He + She = We
by Walt Hearn
In many languages, all nouns have gender―even nouns that have nothing to do with being male or female. In Spanish, for example, a computer program (el programa) is masculine, but a printer (la impresora) is feminine. Why can't a lifeless thing be an "it" instead of a "he" or a "she"? It's beyond me.
Even the English-speaking world has shown similar tendencies―by "genderizing" professions. In my wife Ginny's high-school class, all the girls expected to become schoolteachers, nurses, librarians, or "homemakers." Even the brightest ones weren't told that they could be anything else―like a professor, doctor, or research scientist. Today a young woman can aspire to be any of those things (and, as of 2014, even an Olympic ski jumper). Customs do change, but slowly.
I've heard it said that in 1920 the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in the U.S. Wrong. That right wasn't "given" to them. They had organized and fought for it for decades. Then in 1963, Betty Friedan's bestselling The Feminine Mystique kick-started a "second wave" of activism, the one I've watched unfold. In 1972, Congress rather readily adopted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), showing that the country had changed. But when that Amendment was sent to the individual states for ratification, it became clear that we hadn't changed that much. By 1982, ratification of the ERA had become a lost cause, and women were organizing once again.
Riding the Second Wave
When Christian women began seeking recognition as equal sharers of God's image and God's call to spread the gospel, few evangelical churches were much help. Ginny collected some poignant personal experiences in her 1979 book, Our Struggle to Serve: The Stories of 15 Evangelical Women (Word). Those accounts told of disappointment and disillusionment, sometimes of facing bitterness and backlash against the mildest efforts toward equality and opportunity.
A good friend of ours, whose story is in that book, was irked that her church would not even let women be ushers, let alone deacons or pastors. One day she saw a notice on her church bulletin board promoting a "Total Woman Seminar" at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley. That was the last straw for Anne, who had fumed at Marabel Morgan's 1973 anti-feminist, anti-ERA book, The Total Woman. Urging women to "revere" and "worship" their husbands, it gained fame for recommending that wives put "sizzle" back into marriage by greeting their husbands at the door clad only in Saran wrap. (The book sold millions of copies. No telling how much Saran wrap it sold.) Anne decided to "disguise herself" in a skirt and high heels, enroll in the seminar, and raise questions about whether or not the ideas presented were biblical. A group of other "radical Christians" (including Ginny) would be outside picketing the seminar. I remember using a staple gun from my shop to affix the picket signs to wooden handles.
What the Church Had to Say
That may have been my major contribution to changing the Christian scene. I did attend local meetings and even several national meetings of the Evangelical Women's Caucus (EWC) with Ginny while she was editor of EWC Update, their national newsletter. EWC had grown out of a 1973 meeting called by Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), where the tiny minority of women present felt that their voices were not being listened to. After a growing debate over inclusiveness, in 1990 EWC morphed into the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women's Caucus (EEWC), whose online publication is now called Christian Feminism Today. That debate also led to formation in 1988 of the more conservative Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), which publishes both Priscilla Papers and Mutuality.
In 1978, Ginny and I helped launch New College Berkeley. The college gave its statement requiring use of gender-inclusive language to all our professors and visiting lecturers. I recall a prominent British evangelical scholar calling that policy "rubbish." His wife was even more adamant. She called it "absolute rubbish." Her husband was lucky that no one interrupted his local public lecture by shouting, "Why do you keep saying 'he' and 'men' and 'mankind'? Don't you realize that you're ignoring half the human race?" In those days Berkeley was a rather confrontational place.
That scholar could have cleaned up his language easily. As editors, Ginny and I acknowledge that using "he/she" is awkward and that "he or she" gets tiresome. Trying to alternate gender pronouns in one text can be confusing. But it's fairly simple to rephrase sentences into plural form with neutral pronouns like "they" and "them." You can use "you" (as I just did) or "we" to make a statement more personal as well as more inclusive. Even in the singular, plenty of epicene choices are available. One can refer to "one" (as I just did), "a scientist," "the person," or "that individual," as appropriate. Of the several hundred authors whose work we have edited, no one has objected to such mild editorial changes―if they were even noticed. It's the right thing to do to make our sisters feel included, but some men still don't "get it." I once had to restructure almost half the sentences in a book manuscript from a Christian psychiatrist. That guy hardly acknowledged the existence of female human beings except as examples of hysteria or other psychoses. One sentence of his still sticks in my mind: "A child should identify with his father." I'll let you guess what I did to that one.
What Science Had To Say
It's painful to admit that when I was doing science, it was largely an "old boys' club"―although some of us were "pretty good old boys." After all, the major scientific biographical compilation, which first appeared in 1906, was called American Men of Science. It didn't change its name to American Men and Women of Science until 1971, even though it had always listed the relatively few female scientists, like Gerty Cori (who won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1947).
Somewhere in my files there's a photograph taken a few years after the creation in 1960 of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Department at Iowa State University. It shows a small faculty of ten to twenty of us, all white males. I had gone to grad school not long after the end of WWII, when millions of women who had helped win that war by doing "men's" jobs (like "Rosie the Riveter") were told they were no longer wanted in the labor force. Those jobs belonged to men. From my grad school days, I heard arguments for why women should be discouraged from embarking on scientific careers. Some of the arguments were self-congratulatory ("Women won't be as devoted to research; most will quit to raise children; they can't handle the math," etc.). Other arguments were totally gross ("With a woman in the lab we can't urinate in the sinks").
When I myself began mentoring grad students, I welcomed young women and tried to make them feel at ease in our predominately male research group. Of the students who earned master's degrees with me at Iowa State, about a third were women. They all did good work and I'm sorry I've lost track of most of them. I wonder especially what happened to some from other countries, like Miriam Qureshi from Mexico and Piya Buranasiri from Thailand. Of the dozen or more students who earned a Ph.D. in my lab, two were women. I had great admiration for both of them.
Luz Bascur de Medina came from Santiago, Chile, with her husband Jorge (also a Ph.D. candidate in my lab), two small children, and a sister to look after the kids. They lived in one of the WWII corrugated steel Quonset huts in Pammel Court, the university's married-student housing. On arrival in Ames, neither Luz nor Jorge was comfortably fluent in English, and both dreaded having to pass the English exam required of foreign students. I warned them to write their essays in short, simple sentences. Luz took my advice, but Jorge's more poetic soul led him to write more complex sentences. It took him three tries. After he failed the exam twice, I threatened to split them up to keep them from speaking Spanish to each other at home. A more serious problem for Luz was a hip subluxation that caused her to sway from side to side and made it painful to watch her walk. One bitter winter day she received a phone call, grabbed her coat and snow boots, and flew out of the lab shouting in Spanish. At his school, little Jorgito had been dared to lick a steel fencepost, getting his tongue frozen to the metal. It had to be freed with warm water. Luz was distraught but returned to the lab to finish that day's experiment.
Luz worked in a subgroup studying pigment biosynthesis in an E coli-like bacterium.. Like the heme pigment of mammalian blood, the bright red "prodigiosin" contained pyrrole rings, but little was known about how Bacillus prodigiosus produced those rings. Luz used C-14 labeled precursors to study the process in colorless mutants. In the process, she taught me a lot about how to use radioisotopes―and how to prepare empanadas. She went back to her former position at the Instituto de Química Fisiológica Patológica at the Escuela de Medicina, Universidad de Chile. Sadly, Luz died in 2006.
Evelyn Joyce Weber, on the other hand, was single, spoke English as her native language, and wrote up her work beautifully. She later became a USDA researcher at the U. of Illinois and eventually retired as a professor of plant biochemistry. That's a bit ironic because she had been the only student in my lab to use live animals (rats) in her research. Evelyn was in a subgroup studying the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a "brain hormone" of then unknown structure that stimulated release of corticotropin (aka ACTH) from the anterior pituitary gland. She showed that CRF activity and pressor activity were correlated in vasopressin, a peptide hormone from the posterior pituitary. She performed the complicated bioassays with great skill and far more patience than any of my male students would have shown.
Evelyn knew how to banter with the guys while keeping them on their best behavior. I once drove a carload of my grad students to a midwestern biochemistry conference. To avoid boredom on the long trip, I started the game in which you make up the beginning of a story, then give it to another person to continue the tale before passing it on to someone else. After several iterations, the adventure yarn I had begun on a fairly high plane degenerated into a typical male fantasy, getting steamier with each round. I remember one guy shouting, "Don't give it to Evie! Don't give it to Evie! She'll ruin it!" Sure enough, she adroitly dispatched the seductive siren beckoning to our hero, sending him on his way to nobler adventures. "Evie" was extremely bright, hardworking, and a lot of fun. Evelyn Weber died in 2008.
Oh, dear. Thinking of these former graduate students who have "predeceased" me reminds me of the tale of the king who had two fortune-tellers on his staff. One night he dreamed that all his teeth fell out. He was very disturbed and summoned one of his fortune-tellers to interpret his dream. "It's obvious, Sire," said the fortune-teller. "It means that all of your children will die in your lifetime." The king was furious and had the fellow beheaded. Then he consulted the other fortune-teller. That one said, "It's obvious, Sire. You will outlive even all your children." The king was satisfied and elevated the second fortune-teller to a high position in the kingdom.
See? It's not just what we say that matters. It's also the way we say it.