U.S. House of Representatives Adopts Gender-Neutral Language in Rules Document

The 117th Congress convened on January 4 to vote on the adoption of a finalized set of rules. Much of the content in the new rules package is rather dense and focuses on a set of conduct relating to processes such as initiating motions and the protections of house employees. However, the United States House of Representatives amended the text of the Rules of the House to remove the document’s gendered language. In general, gendered terms can still be used in the House. While on the whole, gender inclusivity is a good practice, some aspects of these new rules move beyond inclusivity and almost push the restrictions into the realm of censorship.

There are two main components of these new rules about gendered titles and descriptions. The first is the renaming of titles and occupations that traditionally include the words “man” or “woman.” One such example is the renaming of the Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman to the Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds.  Likewise, “seamen” became “seafarers,” and “chair” replaced “chairman.” This aspect of the rule changes is positive and is representative of what seems to be a growing trend of inclusion within the House. The new rules stress not only gender diversity but also ethnic diversity, with the creation of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. In American culture, hearing the words Chairman and Congressman brings to mind an image of a middle-aged man in a suit with gleaming white teeth. Of course, we know that the people who fill the roles are, in actuality, more representative of a wide range of backgrounds and identities. However, such suffixes as man can subconsciously cause an association of these positions with masculinity. 

The second portion of these gender-terminology rules is where things become more out-of-touch and, quite possibly, performative. Rule XXIII states,“a member, delegate, or resident commissioner may not retain the relative of such individual in a paid position.” Clause 8(c)(3) of Rule XXIII defined “relative” as “father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin, nephew, niece, husband, wife” and more. Now, the clause defines “relative” as “parent, child, sibling, parent’s sibling, first cousin, sibling’s child, spouse,” and more. 

What sets these terms apart from the occupation markers is what they reflect. All of these terms are descriptors of personal identities, and as such, focus on portraying the specific person’s gender identity and relations. Unlike a position such as chair of a committee, gendered descriptors, especially when in the context of relations, provide a level of detail that may be needed in certain contexts. Unlike with “seaman” or “chairman,” referring to someone as a “mother” or “father” does not have a negative connotation. A mother refers to the female who raised or gave birth to a child, and a father much the same but referring to a man. These terms do not indicate hierarchy, nor do they suggest one role is more desirable than another. A person of any gender can be a chair of a committee. To be a mother, father, or brother, however, you must fall into a specific category. It is that categorization that allows us to be specific and descriptive when referring to others, especially when using terms to denote relations.

What I believe to be the motivation behind such rules is to try and dismantle preconceived notions of what someone in a position of power looks like or identifies as. To do so is a very noble cause, and is needed in a time of extreme polarization. It reminds us of the American spirit of advancement and equality. However, gendered descriptors of familial relations, quite frankly, do not impose such ideas of gender hierarchy or preconceived notions. It leads me to question their motivations for banning such descriptors. My guess is that it was a failed attempt at inclusivity, wherein acceptance and understanding nearly crossed a boundary into censorship and overreach. The words outlined above are not used in discriminatory manners and contain no hateful language or connotation. To truly dismantle systems imposing patriarchal or matriarchal ideas, trivial and performative actions do no good. In fact, it may continue to only further the polarization which has been going on in our country.

It seems that much of the overreach in language control is the result of continuing hatred between left and right. One decries the other as “radical, woke, leftists” and the other as “uneducated, racist, tyrants.” The cultural divide between these groups widens, and many use it as a leveraging tactic to enact their power on the other. This, in actuality, only causes more hate between the two groups. While not outright censorship, such limits on language which hold no negative connotation seem to be an extreme move. To quote the linguist and political theorist, Noam Chomsky, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

At its core, our understanding of gender and leadership are formed by our culture and preconceived notions. But there exists a fine line between promoting equality and enacting undue censorship. To simply not be allowed to refer to one’s brother, mother, father, uncle, or any other gendered relative moves in a direction opposite to understanding and inclusion. It ignores cultural background, personal identity, and many other factors that shape us as humans. It supposes that simply adding gender to any aspect of legislation would inevitably lead to hatred and/or discrimination. In the halls and chambers where the First Amendment was championed since the dawn of our nation, it is a bit disheartening to see the expression of one’s personal identities, relations, and position in society be frowned upon.