What a Difference a Word Makes

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I was reading through my copy of Shared Governance: A collection of essays prepared by The House of Deputies Special Study Committee on Church Governance and Polity 2012. The book was supplied to all deputies, and as I read it I couldn’t help but notice a particular pronoun popping up: her.

The highest clerical office a person can hold in the Episcopal Church is Presiding Bishop, and the highest (potentially) lay position is President of the House of Deputies. Currently, both positions are held by women (Katharine Jefferts Schori and Bonnie Anderson). As a result, the authors of Shared Governance often refer to the actions of either office by using feminine pronouns, as in “The presiding officer of each house has the authority under the Rules of Order of her House…”

To some, this might seem small. To me it is huge. I’m reminded of an old friend of mine from collage, who I’ll refer to as Matthew. Like all of us Matthew had his flaws, but on the whole he was a good guy.

One evening we were gathered at Matthew’s place to play Dungeons & Dragons, a role playing game similar in world to Lord of the Rings, and a traditionally male-dominated activity. Matthew was talking about some of the changes made to the player’s handbooks on a recent version of the game. These handbooks give outlines of the various characters you could be and their traits. Matthew was explaining the frustration he first had with the new edition, because the authors had chosen to alternate their pronoun use with each description instead of referring to all characters as men, as they had done in previous editions. So every other page talked about the ranger and HER preferred weapons, or the wizard and HER most powerful spells. He would reference the book, trying to create his character, and they kept calling him a woman. “My character’s not a girl,” he told me, “but they keep talking about him like he is. I get it now. That must have really sucked before … for the girls.”

He’s right. It does suck for the girls.

Talking about patriarchy in language in one of the fastest ways to get an eye roll at a dinner party, so I don’t like to bring it up too often. It’s a pervasive kind of problem, the kind that seems too small to spend any time or worry on, but in realty is huge and sweeping. Dungeons & Dragons knew their audience was primarily male, so they catered their product to that audience. It wasn’t until years later that they began to realize that their language was making their few female players feel like constant outsiders, and instantly alienating anyone new. So they changed. And for my part, it worked. When I play I don’t feel like a visitor anymore.

So this is why I experience joy when reading a phrase like, “appointed at her discretion” when talking about the Presiding Bishop or the President of the House of Deputies. It’s a small but impossible to ignore way of telling me I belong. The people in charge can be just like me.

Not a fluke. Not a token. Elected, called, and respected. I am not just a visitor here.


One thought on “What a Difference a Word Makes

    Chuck Hamilton said:
    July 2, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    And all this is changing in YOUR lifetime! Definitely not a small thing. I wonder how long it will be before women will also feel respected when they get their paycheck?

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