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Editor or Editress? And . . . Does Mary Still Have Her Little Lamb?

Posted by on in On Writing
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Those who follow this blog know that I am a feminist. As such, I have had occasion to resent certain occurrences of equalitarianism (or misplaced feminism), which rob the gentle sex of well-deserved recognition. One example is the use of the title “Editor”.

An editor is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “someone who edits” (I don't favor Elbert Hubbard’s definition: “A person employed by a newspaper, whose business is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed”, although I need to agree that this is what happens in some newspapers.) An editor can also be “a device used in editing motion-picture films or magnetic tape”, or even “a computer program”.

But when addressing the task of defining “Editress”, Merriam is not reticent and Webster does not deceive his audience. They give the straight stuff to their public. “An Editress”, they state openly and courageously, is “a woman who is an editor”.

b2ap3_thumbnail_382px-Letter-SarahHaletoLincoln.jpgThe title “Editress” should not be trivialized. It was used by Sarah Josepha Hale, who is not only responsible for talking Abraham Lincoln into establishing a national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863, but more importantly, wrote the  "Mary Had a Little Lamb" nursery rhyme. She took pride in the title and used it in her letter to the president.

Try googling the words “she is the editress” (with quotes); that will fetch you 10 unique results and 22,300 similar ones. Now google "she is the editor" and you’ll get 37,400,000 results! As an added insult, Microsoft Words never heard of the word and insists that I replace “editress” with “editors”.

At the cost of getting myself in trouble with the language police I’ll voice my discontent with what is, in my opinion, a misguided attempt to fight sexism the wrong way. I declare that I will continue to use the feminine with women, the masculine with men, and the neutral with all the rest. And I’m not doing it just to be annoying. I strongly believe that good writing is, first and foremost, clear writing. A sentence that leaves the reader scratching his head as to the gender of the character in the scene, is bad writing.

Take for instance firefighting, which is an occupation more fitting for men, simply because it demands physical strength. Women firefighters are not unheard of, but they certainly deserve more credit than their male counterparts because the job is more physically challenging to them. So why not call them “firewomen” and give them credit where credit is due? “Two firemen and three firewomen put the fire out” is more accurate than “Five firefighters put the fire out”, and conveys more information than the neutral version.

The Italian poet and singer Fabrizio De Andre’ wrote once that “Hell exists only for those who fear it”. Similarly, sexist writing can only come from sexists, and those who have no sexist tendencies should not fear the use of gender-specific job titles. A “waitress” will typically bring to mind a nice, smiling person who will give you food at the right time. A “server”, on the other hand, may be bringing you a summons or a subpoena, or can be a computer on a network. Which one would you trust with your soup?

What is your approach to gender neutral / gender specific titles?

 

The images in this post (Sarah Hale's portrait and her letter to Abraham Lincoln) are taken from  the Wikimedia Commons

 

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Guest Friday, 25 July 2014