Gender bias

You know how sometimes you have really strong reactions to things that you never thought you cared that much about? Like this one time I was reading through course descriptions at various universities to see what their course-books were (I was craving nonfiction, and this is before I discovered book blogs), and I saw this course about the poetry of the Hugheses. As in, Ted and Sylvia. I’m not even that big a fan of Sylvia Plath: I love her poetry but I think she would have been maddening in real life. But I was gripped with this unbelievable visceral rage at the professor who wrote the course description and referred to her as half of “the Hugheses”.

Regarding gender-neutral language, I have always been more or less in support of it. In practice it is rather cumbersome but I approved of it on an intellectual. I think the use of “he” (“the average reader will find that he likes Fagles the best of any translator of epic poetry”) and “man” (“man has sought for centuries to invent a story as awesome as the Odyssey but cannot with any surety be said to have succeeded”) as representative of humanity more generally is (yet another) symptom of that really unpleasant thing of thinking of men as the default, and women as the other thing. On the other hand, I have never, while reading a book that employs gender-biased language, felt the sensation of being excluded. Plus I always suspected it would feel weird and affected if an author ever did the thing they sometimes recommend, of alternating the use of “his” and “her” when referring to a generic person.

Then on Thursday I was going through proof pages of this one book, and I read a sentence that said (something like) “The reader may find herself bogged down in blah blah blah very technical stuff about New Latin.” And you know those scenes you see in high school movies where the very popular girl invites the shy new girl to come hang out with her and her popular friends. You know, how the shy new girl wasn’t expecting it at all, and you can see the shock and joy all over her face? THIS WAS JUST LIKE THAT.

I don’t know how to describe how great it felt. I was suffused with this massive, exhilarating sense that I was being recognized. A lot of the books I read at this internship, they are very serious and important books. Even when they are interesting, engaging, and well-written, I feel like the authors are writing for an audience of loftier intelligence and learning than mine. The book whose proof pages I was inspecting was a translation of a Latin text, which I think had something to do with it, because Latin makes me happy like ice cream. When I read that sentence, “the reader may find herself,” I felt like the translator had written his book with me in mind. I am a her! I may find myself bogged down in technical stuff about New Latin! That may happen to me! (And indeed it did.)

It was amazing! I wanted to make a large banner that said “GENDER-NEUTRAL LANGUAGE IS MORE AWESOME THAN YOU MAY HAVE REALIZED” (I know, catchy, huh?) and go tromping up and down the streets alerting everyone to how great a feeling to have a book assume you as its readership. I know this sounds like a very lame and unconvincing attempt at personalizing a dull linguistic gender debate. But I can’t help it. That’s exactly how it went down. I think that I have never truly appreciated how inclusive inclusivity can be.

Have you ever had such a reaction? Do you have strong feelings one way or the other about gender-neutral language?

68 thoughts on “Gender bias

  1. I am generally not a fan of reading too much into language, it just bothers me, but referring to Ted and Sylvia as the Hugheses is just ridiculous!

    • I know! Not to be all adversarial about it, but she was way more important than he was! If anything they should get called the Plaths! Hrmph!

  2. I’m like you in that I don’t feel particularly excluded when I see “he” used in the universal sense, especially when I know that the author intends it to be universal, but I do prefer gender-neutral language.

    I had to think through this issue a lot when studying Greek and Biblical translation. I simply will not read modern translations that don’t use gender-neutral language. I can make the mental adjustment myself, but for me it’s a political statement to choose gender-neutral translation (and most modern translations that don’t use it are making their own political statements that I refuse to support). It’s just too important to be clear about the universality of the statements being made.

    • I’ve never been particularly picky about reading based on whether the author’s using gender-neutral language. In theory I definitely wanted them to use it, but in practice it hasn’t been a deal-breaker. From now on, though, I’m going to try to be a stronger advocate of unbiased language. I think it will make me feel good about life. πŸ™‚

  3. To be completely honest, no. I don’t really think about it a lot, but I appreciate posts like this that show me other people, do!

    I do remember in the curriculum I used to use with adult literacy, that the tutor was always referred as she and the student as he. It mostly to keep things consistent and free from confusion, but I liked that the tutor was she. πŸ˜›

  4. I prefer gender neutral, but am not offended when I read he or him.
    However, having said that, I (female physics teacher) always use the astronaut in my questions as a female, as in, “On an unknown planet, a 75 kg astronaut uses a 12.5 cm pendulum to determine the acceleration of gravity. If the period of the pendulum is 1.4 s, what is her weight on the planet?”
    I hope my girls in class feel the same way as you did.

    • Aw, that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Thanks for doing that – before Thursday I wouldn’t have thought it would make an enormous difference, but I think now that it does.

  5. No strong feelings unless you count guilt and obligation. I make a point of doing what raidergirl3 does, because I figure that after 500 (more?) years of using male pronouns for the neutral, we can use female for a quite while to even things out. But it never feels natural. What I really wish is that we could use collective neuter for individual neuter. I do in speech but it’s too grating in writing. Then sometimes I get ornery and use “they” in writing anyway, because I know the only way it will stop sounding grating and come into common use is if people go ahead and use it.

    I don’t really care for my own part, but I do feel I ought to do what’s right. The only time I feel irritated is when people milk a sense of injured superiority out of the issue. Like the ones who harp on the unnecessary silliness of gender neutral language in the NRSV (if there’s anywhere it belongs its the Bible!), or bemoan the good old days the academic “he,” before us touchy, tin-eared upstarts. Or the s/he crowd. Which I have sometimes used myself. But I could never insist anyone *else* use a word with a big, ugly slash in it!

    • I’ve used s/he myself too. I don’t love it, but when I’ve written papers I’ve found it easier to use than trying to do elaborate rephrases or go with “he” just because it’s simple.

      The thing of the female pronoun not sounding natural was something that I always suspected would be the case. I don’t know why this one instance struck me so hard, since it surely can’t be the first time I’ve seen this done. But it sounded absolutely natural in this case. I loved it.

  6. Oh Oh Oh. YES I have had this experience. Way back in the day I was talking to my uncle’s sister (who is a nun) and she was all into gender-neutral language and I was being polite but secretly thinking “*yawn*”. But later that week, I was in church and I was waiting for someone and I was bored, so I picked up a missalette and started substituting all female words for all the male ones (in my head. I did not deface the missalette). Like “Lady” for “Lord” and “Queen” for “King” and of course, She for He.

    And my brain exploded. Just like you, I suddenly experienced a feeling I had never had during a liturgy: “They’re talking about ME and MY God[dess].” It was huge, it was emotional, it completely changed my mind, and for the first time ever I realized that not FEELING excluded doesn’t mean that in your heart of hearts, you don’t know perfectly well that you actually, in fact, ARE excluded. Hooray for gender-neutral language, I say.

    • I say too! I’m going to try this experiment sometime, but not with a prayer I know like the Lord’s Prayer because I think I’d be too distracted by the difference in the sound of it to notice myself being included.

      P.S. I have been saying “she” about the Holy Spirit in the Nicean Creed all summer. Since the Holy Spirit is all about spiritual enlightenment and knowledge, and I got all mine through Julian of Norwich in college, and Julian of Norwich is a woman, I feel a sense of she-ness about the Holy Spirit anyway. With the Father and the Son She is worshiped and glorified; She has spoken through the prophets. Makes the Nicean Creed more awesome!

  7. When I’m writing, I always try to use words like “one’s self” or something like that…personally I hate gender biased words in literature….probably because I have major problem with gender biases and gender roles in the larger world. I hate the assignment of boys like sports, women like crafting. Why can’t boys enjoy crafting and women enjoy sports too? I think ultimately, this spills over into all sorts of different venues, literature included and I’d love to see a major change everywhere….but it takes everyone changing. And this post is great for that πŸ™‚

    • It would be amazing to see more change in the stereotypes about men and women. I don’t do crafts at all (except occasionally cross-stitching), and I love watching (but not playing ever never ever playing blech awful) sports, esp. football, as a Louisiana girl should. Down with stereotypes! Up with the Tigers! Or something like that. :p

  8. Wow, I can’t believe Sylvia Plath could be called one half of the Hugheses. Ick. And she would NOT be impressed at that!! πŸ˜‰

    Seriously, I don’t really notice the use of he, him, etc as it is expected, but like you, I LOVE coming across the use of her instead. It really proves that it could be anyone and women are just as included. Love, love, love. Doesn’t happen enough, but it is happening more often thank goodness.

    • Hahaha, she would not be impressed at all. I wonder what he would think of it. I know Ted Hughes gets a bad rap, and I think he was probably not that good a person, but I don’t actually know much about him to make such a judgment.

      The Chicago Manual of Style does not approve of gender-biased language, so that’s definitely a step in the right direction. It has a whole section on how to avoid it. I’m hoping to come across more generic-person female pronouns this summer!

  9. I wish more works would embrace gender-neutral pronouns for those that do not identify as male and female. This is a complicated topic that’s really important to examine, although I haven’t seen it happen yet in the book community!

    I tend to use “hir” and “zie”, although it’s harder to introduce invented things like that into a language. It makes my genderqueer friends happy that I do not use a gender-specific pronoun for them, though! That is the important part.

    • That’s a whole other topic that’s incredibly difficult to address – and I agree with you that it’s not one that’s gotten nearly the attention it needs. I wish English had some neuter pronouns that didn’t suggest a lack of personhood – you’re right, it’s very hard to introduce whole new pronouns into the language.

    • I had a friend who used hir and zie, and it was very… difficult, because they feel so forced and artificial. I do believe that we need some genderless singular pronouns, but those especially seem… weird.

  10. I don’t mind gender in writing myself- I find s/he fairly annoying to read through. However, just to play devil’s advocate. So you were happy that a feminine version of the “reader” was used, but was that used consistently? Not just saying that FEMALE readers would find the text too “technical” and that a man would not? πŸ™‚

    • Hahah, you know, I thought of that when I was writing this post, and I was trying to think of another sentence to use as an example. Yes, it was done consistently, because I checked when I was reading it. I can’t remember whether it was feminine pronouns throughout, or alternating feminine and masculine ones, but either way, I know it wasn’t just saying “she” in that one spot. πŸ™‚

  11. Aw, yay for gender-neutral language. I am strongly in favor of it! When writing documents/emails/explanations of things at work, I do actively think about it and generally use “he or she” or alternate between “he” and “she.” I notice male-gendered language and am sometimes mildly annoyed by it/sometimes am not really bothered by it, but always really really appreciate gender-neutrality. I also am a semi-fan of “ze” — I like the fact that it exists as a word/concept but don’t tend to actually use it unless I specifically know that it is the pronoun of choice of the person to whom I’m referring.

    • Yeah, I think it’s going to be harder to introduce those gender-neutral pronouns until people who do not self-identify as either gender gain more visibility. Which, sadly, I don’t see happening much right now.

      • This reminded me of when the title “Ms.” was introduced to the language. Oh, the heart-burnings! It was ugly, it was unnatural, it was unpronounceable…people (male and female) ranted for YEARS. And then, after a while, everybody shut up and now, after another while, nobody thinks twice about it.

      • Interesting, Mumsy! I clearly remember seeing Ms. for the first time when I was 12 or so. I had learned to write business letters in school, but they hadn’t mentioned it (yes, backward of them). I had to ask what it meant. I think I had an experience a bit like Jenny’s in this post. There was *already* a word out there for the way I wanted to think of myself. As an individual. Not as someone either married or not married. I was psyched. Now I just wish there was something to do the same thing, verbally, with strangers, who have to decide whether to call you “miss” or ma’am” based on how old you look. It made me feel very grumbly when I crossed over into “ma’am” territory.

  12. I also use s/he from time to time because I find the general term “he” a bit exclusive, at times. And I guess Aarti already commented on something I wanted to point out, too πŸ™‚

    Great post!

    • Thanks! I more or less like s/he, especially as it puts the she part first (sort of), but I’m kind of leaning towards using “she” more often from now on. S/he’s been the pronoun I’ve used for years. I wish there were something similar for his/her.

  13. I love this post! I kind of want to print it and carry it around to rub on the face of the next person who tells me I’m just “looking to be offended” for caring about this πŸ˜›

    Also, what you said about the feeling of having a book assume you as its readership made me feel a lot better about a rant-ish post I’ve been drafting. It’s a review of a book about language that I really enjoyed, but it bugged me A LOT that the author kept addressing his readers and saying things like “we native speakers of English.” Yeah, because no non-native speakers would EVER read that book. It made me feel excluded, and it was no fun.

    • *giggles* That sounds like a perfectly reasonable response and would undoubtedly carry your argument. :p

      I’m sorry the language-book author is such a poop! It is no fun feeling excluded. I am not bilingual so I don’t have that exact problem, but I’ve been reading loads of nonfiction books by British authors lately, and a bunch of them seem to assume a British readership. It’s not the worst thing in all the land, but it’s a little depressing.

  14. I wish English had a gender-neutral pronoun — I find s/he very awkward, also “he or she/his or her” — that’s why so many people end up using they and their, which is just wrong. (Got zinged more than once doing this in library school. By the same professor. Boy, did I learn my lesson!)

    And how annoying about “half the Hughses” !!! How many people would know about Ted Hughes if it weren’t for Sylvia Plath? Who WAS this professor?

    And I do admit to trolling around the internet looking at college reading lists too — mostly I just want to see what various lit classes are reading, like in a Victorian class or a Dickens class. I’m always hoping to find some new classic author I’ll love.

    • The Chicago Manual of Style advises you to rephrase if at all possible, and avoid the gender-biased generic pronoun minefield altogether. But you can’t always rephrase and have it still sound normal.

      I have no idea who the professor was, I can’t even remember the university that was giving the class. But I do remember it made me so mad I stopped looking at reading lists for the whole university. :p

    • According to the O.E.D., it is perfectly acceptable to use they and their as singular genderless pronouns.

      I had a professor ding me a lot of points, and I cited the OED and got my points back for that.

      • It was unkind of your prof to dock your points, but I hate using “they”. I do it sometimes, because I can’t be bothered worrying about the best pronouns to use instead, but I don’t like it in formal writing.

      • I think a lot of style guides are gradually going to go in the direction of allowing “they” for the singular. It’s less cumbersome than he or she, and you can say it if you’re reading aloud, unlike s/he. A new Chicago Manual of Style is releasing this year, and I’ll be interested to see what they do. If they make the switch to singular “they” it will almost certainly become mainstream.

  15. First off, yes, Hugheses = ridiculous. Maybe even ridonkulous!

    And I have felt the rush of inclusion from reading a “her” in a book of the intellectual sort. Several of my profs were very aware of this in grad school and took the time to alternate or flat-out use the “her” and I found that I felt included. Very much, delightfully included.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one to have had this experience. I mentioned it to my two fellow interns, who were working in the same room as me, and they both sort of looked at me like I was crazy.

  16. I love this! I have never really been bothered too much by gender neutral language, but I can imagine that I might have just gotten very excited to see that sentence in the pages of a book I was reading. Very, very cool!

    • Now I’m pumped to see it in other books! I’m going to pay triple extra good attention to generic pronouns in the hopes that someone else will be assuming me as the reader. It was such a lovely experience!

  17. I think I was either in my last year of high school or my first year of uni when I learned that some critics were using female pronouns instead of male to refer to the reader. I always try to do that myself, when I’m reviewing, ’cause it’s important to me to try and balance things out. Like Trapunto said, it’s gonna take a looooooong time before we need to alternate back to “he” and “his,” if we look at it that way.

    I do try to use completely neutral pronouns whenever possible, though; things like “one” and “they.”

    • Oh, yeah, I forgot about “one”. I say “one” quite often. I’m thinking I might go to using “she” to talk about generic authors – I read more women authors than men, and my understanding is there are more women publishing books than men.

  18. I can’t believe that gender-biased language is still an issue, thirty years after Dale Spender’s book, “Man Made Language” was published. Spender

    I use “he or she” rather than “they” because I am old skool. πŸ™‚

  19. Yesterday I was writing something for grad school, and I was writing about a generic teacher. The time came for me to type a pronoun, and I didn’t know what to do. On the one hand I could assume a female so as to use female pronouns, but, somehow, by doing this, I would only be enforcing gender roles stating that teachers are female. Sometimes there is no winning. I ended up going to my usual “his or her.” I’ve determined that I can say “his or her” fast enough in conversation when talking so as not to make the structure awkward, therefore anyone who ever reads me write it can read it fast enough as well. This situation made me wonder about the merits of saying things like “The nurse was nice. He always checked up on me.” or whathaveyou.

  20. I go to a women’s college, so essentially every example with a random person defaults to the feminine. Personally, I try and use feminine whenever I write something like “this book is perfect for the average Jane”, just because I move mostly in female circles, be them bookish or fannish.

    I don’t feel particularly alienated by the use of the masculine, but it does make me happy to see the feminine.

    Whenever I see men as the default, I’m always reminded of the fact that biologically, women are the default (insofar that it takes an effort for a fetus to develop male instead of continuing to develop female).

    • I think of that too, but I try not to say it. I don’t want to be alienating either. I think my general life plan from now on is going to be to alternate the use of “he” and “she”. Like, globally. So if I say she when commenting on your blog, I’ll change it up for the next comment I make anywhere on the internets.

  21. Great post and it was fun to read through all the comments too! I go through phases honestly where I get offended where I see “he” as the gender neutral and it bugs me and then I get used to it again it stop bothering me for awhile and then I realize that why can’t it be both, does it really take so much time to write he/she? But I can’t believe that class didn’t honor Plath in her own right!

    • I couldn’t believe it either! I always think she’s a far more important poet than Ted Hughes is; but then I dislike Ted Hughes as a person.

      I’ve gone through phases where I’ve given up and used “he” for a while, but I usually pass through them and start doing s/he instead. Now I’m kind of over that too. I wish there were a pleasing gender-neutral pronoun in common use that just meant any person, male or female.

  22. I used to look through the course book suggestions at my old university prior to finding book bloggers too!

    I guess I wouldn’t really be offended either way, unless the technical manual was implying that only women would be confused by the issue. πŸ™‚

    • It was so much less helpful than book bloggers! When I discovered book bloggers, my whole book recommendations system changed completely!

      Oh, yeah, it definitely wasn’t implying that. Anyone would be confused, unless eighteenth-century Latin was her specialty. It is not mine. I was super confused. All the spellings were different.

  23. I think, at least to me, whether it offends or not is sort of missing the point. Perhaps it didn’t necessarily ‘offend’, say, Oscar Wilde that language assumed that homosexuality didn’t exist, just sodomy (an act rather than a piece of identity that includes acts, emotions, affinities, etc), but that doesn’t mean we should have just stuck with Sodomite for the standard term for one who likes others who have the same parts as them, you know? Whether it offends those already grown up, I think that gendered pronouns in places that should be generic teach children (and adults) a cultural order that doesn’t make sense and isn’t just. Even if they aren’t offended at the moment, they shoudl be offended at the underlying (though often subconscious) agenda. Just a thought.

    But it’s also a difficult thing. As a child, I remember textbooks and standardized tests and such going out of their way to make sure there was a person of each color in each picture and that those people were performing tasks at times that didn’t fit the stereotype of their race or gender or whatever (like the female astronaut example), and as a child this felt disingenuous. I knew my teachers, I knew THEY thought of men as astronauts, not women, so it felt like they were trying to pretend they were something they weren’t, and expected me to believe it, you know? But maybe that’s what culture has to do – sort of ‘fake it till you make it’. I don’t know.

    • I noticed the same thing as a kid. I didn’t feel empowered when I saw gender/cultural stereotypes so conscientiously overturned in educational materials. It depressed me, because it said the people who wrote the books felt it was necessary to do the whole smiley propagandistic song and dance just to convince me of my equality. I saw it as yet another under-handed collusion with the status quo. Lucky for me, the only effect it had was to convince me even more firmly that my capabilities had nothing at all to do with what people thought I was capable of.

      It’s impossible to fool a kid. That’s the main thing grownups forget about being one.

    • To me, it’s not so much a question of what offends as it is a question of what terminology causes the groups referred to, to feel like the terminology includes them and identifies them in a way they like to be identified. Maybe? I don’t know, I just thought of that now. I think I’d have to consider it more before I decide under what circumstances terminology should get changed. Certainly some group has to have strong feelings about changing it to get the ball rolling.

      I never had that thought when I was a kid. I noticed that the textbooks were doing that, and I knew it was on purpose, but even if it’s disingenuous, the alternative is worse. Either they consciously make the effort to help kids feel like they have all the possibilities as kids of different races/gender, or they don’t bother with it because kids know what the status quo is, and they make all the astronauts white males. I’d far, far rather they bothered.

      • I also, notably, am not recommending that we STOP doing it – at some level, there must be a temporary unnatural, awkward period when language or culture shifts (take the awkward phrasing around what we call a homosexual’s partner – why does it feel so strange for people to just say ‘husband’?). Just that, to build on what Ms Trapunto said, I always felt… well not condescended to, but embarrased like I was condescending to people who weren’t priveliged white males – which, after all, when you look at it, shows that at some level, I was identifying my ethnic and gendered position as a group to which I belonged and others did not. It’s a difficult thing, The problem is that, working at an ed publisher now, I can tell you that there isn’t actually a great deal of respect or genuineness aronud these things. There’s a sort of vague collective guilt at times, or else the whole affair is just a big joke or a meh-whatever. A set of pantone swatches that shoudl be applied in equal proportion. But, it’s a difficult thing to balance, because even if grownups are not ready for it, children are ready to learn that we’re all equally worthy and able, so we must teach it, even if we do it rather awkwardly. I don’t know, it’s a muddle :/.

      • I’d rather they bothered, too, Jenny. Was (obviously!) a petit pessimist, so only saying it is a conundrum for educators. If I have any reasoned objection to the old cheery color/gender/disability blindness, it is merely that it felt like no one wanted to acknowledge it was still logistically harder for certain groups to buck popular expectation and do certain things. It would have been nice to have been prepared for the possibility of a struggle.

        Perhaps that has changed in the last 20 years, but I was actually shocked when I encountered real-life chauvinism in college. I had known it existed, but not really understood it existed *for me*, who wasn’t trying to be an astronaut or anything. I hadn’t anticipated the forms it would take. This is part of why I loved E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks so much. A gap in my education was filled retroactively, and I was tickled to think of 14-year-old girls reading it.

  24. here’s something I recently heard: the word for Holy Spirit in Aramaic is feminine. When it got translated into Greek, it became neuter. When it got translated into Latin, it became masculine.

    Just one more reason to support gender-neutral languages!

    • Oh, fascinating! I never knew that before, but it doesn’t surprise me–either that people conceived of the Holy Spirit as feminine in the first place, or that the Latin translators made it masculine.

  25. I don’t really feel strongly when the average reader is referred to as “he” and humanity is referred to as “man”. It just doesn’t bother me or make me feel excluded — I see as the definition of the word in certain contexts.

    I wonder, though, how I’d reacted to the “herself.” Would I have even noticed? Interesting post.

    • I wonder if there have been times in the past that I haven’t noticed, and if so, why this particular time should have struck me so strongly. I have no idea about it, though. Just one of those things.

  26. i love reading your blog. this cracked me up.. i can almost imagine your ice cream smile.


    i understand the gender language issue, but i think a better choice would be gender neutral, not a swap in gender. living with and dating a hardcore feminist for half a decade kinda killed all these subjects for me.

    now i just try to ignore it all.

    • Thank you!

      I pay attention to lots of gender issues, but this is the first time that I’ve felt really strongly about this particular one.

  27. I usually notice gendered language and it bothers me when I do see it. I strongly prefer gender-neutral language (or the subversive “she” as default) and try to always use it in my own writing.

    • I think I probably notice about half the time, and mostly when I do notice, I kind of blow it off because I recognize that it’s a nuisance to do the work-arounds necessary for bias-free language. But I think now it’s worth people’s time.

  28. Pingback: Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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