Robbo comments on my “first female congresswoman” posting:
This one drives me up the wall because I’m in the military.
Why are these are OK: ‘airmen’, ’seamen’, and ‘midshipmen’; but yet we have ’servicemen and women’ — which is too cumbersome, so we just use ‘troops’. Can we not get the idea that a ‘chairman’ can be a woman? Or a congressman? What about yeoman or alderman? Truly we can are enlightened enough to accept a historical title to be filled by either gender?
[The last sentence has a nice error -- "we can are enlightened enough" -- that's probably a cutnpaste error, the result of shifting from an original formulation, probably with "we are enlightened enough", to a somewhat more hedged formulation with "can", but without fixing the "are".]
This is a separate issue from the one I talked about in my posting, which was about the error “first female congresswoman” for the intended “first black congresswoman”, in a caption.
The caption writer was faced with a problem in expression. The writer wanted to say that Shirley Chisholm was the first member of the U.S. House of Representatives to be both black and female. The straightforward way to do this in the minimum number of words is
the first black congresswoman
You can’t parcel out race and sex in any other way without greatly complicating the description. In particular, there’s no
the first female congressblack.
the first black congressman
(with congressman understood inclusively, taking in both men and women) won’t do, because it would be false: there were black Representatives before Chisholm, but they were all men.
What probably happened with the caption is a “semantic anticipation”: the writer was already planning for congresswoman, and the sex feature got anticipated in the prenominal modifier. Not a particularly surprising result.
But the other question, of how compounds in -man/-men are understood, is genuinely complex. What’s clear, to me at any rate, is that it’s obtuse to insist that either the inclusive interpretation or the male-only interpretation must always be the only interpretation. In fact, people’s judgments differ from compound to compound and context to context. The elements -man and -men, for some speakers, in some compounds, and in some contexts, call up specifically male referents — and for some speakers, in some compounds, and in some contexts call up referents with sex unspecified.
There are discernible tendencies, but they’re no more than that. In many contexts and for many people, chairman is easily usable as sex-neutral (I myself prefer chair — don’t give me that absurd stuff about how a person can’t be a piece of furniture, as if you’d never heard of either metonymy or clipping — but I have no problem with chairman), while other compounds are edgy at best (I have a bad moment with Madame Congressman).
The point is that everyone should be able to deal with variation, and not to insist on their system as the only acceptable one — and not to disparage other people’s preferences as either the imposition of the masculine boot in gender matters or the imposition of “political correctness” in gender matters.