Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Men at work in Atlanta, moorhens on a marsh in Guam

Of all the scores of scientific articles I've read, the two with titles that gave me the biggest chuckle were studies of the common moorhen, a widespread aquatic bird. One of the papers, in the journal Science back in 1983, was entitled "Female Moorhens Compete for Small Fat Males." The title pretty well sums up the text; no doubt many male Homo sapiens wish the same was true for our species.

The other title that gave me the giggles appeared in a 1993 number of The Wilson Bulletin, an ornithological journal. The short paper bore the heading "Rapid Colonization of a Human-made Wetland by Mariana Common Moorhens on Guam." I guess the females had to colonize it rapidly to compete for those small fat males.

What's funny to me about the Wilson Bulletin paper is that you will notice there are two species of animals mentioned in the title--humans and moorhens. But while the title uses "human-made" to describe the wetland, as opposed to the more familiar "manmade," no effort is made to make the name of the bird gender neutral. It's called the "Mariana Common Moorhen," not the "Mariana Common Moorhen-cock." Political correctness apparently applies only to organisms that make wetlands, not those that nest in them.

Use of a word to mean either all members of a species OR just those of one sex is not uncommon in the Animal Kingdom. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives one definition of "duck" as: "any of various swimming birds... in which the neck and legs are short, the feet typically webbed, the bill often broad and flat, and the sexes usually different from each other in plumage." A second definition is given: "a female duck — compare drake."

So normally when someone says "duck" he means (oops... I should say "he or she means") all those birds spinning in the pond. But it's also perfectly acceptable to say "duck" and mean just the girl mallards, as distinguished from the drakes. "Mallard" by the way, originally meant only the male of that particular species of duck, see Kear, Man and Wildfowl, 1990, p. 224.

There is another type of animal for which we have a word that means either "all of them" or just "those of one sex." That animal is, of course, man. And by "man" I mean Angelina Jolie as well as Brad Pitt.

Some people are positively uncomfortable with "man" because it has two definitions. One such person is Cynthia Good, an Atlanta magazine editor. Her efforts have caused the City of Atlanta to replace "Men at Work" signs with ones that declare "Workers Ahead." The cost to make the change will, of course, be borne by the Atlanta taxpayers. Thank God for that; when we're closing fire stations and laying off city workers it's nice to know there is still enough cash on hand to keep Atlanta motorists from becoming confused lest they see a sign saying "Men at Work" and just beyond it glimpse a woman manning a jackhammer. (Er... how do I say "a woman manning a jackhammer in a gender neutral fashion? Personing a jackhammer?)

Whenever I hear a story like the the men at work signs, I inevitably turn to page 82 of historian Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life and read what he has to say on this matter:

"For centuries zoologists have spoken of the species Man; 'Man inhabits all the climatic zones.' Logicians have said 'Man is mortal,' and philosophers have boasted of 'Man's unconquerable mind.' The poet Webster writes: 'And man does flourish but his time.' In all these uses man cannot possibly mean male only. The coupling of woman to those statements would add nothing and sound absurd. The word man has, like many others, two related meanings, which contest makes clear.. Some may brush aside this lesson from usage old and new with a 'Never mind. Nobody knows or thinks about the past and man remains objectionable.' At this point the reformer must face practical needs. To repeat at frequent intervals 'man and woman' and follow it with the compulsary 'his and her' is clumsy. It destroys sentence rhythm and smoothness, besides creating emphasis where it is not wanted. Where man is most often used, it is the quick neutral word that good prose requires."

The emphases are Barzun's. He wrote that in his nineties; what a stunning example of wisdom coming with age. Notice he writes of "sentence rhythm" and "good prose;" one hopes that Cynthia Good, being an editor, would agree that these are sound goals in communication.

When I think of the status of today's women--I'm here using "women" because I specifically mean members of the species man who are not male--there is a section of another wide-ranging book that comes to my mind. Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory devotes an entire chapter to Rose Arnold Powell, a woman who campaigned virgorously to have Susan B. Anthony carved into Mount Rushmore along with the four presidents. In a 1934 letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Powell complained, "I protest with all my being against the exclusion of a woman from the Mount Rushmore group of great Americans. Future generations will ask why she was left out of the memorial," Schama p. 385. Actually, we are several generations into the future since Powell wrote that, and I doubt very many people have ever stopped and said, "I can't believe Susan B. Anthony isn't on Mount Rushmore!" You can't get many folks to use her damn dollars, for Pete's sakes.

I don't really mean to blast Cynthia Good; no harm can come from her effort to change the signs. But what she has done here is, I think, a little like Rose Arnold Powell's campaign--it's basically irrelevant. The great opportunities available to women in America today, the marvelous accomplishments of women in our recent past, are not dependant on who is carved on mountains, what it says on construction signs, or whether we say "manmade wetland" or "human-made wetland." Success for today's woman depends on her own initiative and hard work, not on insignificant symbols around her.

Just be glad you're not moorhens, ladies. Then you'd use up all your initiative and hard work to compete for short fat males.

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