The letter below was written by author and journalist E.B. White to Markham resident [Mary] Blake Green in 1974.
White worked for Harper’s Magazine and the New Yorker, and is famous for several of his children’s books, including “Stuart Little” and “Charlotte’s Web.” In addition to many prestigious awards for his writing, in 1978 White won a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his letters, essays and the full body of his work.
A reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1970s, Green called the New Yorker to try and arrange an interview with White about the idea of “de-sexing the language.”
White declined to be interviewed but wrote the following letter to Green instead. “I thought we should just run the letter and skip my story, but we used excerpts from the letter in the story,” Green said.
When White died in 1985, Green said that the letter ran in the San Francisco Chronicle with his obituary.
September 10, 1974
Dear Miss Green:
Some words or expressions in the language can rightly be called “sexist,” but a lot of them merely affirm the difference between the two sexes, which is real. Our treasured tongue is like a Geiger counter, telling us what is going on beneath the surface. Many crusaders today tend, in my opinion, to confuse sex differences with sex inequality: they jump at the sound of any word that carries the taint of gender, and this has led to some comical transformations. Occasionally it has led to a loss of vigor.
There’s no doubt that language has played a role in reinforcing inequality. But true inequality does not lie in our tongue, it lies in our hearts and habits, and language is remarkably sensitive to both – it manages to capture the state of our affairs, the state of our mind. The word “chairman,” which today irritates some people, came into existence at a time when most of the persons occupying the chair were males. The language was simply being realistic. There’s nothing wrong with “chairwoman,” (except that it sounds a little like “charwoman”), but I fail to see the reason for all the fuss. Everyone recognizes that the chair, nowadays, may be occupied either by a male or a female, and the syllable “-man” in the word has long since lost any suggestion of gender. “Chairperson” is a weak, even silly word; and I think “camera operator” is a mighty clumsy substitute for the good word “cameraman.”
“Chick” and “doll” and “dame” are sexist words. They would be inadmissible in McGraw Hill’s laudable lexicon, and they are deemed insulting by women who, in their zeal to find an illusory equality in a world of guys and dolls are in danger of losing their sense of fun, their sense of humor, and their sense of reality. “There is nothing like a dame” is a sexist song title, but I would feel cheated if the song had not got written, just as I would feel cheated if I had never heard “Drink to me only with thine eyes.” The one is rowdy, the other is sentimental, but they are the same song essentially, and the language in both cases is working beautifully. To reshape the language solely in the hope of rendering it non-discriminatory is as questionable a pursuit as to compose music in the hope that it will not wake the baby. A unisex tongue would be a dull tongue, and a false one.
If a sailing boat is commonly referred to as “she,” it’s because ships have long been the object of men’s strongest feelings and affections. Nothing wrong with that – it’s kind of nice. And if you ever go sailing with me in my sloop and fall into the sea, I shall cry, “Man overboard!” and I will do my level best to recover you in the shortest possible time.