THE MOORE THINGS CHANGE: He, she or it . . .
In his excellent little book The Constitution And You: Barbados, retired High Court judge LeRoy Inniss makes this simple yet profound point: “The Constitution should not be regarded as a document for lawyers and scholars only; all citizens should be aware of the most important provisions of the supreme law of the land in which they live.”
It’s against that backdrop that I dare to challenge those learned folks who, next time around, will be asked to draft a document relevant to the times in which we live.
I agree with the third United States president Thomas Jefferson, when he suggested in a letter to his friend James Madison, who would follow him as president, that a constitution ought to be rewritten to fit the realities of every generation. Jefferson suggested every 19 years; I would prefer about every half-century.
Jefferson wrote to Madison: “Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right.”
He did not believe that generation after generation should be imposed upon by the legislation and constitution of preceding generations.
My challenge to the framers of any new document has nothing to do with the intricacies of legal jurisprudence and other rarefied concepts – although there are some changes I would make.
It’s about language.
English, despite its beauty and complexity, has a flaw about which I have wondered ever since I learned to read.
It lacks a gender neutral third person singular pronoun.
Down through the ages, we have accepted the generic “he”, “him” and “his” as a catch-all pronoun while giving little thought to the possible discrimination against the female sex. Even when women have ascended to the topmost positions, the practice continues.
To circumvent the difficulty, we end up with the clumsy “he or she” and “him or her”. Even “s/he” has been suggested.
Barbados has recently elevated young Senator Kerryann Ifill to the presidency of the Upper House of Parliament; and a good two decades ago, Dame Nita Barrow was appointed Head of State as Governor General, but are these momentous events reflected in our supreme law?
“He” appears throughout the Constitution – except when referring to the Queen. Never mind that today there are 11 women in our Parliament and one, Ermie (later Dame) Bourne, was the first to sit in the House of Assembly way back in 1951.
In 1966, did the drafters of the Constitution consider that one day a woman would become President of the Senate?
The anomaly holds for Governor General, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Assembly, Leader of the Opposition, Chief Justice and other holders of high office, even though women have already filled some of those positions.
In fairness to the political directorate over the years an attempt was made to put right this language conundrum. The Henry Forde Constitutional Review Commission of 1996 used “he or she” in its recommendations but not much of that review has so far been entertained.
As we approach our 50th year of Independence – it’s just over four years away – we should consider a new Constitution, not only to end the enshrined, though not practised, discrimination against our womenfolk due to a flaw in the English language, but to embrace several other realities of the 21st century – situations not envisaged by the framers of that erstwhile document.
For example, who in 1966 had heard of the idea of digital technology?
Jefferson was right: “No society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs to the living generation . . . the living are masters of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please . . . .”
The time has come for our Constitution to reflect the realities of the 21st century.
Of course, all the talk about republicanism has gone out the window. It will return.