ABOUT LAST NIGHT : Anything that promotes equality can only do good

September 30, 2018

A: Western society is going through a period of cultural change, and all change can seem unsettling, unnecessary, or somewhat forced. It is natural to attempt to resist change, or to feel strong emotions about the changes, but change is inevitable, so it is better to try to understand it, and participate in the debate rather than to be left behind by the relentless tide of history.

I remember the fuss and foment stirred up in the 1980s when women demanded a title that did not define them by their marital status. The fact that you were a Mrs or a Miss said something about you. An elderly Miss might be labelled an old maid. A pregnant Miss was clearly immoral. A Mrs had successfully caught a man, and was a respected member of society, but, until recently, had had to give up her nursing, teaching, or public service job when she married. A Mrs was unavailable, whereas a Mr, who was not required to wear a wedding ring, could choose how he was regarded.

Many people scoffed at the introduction of the title ‘‘Ms’’. It was clunky, and a woman who insisted on it seemed strident. It was ‘‘political correctness gone mad’’. Today, every form offers Ms as a title option and no one bats an eyelid. It has become the new normal.

Now, many people object to being defined by their gender. Some of them may be transgendered, and object to being forced to accept a label that refers to a body they do not identify with. Others object to being defined by their gender the same way that women in the ’80s objected to being defined by their marital status.

This is not a recent phenomenon. In the 19th century, when women were not allowed to go to university, or have a career and remain respectable, they developed strategies in order to be taken seriously. The Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, first published their writings under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and Mary Anne Evans is better known to this day as George Eliot. Only when their success was established did they reveal their gender. Another strategy, still employed, is to use only one’s initials, like J.K. Rowling.

Times are less dismissive or hostile to the views of women, but assumptions are still made on the basis of gender. Only recently, a political commentator referred to the women in the ALP as ‘‘dregs’’, while offering great tolerance and respect to men whose behaviour reveals them to be dolts and clowns, or worse.

In the mid-’60s, Sweden proposed the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun. The idea was revived in the mid ’90s, and the pronoun ‘‘hen’’ was widely adopted in 2010. Subsequent studies revealed that children do better in schools that use a genderneutral pronoun. I agree that ‘‘they’’ can seem forced and unnatural, and it would be wonderful if English could also develop a better substitute.

A change of this kind has no real effect on most people, but it can mean a lot to some. Anything that promotes equality, inclusion and recognition can only do good, and does not warrant an angry, outraged reaction from individuals, and the media.

Now, why are the buttons and zips on different sides in menswear and women’s clothes?

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