We recently discussed the decision of schools to stop using the gender-neutral term “alumni” to combat sexist language. That controversy came to mind yesterday when Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., altered the traditional ending of “amen” for a prayer before the House of Representatives. Instead, he ended with “Amen and awoman.” This minor controversy raises a broader point as we change or bar common terms that are not gender specific.
First for the obvious. Amen is not a reference to males. Originating in Hebrew texts, it means “So be it.” Presumably, as an ordained United Methodist pastor, Cleaver knows that. Nevertheless, the importance of making the correction seemed greater than being right.
This is precisely what we have been encountering on campuses. In the controversy over the term “alumni”, the same logic controlled. One of the schools,Vermont, first stated that it wou;ld only tolerate “non-binary, gender-neutral” terms. It then admits that “alumni” is gender neutral and is “inclusive of male and female.” Yet, it still states categorically that it “adheres to an outdated, limited concept of gender.” No explanation was given how it adheres to gender bias as a gender neutral term. The school simply declared “we see you. We value you. With this change, we recognize the importance of language and its ability to empower those who have come through our VCFA programs.” Yet, it ignored the actual language and only empowers to the degree that it replaces a gender neutral term with a gender neutral term.
As discussed earlier, the language changes is is reminiscent of our own debate at George Washington over the use of the Colonials as a moniker. The student organizers asked “When we talk about the Colonial in history, what does it mean? And is that really what we want our school identity to be?” The emphasis however is the history of colonialism in the world, not the Colonial as a term in the United States. Just as we strive to understand the meaning and traditions of other countries, there should be a modicum of effort to recognize our own meanings and traditions. The Colonials fought against foreign rule. They were not advocates of colonialism. For those interested in GW, that is part of understanding our history and our values. It simply does not matter that the Colonials were anti-colonialism. The victory is pretending that they are something that they were not and then changing the term to reject a falsely claimed meaning.
It is not clear if Cleaver thought he was complying with new House rules under Speaker Nancy Pelosi on sexist language but those rules address gender-specific pronouns and terms such as “man,” “woman,” “mother” and “son.”