History Channel, I forgive you so many things, including Pawn Stars, Bomb Hunters, and Shark Wranglers. But seriously, titling the new series “Mankind: The Story of All of Us“? I have limits, and one of them is being told, in 2012, that the term “mankind” is all of us, including women and girls.
At times like these, I soothe my cursing, swearing self by turning to the APA Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language:
The generic use of ‘man’ and ‘he’ (and ‘his’, ‘him’, ‘himself’) is commonly considered gender-neutral. The case against the generic use of these terms does not rest on rare instances in which they refer ambiguously to ‘male’ or ‘human being’. Rather, every occurrence of their generic use is problematic.
First, Janice Moulton persuasively argues, in “The Myth of the Neutral ‘Man'” (in Vetterling-Braggin, 1981, pp. 100-115; revised from Vetterling-Braggin, et al, 1977, pp. 124-37), that ‘he’ and ‘man’ used generically are really not gender-neutral terms at all. (‘Person’ and ‘human’ are genuinely gender-neutral.) As evidence, Moulton offers many examples of statements in which ‘man’ and ‘he’ unambiguously refer to all humanity, rather than to males alone, yet are false, funny, or insulting. For example, “Some men are female” is irredeemably odd, while “Some human beings are female” is fine. Similarly, “Each applicant is to list the name of his husband or wife” is odd; and even using “his spouse” disquiets more than using “his or her spouse.”
Second, empirical evidence supports Moulton’s claim that regardless of the author’s intention the generic ‘man’ is not interpreted gender neutrally. Casey Miller and Kate Swift (1976) cite a study in which college students chose pictures to illustrate chapters of a sociology textbook. Those with chapters entitled “Society,” “Industrial Life,” and “Political Behavior” tended to select pictures of both females and males. However, when the same chapters were named “Social Man,” “Industrial Man,” and “Political Man,” students of both sexes tended to select pictures of males only. With some chapters the differences [between the two groups] reached magnitudes of 30 to 40 percent. The authors concluded, “This is rather convincing evidence that when you use the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to think female” (Miller and Swift, 1976, p. 21). This study also finds that the generic ‘man’ leaves out more than women: “As the image of capitalist, playboy, and hard hat are called forth by the word ‘man’, so is the other side of the coin called forth by ‘behavior’ or ‘life’–women, children, minorities, dissent and protest” (Miller and Swift, 1976, p. 23).
Third, using the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ is problematic because it often leads us to omit the distinctive elements of female experience and behavior. For example, a sentence beginning, “If a student is conscientious, he is probably a good . . . ,” will likely be ended with “son”–even though “good son,” “good daughter,” and “good child” connote different things. If the sentence had begun, “A conscientious student is probably a good . . . ,” a likely finale would be “son or daughter” or “child.”
In sum, there are convincing reasons, both empirical and conceptual, for avoiding the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ and for specifically including females. Hence, it is inadequate to state in an opening footnote that, for the remainder of the letter, article or book, ‘he’ shall stand for ‘he or she’ and ‘man’ for all humanity. What authors intend is not the issue. Good intentions not carried through are not good enough.