It’s her moment now

corporate table woman

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As Hillary Clinton gets ready to accept her party’s nomination for the presidency tonight, I think back to the Spring of 1987 and a moment that opened my eyes to gender matters like nothing else ever has.

Freshmen students at Northwestern–I don’t remember now whether it was only the Arts and Sciences students or everyone in the class–had to take two Freshman seminars. In the spring, I registered for a course that had something to do with gender and science. Perhaps it fit into my schedule, or perhaps I thought there would be a lot of girls in the course. Either or both reasons sound legitimate to me.

On the first day of class, which was held in a conference room in the library, I walked in and grabbed a chair. The room filled up, and the hour for starting the class came and went.

One of the cherished rules at Northwestern was the “ten minute rule,” which stated that if a professor had not arrived within ten minutes of the class’s scheduled start time, everyone could leave. So we all started watching the clock, hoping that 2:10, or whatever the magic moment was, would arrive soon.

At eight or nine minutes past the hour, the teacher spoke up. She had been seated around the table with the rest of us, and we didn’t know she was in our midst. She pointed out, to the 15 or so students seated around the table, that the seats at the ends of the table were being occupied by the only two male students in the class, because we had been raised to assume that we were entitled to have them.

I shot a frantic look at the guy at the other end of the table, as if to say “What have we gotten ourselves into?” For the rest of the course, I was convinced that everything I turned in started at a “C” and became either a C+ or a C-, depending on whether it made any sense or not. It was a long course, and not a particularly enjoyable one, but I remember it more clearly than any other college course I ever took.

I remember it because it made me realize the effects of gender-specific language. For someone who grew up in a less-than-progressive time (the 1980s) and a less-than-progressive place (Springfield, Illinois), the idea that calling a doctor “he” and a nurse “she” helped to perpetuate gender norms was a revelation to me.

It’s now three decades later,  and I rarely see much of this anymore. Ironically enough, it happens a lot in education, where teachers are routinely referred to as “she.” As a male who taught in the classroom many years ago, this rankled me a bit. Even though teaching is, and probably always will be, a field with many more females than males in it, I realized that sending a message that an unnamed teacher would likely be a woman isn’t good. Men can be teachers too, and the language used to describe teachers should reflect this fact.

Scientists were once overwhelmingly thought of as “he,” but the course taught us of the contributions of Barbara McClintock.  We read a biography about her, and I remember coming away with the idea that telling young girls that scientists were supposed to be men was not helpful to them, or to science itself. Even though I found the class uniquely discomforting as a male, as a person I walked away with an understanding that I didn’t have before.

I say all this because the text of the U.S. Constitution, and specifically Article II, refers to the president as “he” on several occasions. For example, Article II, Section 1 states “He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years,” I’m sure that the Founders, as enlightened and as forward-thinking as they may have been at the time, were still a product of their 18th century upbringing, which wasn’t so dissimilar to my late 20th century upbringing. Boys got to sit at the head of the table, and girls didn’t.

I’m not thrilled with Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and I toyed with the idea of not voting for anyone in this presidential election. I would never vote for Trump, nor would I vote for a third-party candidate if it helped Trump to win. But even with these misgivings, I’m very glad that Hillary Clinton is being nominated for president tonight.

Girls should see themselves as entitled to those seats at the head of the table, just as much as boys already do. And if tonight’s events, and the election that is coming up in November, helps to move that needle then I’m all for it, in the name of my two daughters, my wife, my sister, my mother, and every female classmate and colleague I’ve ever had or ever will have. New possibilities have been opened up, and we’re all better for it.

The Constitution and the ultimate glass ceiling

My older daughter is in eighth grade. By law here in Illinois, she must pass a Constitution test in order to graduate next spring. And the test is tomorrow, so we spent the weekend preparing her to take the test.

I remember noticing something about the Constitution when I was a teacher myself, which is now more than a decade ago. I didn’t think much about it then, but it sure struck me today, as we were going over the various articles and clauses. And it’s something that should have been pointed out and taken care of a long time ago.

Article II of the Constitution concerns the Executive branch of the government. It’s the one that spells out what the powers and duties of the President are. Looking at the actual text of the document reveals some interesting things:

  • Section 1, Clause 1 says, when referring to the President, that “He shall hold his term during the term of four years…”
  • Section 1, Clause 7 states that “The President shall. . . receive for his services a compensation. . .”
  • Section 1, Clause 8 states that “Before he shall enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation. . .”

Notice a pattern in these instances? I sure did. It appears that, on its face, the Constitution does not allow for the possibility of a woman to become President, since “he” means a man, and “she” means a woman, and “his” refers to a man, and “hers” is refers to a woman. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of how English works can tell you this.

So why does the U.S. Constitution refer to the President as “he”? It seems pretty obvious to me that in 1787, when the Constitution was written down, nobody could imagine how a woman could ever be President. Women could not vote back then, and they had few, if any, legal rights of their own. So Jefferson and Madison and the others went about their business, secure in the idea that women would never be considered to be their equals.

But so much has changed over the centuries. Women can vote, and they do. They even vote more often than men do. They have served in Congress, on the Supreme Court, and at all levels of government, except one. And unless the Constitution is changed, an argument could be made–presumably with a straight face–that a woman cannot hold the Presidency.

I hear many references to the idea of “Originalism,” which says that the Constitution must be understood as the framers of the Constitution itself intended it to be. That’s a loser for the idea of gender-neutral language, since Jefferson and the others probably could never conceive of a world where women were voting, let alone holding political office. So leaving it up to anyone who subscribes to this theory (and I’m sure that some on the Supreme Court do) won’t help.

I’m not suggesting this for the benefit of Hillary Clinton, or any other woman who wants to be the President someday. I’m doing it for my daughters, and everyone else’s daughter, to show them that a woman can do anything she wants to in the professional and political realm. No language construction from the 18th century should stand in the way of this, either.

Amending the Constitution is both exceedingly difficult and exceedingly rare. Some states have already taken this step with their own constitution, as well. But the President is the leader of all Americans. It’s about time to allow for the possibility that he or she can come from all Americans, as well.

Something I once learned

One of the more important things I learned in college was both unintentional and painful, and so I wanted to spend a few moments reliving it here. As I have said before, writing this blog is a form of therapy for me.

It was the Spring of 1987, and I was taking the last of the “freshman seminars” that I was required to take. There was a long list of available courses, and probably some really interesting topics, but I somehow wound up in a Philosophy course having to do with gender and science. Maybe it met at a time I wanted, since I made a point of keeping my afternoons free for going to the beach, or a ball game, or whatever it is that college students do in the springtime.

The class met in a study room in the main library, so on the first day I walked into the room and sat in an empty chair at the end of the table. After about ten minutes or so, the instructor arrived. She was in her twenties (a grad student, obviously), and she walked into the room and said “It’s not surprising that the only two males in the class are sitting at the ends of the table.” I made eye contact with the other guy, surveyed the nodding of most of the females in the class, and realized that we were in for a long ten weeks.

I didn’t enjoy the class at all, but I did learn something, and that’s probably more important. What I learned is that gender-specific language is not a good thing, because it sends messages to both males and females about their expected roles in society. I had never given it a second thought before, but I finally accepted the premise that gender-neutral language–of the “he or she” variety–was a more thoughtful way to proceed.

I mention this because, in the process of going through a drawer in the office today, I came upon a book titled “Children’s Literature in the Curriculum” by one Dewey W. Chambers. The book was copyrighted in 1971, which means that it was written for the people who would be teaching me when I was a child. I’ll give a few sentences to show where the book–and the society that produced it–was at 40 years ago.

” The teacher will be effective, indeed, when she speaks of the books she offers from firsthand experience.” (page 67)

“The children’s librarian is always a good source of information. She often knows what books are available locally to aid the teacher in developing her program…” (page 66)

So this author seems to believe that a generic, unnamed teacher or librarian must be female. But what about men, in this author’s view?

“The illustrator is a communicator. He…tells the story in a medium different from the author, but his story telling is every bit as real.” (page 115)

“The painter concentrates on…his art as a way of communicating to the world his thoughts and wishes. The composer of music uses his medium to do the same.” (page 105)

So painters and composers and illustrators are all men, according to Dewey W. Chambers. Why else would the sentences be worded in this way?

But the most insidious part of this is the way that the individual child is invariably refered to as “he” and “him,” as in:

“The social studies textbook simply does not begin to satisfy the curious child.  It cannot possibly answer his questions…” (page 41)

‘It is often not enough to have many sources available to the youngster to help him learn.” (page 94)

Does the absence of a reference to the student as “she” or “her” cause teachers to treat boys and girls differently? I can see how it might.

But getting back to the freshman seminar for a moment, it seemed like every time I opened my mouth or wrote a paper in that class, I was just going to be wrong. But I also learned something valuable, and now–whenever I run across examples of this subconscious gender bias–I change it into a more expansive “he or she” type of a construction. As the father of two young daughters, I have to believe that this is helpful, both for them and for society as a whole.