Wash. state considers gender-neutral language bill
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — In Washington state, dairymen, freshmen and even penmanship could soon be things of the past.
Over the past six years, state officials have engaged in the onerous task of changing the language used in the state's copious laws, including thousands of words and phrases, many written more than a century ago when the idea of women working on police forces or on fishing boats wasn't a consideration.
That process is slated to draw to a close this year. So while the state has already welcomed "firefighters," ''clergy" and "police officers" into its lexicon, "ombuds" (in place of ombudsman) and "security guards" (previously "watchmen,") appear to be next, along with "dairy farmers," ''first-year students" and "handwriting."
"Some people would say 'oh, it's not a big thing, do you really have to go through the process of changing the language,'" said Seattle Councilmember Sally Clark who was one of the catalysts for the change. "But language matters. It's how we signal a level of respect for each other."
About half of all U.S. states have moved toward such gender-neutral language at varying levels, from drafting bills to changing state constitutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Florida and Minnesota have already completely revised their laws as Washington state is doing.
The final installment of Washington state's bill already has sailed through the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee with unanimous approval. The nearly 500-page bill has one more committee stop scheduled before full Senate debate.
Crispin Thurlow, a sociolinguist and associate professor of language and communication at the University of Washington-Bothell, said the project was admirable.
He said that as language evolves, such efforts are more than symbolic.
"Changing words can change what we think about the world around us," he said. "These tiny moments accrue and become big movements."
Clark and former councilmember Jan Drago — the Seattle City Council has long eschewed the terms councilwoman or councilman — brought the issue to Sen. Jeannie Kohl-Welles in 2006 after they came across references to firemen and policemen in the mayor's proposed budget, as well as in state law dealing with local-government pensions.
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