In truth, it’s understandable that this rule was disregarded by both publications. It seems a bit unrealistic, leading to erasing personal details from stories on women, or an overwrought effort to add them to features on men, which still rarely highlight their family life. The new “Finkbeiner Test” recently suggested by veteran science journalist Ann Finkbeiner tries to even out treatment of the genders by adopting the male standard, advising against mentioning a female scientist’s status as a woman, her childcare arrangements, her husband’s job, and other points. But that imposes a new set of problems—censoring the experiences of many women scientists and what they may want to talk about. Still, as Finkbeiner points out, female scientists’ struggles with these issues are no longer news, but actually a new gendered cliché.

To get longer perspective on best practices for covering women, I tracked down Eileen Alt Powell, 67, recently retired from the AP and one of the original editors of the revolutionary late-1970s AP Stylebook revamp.

“What?!!” she audibly sucked in air on hearing that people are still debating the basic definition of sexist writing. “I’m just shocked we’re even talking about this in 2013.”

The team of AP Stylebook editors, headed by Powell, Howard Angione, and the late Christopher French, went through repeated revisions, sending proposed rules back and forth with member newspaper editors. The women’s entries in the late 1970s were even more contentious than those on race, she recalled, but in the end there was widespread agreement. (The 1980 AP edition allows the use of “Ms.” several years before The New York Times permitted that neutral courtesy title.)

“There was quite a bit of consensus about the changes that were made in the late 1970s,” she said, wondering why the terms of the debate were not more clear today. “When I die, I hope my obit does not read, ‘She made a helluva beef stroganoff and also was a foreign correspondent.’”


Jessica Seigel is an adjunct journalism professor at New York University whose writing has appeared in numerous outlets, including The New York Times, Ms. Magazine, and NPR. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicaseagull