Confessions of an accidental sexist

Posted on Wednesday, September 15, 2010

By Neale McDevitt

Over the course of my life, I have been called many things by many people. Some have been downright flattering while others have been less so, often questioning the purity of my lineage. But in all my 48 years I have never been called sexist, until two weeks ago when, in the course of one day, I was so accused, not once, but twice – by two different women here at McGill.

While I admit my love of beer, sleeveless T-shirts and sports in which men break each other’s bodies may have me swinging a rung or two lower on the evolutionary ladder than most, I must say these accusations caught me by surprise. Sexist? Me? Really?

Would a sexist spend the last 10 years of his life coaching a women’s rugby team, extolling the virtues of their game to all who would listen and championing their cause within a governing body that seems unfairly slanted toward the men’s game?

Would a sexist be in love with a woman whose physical strength (you should see her charge down a rugby pitch) is surpassed only by her strength of character?

Would a sexist try and raise two 7-year-old girls (daughter Charlotte and foster daughter Sylvianne) to aspire to be anything they want in life regardless of how others want to pigeonhole them?

Both complaints were triggered by articles I had written for the last issue of the McGill Reporter. In the first case, Jana Luker, Executive Director of Services for Students, emailed me to politely point out that I had used the word “freshmen” several times in an article talking about the arrival of first-year students, Thousands flock to Discover McGill

“At the risk of sounding radical, the word ‘freshman/men’ is not very inclusive; rather old-fashioned and American-centric at best and extremely sexist and exclusive at worst,” Luker wrote.

Less than an hour later, I got an email from Abby Lippman, a well-known professor in Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, with the subject line “shame on you!!” in which she took me to task for my article about the nomination process for honorary degrees (Cast your Vote). In particular, Lippman was upset that in the article’s lead paragraph I listed four men (Nelson Mandela, Mario Lemieux, Dr. Robert Gallo, Justin Bieber.) as possible hon doc candidates without naming a single woman as a possible candidate.

In the first case, I remember pausing on the word “freshmen” as I wrote it. I knew it wasn’t politically correct but I had already used “first-year students” a lot in the article and I didn’t want to be repetitious. Too lazy to think of an alternative, I picked “freshmen” and forged ahead. “No one will even notice,” I thought.

In the second case, my thought process was strictly geared to coming up with a quartet of possible Hon Doc nominees that was broad in scope (activist and politician, hockey player, teen idol, pioneering HIV/AIDs researcher) and, perhaps a little whimsical (Justin Bieber?!?). I ran through a slew of possible names in my head and not one was a woman – but the omission was entirely unconscious.

A little careless in the first case; unthinking in the second. Surely the absence of any malice absolved me of any wrongdoing, no? In today’s world, in which women face frontal assaults of the most deplorable kind all the time how bad can a single word or a simple omission really be?

But, as I thought it over, I began to feel a little uneasy. Maybe I wasn’t as emancipated or as thoroughly modern as I thought. And maybe it is exactly my position as women’s ally that makes my transgressions even more insidious.

You see, I am a product of the Old Regime in which television newscasts showed clips of firemen and policemen in action while department spokesmen gave updates on critical situations. Firefighters, police officers and spokespeople just didn’t exist. During my occasional trips to hospitals and clinics for any variety of bumps and bruises incurred in my headlong rush to adulthood, I was treated by male doctors who, in turn, were supported by female nurses.

My father worked and my mother stayed at home and tended to us kids – the standard family set up for virtually all my friends.

But I was perhaps the last such generation. Lurking on periphery of my childhood are such events as bra burning, the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States and Billie Jean King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in tennis’ iconic Battle of the Sexes. As the times changed, so did I.

Or so I thought.

I have come to realize that, despite my protests to the contrary, I still carry remnants of that old regime – much like my stalled conversion to the metric system that sees me talk about the temperature outside using Celsius but refer to myself as being 5-feet six-inches tall. God knows I’m trying, but I can’t seem to update my default setting.

More than most, I should understand the power of words. Used well, they can create wonderfully unified images that inspire. But they can also be used to exclude and denigrate and weaken. Once the words are down on paper for all to read, intent no longer matters.

If I want my writing to reflect the ideals that I embrace – that we are all created equal, regardless of sex, race, religion or sexual orientation – then I must be more vigilant. The four men lead to a story just doesn’t cut it. That’s not the story I want to tell and it’s certainly not the story I want my girls back home to read.

Reformed sexist? Amen to that… Or perhaps, Hallelujah is a better word.

Neale McDevitt is Editor of the McGill Reporter.

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