Is it OK to celebrate our 'Founding Fathers' on this Presidents Day?

The City of San Diego recently came under fire for its workers' manual that discourages the use of gendered language, including the phrase 'founding fathers.' But proponents of gender-neutral communication say this may be for the better. 

Jason Bean/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall.

On this Presidents Day, our “Founding Fathers” may be a sticky subject.

Earlier this week, the conservative legal organization Pacific Justice Institute incited outrage over the fact that the city of San Diego instructed its employees in a workers' manual to refrain from using gender biased language, and the term “Founding Fathers” was listed as an example.

In a letter to Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the group pointed to more than 1,500 instances of the phrase at hand used in Supreme Court decisions and other judicial documents, urging the city to amend its manual. The city has since agreed to retract the suggestion, but for proponents of gender-neutral language, the issue of “Founding Fathers” remains at large.

“We trust you will act swiftly to correct the appalling notion that city personnel should not quote the foregoing authorities or otherwise refer to the Founding Fathers,” the group’s letter said. “The folly of the prohibition is so self-evident that we will offer to represent, at no charge, any city employee who is disciplined or admonished for invoking our Founding Fathers.”

But according to city spokesman Matt Awbrey, no city employee has ever been reprimanded for such action. “The manual is a guidebook and nothing more,” he told The Christian Science Monitor via email. “No employee has ever been disciplined for referencing our founding fathers, and no one ever will.”

In fact, since the Pacific Justice Institute called attention to the issue Monday, the city has revised its manual and eliminated the bit about the nation’s founders.

“Suggesting that our Founding Fathers should be referred to as ‘Founders’ is political correctness run-amok. We are proud of our nation's history and there is nothing wrong with referring to the Founding Fathers,” a statement from the city reads. “At the Mayor’s direction this was removed yesterday from the City's correspondence manual. The manual will be reviewed for other misguided examples that defy common sense and changes will be made accordingly.”

Politically correct or not, the term “Founding Fathers” still doesn’t seem optimal for some supporters of gender equity. After all, women were not completely absent in the establishment of the US. But advocates say, more crucially, gendered language has a role in perpetuating social gender boundaries.

The American Philosophical Association, for instance, recommends using the terms, “Founders” or the “founding leaders.” Independent editor and grammar blogger Kathy Watson prefers the term “forebears.”

“As a person who thinks grammar is important, words matter. The implication of words and the connotation of words all matter,” she tells The Monitor. “When you take the example of ‘Founding Fathers,’ if that’s the way history is taught at an early age, young girls will not be able to envision the important roles that women can aspire to, and it could limit their self-perception.”

“Only by taking the actions that the city [was],” she adds, “people will be more inclusive and recognize that women also filled important roles” – and will continue to do so.

Last year, a team of German psychologists found that children reacted positively and with more self-efficacy to traditionally male occupations when they are introduced in both masculine and feminine forms – such as male and female politicians – rather than to generic masculine forms.

But Ms. Watson says it goes both ways.

“For many years, males did not go into the nursing field,” she says, noting that “male nurse” is still a common phrase. Without gender neutral communication, she explains, “people tend to perceive certain professions as being filled by one gender or the other.”

Currently, there are at least four states – Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, and Washington – that have banned gender bias from their public legal lexicon, replacing terms such as “fisherman,” “freshman,” and “signalman” with gender nonspecific versions. A handful of other states have passed gender-neutral constitutional mandates and others are now considering similar measures.

A gender-neutral bill was just introduced to the Idaho state legislature Wednesday morning.

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