The power of pronouns in the Rochester Home Rule Charter
Until a few weeks ago, I had never consciously thought about the Rochester city charter. Considering the overwhelming political upheaval our country has recently faced, I was too worried about our Constitution and the people in our government who might be violating it to even entertain the thought that there might be something I could do here at home to further American society’s progress toward equality. But that was before I discovered that Rochester’s Home Rule Charter, the local equivalent of the much-debated Constitution, still contains language that suggests only men are capable of holding positions of power.
Particularly in the wake of the recent presidential election, it is unacceptable that we as a community have not addressed this shameful example of the misogyny and prejudice women still face on a daily basis. I was appalled to learn, upon reading the charter in its entirety, that it contained several discriminatory passages describing the offices of mayor, councilmember, judge, etc. as belonging exclusively and unquestionably to men. The average person might think that the fact that our town charter is littered with an odd mixture of misogynistic and progressive pronouns — in some cases “he/she”, in others simply “he” — has no real significance. After all, it has no legal bearing; although Rochester has yet to elect a female mayor, and men have historically held nearly all the positions of power in all levels of government, women are theoretically able to attain any elected position. The charter even contains a weak disclaimer, hastily added as a response to past complaints about sexism from community members: “In construing this charter, words and phrases in the masculine gender include the feminine and shall not indicate any bias as to sex.” (Chapter II, Subdivision 3). In other words, we as a community should just assume that the casual misogyny of an antiquated legal document has no importance and no effect on our daily lives.
However, words have far more power as a social and cultural medium than many of us consciously recognize. Language and word choice affects every aspect of our existence, from how we plan for the future to how we express emotions and ideas. Unfortunately, “masculine” words are simply the default in our society. Everything, from pop culture to medicine, treats “male” as the baseline for the human experience, while “female” is designated as a special subcategory. For example, in the English language, the terms “man” and “mankind” refer to humanity in general, whereas “woman” and “womankind” are specifically reserved for women. It’s as if women are a minority or an anomaly, rather than slightly more than half of the world population. The fact that the very structure of our language demotes and demoralizes women is symptomatic of a larger problem, and it cannot be ignored.
Seemingly unimportant language choices like the pronouns used in our town charter aren’t simply an accident or oversight. In fact, they reflect centuries of entitled, exclusionary behavior towards women from men in positions of power. Furthermore, refusing to change or own up to the sexist precedent that male-dominated language sets legitimizes its continued use. Any person who has ever experienced discrimination due to their gender identity can testify that pronouns hold significant sway. By reverting to the use of “he” and “him” in Rochester’s most important legal document, lawmakers are insinuating that masculinity is both the ideal and the default. In effect, they are saying that being male may not be necessary to run for office, but it is most assuredly preferable. After all, it’s so much easier to exclude women from lawmaking altogether under the pretense of umbrella terms and social norms than to include us in society through the simple introduction of gender-neutral pronouns, or the removal of pronouns altogether.
For young women in particular, being omitted from everyday language has devastating psychological consequences. Rather than being encouraged to become complex human beings with unique identities who are competent leaders in their communities and on a larger scale, women are often taught to internalize misogyny and fit themselves into rigid, restrictive gender roles that do a disservice to both women and men. When women are excluded from active participation in government, democracy itself is lost. The male-dominated language of our current town charter is an insulting, insidious affirmation of every sexist aspect of our society, and it must be addressed in order for us to progress as a community. After all, how can women be expected to break glass ceilings when even the language of the town charter suggests that a female in office is abnormal and vaguely illicit?
We can no longer allow misogyny to go unchecked and unquestioned, whether out of fear, apathy, or simple lack of knowledge. That’s why I am so proud to be a part of the committee that is rewriting the town charter to either utilize gender neutral pronouns, or remove pronouns entirely. The rewrite is vital to changing the environment in which aspiring female leaders find themselves struggling to succeed under the weight of institutionalized gender inequity. We as a community must come together to ensure that every individual is respected, empowered, and free from societal limitations, and removing discriminatory language from our local constitution is an essential first step.
Leah Folpe is a junior at Mayo High School in Rochester.