The University of Portland keeps emailing me alumni information and news. I’m not giving the school any money no matter what they send me—though a formal apology might be a start. (But how would it read? “Dear Mr. Davison, We’re sorry we confused our publicly-stated Christian mission with training young men and women to kill people. Enclosed is a coupon good for $5 off at the school cafeteria.”)

It’s depressing and irritating that it’s still so easy to find areas of blindness in the institution. For example, alumni have been invited to this spiffy on-campus lecture series called “Women of Substance.” This incredibly pompous approach to language would be only mildly annoying if it weren’t coupled with such a demeaning, disingenuous philosophy.

Why is this series not called “Substantive Women”? The first, most obvious reason is that “Women of Substance” sounds vaguely more prestigious to the untrained ear, which typically equates length with importance. I think I speak for most men when I say we’d appreciate it if women never equated length with importance. Some will argue that the preposition is crucial because the lecturers are “women first” and “of substance second.” I think that’s ridiculous. This is the same bizarre approach to linguistics which gives us “people of color,” a case in which one can at least claim that the phrase is necessary because “colored people” carries unfortunate historical baggage. No such contention can be made about the term “substantive women.” The only thing “of substance” does is use two words when one would do.

That’s the rather benign half of the political correctness problem. The more serious objection is the implication that all women aren’t inherently substantive. As I’ll get to, I believe that’s exactly what UP is saying. First, though, is there another descriptor you can put in place of “women” and not reach the same sort of conclusion? Would UP hold a lecture series of substantive soccer players? Substantive military officers? Substantive astronauts? Substantive men? I don’t think so, and that’s because no other category of people (with the exception of minorities who face the same linguistic discrimination) need be called “substantive” for UP or anyone else to assume them so.

One common and I think inadequate response is that just because these speakers are highlighted as substantive (though, for God’s sake, one of the first of them is a feng shui expert•), it doesn’t mean that every woman in the audience isn’t just as substantive in her own right. Indeed, it doesn’t mean that every woman in the world isn’t substantive. Except of course that if everybody’s substantive than substance becomes a term without meaning. You’d like to think that’s not what they intend.

Except that they do. UP can’t say what they think directly without offending just about everybody, which is another reason why they resort to using more words when fewer would do: They want to obscure what they really mean. It’s bad enough that “women of substance” is a wordy self-important title. What’s worse is the mindset that spawns such titles. Otherwise why note at all that the speakers are women? Only when UP gets to the point where it can have an all-women lecture series, not tout that fact, and—please God—not condescendingly attach a phrase to it like “of substance” will the University and, dare I say, American Catholicism itself have a chance at the grace to which it theoretically aspires.

  • Little known Ty Davison trivia: I dated this feng shui expert for a few weeks back in college. There are a great many tasteless jokes that could be made here about how she helped me enhance the beneficial flow of my Chi.