Let me tell you how I got in trouble with ladies.
No, not “the” ladies. Not, in fact, female human beings, period. Rather, I’m talking about the word itself, “ladies.”
Years ago, my editor was a female human being named Emily to whom I filed a piece that used the L-word as a synonym for women. Em hit the roof. It took me awhile to understand why.
For me, “ladies” connoted nothing more sinister than genteel women, the feminine counterpoint to “gentlemen.” Used in conjunction with that word, I suspect it wouldn’t have bothered Emily. But used on its own it had, for her, a whiff of paternalistic condescension, i.e., “You ladies ought not trouble your pretty little heads with politics.” I made the change.
I’ve always considered that moment a master class in sexist language and how the words we choose can say things beyond what we (consciously) intend. But I never thought I’d take a refresher course.
That’s what the last couple weeks have amounted to, however. Em is long gone, but a number of female (and male) human readers have gladly taken on her role. My first sin, as they saw it, was a column on the GOP convention in which I wrote that the only thing standing between us and the apocalypse that is Donald Trump is “a grandmother in pantsuits.”
It was intended as a light joke about how thin is the membrane separating us from disaster. It was read, at least by some women, as diminution of an accomplished woman. I’ve gone over it a dozen times in my head and, while I appreciate my critics’ sensitivities, I think they’re misplaced. It was, again, a joke, i.e., not meant as a serious assessment of Clinton. Were it Barack Obama running against Trump, I’d have said the only thing between us and disaster was a jug-eared guy in dad jeans.
My other sin, though, was inarguable and egregious. I called Clinton “shrill.”
This was in a live tweet as she was speaking at the Democratic convention: “I’ve often found Hillary’s delivery shrill, stiff and robotic,” I wrote. “She’s doing much better tonight.”
And … cue the outrage chorus. Let “JP” speak for all of them. “Have you been hacked? I’m surprised to see you use ‘shrill.’ It’s a dog whistle.”
Clinton has a habit of raising her voice to convey emotion, but shouting is not one of her oratorical gifts; note how Michelle Obama intensifies her voice without raising it to achieve the same effect. That’s what I intended to say. What I did instead was echo language by which men have denigrated women and their ideas since forever.
JP was right. I was wrong.
There are those, I know, who will see this nattering about nuances of language as evidence of “political correctness” run amok. They will use the term as Trump sympathizers usually do, to mean they are sick of not being able to insult blacks, Muslims, women and homosexuals as freely as they once did. But for all the (sometimes justified) criticism it receives, so-called political correctness has at heart an important goal: language that is more inclusive, respectful and reflective of marginalized lives.
And who is more marginalized than women?
As a feminist, I was at first appalled to find myself guilty of sexist language. Now I’m amused. I suspect the three months till November and the (please, God!) four to eight years of a Clinton presidency are going to provide numerous refresher courses for men like me, men perhaps a little too sanguine, a little too smugly assured of their own enlightenment. Language is about to become a minefield for us.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing. How else will we learn?
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.