In 1985, while editing law and college texts for West Publishing in St. Paul, part of my assignment was the vague request to "clean up" the manuscripts-that is, replace sexist language with language that was not only inclusive and respectful, but elegant, standard English as well.

I'll just say that had you been visiting from Mars at that time you might not have known women existed.

What puzzled me was that women had already identified and solved the language problem-brilliantly, beautifully and definitively. Casey Miller and Kate Swift in "The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing," first among others, had proven quite clearly that language that did not include women was not only inaccurate, but harmful and misleading to all of us, women and men. It was not, in the end, good language.

I tried to publish "The Nonsexist Word Finder"-a thesaurus-like book that suggested alternatives for sexist words and phrases. My thinking was that perhaps we hadn't made it easy enough for people. With this handy quick-reference they could find other good choices for "mankind," "manpower," "chairman" and so on. Among the 65 publishers' rejections was one that said I didn't really have a book. What I had, they said, was an appendix. The subject was not thought important.

After the book was published in 1987, it was considered for an award by the American Library Association (ALA). A friend who was at that meeting said the book was dismissed because it was "too quirky." Five years later, the ALA named its successor ("The Bias-Free Word Finder") an "Outstanding Reference Source."

So things do change. But, as Pearl Buck once wrote, "All birth is unwilling." Enormous resistance met the rational argument that language should be accurate. Radio show hosts used to incite anti-woman fear and loathing by predicting we'd soon have to deal with "personhole" covers. In an intellectually dishonest moment, William Safire said that next "personpersons" would be delivering the mail. And he was serious. He once wrote that we "have foolishly abandoned the idea that, in language, the male embraces the female." In other words, that the word "he" embraces "she," "him" includes "her," "his" also means "hers." Doesn't everyone know that?

This was despite studies that had shown, for example, that kindergartners asked to draw a picture of a fireman, a policeman and a mailman drew precisely that-men. People, bunny rabbits and other children were primarily "he" for most children. The world was indubitably male if you used our language, which most of us did.

Does our language treat people fairly today? Yes, in many ways, the situation is a great deal better. You rarely see "he" used to embrace "she."

What's wonderful about the changes in our language is that it has been made from the bottom up, one individual by one individual.

It's true that big organizations have put their stamp on this movement toward respect and inclusiveness. But it has mainly been small groups and individuals who've pushed here and there to get us where we are today.

Although much still needs to be done, I think the biggest victories have been achieved: No one tries to argue anymore that language doesn't matter, especially with respect to women's place in it. Oh, people disagree, but they're very quiet about it. "Mankind" and others of its ilk appear only rarely these days. Textbook guidelines insist on inclusive language. Ways of dealing with the pseudogeneric "he" are used daily everywhere. Almost all publications use "Ms." instead of "Miss" or "Mrs." These were all huge battles at the time.

Like those of us who are alert to this sort of thing, I find myself often thumping a chair cushion and saying, "What century are THEY living in?" So, yes, I see many examples I'd like to red-pencil, but stepping back and looking at the big picture, I'm hopeful. Maybe I have low expectations, but I think my early eagerness to have Casey and Miller's words taken up immediately has been replaced by a little patience. So it took a little time. But we're in a different place.

A caveat: Remember our history. How many women's victories shone and glittered only to be obliterated decades later? If we know anything, it's that we must never forget, never let go and never stop writing to object to language that leaves us out of the picture. We still have work to do.

Rosalie Maggio is the author of 19 books and a regular contributor to Minnesota Women's Press' BookWomen magazine.