By Jacqui Banaszynski
It would be folly to follow the thousands (millions?) of sentences that have been written since presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced that U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California would be his vice-presidential running mate. I had the folly to try, and have little but a screen-blind headache to show for it. That and no end of outrage at the nonstop, vulgar, misogynistic and unwarranted (can I say nasty?) attacks leveled at Harris. We knew they were coming. We know there are more to come.
I feel compelled to note here that this is not about party politics. I have never registered for a party, or voted a party line, in my life — not even two weeks ago, when I voted in the Washington state primary. This is about an ugly level of indecency, and about the dangerous demeaning of women and people of color.
Now that I’ve declared …
For all those millions of sentences written since Tuesday, this is the one that caught my attention:
“Meanwhile, his campaign accelerated its vice-presidential planning this weekend, preparing outreach efforts to help the future running mate connect with core Democratic constituencies and readying fundraisers around her selection.”
It came on Tuesday morning in a New York Times piece by Alexander Burns, a few hours before the Biden announcement. There is nothing exceptional about the sentence. It is a line of process in a set-up piece waiting for the real news.
It is the lack of exceptionalism that made it so exceptional to me. Especially the last phrase: “… readying fundraisers around her selection.”
“Her selection.” “Her.” A simple pronoun, dropped in with such normalcy to the kind of story where it has seldom been included before and, when it has, has been accompanied by qualifiers.
Why it matters
Why does the nonchalant inclusion of that pronoun say so much?
Because when I was growing up, I took it for granted that all the important people I read about or heard about were “he” or “him.” I didn’t even notice the complete lack of pronouns that included me. That’s how thoroughly language can be used as an eraser.
Because when I became a journalist, it was still accepted that the masculine pronoun — and an array of masculine nouns — stood in as shorthand for everyone. Only when I worked with a few other young women did we find the collective courage to challenge that notion, and to join a movement demanding more inclusive — and accurate — language. Language that didn’t erase us or make us the property or extension of a male pronoun.
Because when I covered the edges of Geraldine Ferraro’s bid to be vice president, on the ticket with Walter Mondale, we weren’t assigned to cover her as a normal candidate. The “firsts” always came first. The exceptionalism of her presence always needed to be noted.
Because when people of color were included in news stories, that inclusion almost always came with negative stereotypes that made them “the other,” or qualifiers about the exceptionalism that set them apart from those others.
Because when I covered gay rights and AIDS issues in the 1980s, gay men would tell me how they had spent their lives translating the pronouns stories in books and movies and music in an attempt to see themselves. When I asked about news stories, they just scoffed. And gay women at the time? Barely there, except for tortured newsroom debates over the use of the word “lesbian.”
Because when I listen to non-binary and transgender friends now, they refuse to be defined by a rigid societal definition of who they are — and that often starts with pronouns.
What a simple thing, it seems, a pronoun. And yet how much power. How empowering to see it in a sentence with no qualifiers or caveats or exceptions. Just there, as if it was as normal as the day: … her selection. Kamala Harris’s presence on a competitive presidential ticket is a historic moment. I’m waiting for history to advance to a time when it no longer will be.
Jacqui Banaszynski is editor of the Nieman Storyboard website, which explores the craft of nonfiction storytelling; this article is reprinted with permission. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing; was an editor at the Seattle Times and Portland Oregonian; and was a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism for 17 years. She is a part-time resident of the Methow Valley.