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‘she’ as a gender-neutral pronoun

April 6, 2012

A comment from Peter Howell on the subject of the use of she as a (supposedly) gender-neutral pronoun impels me to return to this topic, which I first raised in my post ‘Philosophy-speak’ back in October 2011. Peter has just written a paper about the American philosopher Richard Rorty in which he adopts Rorty’s own tactic of using she to mean he or she (but in this case with particular applicability to Michel Foucault) and had it returned by the publisher with red ink slashed over the offending pronouns and acerbic remarks about ‘political correctness gone mad’. (See Comments for Peter’s full account).

What do I do think about this usage? First, it won’t catch on. It’s used almost exclusively by (mostly American) philosophers, and maybe once a few of them do it they feel they all have to, in case the others think they’re sexist, but I can’t see it travelling far outside academic circles.

Second, it can lead to incongruous results, as in the above case where the Y-chromosomed Foucault is, by implication, being referred to as female; or, to go back to the case I mentioned in my earlier post, as in Gerald Dworkins’ comments about how some actions such as dwarf-tossing are wrong in themselves regardless of what the agent thinks: ‘She may not see it as wrong, may want to go on tossing dwarfs, resent the interference etc’. This just sounds plain wrong. Virtually all if not actually all dwarf-tossers are men and everybody knows that!

Third, those two cases would not sound wrong if she really was a gender-neutral pronoun. But consider the reason why a gender-neutral pronoun is necessary. It is because he, the traditional choice for that role, was not in fact perceived to be neutral. It irresistibly gives rise to an image of a male subject, regardless of whether the speaker or writer intends it neutrally.It was recognition of this fact that led to calls for a gender-neutral alternative. But that reasoning must rule out she as the alternative. If he wasn’t neutral, she isn’t either.

Fourth, a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun already exists.  It is they. They sounds natural, is widely used informally and has a long history. Mr Elton in Jane Austen’s Emma says: ‘Everybody has their level’. In Thackeray we find ‘Nobody prevents you, do they?’ Grammatical purists might object that this breaks the ‘Rule of Number’. Well, it looks as if we’ll have to break either the Rule of Number or the Rule of Gender if we want an all-purpose pronoun, and for reasons of inclusivity breaking the Rule of Number is the better choice. (I should say that I owe these points and these examples to The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing by Casey Miller and Kate Swift).

So I shall continue to use they as my gender-neutral pronoun, and I do hope Peter and everyone else will do the same.


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