Listening to a recording of last week’s Jackson County Board of Commissioners’ work session, I was struck by the repeated use of the word “girls” in connection with three professionals in the room, Finance Officer Darlene Fox, county Attorney Heather Baker and Clerk to the Board Angie Winchester.
The word was bandied about unthinkingly, used in the course of a few commissioners heaping praise on the outstanding work done by these “girls.”
Not once did I hear Jackson County Manager Don Adams referred to as “boy.”
Is such a mild display of sexism a big deal in a world seemingly gone mad, where some Americans actually settle political differences by shooting people?
Not particularly, at least not for me. I can’t speak on behalf of all the world’s professional “girls,” of course. I imagine there are those who understandably don’t much appreciate being verbally reduced to children.
On the same day, I happened to be reading back issues of The Jackson County Journal, an early newspaper published in this community. I found it interesting how little society has changed, at least in terms of the relationship between some men and professional women.
In the early 1920s, a friendly feud (one of many) erupted between The Hendersonville News’ owner-editor, Noah Hollowell, and his counterpart at The Jackson County Journal, Dan Tompkins, about how one properly addresses a female editor.
Beatrice Cobb of The News-Herald in Morganton had not appreciated The Hendersonville News’ insistence on designating her an “editress.”
Tompkins leaped to her defense, writing in December 1920 for The Jackson County Journal:
“Will the editor of The Hendersonville News inform us where he finds a rule, law or precedent for referring to Miss Beatrice Cobb as Editress Beatrice Cobb?
“While we would have had a mental reservation as to its correctness prior to the adoption of suffrage, we would not have raised the point. But now when woman has become a co-partner, as it were, in things political, we do most earnestly protest against any attempt to feminize a noun that knows no gender. If we should adopt the precedent that The News is trying to establish we should be forced to speak of postmistresses, clerksesses, stenographeresses, lawyeresses, doctoresses, voteresses, judgesses and so on ad feminatum.”
Tompkins was still arguing the point the following month, in January 1921:
“We ask to know of The Hendersonville News if we are also to refer to the lady from Buncombe as the Honorabless Exum Clement Legislatress. It is now certain that if North Carolina should ever elect a woman as chief executive, The Hendersonville News would persist in calling her the Governess of North Carolina.”
While covering a local town election in April 1921 for The Hendersonville News, Hollowell responded to his two foes:
“In order that the editress of Morganton News-Herald and editor of The Jackson County Journal may not call us down severely on the use of feminine titles we herby request their permission to refer to Mrs. Barnwell in the event of her election on the alderman board as Aldermaness Barnwell.”
There probably was a retort in later issues of The Jackson County Journal, but I couldn’t immediately find it. Maybe I’ll find time later to resume the search.
Meanwhile, all you “girls” up at the Justice Center – you keep on doing that good work, you hear?
Quintin Ellison is editor of The Sylva Herald