The task at hand — recasting 3,500 state laws to eliminate any traces of gender bias — sounds herculean until you consider that Washington state has a total of 40,000 statutes on its books, some of them dating to 1854. All of them, Reuters reports, were meticulously analyzed and scrubbed of sexist language by the 40-man (whoops! 40-person) staff of the Washington Code Reviser’s Office.
Kyle Thiessen, who heads up the agency, said that most of the changes entailed adding feminine pronouns (“she” and “her”) to augment the existing “he” and “his.” On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law the final piece of a six-year effort to update laws, replacing terms such as “fisherman” and “freshman” with “fisher” and “first-year student,” respectively.
“This was a much larger effort than I had envisioned,” said Democratic state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle, the 475-page bill’s sponsor. Indeed, some of the terms have turned out to be resistant to change. Examples include “manhole” and “man lock,” which have no common-sense substitutes. Nevertheless, Kohl-Welles, notes:
There’s no good reason for keeping our legal terms anachronistic and with words that do not respect our current contemporary times.
It might be asked whether there is a good reason to expend manpower (personpower) hours on such a task when the state is facing a $1.3 billion budget shortfall.
But the question is moot. The bill passed the Democrat-controlled state House by an overwhelming majority of 70-22. And in spite of the occasional problem roadblock to linguistic nirvana, there will be plenty of coinages to gladden the hearts of defenders of such initiatives like Liz Watson, a senior adviser to the National Women’s Law Center. “Words matter,” Watson said. “This is important in changing hearts and minds.”
Perhaps Watson will want to take another look at her organization’s name. The word woman, according to the etymology at Dictionary.com, appears to trace its roots to an Old English compound of “wife + man.” Double whoops.
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