July 29th, 2006
On several occasions I have been asked why I use she, her, or herself as the third-person singular in a generic situation. I’d say generally, the people who ask me have been male and quite indignant about it. The women who ask me seem quite pleased. And this is the effect I hope to achieve: a pleasant surprise for women and a slight discomfort for men.
For those of you unfamiliar with the problem, unlike Chinese and some other languages, English has no gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. Some have proposed using they as the neutral singular pronoun (even though it’s plural and not singular) with the rationale that that’s the way it used to be, and it won’t offend anyone. Others have proposed combining words to be hey or heyself or heesh. Still others suggest alternating between he and she or using the bulky he or she (when I’ve felt the urge to do so, I always write she or he).
When I was an English teacher, my department head was quite insistent that he must always be used, and it was the correct thing to do. She may have feared as a strong woman (which she was) that she might come off as some kind of “feminazi” should she instruct her students to do otherwise. After all, when I taught about racism, I always feared my students perceiving me as some “angry minority” with a personal agenda.
Being in a majority or privileged group leaves you a great responsibility—you have the power to advocate for those on the receiving end of injustice without seeming self-serving. As a straight person, I advocate for gays. As a male, I advocate for females.
That said, even if I were female, I think I would still use she to refer to the generic third-person. Using he allows women to continue to feel left out while not challenging men in any way. When I use she, I’ve never gotten any objections (either spoken or gestured) from women I’ve spoken to, and I’ve caused some men to think about the fact that he might leave women feeling left out, just as these men feel left out by my using she. The “leaving out” is entirely for effect and to cause people to think. It is not intended as some ultimate master plan. In the ideal world, one would use neither he nor she. The same medicine that can cure you when you’re sick can kill you when you’re healthy. The measly few times I’ve been able to say she do not even begin to match the number of times women are constantly bombarded with he in person and in writing.
While I do believe that justice means treating people equally, I don’t believe that—in the face of injustice—treating people the same brings about justice. If men truly believe he does not leave women feeling left out sometimes, they should have no problems with me using the word she.
I’ll end with a quotation from Minda Zetlin’s article “He Said, She Said”:
A letter to The New York Times Magazine years ago perfectly debunked the notion that “he” could be a man or a woman by proposing a sentence that went something like this: “As the average American prepares for work in the morning, tying his tie or pulling on his pantyhose, he may wonder what the day has in store.”
That makes the generic “he” sound silly, but I believe it’s dangerous, too. Girls who see that a president or an accountant is always referred to as “he” may get the idea that those jobs are not for them.
You can read her full article on page 8 of this PDF.