What’s in a name?—The Controversy Over “Manholes”

Screen shot 2013-02-15 at 9.34.52 AMOccupational gender segregation matters and can be attributed to a number of factors.  But, a significant factor is cultural.  Jobs are gendered.  Often not in any necessarily straight-forward way, but jobs acquire gendered attributes and meanings.  In fact, occupational gender segregation probably plays a key role in producing our understandings of what is “masculine” or “feminine” in the first place.  As Joan Acker famously argued, the “abstract worker” is imagined to be a man (here).  This idea is perpetuated in a variety of ways—through formal and informal workplace policies, through curricular gender segregation as areas of study acquire “gendered” meaning, through the ways we frame the work itself as demanding a “masculine” or “feminine” strengths and/or sensibilities, and often, through things as simple as job titles.

The feminist movement fought long and hard to have firemen referred to as firefighters, policemen as police officers, etc.  The lack of gender-neutral language was a subtle, but symbolic, way through which women were culturally excluded from certain occupations (even in cases where no laws or formal policies necessarily precluded women’s entry).  This is a shift that is–to put it mildly–incomplete.  For instance, many high schools, colleges and universities still refer to incoming cohorts of students as “freshmen,” while others have opted for the more gender-neutral language of “first-years” (though not without the occasional backlash).

Language is important.  It’s a small part of a larger system of power and inequality that helps to organize our lives.  Legal feminist scholars have asked that we rid ourselves of language in laws that reflect gender bias.  I know what you’re thinking, but it’s more complicated that clicking Command+F and either replacing “men” with “people” or “men and women” and adding “/she” to the “he’s” or replacing them with “them/their” instead.  The tricky part has been when we literally lack gender-neutral language for something.  As one journalist put it, “Some gender-specific words just aren’t that easy to replace” (here).  While firefighter, police officer, and first-year might have been interpreted as easy changes, more difficulty surrounded words and positions like: ombudsman, penmanship, servicemen.

Screen shot 2013-02-14 at 3.09.12 PMAnd this brings us to the “manhole.”

In crafting gender-neutral language in Washington state, the person in charge of revising the code to rid it of gender biased language was stumped.  “There was no clear alternative to manhole… Revisers considered utility hole, but that doesn’t connote size like manhole does. One might only be able to stick a wire through a ‘utility hole’… but a manhole—that’s for humans” (here).  Aside from the fact that there are probably a lot of not-so-complicated linguistic solutions to this issue (a response on Ms. Magazine’s post on this topic suggests “sewer access cover” or “_____ access cover” depending upon where the “manhole” leads), it’s an interesting issue.  Does it really matter that we find a new name for “manholes”?

Manhole presumes that it’s a hole for men.  And in fact, jobs that require using manholes (AKA “human access tunnels”) are jobs that are disproportionately occupied by men (I’ve posted on similar issues before: here and here).  So, things associated with this kind of work acquire a sort of masculine cultural patina.  This is why we think of hard hats as masculine (or “macho” depending on who you ask), or tools and tool belts.  Screen shot 2013-02-14 at 3.50.50 PMThis is why “Men Working” signs exist as well–though like “manhole,” these signs too are sometime protested (here and here).  It’s not that these objects are somehow naturally “masculine.”  Rather, they acquire gendered meaning through segregation, use, and display.

So, the use of “manhole” and “Men Working” signs are more than a matter of symbolism.  They are a small part of the process through which occupational spaces are gendered.  They reinforce the notion that it is really only men who can do the work required beneath “manholes” or the physical labor required on sites that display “Men Working” signs.  So, challenging the naming of “manholes” is important because it is one small piece of a larger project of opening them up (pun intended) to women–not just legally, but culturally as well.


9 thoughts on “What’s in a name?—The Controversy Over “Manholes”

  1. The term manhole comes from the 19th century and originally referred to a small access hole in the top or side of a boiler that was covered with a heavy metal plate bolted in place. These holes were not meant to provide access for a man to pass through, but for an arm and hand to reach the inner parts of the boiler. “Man” in this case refers not to the gender of the worker, but is from the root word that means “hand,” as in the word “manual.” Indeed, some old boiler manuals use the words “manhole” and “handhole” synonymously. Sewer manholes were probably so-called as an extension of the general term that meant “an access hole” and the gender-specific meaning followed naturally, albeit somewhat erroneously.

    This is the same error one sees in the claim that terms such as “man the rudder” or “man the post” are gender-specific when in fact they simply refer to the actual holding of something with the hand (like a rudder), or are instances of synecdoche where “man,” meaning “hand,” is used to refer to a (gender-neutral) person (as in “all hands on deck.”)

    • Thanks for the reply. It’s a great history of the origins of the term. And you’re right… “manhole” is clearly not a term originally used to reflect the occupational segregation it has come to be a part of. Yet, this doesn’t strip the term of it’s gender or power in my opinion. It just slightly alters where that power comes from and how it works. If the term is widely believed to be gendered (even if this is contrary to the “handhole” to which it originally referred), then it still have gendered consequences and might need to be “de-gendered” even if linguists might not recognize it as gendered in the first place. I guess what I’m saying is that how a term is used and understood changes it’s meaning. So, although manhole wasn’t invented as a gendered term, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t become gendered.

      Thanks again for the history. I wasn’t familiar with the origin.

      • I suppose I would differ with you slightly. I think educating people about the actual root of the word is a more solid foundation for “de-gendering” it than changing or eliminating the word. Changing the word to something like “access hole” simply perpetuates the false back formation that assumes it means “a hole for a man to use.” If we’re talking about how language creates and influences gender stereotypes, then I think providing a fuller picture of where these words actually come from is a better policy than simply eliminating the letters m-a-n wherever we happen to find it.

    • I think etymological history is great, but of limited use–it’s like ascribing intent to the word, as though its original meaning could have more weight than the connotations it has gathered over time.

      For another example more in my food culture line of study: If you were to suggest that we should discourage the colloquial use of the word “vegetable” to describe someone in a coma, I could argue that “vegetable” derives from the medical term “vegetative state,” and so it’s not pejorative, and additionally “vegetable” derives from words meaning living, growing, flourishing, etc. and therefore it’s kind of a compliment.
      But I wouldn’t argue that, because culturally the word “vegetable” does not have a complimentary connotation, and it’s the connotations and applications of a word that give its cultural weight. And it doesn’t seem too hard to just find another, more human-focused word instead.

      • I think I’m in agreement with Sara. It’s significant where the word came from, but words acquire meanings that can dramatically differ from their etymological origins. For instance, the Times recently ran an article on the transformation in meaning of the word “retarded” which has led to a campaign to rid us of the “R-word” (nyti.ms/ZbNuv8). This is totally inconsistent with the clinical origins of the word (arguably), but the connotations that the word has acquired are meaningful and have to be considered. Cool discussion. I think I side with Sara, but I also like the idea of using etymological education as a tool to challenge inequality.

  2. Pingback: Sexist Language Which Just Won’t Go Away | Lynley Stace

  3. As a woman who works in a non-traditional role and comes across and occasionally goes through “manholes”, I have to say the word gives me the creeps and I tend to use sewer access point/cover as an alternative. I just found this page trying to find a better word for my report. Thank you for talking about it, because those who deal with “manholes” tend not to. It is 2016.

  4. “It’s a manhole cover, It’s a cover for a hole that a man who works for the sewage company crawls into to work. And that man is up to his waist in shit while he’s down there working. When a woman wants to do that job, she can call the cover anything she wants.” – Billy Connolly 2010

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