‘Fireman’ v. ‘Firefighter’: These Lawmakers Want Less Gendered Language in the Law

The U.S. legal code currently defaults to the masculine form when referring to people, but the Equality in Our Laws Act would change that.

Reps. Summer Lee, pictured, is joining with other lawmakers to introduce legislation that would replace masculine generics with gender-neutral language in the U.S. legal code. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

This story was originally published on The 19th.

Some lawmakers want to change the masculine default in government documents. Reps. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) are introducing legislation that would replace masculine generics with gender-neutral language in the U.S. legal code. News of the legislation was first exclusively shared with The 19th. 

“Gendered words in our laws have detrimental effects,” said Lee. 

Lee points to a 2015 research study that found that men were perceived as being better fits for leadership positions when a masculine job title was used in a job description as evidence of the importance of having a mandated shift away from gendered language in the U.S. legal code. A 2019 research project conducted by the World Bank found that gendered language also resulted in worse labor market participation rates for women and the reinforcement of regressive gender norms. 

At present, the U.S. legal code defaults to masculine generics except in states that have passed measures implementing a generic language change in their own state legal codes. California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin are among the states that have passed such measures. 

The Equality in Our Laws Act would direct the Office of Law Revision Counsel (OLRC) to to make non-substantive, gender-neutral revisions to many portions of the legal code. Laws like the Violence Against Women Act and the statute establishing the Women-Owned Small Business Federal Contracting Program would continue to be able to use gender-specific language in an effort to create rights and protections. OLRC would also be prohibited from amending any portion of the code in which gender affects the substance, meaning or interpretation of the federal laws.

Earlier research has also found that language that is perceived to be gendered can perpetuate group-based inequities, preventing mobility for certain demographics based on people’s perceptions that certain jobs and opportunities for growth are not for them based on seeing default masculine pronouns to describe work. 

Should the bill pass, it would change “he” to “the Secretary” when referring to the head of a federal agency and “fireman” and “policeman” to “firefighter” and “police officer.” But its passage at this time is unlikely. Lee acknowledges the reality of the current makeup of the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold the majority. Still, she said, “if we’re not proposing fixes, if we’re not proposing legislation that’s going to help people, we can expect to stay in the minority.”

The representatives sponsoring this bill say that it would make the U.S. legal code more inclusive, especially to women and LGBTQ+ people—in particular, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary and intersex individuals. The sponsors say this bill sends an important message to the majority party in the House about the role that language plays in governance and the law, especially in a climate where state lawmakers have been increasingly restricting reproductive rights, health care access for transgender individuals and what children can learn at school or check out at libraries.

“The language that’s been used in our statutes, the language that we use in our Constitution—all of that is incredibly intentional,” Lee said. “If we’re going to correct that, if we’re going to move closer to equity and justice, then we have to be just as intentional in talking about our words.”

The legislation is part of the work of the new House Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Caucus, a group founded in March of this year and led by Democratic Black women lawmakers. Lee is a co-chair of the caucus alongside Pressley and Rep. Cori Bush. The caucus seeks to not only see the Equal Rights Amendment ratified as the 28th Amendment to the Constitution, but also operate as a political force for calling attention to issues pertaining to gender equity on a national scale through an intersectional, multi-racial coalition.

In its founding, the group expressed that the people who benefit the most from gender equity work are Black and Brown women, LGBTQ+ people, people seeking abortion care, and other historically marginalized groups in the United States. Lee says bringing the conversation back to the power of language to bolster—or erode—people’s rights and access points for opportunity and greater equity is key to that work. 

“When we think about the ERA Caucus, we think about the ways in which the Republican Party conservatives across this country have been attempting—and sometimes successfully—to erode the rights of trans folks, queer folks, marginalized folks, Black and Brown folks,” Lee said. “We have to make sure that even as they’re fighting, that we’re fighting harder to keep us going in the right direction.”

Lee said she felt the proposed change would have far-reaching benefits. 

“I do not feel that this is an issue that should be partisan,” Lee said. “There are women in the majority party. There are people of all parties who are disadvantaged by the use of gendered language, including Republicans across this country.”

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Jennifer Gerson is a reporter on our breaking news team. She was the recipient of the 2015 Maggie Award for her reproductive and sexual health reporting work at Yahoo Health. In 2019, she was twice nominated by the American Society of Magazine Editors for her work in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan. She was also one of the founding editors of Jezebel.com.