Monday, March 12, 2012

Sexist Pronouns

If I had Photoshop, I would add "ze!"
"Today we're going to be learning about sexist pronouns," my 10th grade English teacher explained to our class in 1999. She first had to explain what that meant--that he/his/him were used exclusively in textbooks, manuals and newspaper articles to refer to "a person" until the 1970s. For example, "when the student is learning to read, he must have the support of his teacher." Females were never the default, invisible unless the author was discussing a specific living or dead female person or a female-only group.

And, my teacher continued, in the present late 90s, not much had changed. Sure, occasionally authors would throw on a "or she" when providing an example, but this was the exception to the rule. Male pronouns were still our society's neuter. We live in a world of sexist pronouns, she argued.

The class, including me, was immediately dismissive. A few people were brave enough to voice their disapproval during the class, and the rest of us waited until afterwards to snicker about how our teacher was ridiculous, grasping at straws, trying to call any- and everything sexist. I can't remember anyone even mildly defending the teacher.

Thirteen years later, I finally get it.

Anyone who knows anything about trans issues knows that there is a hierarchy of pronouns. True, perhaps our country's favorite is "I" but after that, "she" and "he" are king. Attempts to bring in more inclusive third person singular pronouns have not been widely successful--while respectful folks ask others their preferred gender pronouns, the actual consistent usage of ze/hir or ey/em/eir by cisgender people is pretty paltry, at least in my circles. (Even in my "Gender and Sexuality in Schools" course, where we have agreed to use exclusively gender neutral pronouns, few students have successfully used gender neutral pronouns even once.)

The pervasiveness of "she" and "he" blind us to how they exclude trans people. In the same way, the pervasiveness of male pronouns instead of or in front of female pronouns makes us blind to how they exclude and demote women. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that the pervasive use of male-only or male-primary pronouns is a form of microaggression towards women. ("Microaggressions are the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities," according to this FANTASTIC site, The Microaggressions Project.)

There is an implicit (or explicit...) message sent when you read a textbook that says, "If a biologist can't replicate his colleague's experiment..." or a bike manual that says, "A smart biker always makes sure his or her lights are on at dusk." There is no reason why neuter examples can't use female (or gender neutral!) pronouns, and there is even less reason that male pronouns always go first when a female pronoun is added in. To those who would argue "what's the big deal? it really doesn't matter," like my 10th grade self, I know it matters because of how it felt when I read a counseling textbook with almost all female pronouns for its neuter examples. It was so refreshing and inclusive for someone female-identified like me, and such a welcome change after tired old he/his/him!

So what's the answer? Revolt...on the page.

We are so far from equitable use of third person singular pronouns that if everyone reading this blog only used female and gender neutral pronouns when writing about third person singular people, we would just begin to make a dent. Or if that feels too extreme for you, just start with flipping your "he"s and "she"s--"To be an effective engineer, she or he needs to know how to communicate well with architects."

What's so beautiful about language is that it is malleable. There is not some fixed dictionary in the sky--we control language and we can make it evolve when we need ways to express new knowledge. This is one of those times.

Image from


  1. A few random related thoughts:

    At the risk of typecasting myself, the Chinese language provides a super interesting counterexample. In the spoken language, there is only one pronoun - pronounced 'ta' - for she/he/it/etc, augmented with a the character 'men' (们) for plurals. In the written language, it USED to be exactly the same, with only one way to write the 3rd person pronoun, 他. Check out the shape of that character - the part on the left, 亻, is an altered version of 人, which just means 'person'. Makes sense, right?

    However, in the 19th century after the Opium Wars, when China was more or less in the process of realizing that it wasn't the center of the world, they started translating textbooks and various things from Western countries. They needed a way to translate grammatical gender, so they introduced two new characters for pronouns. 它 for 'it' (less interesting), and 她 for 'she'. The part on the left is 女, which means 'woman'. At first, some female authors took this new pronoun as a sign of pride, and went out of their way to use it in their works. Alright, sounds pretty cool.

    The weird long-term side effect, though, is the old pronoun, 他, which used to refer to she/he/it, came to refer exclusively to men. Some critics have argued (and I would tend to agree) that by extension, the radical on the left, 人, 'person', became more associated with men, so for example words in Chinese like 人类 which originally meant something more or less in the semantic field of 'humanity' or 'humankind' (gender-neutral), got subtly shifted over time to something more like 'mankind'. Shit.

    And so now the Chinese language, through the influence of these processes of translation, is basically like English in this regard, the 'he' pronoun being used in the generic sense and the plural sense unless you're referring to a group of exclusively women. Welllll dangit. Anyway, had to share this, it's one of my favorite examples of how translation can affect cultures and though it kind of sucks it's still pretty interesting.

    (to be continued...)

  2. For the English case, while I respect the sentiment behind gender-neutral pronouns and want to support the trans community, I feel like using 'ze/ne/ey' and all those seems unrealistic in the short term. There's still not enough awareness about trans issues in society at large, people think you misspoke or mistyped, and using them consistently would create a situation where anytime you meet a new person you have to spend five minutes explaining your views on the topic.

    As a sidenote, I know of course this is an element of privilege - trans folks have to deal with this every day of their lives whether they like it or not, but I'm trying to be pragmatic about your average cisgender Jane or Joe on the street. Language is malleable, but humans are also just plain very resistant to change. I feel like I've noticed a substantial increase in the use of 'she' as the neutral pronoun in contemporary academic writing (it'd be interesting to do a study on this, maybe someone has), which is at least a start that should be pressed forward. From that site you linked, I feel like one of the most promising things they mention is the necessity for gender-neutral pronouns in the internet context when you only know a username, but at the same time people also seem to just repeatedly use the username or presume 'he', so donno.

    Out of curiosity I wanted to look up some numbers for the prevalence of transgender individuals, and one study ( makes an estimate that the lower bound is around one in every 500 children born as males in the US. That's way more common than I would have guessed, but still quite infrequent in terms of making large-scale societal change such as changing the way people talk.

    The strides being made in gay rights offer an obvious example for comparison, where homosexuality is ~10% of the population (is that about right?), and the unfortunate reality is that a lot of those strides happen by making the 'it doesn't affect you' argument to groups that disagree. When you're talking about asking everyone in our society to change the way they speak for the benefit of somewhere in the ballpark of two-tenths of a percent of its members, that seems rough.

    Maybe a better argument is just that using gender-neutral pronouns benefits everyone, and starts to tackle some deeply-ingrained elements of sexism in our language and culture. Still seems like we're really far from generalized acceptance though. I like the flipping suggestion you made and have been trying it out writing this comment - did you notice? Haha. It feels good! I dig.

    Just in general raising awareness and understanding of trans issues seems like a good idea as well. To be completely honest I feel very confused about it myself. Relevantly, check out this game:
    Totally awesome narrative of an experience as a trans person by Anna Anthropy, she's extremely cool if you haven't heard of her:

    Anyway, those are just some thoughts. You know way more about this stuff than me, so let me know if I said anything dumb or insensitive, cause that seems likely. Lots to learn! Thanks for the article Jarvster.

    1. Rob--First of all, thank you for your close reading and enlightening me about the shift in the Chinese language. That is really really unfortunate. Damn you Westernization!

      As for your second post, you bring up a tension that I think about often. Do we make change incrementally, keeping regular ol cisgendered Jane and John Doe in mind? Or do we demand what we really want, Jane and John be damned? Clearly for most specific advocacy efforts, it's going to be a nuanced blend, but philosophically, what should we be going for?

      I don't, however, think it's valid to count heads as a way of doling out justice (for trans people and their allies, gender neutral pronouns are truly an issue of justice). The relatively small population of trans people is frequently invoked by anti-trans rights people as a reason why there doesn't need to be gender neutral bathrooms, or health plans that cover top and/or bottom surgeries, or that colleges don't need to include gender identity in their non-discrimination statement. Just because a majority (gender binaried people) currently have almost exclusive ownership of third person pronouns doesn't mean that that is acceptable.

      I think that's what you were getting at in suggesting that maybe the tactic is to get everyone using gender neutral pronouns and through that exposing how much privilege there is in both the male pronouns over female pronouns, and male and female pronouns over gender neutral pronouns.

      Jane? Joe? How long will it take you to adjust to ze? What if Lady Gaga told you to do it? ...I say that only half in jest. While they might not listen to a Judy or a Rob, people with a lot of cultural clout can make significant strides. Gloria Steinem and Co. are responsible for creating "Ms" which did not exist until the mid-70s...I mean, that is pretty amazing!

      Given that example (and I'm sure there are others...linguists, enlighten me!) I don't think we should give up on the push to make our pronouns more fully represent us and our beliefs about justice.