The phrase was uttered by Pope Clement VII in the 1500s. Centuries later, in 1959, long after the Calvert family, Maryland’s founders, had incorporated it into its shield in around 1648, the state officially adopted a new seal that featured the words.
“Fatti maschii, parole femine.”
It’s an old Italian phrase that, according to the most common translation means, “Manly deeds, womanly words.” But the motto just has always rubbed one state senator the wrong way. It “just struck me as sexist,” Bryan W. Simonaire, a Republican who was elected in 2007, told The Washington Post. “I have five daughters, and I’m very concerned that Maryland is holding onto outdated references,” he explained. “I don’t believe Maryland is a sexist state.”
Simonaire is not the first person to take issue with the motto’s meaning. Back in 2001, the official Maryland archivist, “with one swift deed and several strategically placed words” quietly changed the the translation of the motto on the state’s official website to “Strong deeds, gentle words,” The Baltimore Sun reported at the time. The archivist, Edward C. Papenfuse, said the matter of accuracy was behind the change — not politics. In fact, a feud over the proper translation had been simmering for quite some time among scholars and intellectuals. “This is a scholarly debate, not a contemporary whim,” Papenfuse told the Sun in a 2001 interview. “We strive to do things that are accurate.”
Indeed, the phrase and its translation had critics well before Papenfuse took action. In 1993, legendary New York Times columnist William Safire, a Maryland resident at the time, wrote in a column that “in a fit of liberality” he’d urged his home state to remedy the usage of an “anachronism.” State officials passed a law in 1979 that changed the translation to “Manly deeds, womanly words,” but the previous translation is what Safire quibbled with, and seems to be what was popularly recognized.
“Because deeds are always considered better than mere words, the slogan is blatantly sexist,” Safire declared in the column.
Other translations of the phrase certainly sound blatantly sexist, as Safire asserted. According to The Washington Post, a spokesman for the Italian embassy in Washington, D.C., said the words are generally understood by Italians to translate as “Men do things, and women talk about things,” or, “When you need things done, ask a man, because women only talk and don’t arrive to a conclusion.” GOP primary observers, if the latter phrase sounds familiar, will recall Carly Fiorina having used a twist on that notion in the fifth Republican debate of 2015. She quoted Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, “If you want something talked about, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
At some point over the last 15 years, Maryland’s official website changed the tweak made in 2001 by Papenfuse, the archivist, to reflect differing translations.
“The Calvert motto on the scroll is ‘Fatti maschii parole femine,’ loosely translated [as] ‘manly deeds, womanly words,’ but more accurately translated as ‘strong deeds, gentle words,'” the website now reads.
Which brings us back to Simonaire, who introduced a bill to the state legislature that proposes changing the official translation to “Strong deeds, gentle words,” a meaning he sees as gender-neutral. Simonaire insists he is not trying to “rewrite history,” but only striving to make the official motto “more reflective of what Maryland is.”