Kate Swift Obit: The Language of Power and the Power of Language

by Guest on May 17th, 2011
in 9 Ways Blog, Define Your Own Terms and tagged , , ,

Have you ever heard of Barbara Peabody Smith, who went by her nickname Kate? I hadn’t until I read her obituary last week. Her story is an inspiring reminder of how we can define our own terms. Defining terms by making language nonsexist changes everything–how people think and therefore how people act. Little wonder that this daughter of journalists understood the power of language. But what was groundbreaking about Smith’s life work is that she translated her understanding into the language of political power to secure gender equality laws in her home state.

Guest post by Rosalie Maggio reprinted with permission of the Women’s Media Center.

Award winning author and creator of WMC’s “Hot Button Words” series Rosalie Maggio recalls the journalist and activist who alerted the modern women’s movement to the dangers of sexist language.

Nonsexist-language pioneer Kate Swift, 87, died early Saturday morning after a brief encounter with abdominal cancer. Her generous legacy to the world includes her revolutionary influence on our language as well as her productive activism (she helped effect Connecticut’s marriage equality act, protect prochoice legislation, promote progressive candidates, protest the war on Iraq, and conserve the environment). She also leaves numerous admirers who all somehow numbered themselves among her closest and best friends.

Barbara Peabody Swift, always known as Kate, was born in 1923 to parents who were newspaper and magazine journalists, and she obtained her own journalism degree from the University of North Carolina in 1944. Thereafter, she worked as a newswriter, science writer for the Museum of Natural History, editor for the Army’s information and education department, public relations officer for the Girl Scouts of America, press liaison for the Hayden Planetarium, and, in 1965, director of the news bureau of the school of medicine at Yale.

In the early 1970s, Swift and her longtime partner and coworker Casey Miller were editing a sex-education program for junior-high students when they realized that the materials spoke to “men,” “boys,” and “him.” They ended up not only making girls and women visible in the text, but writing an article on sexist language for the first issue of Ms. magazine (“Desexing the English Language”) and later for The New York Times Magazine (“One Small Step for Genkind”). Casey Geddes Miller, a writer who was graduated from Smith College as a philosophy major and had worked in naval intelligence, died in 1997.

The ultimate flowering of the Miller-Swift hybrid was Words and Women (1976), a world-changing book that demonstrated so conclusively that our everyday words disparaged and discriminated against women that no one should ever have needed to say another word. The world being what it is, of course, many more words were needed. But Casey and Kate nailed the issue. (When trying to get their book published in 1973, they were rejected by one editor because “the Women’s Movement has peaked.”)

Later they published The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (1980), explaining, “Conventional English usage, including the generic use of masculine-gender words, often obscures the actions, the contributions, and sometimes the very presence of women. Turning our backs on that insight is an option, of course, but it is an option like teaching children that the world is flat.”

They subsequently wrote numerous articles on sexism in English that appeared in national periodicals and in dozens of textbooks and anthologies.

I asked Kate recently where we were today. She said, “I think there’s no question that despite surface changes toward gender-neutral and inclusive language, sexism surrounds us as much if not more than in the 1960s to 70s, and more elusively.” A good memorial to Kate would be to let media outlets know when you see “mankind” that it’s not good English.

I met Kate and Casey in the 1980s and enjoyed their hospitality in East Haddam as well as several encounters in New York and New Haven. But all of us being writers, letters were the mainstay of our friendship. Later, we collaborated on a piece for Ms. magazine (“Liberating Language”).

“Our lives are whirling as usual,” Kate would write. In addition to her writing and editing and activism and environmentalism and a rich and busy family life, Kate traveled to Spain, China (the NGO Forum and UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women), Morocco, and Ireland. She was also on the board of the local library and was writing a history of the village. Used to make me feel like a piker.

It’s hard to know what Kate would most like to be remembered for (although once she said, “The one subject on which I do feel very strongly and hope to make an impact is gay rights, especially the marriage question”). Note that as a result of her and others’ efforts, Connecticut is one of only two states in the United States to perform marriages of same-sex couples. I hope she’ll be remembered for that as well as for her definitive work on sexist language.

I once asked Kate why it had to be “marriage” instead of the more innocuous “civil union.” She responded: “The word marriage, used in all federal and state laws on the subject, conveys not only the sense of love, commitment, and mutual responsibility, but also acceptance of the relationship by the wider community. That’s what same-sex couples ultimately want and what the opposition is resisting so fiercely.”

Kate’s brilliant mind, active body, and well-developed spiritual side were obvious. But, oh, that heart…! Despite her incredible critical thinking skills, she never used them against anyone. The worst I ever saw her do was to lowercase the name “bush” during those awful years.

Kate once paraphrased Justice O. W. Holmes, “Life is action and passion; we must share in the passion and action of our time at peril of being judged not to have lived.”

On a memorial concert program for Casey, she used Edna St. Vincent Millay’s words: “Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; / Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.”

Either quotation is a fitting epitaph for Kate Swift.


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