|If I had Photoshop, I would add "ze!"|
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 Englishexercises.org