January 27 2017
Jillian Kay Melchior
Two wonky Washington Post pieces about ethics reform have unintentionally launched a weeks-long debate among readers about supposedly sexist language.
A Jan. 4 editorial accused Republican lawmakers of having “voted secretly to emasculate the independent House ethics watchdog.” And an op-ed by Dana Milbank, also touching on the topic, also claimed that “House leaders were emasculated.”
Poor word choice, wrote Gaithersburg resident Allison Cox, taking umbrage with the word “emasculate.”
“Such sexist language reminds readers that men are the holders of power and maintain it only by behaving in a manly way. … It is no small thing to equate political power and competence with masculinity,” Cox wrote in her Jan. 20 letter to the editor.
Referencing journalists who have quit referring to the Redskins by that name because of concerns about racism, Cox suggested the Post as a whole drop “emasculate.”
“Perhaps the board could consider the harm in using language that suggests only the most masculine among us make effective leaders,” she said.
Cox’s Gaithersburg neighbor Larry Regan was horrified at her suggestion, accusing her of having “brass ovaries” in a Jan. 27 letter to the editor, which also ran in the Post.
“The usage is accepted and no different from ‘enervate,’” Regan wrote. “Such comic hypersensitivity should never be allowed to rob the paper’s prose of its testicularity (with apologies to J.D. Salinger).”
But Fred Hiatt, the Post editorial page editor, said he thought Cox had a good point.
“The dictionary does say the word can mean ‘weaken’ or ‘enfeeble’ in a general way, so I think I wouldn’t be inclined to issue a decree against it,” Hiatt said in an email to Heat Street. “But I think in my own writing and editing I certainly would be more mindful and less likely to use it.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.