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Massachusetts lawmaker looks to change male gendered pronouns in the state's Constitution

Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healey and Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Driscoll on Nov. 8, 2022, in Boston.
Jenifer McKim
GBH News
Massachusetts Gov.-elect Maura Healey and Lt. Gov.-elect Kim Driscoll on Nov. 8, 2022, in Boston.

Massachusetts' governing document still only refers to elected officials by male pronouns. And while the process to change that language would be lengthy, this is the year to start because "history has blown by the Massachusetts Constitution," according to one lawmaker.

Voters last November elected the state's first all-women executive team, which followed Lt. Gov. Jane Swift's groundbreaking run as acting governor in the early 2000s, and three other female lieutenant governors dating back to Lt. Gov. Evelyn Murphy in 1987.

"Perhaps that begs the question, why bother? Clearly, the Constitution's existing language had little impact on the recent electoral fortunes of women. But words matter," first-term Rep. Jenny Armini, of Marblehead, told the Judiciary Committee. "Language is a signal to the world. It's how we communicate our values. And it's a tool by which citizens learn who, and what, is important."

While the titles are used infrequently and many people simply refer to Healey as "governor," the Constitution directs people to refer to the governor by the honorific of "His Excellency," and to the lieutenant governor as "His Honor."

The governor's title is one piece of Massachusetts' British-colonial past that John Adams apparently considered worth preserving in the modern era when he drafted a new state Constitution in 1780.

The Judiciary Committee is weighing two proposed amendments filed by Armini (H 30 / H 31) that would add female and gender-neutral pronouns, like "Her Excellency" and "Their Honor," to refer to the state's leaders. Other amendments before the committee would open up the language in the rest of the Constitution so that it does not exclusively use male pronouns.

Gov. Maura Healey told reporters Tuesday afternoon that she hadn't heard about the proposals.

"I think people know how to refer to me, they refer to me in a lot of different ways," Healey said.

The governor also made some light of the 18th century language.

"I guess Abigail didn't have a hand in that," said Healey, apparently referring to Abigail Adams, who famously implored her husband John to "remember the ladies" in his public policy work.

"Where was she? She wasn't at home that day," Healey quipped.

After 20 years of male governors, it is probably more out of habit, than by strict adherence to the Constitution, that there's an occasional reference to the governor this year using male pronouns.

As the Senate sent its first big bill to Healey's desk this month, Majority Leader Cindy Creem said it would be "laid before the governor for his approbation."

An aide stepped up toward the rostrum. "Her," he interjected toward the microphone.

Creem often presided over formal sessions during Gov. Charlie Baker's administration, hence a possible slip of the tongue on the routine script.

When the presiding senator sends bills to the governor for "approbation," the language mirrors a section of the Constitution about how a governor can "signify his approbation" of a bill or resolve by signing it.

A separate amendment filed by Sen. Will Brownsberger (S 10) deals more extensively with gender references to the governor and lieutenant governor throughout the Constitution. Brownsberger's proposal would replace other instances of male-only pronouns with "he or she" and "his or her," including the section about bill-signings.

Armini's proposals are more targeted than Brownsberger's, focusing on the honorific titles, but they also account for more gender possibilities.

Explaining inclusion of "their" pronouns in her amendments, Armini called for lawmakers to look toward a future day when "someone unencumbered by gender, or gender assigned at birth, sits in the corner office."

She referred to Rep. Sam Montano, another first-term House member who uses both female and nonbinary pronouns, as one politician who is "full of promise."

First-term Rep. Dawne Shand of Newburyport recalled, as a high school student in Alabama, her teacher saying that male pronouns in government documents were appropriately "encompassing" of all.

Shand disagreed, as did Rep. Mindy Domb, who spoke in favor of the Armini amendments and her own proposal (H 32) which would replace the word "he" with the phrase "the person" everywhere it appears in the document.

"'He' is not an inclusive term. 'He' is a gendered term," said Domb.

The Judiciary Committee has until April 26 to issue positive or negative reports on the various bills it heard Tuesday. Lawmakers then face a May 10 deadline to call up any of those proposals to feature on the Constitutional Convention calendar for this session.

No one spoke in opposition to any of the proposals Tuesday, and not all the proposals were addressed -- no one spoke to Brownsberger's, for example.

But Domb, an Amherst Democrat, had a thought for would-be critics or those who say the male-dominated text doesn't matter.

She said one of her constituents offered that "if it really doesn't matter" what pronouns are in there, why not change all the "he" references exclusively to "she."

"And we thought about that," Domb recalled. "We thought, well, should we change that? And it's like, I don't want to make a joke of the legislative process. But I ask us to consider that question. If it makes no difference, why wouldn't we change them all to 'she'?"

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