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Obama's speech: One for the 'herstory' books

Op-Ed

With his pronounced use of female pronouns, the president gave a shout-out to girls and women.

January 23, 2013|By Meg Waite Clayton

We, the female people of the United States, would like to thank President Obama, and not just because his inaugural speech Monday was one of the shortest in history — much as we appreciate succinctness in our busy, multitasking, parent-spouse-friend-career lives.

Not just because he addressed the problem of women's pay inequality for the first time in any inaugural speech, saying, "Our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts."

Not just because he called to our attention — for only the second time in an inaugural speech; the first time was by President Clinton in 1997 — the fact that girls as well as boys aspire to success.

TRANSCRIPT: President Obama's second inauguration speech

Not even just because he took that most revered of Americanisms, that "all men are created equal," and set it straight: "We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still."

We, the female people of the United States, would like to thank Obama because his use of female pronouns substantially outnumbered male pronouns — five to two — marking a high point in the history of American presidential inaugural speeches. Calvin Coolidge, the only other president who comes close, used five male pronouns to six female ones just a few years after women gained the right to vote, and his use of female pronouns referred only to the nation rather than to human beings.

A study published last summer looking at pronoun use in 1.2 million books in the Google Books database published between 1900 and 2008 found the ratio of male to female pronouns was roughly 3.5 to 1 between 1900 and 1945 and increased to 4.5 to 1 during the 1950s and early 1960s. But beginning at about the time of the second wave of the women's movement in the late 1960s and early '70s, the ratio dropped dramatically, reaching 2 to 1 by the 2000s.

Another study, looking at pronoun use in the 450-million-word Corpus of Historical American English, showed a similar pattern. And those ratios correlate significantly with indicators of women's status in terms of educational attainment, workforce participation, age of marriage and assertiveness.

By one measure, women decided the election of Obama to a second term, voting for him by a 10-percentage-point margin, while the male vote went to Mitt Romney. Whether it was "binders" or birth control or something else altogether, women voted in droves for the candidate who treated women with respect, who acknowledged that girls and women face obstacles men don't and that those obstacles need to be addressed, whose dreams for his own daughters are something he talks about publicly.

Perhaps Obama's call to women in his second inaugural address was a nod to all that. Perhaps, in a household dominated by females, his use of feminine pronouns wasn't even conscious. Or perhaps it was a reflection of the facts that women now outnumber men in the nation's colleges and that our numbers are increasing in the workforce and in starting businesses and even, if ever so slowly, in the Senate and the House.

Now about those two instances in which the president used a male pronoun, though — each came with a capital "H." Perhaps there will come a time when an American president will think about God as something other than male. Perhaps that president will be male. Or perhaps American women, seeing the difference their votes make, will elect one of our own the next time we go to the polls.

Meg Waite Clayton is the author of four novels, including the forthcoming "The Wednesday Daughters."

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