My first meaningful experience with the gender-specific pronoun was in my starter English comp class at Colorado Northwestern Community College. The teacher, a feisty short conservative woman with freckles and a penchant for embracing stereotypes, thought the “him or her/he or she/his or hers” imperative of political correctness in writing clunky, overwrought and unwarranted, and she was right about that part. Clunky, overwrought and unwarranted, yes.
She preferred, she said, to simply use masculine pronouns. It simplified sentences and called no attention away from writing’s substance. But on top of her writerly conceits, the teacher also scoffed at the notion that women are somehow subjugated by the exclusive usage of the word “he.” You can’t use “they” when talking about a lone person (even in the abstract) because it’s grammatically incorrect. And you shouldn’t default to she/her/hers because that’s what the pussy snowflakes do. The teacher scoffed at political correctness in general, seeing it as part of leftism’s insidious seepage into the American zeitgeist.
There’s some truth to this. I generally agree with Bill Maher that there’s something to the conservative complaint of liberal term-baiting and identity politics (though conservatives ironically lick their wounds in the comfort of their own safe spaces). Political correctness has been carried too far by the American left. But not in this case. Here, it has not been carried far enough.
There’s a fascinating movement in the trans community these days to contrive a singular gender-fluid pronoun to accomplish political correctness and inclusivity in writing while simultaneously achieving simplicity. This is an essential effort (which I’ll leave to the lexicographers), and there must come a time for it. But in lieu of a solution on that front, I say it’s women’s turn.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve used the gender-specific pronouns she/her/hers nearly exclusively, the only exceptions being when I’m writing about a demographic that is entirely or almost entirely comprised of men. I do this for a calculated reason: I want my readers to think about feminism, even if that’s not the subject of my writing. An imperfect analogy is killing our own meat, which we more often than not consume without thinking. If we kill something, we have to look it in the eye and be reminded that there’s life affected by our diet. In the same way, the words we choose affect people, whether or not the effect is perceived. If we’re thoughtful about language as we consume or offer it, we have to admit its conventions – including that more writers seem to use masculine pronouns – are inherently racist and sexist, to reflect an inherently racist and sexist society. If we read “she” in place of “he” and it shocks us, we’re forced to reckon with our mode of word usage and consumption.
Let’s talk statistics. The “gender pronoun gap” fluctuates with the social status of women. When women have more purchase on the economy, make up a larger portion of the workforce and write more, the use of feminine pronouns increases. Jen Doll described in The Atlantic magazine in 2012 research that tracked the use of gender pronouns in literature over the previous century.
[San Diego State psychology professor Jean M.] Twenge explains in her paper that “the gender pronoun ratio was significantly correlated with indicators of U.S. women’s status such as educational attainment, labor force participation, and age at first marriage as well as women’s assertiveness, a personality trait linked to status. Books used relatively more female pronouns when women’s status was high and fewer when it was low. The results suggest that cultural products such as books mirror U.S. women’s status and changing trends in gender equality over the generations.” Or, more simply, the rise in all of those indicators – as women married later, had careers, and became more independent and assertive – correlated to a rise in the use of female pronouns in writing.
Logically, the study found there has been a drastic uptick in the use of the female pronoun since World War II, when women took over manufacturing and established a foothold in the American workforce. The underlying theme is that when women do well, we acknowledge their existence.
I’m having some friends look over a long essay I’m planning to send out for publication soon in which I almost exclusively use feminine pronouns, including when I describe some negative trait. One friend, in her critique, noted that she found it jarring, that it removed her as a reader from the substance of my essay to ask why I wrote she/her. She asked me to think about this and determine why I’m doing it, and here’s what I have for an answer:
Because even when women don’t have the social purchase they deserve (I can’t think of a time when they have), they are still here, they are still driving the economy with immeasurable grace and subtlety and they are never going to go away. They are a force to be reckoned with and they are still not sufficiently recognized as such even in a liberal and thoughtful profession like writing.
My critic friend is probably right about the feminine pronoun jerking readers from the narrative. We are not used to it as readers. But sometimes the teeter-totter needs a violent tug to level out. At the turn of the century, according to The Atlantic’s account of Twenge’s study, masculine pronouns outpaced feminine pronouns by about three and a half to one in American literature before the upheavals of WWII, the Sexual Revolution and the establishment of feminism in the cultural mainstream. Now, that ratio of masculine pronouns to feminine is two to one, Doll writes, citing the Associated Press. Insufficient progress, if you ask me, and the women, who will save us from our collective dementia, deserve more.