The Thinking 

The Psychic Damage Inflicted by Male Pronouns

May 12, 2011


CONNOISSEURS of feminist scholarship may be interested in this 1994 interview by staff of the National Council of English Teachers with Kate Swift, the editor and writer who was author of The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing and who was a major force in inducing mass guilt and confusion as to the use of male pronouns.

Ms. Swift, who helped popularize the address of “Ms.,” died last week at the age of 87. Her major works, including Words and Women, were co-authored by her partner of many years, Casey Miller. Presumably, they were lesbians. They argued that the English language had “relegate[d] the female half of the species to secondary status.”

Ms. Swift and Ms. Miller recommended that “genkind” be used instead of “mankind” and that “tey,” “ter” and “tem” be adopted as sex-neutral substitutes for “he/she,” “his/her” and “him/her.” The New York Times glowing obituary of Swift provides an overview of their works. 

The use of male generic pronouns inflicts psychic damage on girls and women, Ms. Swift and Ms. Miller argued. They wrote:

The penetration of this habit of language into the minds of little girls as they grow up to be women is more profound than most people, including most women, have recognized; for it implies that personality is really a male attribute, and that women are a subspecies. (Women and Words, p. 19)

The authors’ recommendation for sex-neutral pronouns never caught on. Human beings have a hard time speaking in terms of non-sexed individuals. We can’t even envision such a thing. Given that we naturally instill some sense of the real human being in our generic pronouns, it makes sense that the male is used generically rather than the female. Masculinity is more objective; the female, more personal and subjective. The social consequences of referring to men as women would be more noxious than the social consequences of referring to the female as male.

The clarity of the English language, its logical force and expressiveness, is a gift. Feminists such as Ms. Swift (may she rest in peace) have done much to destroy gratitude for this inheritance and to portray it as a misogynist conspiracy. Their real message is that if  the language had been less masculine, there would have been female Beethovens and female Shakespeares. They can always point to the ongoing use of male pronouns as a suppurating wound on the female ego. Envy and pride motivate this view. In fact, the confusion and guilt that have resulted from their tampering are far more serious than any insecurity that may have come to women from the use of male pronouns. Besides, anyone who really wants to accomplish something will not let pronouns stand in his or her or “ter” way. The language police imagine women to be far daffier and vulnerable than they really are. These rogue scholars are the true misogynists.


                                    — Comments —

John E. writes:

Regarding those who seek to neuter pronouns, you pointed out that envy motivates the view, which I think is an important thing to point out. In formal addresses and documents, whenever the male pronoun is used, unless it is purposely made clear, there is always some ambiguity as to whether the speaker is talking about just men, or both men and women. However, there is never such ambiguity for the female pronouns. Whenever the author or speaker uses she or her we are always certain he is speaking of a woman. 

Why shouldn’t these feminists consider this a distinguished privilege for women? But they never see it this way.

Laura writes:

Great point!


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