A couple of weeks ago, I attended my first grader’s school Patriotic Program. At home he had been singing snatches of “Fifty Nifty United States,” “Proud To Be an American,” and “America the Beautiful” for the last few weeks, so I was not surprised by the selection of songs. What did surprise me, when I actually sat down and listened to several verses of these songs, was the extent of the God language present in them (I thought public schools would avoid that a bit more) and the fact that many of these songs featured verses that were overtly androcentric.
Take “Proud to be an American.” The chorus is: “And I’m proud to be an American,/where at least I know I’m free./And I won’t forget the men who died,/who gave that right to me./And I gladly stand up,/next to you and defend her still today./‘ Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,/God bless the USA.”
Everyone knows that both men and women died in the Revolutionary War, as colonists fought to free their land from British rule. It would have been pretty easy for the teachers to make the lyrics more gender inclusive and change it to, “And I won’t forget the ones who died.” At the same time, since I’m not a big fan of using female pronouns to refer to objects, it wouldn’t have hurt to get rid of that “her” pronoun, referring to the land, I assume, and use “it” instead.
“America the Beautiful” also stabbed at my heart a bit when I heard these six and seven year olds sing these lines: “America! America!/ God shed his grace on thee/ And crown thy good with brotherhood/ From sea to shining sea!”
I realize that “America the Beautiful” was written in the nineteenth century when the conventions of English favored androcentric language. However, I’m a big believer in using inclusive God language, so having the male pronoun “his” referring to God still stung a little. I have been bending over backwards to teach my children that God is the combined unit of Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, a Mormon understanding that does not get a lot of airtime at church or in society at large. If I had been the teacher in charge, I would have changed that line to “God shed God’s grace on thee.”
I also winced when I heard “brotherhood” sung, with no accompanying mention of sisterhood. I remember being at an interfaith prayer breakfast several years ago. We were all singing “America the Beautiful,” but I repeatedly sang “sisterhood” in place of “brotherhood.” A woman near me, a stranger, heard me, smiled at me, and started to sing “sisterhood” as well. In that smile I saw a like-minded woman who understood the importance of not erasing women in our nation’s songs and memories.
I’m an inveterate lyrics changer. Almost every Sunday when I go to church, I’m confronted by hymns that routinely erase women. I refuse to take part in my own erasure, so I add the women back in or change it to inclusive language. I probably annoy those around me, or make them think I’m stranger than they already think I am, but this is an important principle for me. Language matters. In our grammar and word choices, we communicate values and we hold up or erase certain humans.
The next time my son has a program at school, I’m going to pay a bit more attention to what he’s singing, have a discussion with him about inclusive word choices, and maybe even kindly ask the teacher if it would be possible to alter some language. If nothing else, it certainly would not hurt to communicate to teachers that parents are concerned about gender inclusivity, and it might spur them to find creative ways to ensure that women are not erased in poems, songs, and language in general.
Caroline is completing her coursework for her Ph.D. in religion with a focus on women’s studies in religion. Her areas of interest revolve around the intersections of Mormon and feminist theology and the study of contemporary Mormon feminist communities. She is the co-founder of the Mormon feminist blog, The Exponent.