Over the past few months, there has been a lot of talk about pronouns, specifically the movement to expand our language use beyond the binary he/she to include other options and to make it easier for people to identify their own “preferred gender pronoun.” A recent New York Times article, included a chart produced by the University of Wisconsin to help students and faculty understand alternative third person pronouns. The focus of recent articles has not been about pronouns per se but rather the role that pronouns can play in creating inclusive spaces for transgender and genderqueer people.
As I listen to the conversations about preferred gender pronouns and whether or not “singular they” is grammatically correct, I’m reminded of other, older conversations about language and gender. In college and graduate school, I was inspired by the work of feminist linguists who examined the use of the generic masculine. What you may ask is the generic masculine? It is the practice of using male pronouns (he/him/his) or nouns in any context where the gender of the person is either unknown or the statement is meant to be inclusive of both males and females, as in “everyone must do his part.” This sentence may sound funny to many of you as read it. Try saying it out loud; I suspect your instinct is to replace “his” with “their.” I’ll get back why that is in a moment.
In the l980’s and 90’s, researchers conducted rigorous studies that demonstrated how the use of the “generic masculine” limited perception and privileged males. While this may seem obvious today, at the time it provided much needed scientific evidence to demonstrate something many women knew instinctively. Namely, that there was a bias built into the way we used language. A bias that replicated and reinforced male-privilege in our culture and had concrete negative outcomes for women and girls.
So we began to change how we used language. From academic articles to prayer books, women led the fight to debunk the myth of the “generic masculine” and replace it with practices that were more representative of gender diversity. (Or at least our understanding of it at the time.) Some of that work focused on pronoun usage experimenting with gender-neutral pronouns or alternating the use of “he” and “she” in texts. Often the proposed changes met with resistance that mostly fell into two categories: grammar and intelligibility, which I would reframe as comfort or familiarity.
The grammatical arguments focused on the “rules” of Standard English. People proposed using “singular they” in place of “he” so “everyone must do his part” becomes “everyone must do their part.” In reaction, the grammar police jumped up and down pointing out that “everyone” is singular and “their” is plural. But, remember that niggling feeling you had a moment ago when I asked you to read those sentences aloud? It’s likely that the one using singular “they” sounded more correct. That’s because in spoken English, we’ve never stopped using “they” as a singular pronoun in generic or inclusive statements.
With respect to intelligibility (or what I’m calling comfort and familiarity), resisters claimed that changes in pronoun usage would impact people’s ability to understand spoken and written texts. Publishers, in particular, argued that using he/she or s/he was awkward (which admittedly it can be) and that if writers randomly switched between “he” and “she” throughout a text, readers would be confused. Gender-neutral pronouns like “ze” were often dismissed as being too unfamiliar. And the idea of just using “she” as a generic throughout a text was met by arguments that it would limit the scope of the text to the female realm.
Hmm anyone see an inherent contradiction here? Of course you do, and that is precisely the point. How we use language contributes to how we see, understand, and engage with our reality. Whether we are pushing to rid ourselves of habits that privilege males in statements like “everyone must do his part” or we are challenging the ideology of a gender binary by embracing a broader range of third person pronouns language is an essential tool.
Which brings me back to grappling with the use of ze/ve/hir/per/they and all the other “new” words that open up the space for more than just two genders. The arguments of grammar and comfort (intelligibility) that focus on language use are raging again. But these arguments were never really about language in the first place. They are and have always been about privilege and power: the power to name things, the power to set standards, and the power to decide what is real and what is not. Today, it is cisgender privilege that must be addressed. (Cisgender is a term that refers to people for whom the gender/sex they were assigned at birth aligns with their gender identity.)
Yes, it can be hard to change linguistic habits. I still experience a moment of cognitive dissonance when I hear someone use “they” in reference to a specific individual. But cognitive dissonance is productive. It pushes me to recognize that my old habits of hearing and seeing are in conflict with my new understanding of the complexity of gender and identity. I welcome that moment of cognitive dissonance. It says pay attention because your momentary discomfort is a blip compared to what many people feel every time they are addressed with the wrong pronoun. And I’ve grown comfortable stating my own preferred gender pronoun – no matter how “obvious” it may seem. I’m using language to debunk the myth that we can tell how someone identifies just by looking at them. So, next time you are someplace meeting new people and learning about them, try offering your own preferred gender pronoun and asking others for theirs. Yeah, depending on the context it may feel awkward at first, but all new habits do.