If a "she" is not a "he" and a "him" is not a "her," how come "he" as used in Utah law means both men and women?
"As I read through the bills, I saw all this gender-specific language, and the alarms started going off in my head. It's just not right to call a she a he," said Paige Petersen.Petersen, a University of Utah junior and a legislative intern assigned to Sen. Scott Howell, D-Salt Lake, decided to do more than just complain about sexist language in Utah law. Instead, she got Howell to sponsor legislation to change the law.
If Petersen and Howell get their way, all Utah statutes beginning in 1993 will use non-gender language, like "police officer" instead of policeman, "chair" instead of chairman, "humankind" instead of mankind. In cases where pronouns must be used, the language will read "he or she" or "he and she."
"It's a symbolic step, but an important one," said Petersen, who is lobbying senators to see the effects of human language in the same terms she does. So far, most Democratic senators have pledged to support SB135, as have a growing number of Republican senators.
Under current Utah law and legislative rules, the word "he" is used in all references in Utah law, even if it also applies to a woman. For example, Sen. Delpha Baird, R-Salt Lake, is "chairman" of the Senate Judiciary Committee, even though she is a woman.
"No question the bill will challenge the fundamental notion that masculine terms also encompass the female gender. They don't," Petersen said. "The current way of doing things implies that women are not important enough to be specifically mentioned in the law. That's what we want to change."
Petersen's concern with gender-specific language goes back to her days on the debate team at the College of Eastern Utah when she examined the role of gender-specific language in the presidential campaign of Geraldine Ferraro.
The practice of using male nouns and pronouns to include both men and women goes back thousands of years to the first written languages established by males, who also created society's first laws, she said.
"It's real offensive to read `he' and `him' everywhere in Utah law," agreed Howell. "We are almost into the 21st century, and we should have progressed to the point where we are blind to a person's gender when enacting laws that affect both men and women."
Petersen emphasized it is not a "radical feminist issue," but rather one common sense and modern sensitivities toward the separate identities of both men and women.
"How would Sen. (Fred) Finlinson feel if he was labeled the chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee?" Petersen asked. "Probably the same way women feel when they are identified as men in the language of the law. It's an important issue to women.
"This bill creates the understanding that language is a tangible issue with tangible effects in the way we treat each other."
Oregon and Alaska have both enacted gender-neutral language in their laws with positive results. SB135, if passed in Utah, would not apply retroactively to existing laws but would apply only to new laws or amendments to old laws passed beginning in 1993.