Kate Swift, 87; editor rooted out gender bias

By William Grimes
New York Times / May 15, 2011

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NEW YORK — Kate Swift — a writer and editor who in two groundbreaking books, “Words and Women’’ and “The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing,’’ brought attention to the gender discrimination embedded in ordinary English usage — died May 7 in Middletown, Conn. She was 87.

The cause was stomach cancer, said her grandniece, Corin R. Swift.

Ms. Swift turned her attention to the issue of sexist language when she and Casey Miller, her companion, formed a professional editing partnership in 1970 and were asked to copy edit a sex education manual for junior high school students.

The stated goal of the manual was to encourage mutual respect and equality between boys and girls, but Ms. Swift and Miller, who died in 1997, concluded that the author’s intent was being undermined by the language.

“We suddenly realized what was keeping his message, his good message, from getting across, and it hit us like a bombshell,’’ Ms. Swift said in a 1994 interview for the National Council of Teachers of English. “It was the pronouns! They were overwhelmingly masculine gendered.’’

The partners turned in a manuscript with suggestions that sex-identifying singular pronouns be made plural or that pronouns be avoided altogether and that word order be changed so girls preceded boys as often as the reverse. “The publisher accepted some suggestions and not others, as always happens,’’ Ms. Swift said. “But we had been revolutionized.’’

Now, they wrote in the preface to their first book, “Words and Women,’’ “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.’’

Ms. Swift and Miller went on to write two attention-getting essays on the subject in 1972: “Desexing the English Language,’’ which appeared in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine, and “One Small Step for Genkind,’’ which was published in The New York Times Magazine. “Words and Women: New Language in New Times’’ followed in 1976. An updated version was published in 1991.

The book illustrated the implicit biases in spoken and written English, highlighting the time-honored phrases “all men are created equal’’ and “land where our fathers died,’’ the persistent identification of women by Miss and Mrs., and the journalistic habit of describing women as divorcees or blondes, who might be pert, dimpled, or cute.

Some of the authors’ proposals gained traction. Many newspapers, textbooks, and public speakers avoid the words fireman and stewardess nowadays. Other ideas fell by the wayside, notably genkind as a replacement for mankind, or tey, ter, and tem as sex-neutral substitutes for he/she, his/her, and him/her.

Barbara Peabody Swift, known as Kate, was born in Yonkers, to a journalistic family. Her father and mother were both newspaper and magazine journalists. She earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina in 1944.

After working as a copy runner in the NBC newsroom, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps as a writer and editor for the Army’s information and education department.

She was a writer for the Port of New Orleans, an editorial assistant at Time and a news writer for the public relations department of the Girl Scouts of America before becoming a science writer on the public affairs staff of the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan in 1954. In 1965 she became director of the news bureau of the school of medicine at Yale.

She lived in East Haddam, Conn., and Georgetown, Maine. Her marriage ended in divorce. She leaves a brother, John of Georgetown, Maine, and a half-sister, Marguerite Swift of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Georgetown.

Although Ms. Swift and Miller followed up their first book with a style guide, “The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing,’’ in 1980, Ms. Swift insisted that she had no interest in policing the language.

“We just wanted to give people the background, to make them aware of what was happening right underneath their noses,’’ she said of the handbook. “We didn’t want to tell people, Do This or Don’t Do That!’’