by Alec Clayton
Over the past week or so I have been typing into my computer, word-for-word, the manuscript of a novel written in the early 1950s. It is tedious work but worth the effort because it’s a damn fine novel. It is set in 1942, and the narrator and all the characters use language and express commonly held attitudes of the time. For instance, in a scene in a radio studio the narrator describes the studio as a place “where half a dozen girls turned out advertising copy.”
Even today, it is common—even among people who take care to be politically correct—to refer to grown women as girls. They might find nothing amiss in that statement. Yet, if those were 30-year-old men writing copy, nobody would say “where half a dozen boys turned out advertising copy.”
I was first called to the carpet on this in around 1980. I was the gallery director in a university art department, meeting with the faculty to decide on which of three potential exhibitions we wanted to show. One was a proposed show by three university art students, all female. I said, “I’d like to do the show with the three girls.”
A woman on the staff scathingly said the one work: “Women.”
To her, calling them girls was disrespecting women; to me it was a matter of age. They were in their early twenties. I thought of them as girls.”
I felt at the time that I was being unfairly reprimanded, but I took the reprimand to heart and have tried to heed the warning since. That was forty years ago, and I still slip up sometimes and inappropriately refer to women as girls.
In my work as a theater critic, I am careful to refer to all actors as actors, no matter their gender. I have banned the term actress. To me, the word actress has a lesser-than connotation. It’s like there used to be (is there still?) Jaycees and Jaycettes, clubs for men and their women’s auxiliaries. But it’s hard for me to stick to my guns on that because the term actress is so ubiquitous. People in the business—fellow actors, directors, critics, use it constantly, and the actors seem to take it in stride. I keep thinking about the musical A Chorus Line wherein the choreographer said things like boys over here and girls over there. At least he degraded men and women equally.
Back to the manuscript I am working on. I don’t know how long the writer, James Robert Peery, worked on it. I know his previous book, God Rides a Gale, was published in 1940, and this one, Angels Sleep Alone, was finished in or near 1954. The narrator, Bob Sessions, is ostensibly the main character, but the love interest, Maury Carter (love interest being a typical role for women in literature), is the most mature and truly the strongest and most important character in the book. Nevertheless, she is constantly referred to as a girl.
I’m tempted to edit the manuscript, but I will not. To do so would be like editing out the n-word if we were re-publishing Huckleberry Finn.