EDITOR’S NOTE: This was WFB’s April 29, 1976, “On the Right” column.
What do Mary McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Muriel Spark, and Joan Didion have in common?
Ans. They are first-class writers. If you like, you can say they are “first class women writers.” But it must be somewhere along the line communicated that by that you mean that they are first class writers who are women. Otherwise there is a patronizing residue, as in “he is a first-class junior skier.” Ironically, one of the reasons these ladies (patronizing? All right, these women) are first-class writers is that they would shun like the plague such exhortations as are being urged on all writers by the National Council of Teachers of English, in the name of eliminating sexism.
As a rather agreeable surprise, the latest bulletin from the Anti-Sexist League is itself fairly literate. We are told that “The man who cannot cry and the woman who cannot command are equally victims of their socialization.” The trouble is that by the time they are through with thei r
recommendations, they make everybody cry, who cares for the mother tongue.
Unhappily, there is no way in the English of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, and Faulkner, to get rid of the synecdoche, “man,” which, as in “mankind,” means man and woman. Clifton Fadiman wrote years ago that the English language is wonderfully resourceful, but that “there are some things you just can’t do with it.” One of them is to replace “man” in some of the situations in which it is indispensable. Consider some of the efforts of the NCTE.
The common man becomes the average person, or ordinary people. Try it out . . . .”The century of the average person.” No. Why? If you don’t know, I can’t tell you. Ditto for “The century of ordinary people.” Here, at least, you can point out that ordinary has several meanings and that where–as common does too, the conjunction of common-man instantly excludes all but the Henry Wallace use of the word common;-whereas the conjunction of ordinary man does not exclude such a sniffy remark as, say, Lucius Beebe might have made about vulgar people . Clarity is one of the objectives of good writers, which is why Mary McCarthy would never write about “the century of ordinary people.”
The bulletin offers you a typical sexist slur: “The average student is worried about his grades . Suggested substitute: The average student is worried about grades. .There again, you will note a difficulty . The two sentences do not mean exactly the same thing. In the first, the student i s
worried about his (or her) grades . In the second, the student is worried about grades as a generic concern . Perhaps he is worried about, say, the role that grades play or do not play in getting into graduate school. Anyway, there is a residual indistinction, and English teachers shouldn’t be teaching people how to write imprecisely.
The bulletin notes that English does not have a generic singular common-sex pronoun, the convention being to use the male. This will be proscribed . . .If the student was satisfied with his performance on the pretest, he took the posttest . This becomes, A student who was satisfied with her or his performance on the pretest took the posttest. That is called killing two birds with one stone . You eliminate the generic male singular, and you substitute the conventional priorities (her and his). The distortions ring in the ear.
At one point, the NCTE wants us to validate improper usage. Now improper usage often does get validated, by incessant misusage; but a degree of resistance is always in order. Here we are asked to rewrite Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring his money tomorrow, to, Anyone who wants to go to the game should bring their money tomorrow; and I say any–one who does that kind of thing at this point should not be hired as a professional writer.
So mobilized are these folk that they do not stop at a war far from the cosmopolitan centers, designed to wipe out little pockets of vernacular resistance . Gal Friday has to become assistant. A libber must become a feminist (here I think they have dealt from the bottom of the deck: what’s inherently sexist about libber?). A man-sized job becomes a big or enormous job. Question: How do you describe a job that requires physical exertion beyond the biological powers of wopersons? (sic )
It is comforting to know that this effort to correct the language will precisely not succeed because the genuine artists among women writers are more concerned for their craft than for fashionable sociological skirmishes. Nothing more persuades the general public of women’s inferiority (which doctrine is of course preposterous) than efforts at equality achieved b y
indicting good prose.