A move to strike ‘all men’ from N.H. constitution

Some say it’s time to make document gender-neutral

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / February 6, 2010

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CONCORD, N.H. - New Hampshire penned the nation’s first constitution in 1776, binding until the end of the Revolutionary War. With the war won, the state in 1783 ratified a new one that opens with the words, “All men are born equally free and independent.’’

Now, some say another rewriting is in order.

The word men might once have referred to those with rights and power, but no longer, and the constitution should be amended to reflect as much, says a group of New Hampshire legislators seeking to excise the word men and similar references and replace them with gender-neutral ones. In a state that now has the nation’s first majority female legislative body, backers say that changing the language is imperative.

“It’s a very simple thing in my mind,’’ said state Senator Kathy Sgambati, a Democrat and chief sponsor of the legislation, which has 18 cosponsors. “The constitution should reflect our government, and that includes women.’’

But the constitution is historic, sacred even, others say, and to insert gender-neutral language into the text would alter its natural rhythm and fundamental expression.

“There is a lyric quality, a literary quality, that expresses the ideals of the founding fathers,’’ said Representative Jordan Ulery, a Republican. “The bland gray socialist language just destroys all that.’’

Nearly a century after women won the vote, almost four decades since the women’s rights movement, the measure of women’s equality is often expressed in quantifiable terms: the number of women who are chief executives, law partners, firefighters. But there are issues of symbolic equality, too, such as constitutional language.

A number of states have amended their constitutions to include gender-neutral language, including Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, California, Florida, Hawaii, and New York. Other states, such as Nebraska, have tried to amend their constitutions and failed. Massachusetts has kept its original language, as has the US Constitution.

There have been some attempts at smaller changes in Massachusetts. Senate President Therese Murray has recommended that her members write legislation in gender-neutral language. A 1998 law allowed bills introduced in the State House to use the words he or she to refer to either gender.

But when state Representative Cory Atkins of Concord introduced a bill in 2008 mandating that gender-neutral language be used instead, she was lambasted as politically correct, with critics arguing that the word he is accepted as a generic term in everything from laws to the Bible. The measure failed.

New Hampshire has employed gender-neutral language in its legislation since 1994, but four efforts have failed to amend the language of its constitution. It came closest when Jeanne Shaheen was elected the state’s first female governor in 1996 and a quandary arose. The Constitution dictated that she be called “his excellency.’’ No one employed the male honorific, but many said the anachronism ought to be changed. Both houses overwhelmingly passed a measure mandating gender-neutral language in the state constitution. But when it went to a popular vote, it did not win the necessary two-thirds approval.

Now, New Hampshire legislators supporting the amendment say circumstances again bolster the case for the change. Not only does the state Senate have a female majority, but New Hampshire counts four women in the state’s top seven offices (including a US Senate seat captured by Shaheen from incumbent John Sununu).

“We have women in leadership roles, and to have the Constitution reflect that changing status of women makes sense,’’ said Sylvia Larsen, the state Senate president.

“When fourth-graders come to the State House, they are amazed to hear that the Senate has a majority of women,’’ said Sgambati. “Those young girls should see themselves in the constitution. They shouldn’t have to try to figure out that it applies to them.’’

For the amendment to pass, it would need approval by three-fifths of the House and Senate and two-thirds of voters. The gender-neutral changes would be made only to new printings of the Constitution and would not alter the way government is conducted, since the use of he in the Constitution has long been interpreted to include women.

Indeed, in some states where gender-neutral language was inserted into constitutions, such as Vermont and Rhode Island, the changes have been so unnoticeable in daily interactions that officials did not know that the changes had been made.

Because such changes have so little practical impact, some in New Hampshire say they are unnecessary in their state.

“It’s a waste of time,’’ said Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy and former executive director of the state’s Republican Party. “It doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t do anything.’’

Others point out that the constitution already has been stripped of language that restricts women’s rights. Some say the timing of the proposed amendment is poor, coming when there are other pressing needs. “We have people out of work,’’ said Sherman Packard, the house Republican leader. “We don’t need to be worrying about making the Constitution gender-neutral.’’

But Sgambati answered, “Clearly everybody’s priority is the budget and creating jobs. But this is not something that will take a lot of time. It’s a matter of presenting the bill in both houses and taking a vote. We deal with hundreds of bills a session and this one is a simple vote up or down.’’