We’ve come a long way, baby, and then we’ve gotten stuck. In academe particularly, gender-neutral language is the norm: “chair” not “chairman,” “first-year” not “freshman,” “female student” not “co-ed,” “ombudsperson,” and so on. Sure, cultural stereotypes can override these conscious language decisions. My two sons, for instance, used to insist that a mail carrier (pronounced “cawiwehw” when they couldn’t do r’s) had to be male, though a police officer could be a woman. (Go figure.) And when I tried substituting “she” for “he” to designate some of those anthropomorphic characters in their picture books, they stopped me to ask “Why’s it a girl?”—the rule apparently being that elephants or kangaroos could be female only if they were mothers or causing trouble.
And sure, certain pockets of language resist gender neutrality. Pronoun agreement is one; certain occupational designations are another. Although we’ve switched from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” without too much fuss, changing “first baseman” to “first-base player” is more than anyone can handle. Likewise “corpsman” and “infantryman” in the military. High-school and college basketball players are urged to “cover your man” even when that man is a woman—because, say some, the alternative is “cover your girl,” which is, ahem, diminutive. So, to review, the worlds of the military and sports resist gender neutrality—because it is obvious, for instance, that “cover your opponent” sounds silly or “infantry member” is such a mouthful.
Then we come to “fisher.” I heard the word, perhaps not for the first time, but in a way that made me listen, the other day on NPR when some marine law was proving troublesome for “fishers and shippers.” Aside from liking the half-rhyme of this pairing, I was startled by how odd it sounded. After all, a shipper is one who ships; a fisher is one who fishes. Why, I asked myself, have we for so long had hunters and fishermen? Why not hunters and fishers?
The answer, it seems, lies with the fishing community. As veteran hunter-of-fishes V. Paul Reynolds exclaims on his blog, “My goodness, it is ugly! Fisher. As in, ‘Did you see him work that fly rod across that pool, a long smooth line. Double hauls and all. What a skilled fisher!’” Now, I don’t hear the ugliness, but then I last hooked a trout in 1985. Nor do I see the confusion over the term stemming from the “somewhat foxlike marten” that shares the name; aside from jokes, no one has yet confused the person running department meetings with a piece of furniture.
Still, when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation began using “fisher,” complaints swam in from sea to shining sea, from women as well as men. The women who worked the lines, it seemed, were proud of the “-man” designation. Especially when the term “non-native fishers” was used, writers called it “urban, technocratic, precious, racist, and above all imprecise. Why don’t we call them all what they call themselves? Micmacs call each other Indians. Fishermen call each other, well, ‘fishermen.’”
Well, why don’t we? Stewardesses used to call one another “stewardess”; firemen (including the few females on the force) called one another “firemen.” Why change? The answer, of course, lies not with the current anglers and “fish harvesters” (another proposed term) now scraping a living out of our depleted seas, but with coming generations. I’m old enough to have considered, in first grade, two lists of occupations from which we were to choose our future vocation. “Teacher” was the only word on both lists, and I chose it solely for that reason.
Likewise, although firefighting still seemed gender-specific to my kids, they accepted the idea of a female Congressional representative in large measure because they had both the term and the role models available. With more than 14 million women fishing in the United States (32 percent of all anglers, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, are women), who knows where lurks the little girl who will go for that prize catch because she, too, can grow up to be a fisher?Return to Top