News accounts of the most recent meetings reported that the American bishops and Roman officials agreed on the need for a "moderate, balanced use of horizontal inclusive language" ("horizontal" refers to people, while "vertical" refers to God).

This awkward string of adjectives will mean little to most people, but it is intended to neutralize the politically charged concept of so-called "inclusive language". Nevertheless, it is this concept of feminist-inspired manipulation of the language (the term "inclusive language" is itself of feminist coinage) which has been at the root of the conflict surrounding the liturgical and biblical texts.

The essence of "inclusive language" may be succinctly captured by a shorter term: "femonics". Formed in the same way as ebonics, the term femonics also connotes the origin of "inclusive language" in feminist political theory, and will be used thus in this essay.

Inventing a "Dialect"

It is claimed that femonics is a dialect of English, that it is, in fact, the most common one currently in use. In an interview with The Long Island Catholic Bishop Emil A. Wcela (auxiliary bishop of Rockville Centre and member of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Review of Scripture Translations) suggested that the use of "man" as generic can be thought of as belonging to one dialect of English and the use as meaning only males to another dialect. He said that the liturgy should use the "most inclusive".

The idea that standard English and neutered English are separate dialects was earlier advanced by William Holladay. Holladay worked on the original National Council of Churches translation of the New Revised Standard Version, as well as on the Revised NAB. In his book on the Psalms, Holladay suggests the same division of English into two dialects, and insists that the "dialect" in which "man" refers exclusively to males must be used for translation of Scripture because more and more people are speaking this "dialect".

Like the supporters of ebonics, advocates of the femonics "dialect" depend entirely on the force of their own rhetoric. Neither of the men cited above offers any evidence that their preferred "dialect" is widely used. Bishop Wcela’s "most inclusive" dialect seems simply to be speech that employs "inclusive" language. Even if Holladay were correct in stating that the number speaking his second dialect (neutered English) is increasing, it does not follow that femonics is spoken by a majority of English-speaking people, or that the numbers will increase.

One of the standard arguments for "inclusive language" is that most people today speak this way, so new translations of the Bible must use it in order to be properly understood.

This principle was implicit in the NCCB’s Criteria for Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use. The bishops adopted these Criteria in November 1990, while the proposed Lectionary and Sacramentary revisions were still in the offing. Although several bishops had strong reservations about this, the Criteria did not evaluate "inclusive language" theory, nor even whether "inclusive language" should be incorporated into revised texts; but only how this should be accomplished.

Bishop Donald Trautman, who was chairman of the bishops’ liturgy committee during the most of the process of approving revised liturgical texts, said in a recent talk that "college girls" felt excluded by current liturgical texts, suggesting that since the "college girls" learned this in school this view will prevail in the future. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, president of the NCCB when the Vatican rejected the two bible translations, has said that the new translations will be "sensitive to the ear of the typical person in the pew". Father Edward Hislop, chairman of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, addressing the FDLC national convention last October, said that the children in our assemblies know that "man" does not mean "men and women".

Such statements give the impression that use of femonics is merely a means of conforming to the patterns already present within the larger society, and that its advocates have no particular stake in the change one way or another. It is taken for granted in arguments for femonics that use of neutered English is the result of a spontaneous change in the speech of ordinary people, and is without ideological motivation. Implicit, also, is that the linguistic change is now complete and irreversible. Most advocates of neutered language would probably object to the term "femonics", since they deny (often vigorously) that feminism is at the root of the demand for linguistic change.

Origin of Femonics

Feminists do not agree. They publicly, even proudly, claim the campaign to change the language as their own. They readily admit any change accomplished so far was a result of their own planning (they do not call it coercion). Feminists are less sanguine in their view of the general acceptance of "inclusive" language. They claim that the movement for linguistic change is a "justice" issue arising from the outcries of the oppressed; but the oppressed people they champion are themselves — many of whom have advanced degrees and tenured academic positions, and are often officials of prestigious and influential professional organizations.

The methods necessary to bring about the desired changes in usage are outlined by Nancy M. Henley, in This New Species That Seeks a New Language: On Sexism in Language and Language Change. She makes it quite clear that the efforts to change the language originated with feminists and worries about the resistance to change that has manifested itself. "Most telling have been the emotionality and vehemence of the opposition to suggestions of change, which have generally been stronger than the original feminist suggestions." [p. 5]. She advocates forbidding the use of generic masculines in publications, and considers the usual methods of avoiding "exclusive" language (standard English) as merely temporary expedients.

Rather than such devices as recasting a sentence into the passive or repeating the noun rather than using a pronoun, Henley advocates the adoption of a neutral third-person singular pronoun to refer to subjects of unspecified gender. Such a strategy has been suggested many times over the last century, but the new neutral pronouns were never adopted by any large group. (Dennis Baron, Professor of English at the University of Illinois has reviewed the history of what he calls epicene pronouns in his book Grammar and Gender, and shows that such proposals have been made for more than a century, but none has been adopted.)

Henley suggests that "nonsexist" forms might first be used by women "whose active presence will constitute pressure on speakers to use nonsexist forms". She fears that this may not be an entirely successful strategy since women are of low prestige. "However, if the change is put forward in sectors of higher prestige, it has more chance of being adopted." [p 19] The author comments on this passage in a footnote: "The adoption of nonsexist language by women and men in higher education, and by institutions themselves, may have preserved the possibilities of change before we were aware of what danger they were in." [pp. 22-23] Finally she outlines how change might come about:

Our task will then be to search out and identify the agents of change and arbiters of language in our national speech community. The expertise in this area will come from sociological knowledge of innovation spread and sociopsychological knowledge of persuasion and resistance to change, from communications studies of influences on speech, and identification of influential speakers and speech sources. [p. 21]

Henley believes we are at a transitional stage, but that a major campaign to introduce nonsexist usage, especially the introduction of "neutral" pronouns, may be feasible. Clearly she intends to promote a new usage. She makes no claim that her preferred language is spoken by any large group, other than feminists.

Guidelines for Change: Using the Kids

Mandates for using "inclusive language" were first imposed by various publishers for textbooks starting in about 1972. Even now, most of the guidelines for neutered language are those used for textbooks, and many publishers impose them in their textbook divisions, but not in their trade book divisions. (This may explain why some "children in our assemblies" may not be aware of all the meanings of the word "man".)

One such campaign is described in Women and Language in Transition. It was conducted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). The author, Alleen Pace Nilson, was a member of the committee that formulated the NCTE nonsexist usage guidelines, and later enforced them as an editor of the periodical English Journal, the NCTE publication for high school teachers. Described in the paper as "a powerful organization of eighty thousand members", the NCTE represents English teachers from Kindergarten through University level.

The author notes the importance of the NCTE guidelines is "the potential for widespread change" because the members of the organization are English teachers at all levels.

Although the guidelines were ostensibly prepared to help authors and editors of council publications … to avoid using sexist language, the underlying assumption was that as English teachers became aware and learned to use ‘sex-fair’ language, they would naturally pass their attitudes and knowledge on to their students….

The guidelines grew out of a resolution introduced by the Women’s Committee of the English teachers’ organization at the 1974 annual convention. A 2-day workshop before the meeting, involving 60 participants contributed to the formulation of preliminary guidelines. In 1975 the Board of Directors (300 leaders of the NCTE) adopted a formal policy statement to encourage the use of "nonsexist" language.

This policy statement was taken to mean the approval of guidelines; however, the guidelines themselves were not voted on. The reason given was that according to the NCTE constitution, if they had been voted on by the Board of Directors, then any subsequent change would also have to be voted on by this large, unwieldy body that meets only at the annual convention.

… It is always easier to get large numbers of people to agree in principle to a worthy-sounding goal than to get them to agree to make specificwhat many consider nit-picking and others consider blasphemouschanges in their own behavior [pp. 39-40].

"Like a Puppy Waiting to be Neutered"

Producing the "non-sexist" guidelines was said to be the joint effort of the Women’s Commission, the editors of the journals, and the staff at the NCTE headquarters; but the content and wording were primarily the work of the NCTE staff.

The guidelines were published in March of 1976. According to Nilson: "Apparently many members found the guidelines to be more extensive and specific than they had expected. Controversy raged". One critic of the guidelines was Robert L. Spaeth, then Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of St. John’s University in Collegeville. His critique appeared in Change July/August 1981. Spaeth says in part:

Both the spirit and substance of the NCTE guidelines are objectionable. Altogether the guidelines treat the language like an innocent puppy waiting to be neutered for the convenience of his human masters.

Note that the guidelines were not intended merely to codify an actual change in English usage that had already taken place. They were specifically intended to bring about a change desired by an activist minority (the Women’s Commission and staff of the organization) and were enforced despite vehement protests from the members.

The issue of nonsexist usage was so controversial, in fact, that a few years later, when Nilson applied for the position of editor of English Journal, she "promised to make the journal a model of inconspicuous sex-fair language".

Openness about "sex-fair" goals might cause the journal to lose subscribers; furthermore, from the philosophical standpoint, the purpose of most guidelines on sexism and language is to downplay the matter of sex — to make it so that people will be able to fill roles in society based on something other than what sex they happen to be. [p. 42]

The editors enforced the guidelines by simply changing language they considered ‘sexist’ without consulting the author prior to publication. This treatment provoked protest, and the guidelines were amended to require consultation with authors of submitted papers. The amended guidelines clearly require that "sex-fair" changes be suggested, but that the author was to be given final say. However, the editors felt free to ignore this policy because "the idealized picture of careful scholarship and consultation that the committee who drew up the amendment envisioned bears little resemblance to the hectic pace of life in the EJ editorial office." [p. 43]

Nilson then describes how the papers submitted to a single issue of English Journal were edited for ‘sexist’ content and summarizes: "Statistically then, we changed slightly over one-third of the articles we used, and we worked with the matter of sexist language on one-half of them." She gives an example:

A third article that some people would interpret as promoting sexism was about a class writing an old-fashioned love ballad. It relied on dozens of traditional stereotypes about male/female relationships, but without those there would have been no ballad and hence no article. [p. 44]

The editor of English Journal admits that even she and her co-editor do not always agree on what is sexist. She classifies writers whose work needs their editing as follows:

1. Writers who are aware and skilled but uncommitted (or hostile) the idea of sex-fair language.

2. Writers who are simply unaware of the issue.

3. Writers who are aware of the issue and apparently committed to the idea of sex-fair language but lack writing skills needed to handle the matter smoothly.

The author concludes with a list of things she has learned from working with the guidelines.

Two interesting points are:

1. Guidelines dealing with sexism in language are different from other parts of a publication’s style manual, because the reactions of both readers and writers are influenced by emotional and political overtones quite apart from standard considerations of grammar, usage, and style.

5. Using sex-fair language requires skill as well as commitment. Since the writers for English Journal are English teachers, one would assume that their writing skills are higher than average; yet when trying to be nonsexist, many of them create extremely awkward sentences in which the readers’ attention is drawn to matters of grammar rather than to the thing being communicated. There is need for research and development of training materials to teach committed people how to be successful in using sex-fair language. [pp. 51-52]

Nilson readily admits that "sex-fair" usage has "political overtones". Furthermore, by her own count, about half of the manuscripts accepted for publication have "problems" with ‘sexist’ usage. More than half of these are from authors are hostile to change or "unaware" of problems with sexism in English. (She does not say how many of the submitted manuscripts have such problems, but one would expect a greater percentage of "problem" authors in the group as a whole.) This means that more than a quarter of the English teachers who took enough interest in the field to submit a manuscript had not themselves even attempted to adopt "inclusive language" and another quarter tried but couldn’t do it well enough to satisfy their own society’s guidelines.

If half of the most active English teachers in the country do not use "inclusive language" it can hardly be considered standard usage or a dialect. In fact, the matter is so controversial among English teachers that its use in English Journal must be "inconspicuous" lest subscribers be lost, and "training materials" are required to teach the teachers how to use "sex-fair" English.

In short, a knot of feminist ideologues within the professional organizations of English teachers cleverly took control of the procedures, and successfully imposed their views of language "reform" on its entire membership and on the nation’s classrooms.

Vile Buddies

Another organization of academics, the Modern Language Association (MLA), adopted nonsexist guidelines soon after the NCTE. The process is detailed in Language, Gender and Professional Writing, published in 1989 by the MLA. It shows a remarkable similarity to the process followed by the NCTE. The MLA authors are Francine Wattman Frank, a Dean at the State University of New York who also teaches women’s studies, and Paula A. Treichler, Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, who does research on feminist issues.

They report that a series of programs on gender and language was held at the 1978 MLA convention, and the following fall the MLA Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession introduced a resolution asking for the adoption of nonsexist language as official MLA editorial policy. The resolution was presented to the Delegate Assembly of about a hundred people at the 1979 MLA convention, prompting a "long and passionate debate." [p. 21]

Throughout the debate the representative of the Commission on the Status of Women took the position that the issue was not whether particular usages were ‘sexist’; rather, she said, the resolution called for a stance in principle against discrimination, with definitions and details to be worked out subsequently. [p. 22]

The resolution adopted called on the MLA to "affirm" the use of nonsexist language in its publications and to develop guidelines for nonsexist usage.

In 1980 the MLA Executive Council approved a revised editorial policy urging contributors to its journal to be sensitive to the "social implications of language and to seek wording free of discriminatory overtones". [p. 22] The Women’s Commission then began work on guidelines. "Though strongly supported by the MLA staff and many MLA members, the development of guidelines has not been unanimously welcomed, as responses to an announcement of the project in the Spring 1983 MLA Newsletter made clear." They quote several of the letters the MLA received protesting such guidelines.

We cite these protests because they are not isolated examples: they illustrate both the deep-seated feelings that many scholars hold about the sanctity of the sexist-language question. We believe that they also confirm the need for a detailed scholarly discussion of the issue. [p. 23]

Ordinarily, one would expect such scholarly discussion of a controversial topic should take place before any sort of official policy statement, such as a set of guidelines, is issued by an academic organization.

Motives for Militancy

Both the above accounts, written by self-identified feminists who are leaders of the femonics movement, make it clear that they were trying to initiate a change in English usage, and the creation and enforcement of guidelines for "sex-fair" language usage was a major tool in the campaign.

In both cases the guidelines were approved by a kind of subterfuge. A public debate and vote merely endorsed "non-discrimination" in general terms, and only vaguely suggested developing guidelines. Then an activist minority created the actual guidelines, with little or no participation from the general membership.

In both cases the "inclusive language" guidelines provoked considerable opposition. Nevertheless, they were enforced by editors of influential journals — in some cases the very people who devised the guidelines. The exclusive use of "inclusive language" in professional journals written by and for teachers of English, predictably, conveys the erroneous impression of widespread acceptance of such usage. This, no doubt, helps to persuade "sectors of higher prestige" and "influential speakers" (bishops, for example) to adopt femonics for themselves and their institutions.

What motivates feminists to undertake such a project in opposition to standard English, even in the face of strong opposition from their own professional organizations? Obviously, their goal is not to encourage a more graceful English style. The creators of the guidelines themselves admit that attempts — even by English teachers and scholars — to avoid "sexist" language often result in awkward sentences. Nor do these guidelines for "inclusive language" promote clarity. Advocates themselves give instances of the confusion resulting from attempts to follow the guidelines. (One essay on the subject is tellingly titled "Linguistic Disruption: He/She, S/He, He or She, He-She" The authors both support the femonics cause, and, though their essay aims at humor, claim that such disruption should be expected in the initial stages of language change.)

Although the MLA producers of "inclusive language" guidelines claim their goal is genuine inclusion, they also admit that the rights of members who prefer to use standard English are, in practice, ignored. Anything published will be edited to conform to femonics policy, whether the author likes it or not. (Rigid application of the femonics principle is also evident in the "neutering" of many hymn lyrics — in many cases the original author has been dead for more than a century.)

The feminists’ own evaluation of the success of their campaign is not altogether optimistic. In her essay, "Language Planning and Language Change", Francine Wattman Frank, a member of the committee that drew up the MLA guidelines, asks how effective the guidelines have been in changing usage. She concludes:

"The answer must be a provisional one, for it is still too early to attempt a definitive evaluation of their success. The results up to date appear to be mixed."

Later she notes: "In the world of commercial publishing beyond the realm of textbooks, nonsexist usage is not at all the norm" [p 129, 130].

She defines various categories of acceptance "nonsexist" usage:

  • Sole official usage: granted the status formerly accorded traditional
  • Joint official usage: considered by some groups to be as acceptable as the alternatives
  • Regional official usage: endorsed by "local" sectors of society, such as feminists who use only nonsexist alternatives for biased wording and publishers who follow nonsexist editorial guidelines for certain types of publication.
  • Promoted usage: preferred by official bodies.
  • Tolerated usage: "neither promoted nor proscribed by authorities — its existence is recognized but ignored"
  • Discouraged usage: disfavored by editorial policy

Frank also makes the feminist objectives clear:

  • The goal of feminists active in the campaign for language reform is to raise the status of nonsexist usage throughout society to that of sole official usage and to demote traditional usage to discouraged status.
  • Currently, nonsexist usage is at an intermediate stage. Depending on the group one is concerned with whether all writers of English in the United States, some governmental and publishing bodies, or feminists it varies from discouraged to joint official usage, reaching the sole official stage in only a few limited contexts.
  • By adopting guidelines, publishers and other groups place nonsexist usage in the category of promoted or regional official usage. [p 122]

Note that these so-called "degrees of usage" do not reflect actual usage, but only approval in principle of "non-sexist usage" by official bodies. The promotion of femonics to "regional official usage" does not mean that more real people are really speaking the femonic "dialect", only that more official bodies have determined that they should.

Enforcement, Disruption and Linguistic Determinism

After contentious debates in professional organizations, laborious construction of elaborate guidelines, and more than a decade of enforcement of them by professional organizations, academic institutions, publishing companies and even the federal government, the feminists’ campaign has produced, by their own reckoning linguistic disruption.

The MLA guidelines’ creators, Frank and Treichler, reviewing the various alternatives for neutering pronouns, admit that "Each choice may proclaim a loyalty, a compromise, or a negotiation. All choices have become problematic: none is innocent." [p. 28]

Only specific groups, mostly those promoting the changes in the first place, have actually adopted the feminists’ preferred usage. What, then, is the motivation for continuing this unsuccessful endeavor?

The MLA authors make it clear that the ultimate goal does not really have to do with language as such. The introduction to their book claims: "Social control is at the core of the sexist language question, and it is the reason that simple individual word changes can never in and of themselves ensure nonsexist usage." [p.15]

Frank, in her essay on language planning and change, summarizes research purporting to show that when people speak or write in defense of views that they actual oppose, they are likely to change their attitude to conform to the view they have had to defend. This suggests that forcing a change in "sexist" linguistic behavior will eventually lead to a general reform of "sexist" attitudes.

"Insisting on nonsexist usage may be equivalent to forcing behavioral change, … whereas discussion of the inequities, the ‘dissonances’ in the existing system of usage, may be less disruptive. As [the above research] indicates, however, it would probably also be less effective. Many have indeed interpreted the adoption of guidelines as a threat, … to the cultural traditions represented by the English language" [pp. 112-113].

This notion that behavior can be changed by changing the language is related to the feminists’ view of the relation between language and reality. Treichler and Frank point out that feminist scholarship represents a distinct world view.

"Resistance to nonsexist language is sometimes a resistance to the new world view it represents. Such resistance may be overruled but it should not be discounted as unimportant or ignorant. This book is based on the belief that the connection between language and nonlinguistic reality, though complex and problematic, is unarguable and must be taken explicitly into account in proposals for language change" [p. 31].

Language Creates Reality

Most of the feminists cited here are convinced that language creates reality; they also believe that sexuality is socially constructed. Their desire to explore alternate realities may account for the surprising interest of these feminist scholars in science fiction.

Nancy Henley, considering the possible introduction into English of "neutral" pronouns, examines their use in science fiction stories about "beings of different sexual structure from ours" [p. 14]. One of these sci-fi stories involves an Earth man of future century who lands on a planet where the beings have human form, but are of three distinct sexes; another concerns a society in which beings are neuter most of the time but can become either male or female, apparently at will. Of these stories, Henley says:

These possible futures develop our intuition that sexist language is closely bound to sexist society; but further, the stories imply that if women are moving toward economic, political, psychological, and social equality with men, a changed language is necessary and perhaps inevitable. We see in the alternatives being tried out in various places the gropings toward a language that will express the ideology and later, the reality, of equality [p. 16].

The MLA publication lists suggested reading on the subject, which includes, among scholarly papers, a science fiction novel by a feminist linguist, Suzette Haden Elgin. The novel, Native Tongue, expresses the view that there is no reality, but only perceptions expressed in language.

The story takes place on Earth in a future century, and involves a group of women linguists who have been engaged for generations on the Encoding Project, the creation of a language that expresses women’s perceptions. It is kept secret from the men, who would destroy it if they knew about it. Eventually the heroine declares that the language is complete and they must begin teaching it to other women, especially little girls. The girls learn more rapidly than anticipated, and the reaction of the men, when they discover the project, is not what had been expected. The heroine explains:

Perceive this … there was only one reason for the Encoding Project, really, other than just the joy of it. The hypothesis was that if we put the project into effect it would change reality. (Emphasis in original.)

Only a similar conviction that language creates reality would explain Nancy Henley’s apparent belief that a world populated with humans of three sexes — or with a sexuality as easily adjustable as the setting on a thermostat — is a "possible future". Although the belief in linguistic determinism seems about as fantastic as science fiction, it is, nonetheless, a view shared by many feminist academics. It makes sense to "deconstruct" reality only if you reject your own distinctive human sexual nature and all that this implies (e.g., motherhood, fatherhood, family) as feminist ideologues commonly do. But a rejection of reality is, clearly, a rejection of creation itself and of God’s plan for human beings.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi ­ or is it?

The feminists’ determination to change the language aims, ultimately, at creating a new heaven and a new earth — of their own design. It would seem overwhelmingly obvious, then, that the effort to forcibly incorporate a use of language deliberately calculated to change essential beliefs into the very words of the Bible should be mightily resisted. Even if motivated by a genuine intention to improve communication, neutering the language can only advance the feminists’ campaign of deconstruction of the divinely inspired text and tragically impede the Church’s mission to transmit faithfully God’s Word.

There is remarkable, if somewhat ironic, accord between both the feminist ideologues and their critics who defend tradition. Both agree on the facts surrounding the language issue: that the true objective of "inclusive language" is to deconstruct reality itself, that Scripture and liturgical texts are principal targets for effecting this change, and that the issue is political. Lex orandi, lex credendi the law of prayer is the law of belief. Both feminists (amused) and their critics (distressed) point out the confusion engendered by changing the language.

This common ground on the issues, however, is not shared by those who prefer the myth that the use of "inclusive language" reflects a benign and spontaneous grass-roots change, and that imposing it on the liturgy will have no negative affect on belief but will promote clarity and understanding and lead to greater unity in the Church. The belief that a "moderate" capitulation to pressure to use neutered English will somehow appease the feminist faction, restore harmony, or strengthen the mission of the Church, appealing though the idea may be, is no longer possible to support.

Even though it has taken more than twenty years, the feminist politicization of the language we speak has succeeded — at least to this extent a neutral position has become effectively impossible. Whether in speech or in writing, in ordinary conversation or in prayer, one must choose either standard English or femonics. "No choice is innocent."


1) Archbishop Jerome Hanus (Dubuque), Archbishop William Levada (San Francisco) and Archbishop Justin Rigali (St. Louis) were appointed by NCCB president, Bishop Anthony Pilla (Cleveland). They met with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, and Archbishop Jorge Arturo Medina Estèvez, prefect of the CDW, and officials and experts representing the Vatican.

2) "Waiting for revised documents Biblical Association queries Holy See on delayed translations", The Long Island Catholic, August 9, 1995.

3) William Holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.)

4) Bishop Trautman, of Erie, gave this talk at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas, on February 27. It was reported by Catholic News Service March 10, while the Vatican consultations on the Lectionary were in progress.

5) FDLC Newsletter November-December, 1996.

6) Nancy M. Henley, "This New Species That Seeks a New Language: On Sexism in Language and Language Change" Women and Language in Transition, edited by Joyce Penfield, State University of New York Press, 1987.

7) Dennis Baron, Grammar and Gender. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.)

8) Alleen Pace Nilson, "Guidelines Against Sexist Language: A Case History" in Women and Language in Transition, edited by Joyce Penfield, State University of New York Press, 1987. pp 37, 38.

9) Francine Wattman Frank and Paula A. Treichler, Language, Gender, and Professional Writing: Theoretical Approaches and Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage. New York: Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession, The Modern Language Association, 1989.

10) Betty Lou Dubois and Isabel Crough, "Linguistic Disruption: He/She, S/He, He or She, He-She" in Women and Language in Transition, edited by Joyce Penfield, State University of New York Press, 1987.

11) Francine Wattman Frank "Language Planning and Language Change" in Frank and Treichler, op cit. supra, note 9. p 129

12) Frank and Treichler, op. cit. supra, note 9.

13) Henley, op. cit. supra, note 6.

14) Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue. New York: DAW Books, 1984. p. 296


(Susan Benofy has a doctorate in physics. Helen Hull Hitchcock is editor of the Adoremus Bulletin. Both are officers of Women for Faith and Family and live in St. Louis.)



Helen Hull Hitchcock Susan F. Benofy