The Language of Inclusion

The events of September 11th have affected everyone, throughout the U.S. and around the world. Thousands of families, friends, and co-workers mourn the lives taken that day. Perhaps no group has been more affected than the rescue workers who have labored day and night at the disaster sites. These men and women work tirelessly, searching for anything that will allow closure for the families of those who are lost. Their work is exhausting, dangerous, and largely thankless, as so little has been recovered so far. One of the few rewards these people receive is the genuine appreciation of their communities for the service they provide.

No one on these scenes is trying to be a hero, but it is still demoralizing that the media has chosen to ignore the contribution of a significant part of the workforce: namely, the women who have contributed to the rescue and recovery efforts. Everywhere on television, in newspapers and in magazines, workers at the World Trade Center site are referred to as men -- firemen, policemen -- with little or no effort to include the women who have been at the site since the first moments of the disaster. In fact, two female police officers and one female EMS worker were lost in the collapse, but this has received very little notice. Instead, the language used by the media has continued to exclude those who have historically been excluded in these professions.

Therefore it was a relief to watch the well-produced documentary about the New York disaster that served as the season opener for the network television show, "Third Watch." This program has made a conscious effort to include the diversity of the emergency services in its regular cast, and it also made an effort to do so in its documentary coverage of the events of September 11. Men of all ages, ranks, races, and ethnicities spoke of their experiences that day, but so did a number of women. It's the first program that I have seen that has included the voices of women at all, and also one of the only ones that has included family members of lost emergency workers. With only one exception, the "Third Watch" cast members who introduced each segment of the program were very conscious of using gender-inclusive language. The result is a powerful program that is worth seeing more than once.

Still, the result is less than ideal. The only women who were interviewed were EMS workers, with no representation of the many police or fire department women who have contributed to the rescue efforts. The resulting program, though far better than most, still reinforces the idea that only men are firefighters in New York City.

But "Third Watch" may be an example for those from ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Time Magazine, and countless others, who resolutely refuse to alter their language or their reporting scope to be inclusive of all who have contributed to the rescue and recovery efforts. The program has made an effort since its inception to include diversity without making a big deal out of it. Perhaps the fact that one of the principal cast members (Molly Price) is married to a FDNY firefighter increases the overall sensitivity of the cast and crew. Or maybe they are just portraying the obvious -- that we're all in this together, and it serves no one to practice exclusion on any level.

Language may not be everything, but it is something. Those who are excluded by language feel hurt by this, and God knows, none of us needs to be hurt any more than we already have in recent weeks.

Linda Willing
Associate Editor

This article first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Firework, the newsletter of Women in the Fire Service, Inc. It is copyright © 2001 Linda F. Willing and may not be reproduced by any means without the specific written permission of the author.

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