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Gender-Neutral Language Written into State Laws

Many states -- Washington being the latest -- have revised decades-old codes and statutes to remove any gender bias.

AP/Ted S. Warren

Slowly but surely, “policemen,” “firemen” and “ombudsmen” are being erased from state codes and statutes. They’re being replaced by police officers, firefighters and ombuds. It’s part of a nationwide effort to revise state laws to be gender-neutral, which can sometimes mean rewriting decades-old language passed at a time when women weren’t a big part of the public-sector workforce.

Washington state is currently reviewing its laws for gender-biased terms; the state plans to complete the revision this year. Some of the words to be whited-out include “watchmen” and “freshmen” (replaced by “security guard” and “first-year students”). The state had already passed a law in 1983 requiring that new language be gender-neutral, but now state officials are combing back through state statutes to tweak every law passed since the state’s founding in 1854.

Read the April issue of Governing magazine.

The Evergreen State isn’t alone. Florida and Minnesota have recently completed similar revisions. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, roughly half of the states have taken some steps to ensure that all of their official language is gender-neutral. A few, including New York and Rhode Island, have gone back to their roots and changed their state constitutions.

“Words matter. Words help shape our perceptions about what opportunities are available to women and men,” says Liz Watson, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “This is one piece of a much broader effort. Words alone are not going to achieve all of the things that need to happen. But this is one easy part for us to do.”

Brian Peteritas is a GOVERNING contributor.
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