Gender Issues: What If We No Longer Said “He” and “She”?

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Apr 14, 2014    •    1187 Views

Our Monday Gender Issue:

In the February 10th issue of the New Yorker, I read “Pronoun Envy” by Anne Carson.

Here is the beginning:

Pronoun Envy

“is a phrase
coined by Cal Watkins
of the Harvard Linguistics Department
in November 1971

to disparage
certain concerns
of the female students
of Harvard Divinity School.

In a world
where God is ‘He’
and everyone else

what chance
do we have for
a bit of attention?
seemed to be their question.

Cal Watkins–
how patient a man–
did not say you carry-tale mumble-
news mar-plot find-fault spoil-


but rather that
pronouns themselves were
not to blame. It’s the Indo-
European system of markedness.

A binary system.
Which regards masculine as the
unmarked gender…”

The poem refers to a 1971 Harvard Divinity School class. Two women, a tiny minority in a sea of men, suggested that their class be given kazoos. And that any time a patriarchal reference was expressed during class, anyone could respond with a toot. That mean if the Diety were referred to as a “He” or someone mentioned mankind, the noisemakers would resound.

Responding in 1971, Cal Watkins from the Harvard Linguistics Department said,

“The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English (or that the feminine is unmarked in the language of the Tunica Indians) is simply a feature of grammar. It is unlikely to be an impediment to any change in the patterns of the sexual division of labor toward which our society may wish to evolve. There is really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking changes”

I have a tough time with gender specific pronouns. Writing, I always have to make a choice. Should I say, “She?” “He?” Most of the time I try to work out a plural so I can say “they.”  Using “he” everywhere creates the image of men dominating the workplace. But “she” could be artificial. Should I accept “they” as a singular pronoun in my students’ essays?

What to do?

Gender neutral pronouns have been proposed by Kate Swift (1923-2011) and Casey Miller (1919-1997), authors of Words and Women.

Gender Neutral Pronouns Ms Magazine Insert

However, Swift’s and Miller’s proposals have never stuck. Similarly, no one has begun using s/he or he/she or hesh (he plus she). The New Republic says ze has been proposed by LGBT people to avoid gender identity or maybe thon (from that one) is a possibility.

My bottom line? Every time someone says a “manned” space vehicle, I would like to blow my kazoo.

Sources and Resources: I recommend going to Slate for the full story of that 1971 Harvard Divinity School class, p. 49 of the February 10, 2014 New Yorker (gated) for the entire poem, a 2014 New Republic article and the 1971 Swift/Miller New York Magazine Ms insert for the pronoun discussion.

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