Kate Swift died 7 May 2011. As the alphabetically second author of the first popular guide to nonsexist language, she and her partner changed the world of writing. No more could the male pronoun be universal or taken for granted or justified.
In 1970, she and Casey Miller formed a partnership as editing consultants and were asked to edit a sex education textbook for junior high school students. The author was attempting to be bias free but the language was anything but. Unbeknownst to the author, it was perpetuating all the stereotypes the author was trying a to avoid.
it was because of Kate Swift and Casey Miller that I realized how limiting and discriminatory the use of “Miss” and “Mrs” were. Do you have to know whether a man is married or not before you can say good morning? Before the 1970s all women had to be addressed in terms of their relationship to a man. They were not honorific titles that recognized anything other than that a man had honored you with his presence — and could easily rescind it.
That was followed by Words and Women in 1976, revised in 1991. There were lots of failed new words suggested along the way to gender neutral language. Linguistic change will always be hard when not attached to a rock band, which are no longer exclusively male by the way, but gradually the awareness they championed is taking hold.
Sometimes I feel that we are moving backwards because women are again changing their names when they get married — the right not to being a hard-won battle — and social organizations are continuing to call women by their husband’s names, Mrs. Alexander Washington, on lists of donors and on invitations. Does her only halo come from Alex? I had a flaming conversation with a woman who asked on a writers and editors list how she should address an envelope when the woman was a “Dr.”and the man was not. Mr. and Dr. Alexander Washington was clearly not acceptable. For her neither was Mr. Alexander Washington and Dr. Melinda Andrews, or even Dr. Melinda Andrews-Alexander. But because of woman like Swift and Miller, we at least stop and think.