Gender and Language: Can Our Passports Speak Without Gender? Does the Language of the Constitution Protect Women?


In many languages we fall upon using gendered words that put items into two supposedly opposing categories such as male or female or mother vs father, but as the structures of families change and identities are not such simple dichotomies, the official language of forms must evolve. But sometimes this evolution takes steps back as in the recent change to the mother/father category on documents for children born overseas. Although in December the form was changed to use the gender-neutral word "parent", recently Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has ordered the State Department to amend this change. The form will now "ask for the names of the child's "mother or parent 1" and "father or parent 2," which some believe is an attempt to appease conservative groups who saw the initial change as an attack on traditional marriage and family values.

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In recent news, Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia has brought into question the intention of the Fourteenth Amendment's desire to protect women when only the masculine is used in it's text.

Scalia has been quoted as saying "Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't…. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don't like the death penalty anymore, that's fine. You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn't mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it's a good idea and pass a law. That's what democracy is all about. It's not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society."

Maria Bustillos' article 250 Year Long, Search for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun walks readers through various legal battles and contestations to show the weight and significance of Scalia's commentary. and the Atlantic Wire compiled some legal voices to speak to Scalia's extremely controversial commentary:

In the above illustration, graduate student Chris Harrison created a graph to show how "he" and "she" within Google's digital book archives, which which contains some 200 years worth of published material. The graph shows the 120 most common words used after "he" and "she," ordered in decreasing frequency. The frequency of links such as "he argues", "she loves", "he believes" and "she likes" gives tremendous amount of insight on gendered stereotypes and power differentials.

To learn more about the visualization of gender: