This tribute originally appeared on the website of the invaluable Women’s Media Center.
Nonsexist-language pioneer Kate Swift, 87, died on May 14 after a brief encounter with abdominal cancer. Her generous legacy to the world includes her revolutionary influence on language as well as her productive activism (she helped effect Connecticut’s marriage equality act, protect prochoice legislation, promote progressive candidates, protest the war on Iraq, and conserve the environment). She also leaves numerous admirers who all somehow numbered themselves among her closest and best friends.
Barbara Peabody Swift, always known as Kate, was born in 1923 to parents who were newspaper and magazine journalists, and she obtained her own journalism degree from the University of North Carolina in 1944. Thereafter, she worked as a newswriter, science writer for the Museum of Natural History, editor for the Army’s information and education department, public relations officer for the Girl Scouts of America, press liaison for the Hayden Planetarium, and, in 1965, director of the news bureau of the school of medicine at Yale.
In the early 1970s, Swift and her longtime partner and coworker Casey Miller were editing a sex-education program for junior-high students when they realized that the materials spoke to “men,” “boys,” and “him.” They ended up not only making girls and women visible in the text, but writing an article on sexist language for the first issue of Ms. magazine (“Desexing the English Language”) and later for The New York Times Magazine (“One Small Step for Genkind”). Casey Geddes Miller, a writer who was graduated from Smith College as a philosophy major and had worked in naval intelligence, died in 1997.
The ultimate flowering of the Miller-Swift hybrid was Words and Women (1976), a world-changing book that demonstrated so conclusively that our everyday words disparaged and discriminated against women that no one should ever have needed to say another word. The world being what it is, of course, many more words were needed. But Casey and Kate nailed the issue. (When trying to get their book published in 1973, they were rejected by one editor because “the Women’s Movement has peaked.”)
Later they published The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (1980), explaining, “Conventional English usage, including the generic use of masculine-gender words, often obscures the actions, the contributions, and sometimes the very presence of women. Turning our backs on that insight is an option, of course, but it is an option like teaching children that the world is flat.”