Law student launches organization to make state constitution language gender-neutral

Kristin Trapp, a third-year law student, founded “He2We” to push for “simple, overdue updates” to state constitutions that only use male-gendered pronouns and language.

University+of+Minnesota+law+student+Kristen+Trapp+poses+outside+of+her+condo+building+in+downtown+Minneapolis+on+Sunday%2C+March+21.+Trapp+launched+an+organization+with+the+goal+of+removing+gendered+language+in+the+Minnesota+constitution.

Shannon Doyle

University of Minnesota law student Kristen Trapp poses outside of her condo building in downtown Minneapolis on Sunday, March 21. Trapp launched an organization with the goal of removing gendered language in the Minnesota constitution.

Nathanael Ashton-Piper, Campus Activities Reporter

In 2017, Kristin Trapp sat in the offices of the Minnesota State Senate as a legislative assistant to Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Pappas, the Minnesota Supreme Court’s chief justice, and the state’s U.S. senators who were elected in the following months, are all women.

But Trapp said this is not apparent when looking at Minnesota’s constitution, which refers to government leaders like representatives, senators or the governor exclusively as “men,” or using the pronouns “he” or “him” nearly 70 times and with no mention of women.

“It was annoying, but language like that is really common in legislative documents and others of this nature,” Trapp said. When she saw that the Minnesota constitution had been amended 120 times, many amendments to remove obsolete language, “my irritations spiked,” she said.

Trapp, a third-year University of Minnesota law student, testified in front of a Minnesota House of Representatives committee in 2020 when it took up a discussion on HF 2776, a bill aimed at updating the state constitution’s language with gender-neutral terms.

On March 12, Trapp launched her organization, He2We, which aims to update state constitution language across the country to be gender-neutral.

The work starts with Minnesota, one of 38 states that uses only male pronouns in its founding document.

“Our state constitutions are living documents and are made for us to amend when needed,” Trapp said. “When I was young, I certainly recall thinking that politics was not a place for women. When you only see leaders as male, I think it does place a subconscious effect on young children especially.”

Because updating the language would mean amending the state constitution, Minnesotans would need to vote on the measure in a November election. Passing a bill in both congressional chambers to send the measure to a ballot vote could take just minutes, Trapp said.

Updating the nearly 70 terms is a smaller change than in 1986 when the Minnesota Legislature updated more than 20,000 terms in its statutory language to “remove all non-substantial gender references.”

Trapp added that she does not see a good argument against updating the language.

“The most common argument is that ‘he’ meant everyone during the time [the Minnesota constitution] was drafted,” Trapp said. “To that, I say that language, placed in context, was during a time when women could not run for public office or vote and were more likely to be property than to own property. So, saying ‘he’ was more so a reflection of society at the time — not necessarily something that everyone just agreed on.”

The making of He2We

He2We started out as an idea that snowballed from making an Instagram account to filing for an LLC. It was a process of putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to push forward, Trapp said.

The Law School operates over 20 legal clinics in which students provide clients with free services. One of Trapp’s law professors, Jill Hasday, directed her to the business law clinic for questions on trademarking and shielding liability for the organization, Trapp said. Hasday also supported Trapp in writing a piece on gendered pronouns in constitutions for a sex discrimination class.

“Being encouraged to academically explore the issue helped broaden my ability to speak on the issue,” Trapp said. “Being able to integrate He2We into my coursework allows me to do the work while being a full-time law student and being employed. Killing two birds with one stone is really helpful.”

Whether it was web design, videographers or legal questions, forming He2We required Trapp to use the most important skill — networking — that she said she learned as an undergraduate student in the Carlson School of Management. That is how Trapp was able to get Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, to share He2We’s launch video to her 1.4 million Instagram followers.

As a Carlson alum, Trapp came back to the school as a potential client for a capstone course where undergraduate students get paired with a business to develop a product. Each potential client makes a presentation to the class to try and sell their organization or idea.

“Kristin’s passion for her organization and its mission was so apparent, even through a Zoom call,” said Morgan Kerfeld, a fourth-year student who built He2We’s website and manages its analytics.

Kerfeld, along with third-year student Abby Aanonsen and fourth-year students Kayli Salmela and Sage Brinton, requested to be paired with Trapp and develop He2We for their class, Salmela said.

Assistance from local voices

Brinton said she was impressed by how focused and intentional Trapp was with including women politicians and lawmakers from Minnesota in the He2We launch video.

One of those women is Erin Maye Quade, a former Minnesota House representative for Apple Valley and a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018 alongside Erin Murphy, a current state senator and former Minnesota House majority leader.

Maye Quade was quick to partner with Trapp and He2We when the opportunity arose, she said.

“When people have clarity of vision, it makes them incredible to work with because they know exactly what they want and how they are going to do it,” Maye Quade said. “Kristin made it super easy to say yes and be a part of this.”

Maye Quade is the advocacy director at Gender Justice, a Minnesota non-profit that aims to advance gender equity through the law.

“When you use gendered language in our constitution to describe things, you are setting the tone for who you expect those state leaders to be,” Maye Quade said. “As a legislator and someone who ran for [Minnesota] lieutenant governor, the way that our constitution is written is not in a way that Erin Murphy or myself could be in a position of elected office.”

The Minnesota constitution uses the pronouns “he” and “his” to enumerate the powers of the governor; for example, “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

Updating the language of the Minnesota constitution to be gender neutral is simple and makes sense to Minnesotans, Maye Quade said.

“We change 70 words and it actually makes a huge difference. It brings our constitution in alignment with the world that we are trying to build for ourselves,” Maye Quade said. “A world where the best people are the people that we have elected, regardless of gender identity or expression.”