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Vice-presidential campaign alerts public to linguistic bias

''This campaign can't help but change language.... It's tuning ears; people hear what they didn't before,'' say the co-authors of a book entitled ''Words and Women.''

Kate Swift and Casey Miller have been watching the words used during the campaign of the first woman to run for vice-president of the United States. And they feel - as do Geraldine Ferraro's speech writers - that while some sexist language has crept into the campaign, in general Representative Ferraro's candidacy has promoted language that doesn't patronize women, exclude them, or hint that they're doing what are really ''men's jobs.''

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In ''Words and Women'' (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976), in ''The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing'' (Lippincott & Crowell, 1980), and in magazine articles the two women have pointed out linguistic biases against women and shown how speakers and writers can avoid them.

Does it matter how people address Representative Ferraro, that her campaign speeches never mention ''mankind,'' or whether writers describe her as ''feisty''?

Yes, the authors say, because language reflects attitudes, embodies powerful messages, and can change perceptions.

They note, for instance, that Geraldine Ferraro has contributed to the increasing acceptance of the term ''congresswoman.'' There's no reason to call a woman a ''congressman,'' they say. That term originated when only men were elected to the office. Congresswomen aren't men, nor are they doing men's work.

Ms. Swift and Ms. Miller recall that Nancy Johnson, who represents their own Connecticut district in Congress, called herself ''Congressman Johnson'' when first elected in 1980 because she felt that was the traditional, respected term. But after state feminists talked with her, she thought it over, and began using ''congresswoman.''

''Geraldine Ferraro has always used 'congresswoman,' '' notes Ms. Miller. ''It may sound strange at first, but as more and more people use it, it sounds logical.''

''It's Geraldine Ferraro's hope that her experience will make such things easier for other women candidates who come along,'' says Fred Martin, chief speech writer for the Ferraro campaign.

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One instance in which the Democratic candidate wasn't called ''Congresswoman Ferraro'' definitely bothered Ms. Swift and Ms. Miller, as well as a good many TV viewers. During the televised debate of the vice-presidential candidates, the moderator asked the two how they preferred to be addressed. The Republican candidate's preference was ''Vice President Bush''; the Democrat's was ''Congresswoman Ferraro.''

''She addressed him as 'Vice-President Bush,' but he kept calling her 'Mrs. Ferraro,' '' recalls Ms. Miller. ''It seemed as if he was unconsciously trying to remove her authority,'' says Ms. Swift.

Ms. Swift also notes that the day after the debate she went to a meeting of Girl Scout leaders and found that the ''young women were really angry about the vice-president's not using 'congresswoman.' '' That, she thought, was a good sign.

''People are more aware now of language that we'd define as sexist,'' she explains. ''Even the things that some people might call minor, peripheral,'' adds Ms. Miller.

Both note the general acceptance of Representative Ferraro's using her own name rather than her husband's. ''We both have nephews whose wives use their own names, and they get tired of explaining,'' says Ms. Miller. ''Now,'' says Ms. Swift, ''they have a national role model.''

The authors wish that publications like the New York Times would recognize ''Ms.'' The Times and other papers call the candidate ''Mrs. Ferraro,'' which she prefers to ''Miss,'' when ''Ms.'' isn't used. (''She would really prefer her title,'' says a Ferraro speech writer, Robert Luskin. ''Mrs. Ferraro is her mother.'')

As more women are elected to responsible positions, she and Ms. Swift point out, coarse language and jokes directed at women will become as unacceptable as such language and ''humor'' are when directed at minorities.

Robert Luskin notes that press coverage of his boss has generally been free of sexist terms. ''We read the papers after her speeches, to see how they're written up. Reporters aren't describing her clothes, they're focusing on the issues,'' he says. ''The only area where sexism creeps in, I think, is in a tendency to criticize her when she's negative.'' He and Mr. Martin say Congresswoman Ferraro gets called ''strident and feisty,'' where a man might be called ''impassioned or tough.''

''When being critical, she's held to a different standard,'' contends Mr. Martin.

Ms. Miller and Ms. Swift say they haven't documented different sexist adjectives, but add that they probably haven't read as many different publications as the speech writers have. They have, however, noticed ''little jokes'' that play on the candidate's being a woman, like a columnist's reference to local Democratic candidates who might ride into office on Ferraro's ''skirt-tails.'' They call that ''silly'' and ''negative.''

The two authors vote against words with ''man'' in them being applied generically. They agree with Mr. Martin, who says, ''Any candidate who's sensitive to issues of discrimination is careful not to use 'mankind.' '' Mr. Martin explains that both Representative Ferraro and Mr. Mondale (for whom he has also worked) refer instead to ''humanity.''

Ms. Miller and Ms. Swift also agree with Mr. Luskin's observation that, by and large, Congresswoman Ferraro has been treated in print with respect.

''We know that Geraldine Ferraro is doing something no woman has ever done before, and that some things take getting used to,'' says Mr. Martin.

The authors of ''Words and Women'' say that because of Geraldine Ferraro's candidacy, people are getting used to language differences that were there all along but didn't strike their consciousness. ''Now they hear,'' says Ms. Miller. ''It's one of the most important things about this campaign,'' says Ms. Swift.

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