A real manufactured controversy: gender-neutral language in Arkansas

Governor’s executive order banning certain words, phrases seems excessive

October 23, 2023 7:00 am
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (at lectern) announces a ban on “woke, anti-women words” in official state documents on Oct. 19, 2023. (Screen shot from live feed)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (at lectern) announces a ban on “woke, anti-women words” in official state documents on Oct. 19, 2023. (Screen shot from live feed)

Over the past few weeks, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, her spokesperson Alexa Henning and other officials have uttered the phrase “manufactured controversy” when asked about the now notorious $19,000 lectern.

That’s an easy way for them to ignore or otherwise fail to answer serious questions raised by the purchase of the lectern from a political friend of the governor. I suppose if you say “manufactured controversy” often enough, the crowd of onlookers might get tired and go away.

Fortunately, Arkansas lawmakers directed the state’s independent watchdog agency to audit the purchase and other administration expenses to drill past the tossed-off responses to curious reporters and bloggers.

On Thursday, in an obvious move to deflect Arkansans’ attention from the lectern scandal, Sanders treated us to a real manufactured controversy.

Sanders called a press conference Thursday afternoon to mark the signing of an executive order banning the use of gender-neutral terms, specifically pertaining to pregnancy, in official state documents. Of course, Fox News got the scoop on the ban ahead of the press conference.


The order asserts that “women are women,” that “there are things only women can do, like perform the miracle of birth” and that “government should reject language that ignores, undermines, and erases women.”

When asked for an example, Sanders cited only one: an Arkansas Department of Health memo about PFAS in drinking water that can negatively affect “pregnant people.” Thursday’s order requires state agencies now to use “pregnant women” or “pregnant mom” in describing a person expecting a child.

Asked whether the issue was a real problem, Sanders responded, “At no time will I apologize for defending women and standing up for the differences between men and women.

“One instance, to me, is enough to stand up,” the governor said.

The governor proclaimed her administration prohibits “the use of woke, anti-women words for official state government business” and bans all state offices, departments, boards and commissions “from using exclusionary, sexist language in official state government business.”

I almost have to admire Sanders’ ability to twist the language of inclusion and make it sexist and exclusionary. How can the use of gender-neutral language like “pregnant person,” which respects the diversity of individual self-identification, be considered sexist or exclusionary?

It just seems a bit excessive.

The governor’s penchant for chasing “woke” phantoms and engaging in performative culture-war politics produced a manufactured controversy.

Her executive order is a mind-bending example of tortured logic and linguistics that plays to the anxieties of people who feel unmoored or threatened by change and triggers the outrage of people who can’t or won’t try to understand those who disagree with them.

At the root of the divide between anxious and outraged is language, the battleground of expanding our concept of what it means to be human.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.