Casey Miller and Kate Swift: Women Who Dared To Disturb the Lexicon
An Interview by Elizabeth Isele
I was delighted to accept WILLA's invitation to interview Kate Swift and Casey Miller. I knew in general about their ground-breaking work to eliminate sexist pronouns and gender-biased vocabulary from standard English usage, but since these women are loath to toot their own horns, the dynamic behind many of their specific accomplishments had eluded me. They were early pioneers in the Women's Movement, and I was eager to learn how they had accomplished so much so quietly.
I have now visited with Kate and Casey in their Connecticut home overlooking the river and in their Maine house overlooking the ocean. (Someone told me once that sea captains have extraordinary vision because they're always looking far out over the water to the horizon. I wonder if Casey's and Kate's often prescient vision is nurtured by their proximity to the water?) Both homes are like the authors they house. Outside they are unassuming; inside their rooms are filled with antique treasures, family portraits, warmth, and much light. It may be the fire crackling on the hearth, or the coals glowing in the cast-iron biscuit oven. It may be the steaming cup of coffee they've extended for you to cradle in your hands. Mostly, though, I think the warmth comes from the authors themselves. They are always thinking: what has been? what is? and what could be? Their questions generate tremendous energy, and they are keenly interested in what you are thinking. They are as interested in learning (from you or me) as they are in teaching. Faith fuels their optimism that people will correct the inequities rampant in our culture once they are aware of them. And, these revolutionaries are committed to raising people's awareness through what they do best: editing and writing.
While working as freelance editors from a home basement office in Connecticut, Casey Miller and Kate Swift raised editorial questions that shook the foundations of standard English language usage. What began as a "simple" copyediting assignment, developed over a period of years into a ground-breaking essay for MS magazine, an original article for the New York Times Magazine, and matured as two unique books. In each instance the authors quietly worked behind the scenes raising issues that needed to be addressed about how language shapes culture and culture shapes language -- both to the oppression of women.
Miller and Swift each had well-rounded and successful editing careers before forming their partnership in 1970. "We felt we'd be a great business team, and I could see that Casey was having a much better time at her freelance job as her own boss than I did in mine," said Swift.
Miller said, "That first year, Seabury Press called to ask if we could copyedit a junior high school sex education course manual for them. We agreed because we trusted the publisher who claimed the manuscript was straightforward without being clinical and that the author's main gist was mutual respect between males and females."
"We really had no idea how fateful that decision was," said Swift. "But it did not take long for us to realize that no matter what philosophical import existed in the author's intent, the text was not making his point."
"It was so weighted on the side of men that it left women and girls in some sort of limbo," commented Miller. "The message coming through was that girls are not as important, responsible, or self-sufficient as boys."
Swift said, "We suddenly realized what was keeping his message -- his good message -- from getting across, and it hit us like a bombshell. It was the pronouns! They were overwhelmingly masculine gendered. We turned in the manuscript with our suggestions such as putting singular sexist pronouns into plural gender-free ones, avoiding pronouns wherever possible, and changing word order so that girls or women sometimes preceded rather than always followed boys or men. The publisher accepted some suggestions and not others as always happens. But we had been revolutionized."
Insights like these (about the sexist nature of accepted English usage) once glimpsed, do not go away. We had been sensitized, and from then on everything we read, heard on the radio and television, or worked on professionally confirmed our new awareness that the way English is used to make the simplest points can either acknowledge women's full humanity or relegate the female half of the species to secondary status. (Words and Women, p. xviii)
Miller and Swift who were accustomed to fine tuning language or making things correct in small grammatical ways now shifted their strategy, attempting to make things correct in major ways. I like to think of this as their assumption of Pronoun Power! Researching the situation, they drew support from other language pioneers, some of whom -- including a few men -- they discovered in unexpected places. They found Lynn White, for example, writing in the 1950s about masculine generic pronouns while he was president of Mills College, an all women's institution then and now.
The penetration of this habit of language into the minds of little girls as they grow up to be women is more profound than most people, including most women, have recognized; for it implies that personality is really a male attribute, and that women are a subspecies. (Women and Words, p. xix)
They also found a chapter called "Sex and Semantics" in Eve Merriam's early feminist work, After Nora Slammed the Door, published in 1964. Eve would later support all their publishing efforts.
And they took up Wilma Scott Heide's, president of NOW in the late sixties, gauntlet on which she had inscribed,
In any social movement, when changes are effected, the language sooner or later reflects the change. Our approach is different .... we are changing language patterns to actively effect changes. (Women and Words, p. xix)
Motivated by this research, myriad other examples, and their own observations, Miller and Swift wrote a short article about sexist pronoun abuse. They called it "Desexing the Language." But true to their "copyediting correctness," and inadvertently perhaps thereby diffusing some of their political and linguistic critics, they stated up front that,
In the long run, the problem of the generic personal pronoun is a problem of the status of women. But it is more immediately a matter of common sense and clear communication. ("Desexing the Language," MS, December 1971)
In the article they proposed a new truly generic personal pronoun, tey -- and more specifically, tey, ter, tem, as the singular for they, their, them.
"Kate happened to know that Gloria Steinem was working for New York magazine, so we submitted the article to her for possible publication," said Miller. "We didn't hear anything for a long time. Then we got a phone call from a woman who said, 'You don't know anything about us, but we are forming a new magazine called MS and we'd like to run your article.' "
"It was Gloria Steinem," said Swift. "She explained they were calling from New York magazine, and that our article had been passed to her because she was starting the new magazine for women under the auspices of Clay Felker, publisher of New York magazine. The first issue of MS was coming out as a forty-page insert in the December 1971 issue of New York. We said sure, we'd love to sell it to you!"
"The first stand-alone issue was published with our article in February 1972," said Miller. "After it hit the stands, there was a celebratory party at the publisher's apartment -- a great place overlooking Central Park. The whole gang was there: Gloria, Eve Merriam, Letty Pogrebin, Pat Carbine, Clay Felker, Cynthia Ozick, Vivian Gornick, and Jane O'Reilly, to name just a few." "The only bad moment for us," she continued "was when we opened the issue and saw that the printer had transposed our names to Kate Miller and Casey Swift."
Pronoun Power was just the beginning for these two who dared to disturb the lexicon. Miller said, "We could not stop thinking and talking about the invisibility of women in standard English usage. As pervasive as we knew pronoun abuse to be, we also realized that probably the most negative work from the point of view of feminist perception in English is the use of man. Most discouraging was that it seemed so ingrained, we thought that there was no way to get around it."
"Just then," interrupted Swift, "we received another auspicious phone call. It was Victor Navasky, editor of the New York Times Magazine. Sounding some what exasperated, he said, 'Gloria Steinem was supposed to write an article for us about feminists' concern with language. She's been promising that article for a year and a half, and still she's not put pen to paper. I just spoke with her and she said you could do it.' "
Swift remembers shouting back, "She said we could do it!"
"Yes," he said, "we want 4000 words in three weeks. And there's a kill fee!"
"We told him we'd think about it. We didn't promise to do it. But in the next moment we got a call from Gloria. 'You've got to do it. That is what this whole movement's about. You have most of the material in your heads and I'll send you everything I've collected in my file. You just have to go ahead and do it.' So when she told us we had to do it, we figured we just had to do it. And we did it," said Swift.
"But neither one of us had confidence," added Miller.
"No," said Swift. "we had both written and published but it never occurred to us that the New York Times would ever want to print something of ours as a magazine piece."
"Really, it was the hardest job we ever did," added Miller. "We didn't have much time. Thank goodness we had a wonderful editor, Glenn Collins. He was quite young, but he was very supportive."
In fact the Handbook was his idea, and that was our next step," said Swift. "He mentioned that it was customary for authors to write a brief description of themselves for the article, something like 'two freelance writers from Connecticut.' I thought that sounded like plenty, but he wanted us to add just a little bit more."
"Why don't you say you are writing a book on the subject?" he suggested.
"Because we're not!" we answered.
"Say it anyway," he said. "Maybe somebody will call you and ask you to write the book."
"Sure enough," said Swift. "When the article appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the phone began ringing with editors' calls and one in particular asked, 'Are you writing that book?"'
"A neighbor of ours said, 'What you need is an agent.' And she helped us find Ginger Barber."
"Ginger sent our book prospectus out to a number of editors. One turned the book down flatly saying, 'the Women's Movement has peaked' -- and this was in 1973. Several others, however, were interested and asked to talk with us about it. One young man spent the entire time arguing with us about some word origins because he felt they truly were male gender words."
"He didn't seem the right editor for us," confirmed Swift.
"Next," Swift added, "we sat down with Loretta Barrett at Anchor Books, Doubleday. She was just great -- very gung-ho. She had a lot of other feminist books lined up and she took ours and never changed a word."
"Well, not quite," mused Miller. "She did switch the order of two chapters and persuaded us to include the epilogue."
"Oh that epilogue," said Swift. "All we wanted to do was to point out to people that ours was a male-centered language. We all have this male-imposed view when we first acquire language, and it gets reinforced in the recess of using language. We wanted people to think about this and then try to come up with their own ways of solving the problem. There is no set solution such as every 'man' should become 'person,' so we refused to make this a how-to-do-it book."
"But Loretta persisted," said Miller. " She felt that we set out all these problems and it was only natural for people to want help. 'Can't you give them a few suggestions or alternative ways to have nonsexist words in an epilogue?' she asked."
"So, we finally agreed and wouldn't you know it," said Swift, "one of our reviewers reviewed only our epilogue!" (The book was, of course, Words and Women published in 1977.)
"Even so," said Miller in response to Swift's exasperation. "We were extremely lucky with the review attention the book did receive. Benjamin DeMott, a member of President Ford's Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs and author of 'Surviving the Seventies,' for example, reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review. Calling it a 'model work of its kind,' DeMott said,
The book is a complacency shaker. It convinces you, if you need convincing, that belief in the inconsequentiality of many of the customs and conventions under examination is, in fact a species of complicity in the continual humiliation of half of the human world. (New York Times Book Review, Sunday, July 4th, 1976)
Miller and Swift did not have to wage an aggressively militant battle. Their thought-provoking questions were "complacency shakers." And they did go on to write a how-to book, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing as more and more people came to the pair who knew the questions for answers and/or solutions. Their new editor, Carol Cohen at T.Y. Crowell, encouraged them to write a handbook modeled on The Elements of Style.
Swift said, "She wanted the pages to look just like Style with a paragraph of writing and then an example in a short, easy-to-read mode. Again we were hesitant because we just wanted to give people the back ground, to make them aware of what was happening right under their noses, so that they could make their own decisions. We didn't want to tell people Do This or Don't Do That!"
"Heavens no," said Miller. "We are not word police! However," she continued, "we had lost our early naivete, thinking in our very first article that all we had to do was to introduce a new pronoun and everyone would adopt it. Change is slow, and we desperately need more gender-free words."
I asked where these words might come from, and Miller talked about a recent study at the University of Pennsylvania. "It cited young women, especially ghetto women, are on the leading edge of language change because they are freer, less inhibited, and more imaginative with words. Many of their words don't make it though because they are slang and because teachers correct their spontaneous use of language. Teachers certainly inhibited me. In fact, some of the people most critical of our work are English teachers trained in the old way. Some are even scornful, saying we break all the rules. Seeing these people trapped in their own language and not even knowing it just increases the challenge for us. Our hope now, as it always has been, is that once people are cognizant of the de- or sub-humanizing effect of sexist language on women -- especially if they have the same kind of epiphany we did -- they will consciously alter their words to eliminate semantic biases."
My coffee had long since cooled, but the house was warmer than ever. I had learned the dynamic behind Casey Miller and Kate Swift's accomplishments. It is their impeccable attention to details. In their hands even the smallest pronouns brought to light, carefully examined, and altered can effect profound changes in human relationships and understanding.
ELIZABETH ISELE is currently working on a book about living American women such as Swift and Miller who have made a difference.
Copyright 1994, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Isele, Elizabeth. (1994). Casey Miller and Kate Swift: Women who dared to disturb the lexicon. WILLA, Volume III, 8-10.