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The Increasingly Visible Female and the Need for Generic Terms

by Rosa Shand Turner

Ms. Turner is an instructor in English at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and a graduate student in literature and creative writing at the University of Texas. This article appeared in the Christian Century  March 16, 1977, p. 248.  Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Around the turn of the century, anthropologists realized that they could tell a great deal about a culture by studying its use of language. An anthropologist from, say, one of Saturn’s inhabited moons, on landing in America and managing to untangle our phonemes and morphemes, would soon discover that a word so prevalent as “men” gives rise to conflicting assumptions about who is being discussed. If the anthropologist identifies herself with the group under consideration when the word “men” is used, she soon finds that men’s wives come in for discussion -- that her sex is being talked “about” as the “other” rather than being included among those addressed directly. She learns she can’t be wholly certain of when she is part of this group called “men” and when she is excluded.

And so her identification with “men” becomes tenuous. If she grows deeply enough into the culture to lose touch with her objective studies, her uncertainty is subconscious. On one level of consciousness, she accepts the fact that she is an unexpected intruder peeking into what was said or written by and for males. If her training eventually pulls her back into her professional role so that she is able to study her reactions, she may notice that she has been led to picture the story of humankind as being played out solely by males: inventing language, passing it on to the next generation of sons, inventing pottery for use as containers, fashioning needles in order to make better clothing. She has taken on the invisibility that has been assigned to her.

But this anthropologist, we must suppose, is unusually strong and, after all, has not been immersed in this culture all her life. Returning resolutely to her own independent purposes, she persists in the English-speaking world, fighting not only assumptions about herself as an intruder from Saturn’s system but also fighting to be seen for her general, rather than her sexual, characteristics (the latter might even become somewhat distorted in the battle). She now knows that the words which unquestionably include her are those which mark her sex as her most noticeable attribute. Those words which, she is told, stand for general, all-around identification  -- and within whose meanings she initially included herself -- slip and slide, as she tries to grasp them, between the general and the male.

The only way to comprehend the strange assumptions underlying such language usage is by realizing, as speakers and writers seem to do, that a woman is actually considered the human-not-quite-human (in Dorothy Sayers’s words). The anthropologist learns through repeated experience that the category “fellow man” can be pulled out from under her and be interpreted instead as “fellows males.” She knows the fragile, intermittent nature of her inclusion in that category and becomes afraid that, if she were genuinely of the culture, she might seek the safety of withdrawal. But coming from another planet, she shields herself in armor for the fray.

I

Language both reflects reality and shapes our ideas of reality. Linguists frequently acknowledge that the standard language reflects the usage and outlook of the group in power. That group has, of course, been male, and the male’s view of the female as a being whose sexual nature is more marked than her human nature is everywhere in the language. (Connotations of words that entered the language parallel in meaning tend to illustrate this point: “master” and “mistress,” “courtier” and “courtesan, even “sir” and “madam” when the latter is used as a noun.) The way this “male” aspect of the language influences our ideas of reality is therefore bound to be destructive, not only to the female self-concept but also to the ease with which men are able to relate to women outside the sexual or dependent role. The roles both sexes may play with confidence are thus restricted.

Males have clearly dominated the written language, which is the form of language that universalizes a standard. With the highest levels of education traditionally denied to women, the written language has therefore become a major tool of men’s continued power. But that language has never been an accurate reflection even of public social reality. Of interest is the fact that in many European countries the key figure during the period of nation-forming, and the period of conscious respect for the vernacular, was a woman: Elizabeth of England, Joan of Arc of France, Isabella of Spain, Catherine of Russia. It was Catherine who, through language, opened Russia to the West by personally translating many foreign books into Russian for the first time, by allowing secular literature, and by stimulating the first literature in the Russian language.

Among writers, the first Western lyricist, and the greatest in Greek was Sappho. In France Madame de Lafayette wrote the first French novel almost a century before any similar English work. Of the six finest 19th century English novelists, many would agree on four women: Jane Austen, George Eliot and the two Brontės (along with Dickens and Thackeray). A woman was America’s first poet, the Puritan Anne Bradstreet. Phyllis Wheatley was the first black poet writing in English. Beyond the West, the written Japanese language, according to a Japanese scholar at Princeton, was created by women in the Middle Ages. Having been denied the male education in Chinese, they wrote down their own speech in syllabic units and went on to become the first novelists; included among their works is the acknowledged masterpiece of Japanese literature, The Tales of Genji.

My point in all this is that women have never been so unusual in nonsexual roles as the English language would have us believe. This female invisibility, which is built into the way our language has been used, dictates that every woman who plays an independent role be seen each time as a new exception. And so we force each person and each generation to confront, as if for the first recorded instance, and with fresh amazement and apprehension each time, the same perplexity: “Is this strange, creative, aggressive creature truly a woman?” Our language has given us no words with which to include her naturally. When each individual woman must refight the same battle -- that she is always the exception -- males can utilize as a powerful tool in their retention of power the language’s insistence that she is by her very nature an exception. Armor does not fit all women.

Male-marked words, which slip back and forth between designating only males and designating all human beings; have never given an adequate reflection of social reality. Our vision has been refracted through male lenses. But even granted the truth of unquestioned male dominance, it is impossible to maintain any longer that the invisibility of females, as indicated by our generic terms, reflects present social conditions. Language cannot forever imply that all women who are socially visible are fighting solitary battles, are continuous exceptions. The change is overdue.

Changes are coming. Those already sufficiently conscious of the sexual imbalance in language make the effort to use “a person,” “an individual,” “one,” “persons,” “people,” “humankind” (a word given deep poetic resonance in our century through T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”). The Commission on Language for the National Council of Teachers of English has asked that these sex-blind forms be used in all writing. The American Heritage Dictionary now has a policy of employing substitutes for male-marked words. The Washington Post has guidelines stating that women are not to be identified by such designations as “divorcee,” “blond,” “housewife,” “grandmother” in cases where the corresponding male terms would not be applicable. Even the Oxford English Dictionary lends support; “man,” as a generic term, is designated a literary or proverbial usage rather than a colloquial one, in light of the increased use of the unambiguous terms “body,” “person,” “one,” “folk” and “people.”

I say a change is coming (the linguist Otto Jespersen seemed to think that in the 1920s as well people were saying “humanity” and “human being” more and more) -- and then I watch television or read the newspaper. In both of these media I encountered, during the nation’s 200th anniversary, consistent references to “our forefathers.” There is no way to include women in that term, and “forebears” is a good English word. The conclusion has to be that we are speaking only of the leaders who were visible enough to sit in council, to deliberate, and to leave their names in history. We are not taking into consideration the heroism demonstrated and hardship suffered in supporting roles played by both men and women. If women had any part in the birth of this nation, their names are not remembered; they are denied all claim to be among the generation honored as “forefathers.”

This example seems to indicate quite well that the primary issue is not one of straining the language. Words to include us all are already available. Ridiculing coinages like “chairperson” is a side issue, serving to distract us from dealing with whether we have the will or the intention to include both sexes in what ought to be general. A need for change in words themselves is the exception, but the need for change in choice of words is universal. It means choosing “forebears” and not “forefathers,” “grandchildren” and not “grandsons.”

II

Nouns are relatively easy to deal with, however; it is the pronoun which might be expected to cause the greatest difficulty. If there is still resistance to granting that a psychological offense is sufficient cause for modifying the use of language, then recall that lawyers have long been conscious of the slippery nature of the English male pronoun. One such lawyer, C. C. Converse, in 1884 proposed the introduction of a new pronoun, “thon,” formed by combining ‘that” and ‘one” Use of this form made sufficient headway to warrant its inclusion in Webster’s International Dictionary, second edition, where, apparently, it has quietly died.

Lawyers may indeed run into trouble. The OED, still our most comprehensive authority on words, does not allow for the possibility of interpreting “he,” “his” or “him” as including both sexes. The only non-masculine, or non- masculine personified, usage mentioned at all is the obsolete neuter. Under “hew” one has to read into the third column of the fine print -- arriving at definition II, 4 -- before finding the following: “The or that man, or person of the male sex, hence indefinitely any man, any one, one, a person” That is as close as the OED comes to justifying the claim that “he” is a generic English pronoun.

The evidence, then, of what is meant -- or of what is most immediately interpreted -- when “he” is used is so psychologically overwhelming that a prodigious amount of optimism would be required to argue that the English language, as it stands, possesses as a generic singular pronoun the word “he.” Our anthropologist from afar easily surmised that her image was not represented in the normative terms “man,” “he,” “his” and “him.”

The pronoun is a function word, part of what is generally considered to be a closed system. It is not completely so, however. Ann Bodine, writing in Language in Society (August 1975), goes so far as to say: “Because of the social significance of personal reference, personal pronouns are particularly susceptible to modifications in response to social and ideological change.” She cites the recent and rapid acceptance of new usage in regard to the two second-person personal pronouns of various European languages. Social conditions no longer encourage a special marker to rank the one addressed as inferior or equal. The uncountable variety of pronouns that have slowly evolved from a common root in Indo-European languages gives clear indication that everything about a language is subject to change.

Old English, like the others of its language family, originally had grammatical gender -- masculine, feminine and neuter forms -- for nouns and pronouns. But as the distinguishing endings were dropped, the language moved toward natural gender, or identification by quasisexual attributes. When the masculine and feminine forms of “he” lost their distinctive pronunciation, the demonstrative feminine “sie” (so the OED speculates) was brought in from Old Norse to distinguish the specifically feminine. “They,” “their” and “them” were also demonstratives originally, and the virtual disappearance of “thee” and “thou” is relatively recent. Changes in pronoun usage, then, have been a distinctive and continuing feature of the evolving language.

Jespersen, in the 1920s, called the pronominal system in English “decidedly deficient” because of its lack of a singular generic. The majority of the world’s languages do not have the gender system; in them pronouns are not gender-marked. English fell just between the grammatical-gender languages and the genderless ones, clinging to a rather confusing half-hearted natural gender. (Is a car an “it” or a “she”?) Of the English personal pronouns, all but the third singular (I, you, we, they) are gender-free; this is without doubt a helpful simplification. Our forebears might have been well advised to ignore the Old Norse “sie” and to let the Old English third singular become as genderless as the other pronouns.

III

Can a need for an unambiguous generic, however, be so deep if a language hasn’t provided for it? The question could lead to stimulating speculation, but English, it seems, does not lack an answer. We learn as children and, as though instinctively, continue to use in our speech a natural generic form: the word “they.” And in that sense “they” is fully provided with its proper definition in the OED, not even stigmatized as colloquial: “often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by ‘every,’ ‘any,’ ‘no,’ etc., or applicable to one of either sex (=‘he or she’).”

Again, no forcing of the language is necessary. Abundant examples from good literature are available, from the time when “they” became fixed in our language up through the modern era. “God send everyone their hearts desire,” Shakespeare writes. The form is not unusual in today’s press: “If someone wants to go to college, here’s what they should know,” runs a line in a full-page New York Times advertisement.

Even today, “he” for “any person” comes into everyday speech only after it has been learned in school. Ann Bodine documents that, in the late 18th century, “they” became identified incorrectly as a plural pronoun only, in direct opposition to its consistent use with both singular and plural antecedents. Two earlier grammarians had attempted to bend ‘the language in order to enforce the use of “he” because, they said, “he” reflected a “natural order” and “the worthier is to be preferred.” These men were largely ignored, but later on, male-centered grammarians took up the cause, and insistence on the use of “he” became a strong issue among grammarians in the early 19th century. An 1850 Act of Parliament made “he” the legal term.

Despite all this, 19th century British novels show the usage of “they” and “he” with a singular antecedent to be about equal; Americans, however, being less sure of their natural language instincts and depending more on grammarians’ rules when writing formally, have been more rigid about the “he.” The remarkable fact is that, even with the full weight of the educational and publishing establishments against it, the use of “they” is still persistent. Thus, grammarians insisted on what they considered to be number agreement between the pronoun and its antecedent, ignoring gender agreement. They succeeded, however, in imposing ‘he” only as a literary device, deeply ingrained through book-work among the highly educated. But because the usage is a dictation of grammarians and not our instinctive one, it can be reversed. The reversal would bring literary language closer into line with colloquial language, and the price -- obscuring number concord, already naturally weak -- is not excessive. Number is neutral; gender is not.

IV

Since a generic pronoun referring to both singular and plural antecedents is available to us, encouraging its use is to go with the current of the natural language. Further, using “they” is an acknowledgment that the insistence on “he” as the normative personal pronoun was what constituted the original attack on the language, made on the dubious grounds of strengthening some “natural order.” But the English language has obstinately retained an opening for reasserting that the pronoun “they” represents the natural order.

There are other practical means for avoiding “he.” More frequently than the Americans, the British use “one” consistently throughout a sentence, as in: “If one is prepared, one should have no trouble.” Although Americans are more accustomed to changing to “he” after the first “one,” the British usage is a wholly acceptable way of avoiding “he” in certain sentences. If an American rejects the formality and yet wants the picture formed by words to be honestly neutral, the speaker can accurately say: “If one is prepared, they should have no trouble.”

“He or she” is another serviceable method for getting around the third-person ambiguity. Language purists of the late 18th century discouraged this usage, although “one or more” and “person or persons” were not frowned on and remain frequent in the language. Here was yet another scruple that elevated number clarity above gender clarity. Still, for a person who today intends to be understood unambiguously as referring to both sexes, but who has been warned off “they,” this form is more congenial. Politicians make use of it more and more. It tends, however, to become burdensome and awkward.

One other way to achieve better language balance is by recognizing that, since the pronoun “he” is used quite frequently simply as an illustration of an action, then “she” could be substituted just as naturally, effectively and frequently. For “she” is as exemplary of persons as “he.”

V

A variety of ways, then, of avoiding the male-generic confusion in both the noun and the pronoun is readily available in the English language as it stands. Our natural inclination, before intimidation by the grammar rules, is to choose native, unambiguous forms. Regardless of schoolbook rules, what it comes down to in the end is usage -- conscious usage at first -- in order to bring about the general acceptance of truly generic terms (the rules will catch up) and thus bring about the unambiguous recognition of women as included in the considerations of humankind. Our anthropologist could then forget herself and get on with studying society. But she might still be left with a minor, less psychologically disorienting barrier to her acceptance into the full range of human rituals -- the fact that she dropped in from another planet.

The standard language, evidence indicates, is determined by and in turn supports the most powerful societal group. So there is still a long way to go before the public role of women, and thus their hand in the written language, becomes as powerful as that of men. When a group is dependent, language usage degrades that group: lasting change must go with social change. But this social change is indeed taking place.

The English language has in the past been flexible enough to respond to changing social conditions rather than becoming entrenched, clinging to static forms. Certainly English encompasses as many influences as any language in the world, compounded as it is of Germanic and romance languages, Latin and Greek, with borrowings from almost every tongue. Without offending its own basically receptive nature, English might well accommodate itself to the increasingly visible female, acknowledging that she is not, by her gender, an exception in the affairs of life. That accommodation would at the same time affirm the historic and instinctive direction of the English language.


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