women and men (was Re: Hey, take it easy!)

Subject: women and men (was Re: Hey, take it easy!)
From: Matt Hicks <matt -at- UNIDATA -dot- UCAR -dot- EDU>
Date: Thu, 17 Nov 1994 13:01:40 -0700

Well, I'm sitting here holding down a chair (but I'm not a chairman :-)
at the supercomputing conference in DC and I have mucho tiempo to kill,
so I thought "why not bludgeon it" by once again joining the debate
over he/she/it/they/those-wombats-right-there.

On Thu, 17 Nov 1994, Nancy Hayes wrote:

> RE: sie/hir.
> This is one I can't force myself to use. It grates on
> my nerves even worse than using a singular "they".

I can't see this taking hold in any area beyond electronic communication
until the day when %80-90 of the English-speaking world is regularly
using an online service. At that point it may well start to be widely
used in speech as well.

> Oh for the good old days when a generic "he" was
> acceptable (anti-PC comment for the day).

I guess I must be a radical male feminist. Those were only the good old
days for writers. Eradicating the generic "he" is not a movement of
"political correctness", as that term is most often used today, with its
undertones of oversensitivity and change where no change is needed. It is
a movement aimed at rectifying a situation in which the female half of
the world's population is virtually invisible in written English.

I grew up reading the generic "he". And every mental actor I created based
on that generic "he" was male. I suspect the same was true for many of my
female classmates. This meant that every person who *did* anything in the
books we read was a boy or a man, unless we were presented with a specific
female character. It is not hard for me to believe that this not-so-subtle
discrimination could affect the social and emotional development of
children. It is also not hard to believe that that effect would be more
positive for boys and negative for girls.

I know that I still find it jarring when a possible generic "he" is
replaced with an intentionally nongeneric "she". Jarring because as soon
as an unidentified actor appears in the reading, my brain gives them a male
persona by default. I hope if I ever have a daughter that she does not
have this problem and that the books and magazines she reads at least
allow for a female presence.

> has anyone found a solution to this problem that
> isn't more awkward than the problem? -- Nancy (nancyh -at- pmafire -dot- inel -dot- gov)

I think Nancy's question both underestimates the seriousness of the
problem and exaggerates the awkwardness of using "they" as a solution.

NO. Obviously the choices are very limited. No one is going to come up
with some magic solution that isn't going to take some getting used to.
What I don't understand is why we are perfectly willing to let "he"
represent both someone we know to be male ("I talked to Fred and he isn't
going") and someone of unknown gender ("when the player gets the blue chip
he should throw it at the spoon"), but we are so averse to letting a word
("they") that is already perfectly comfortable including men and women
("windborn garbage started to land on the wedding party and they all ran
for cover") handle that duty for the plural and the indefinite singular
("someone shot at me, but they only managed to wound my cat"). The latter
seems like much less of a stretch, yet it causes so much more squirming.

Unfortunately, it seems that many writers and editors operate from a set
of hard-wired rules, and there is no way to reprogram them. I know that
there are people on this list who still think that you should never split
an infinitive or end a sentence with a preposition, and they will
gleefully create a twisted, contortionist's dream of sentence rather than
slap a hunk of one of these sacred cows on the barbecue of change (I know
that was really awful, but it sure was fun :-).

> PS: PC-language sunk to a new low a few weeks back.
> I was editing a document where the author used "chair"
> and gave the man's name. I thought if we knew the
> person's gender it was acceptable to say chairman or
> chairwoman?

If you can accept the use of "chair" when the person's gender is unknown,
why can't you accept it at all occurrences? If it's a good word, it's a
good word. Not even close to a new low.

> PPS: Another one that "ranks" right up there w/
> sie/hir is womyn. Any comments?

"Womyn" represents an extreme, to be sure. I wouldn't use it unless I was
writing for a magazine where it was the house style (although I doubt
such a magazine would use many male writers), but I'm willing to let them
have it. It is a word that communicates much more than the word it

Matt Hicks, Tech. Writer, Unidata * I may not agree with what you
Boulder, CO, (303)497-8676, ******* say, but I'll defend to the
matt -at- unidata -dot- ucar -dot- edu ************* death my right to mock you.

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