CBC: Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?

CBC is asking the question, “Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?”  Citing Sweden’s addition of a gender-neutral pronoun to the National Encyclopedia and a news story last year about a Toronto couple who wished to raise their child genderless until the child decides, and asks:

Do you think language should be gender-neutral? Why or why not? Or, is this going to far in the quest for equality between genders? Does changing the language make a difference?


Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly oppressed by “she.”  The only times I was ever close to being oppressed by “she” was before my transition, when people would use it to mock me, and try to undermine the masculinity that I tried to put on in order to avoid drawing attention to myself (obviously unsuccessfully).

But I’ve also known several people who do experience oppression by being forced into “he” or “she” or thrown into some worse (“it?!?“) box when the first two don’t adequately fit.  I know some who use zie and hir, and a couple who prefer a singular they.  That’s cool.  I sometimes have a problem with remembering, but otherwise, I do my best to respect that.  There’s a level of experience there that is beyond mine, and I recognize that I have privilege here, so I can afford to cede to and honor someone else’s wishes on this.

The question goes a little deeper, though.  Are “he” and “she” part of a larger colonial hegemony that divides men and women in a most fundamental level of language in ways that we don’t recognize because we’re so used to thinking about them as “normal?”  That’s a profound question, and I really don’t know the answer to it at this moment.  It’s worth thinking about, and digging deeper.

For the moment, I’d be glad to see a widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun in use, provided it doesn’t get forced on anybody.  I’m still comfortable with “she” and probably wouldn’t use a gender-neutral alternative, unless that hegemonic question led to some unexpected epiphany.  But I’m glad to see some recognition building that pronouns can oppress and do oppress at times… and questioning ways to change that.

8 thoughts on “CBC: Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?”

  1. I’ve written a long reply to this, I hope you do not mind the converation but you really reminded me of my experiences with this topic:

    You know, I grew up in a family of four girls, at the top of a steep cul de sac where there were only girls (and a big pack of us) and I had no cousins whatsoever. I didn’t really get to know any guys to speak of, and avoided them at school for the most part. Even my dad was in the middle of the spectrum in his behaviours, though not in his partriarchal defaults, funnily enough.

    I only tell you this to provide context for this comment, I assure you.

    At college one year I happened to attend a lunchtime discussion for women about the use of inclusive language in academic writing (this was 1992) because I was curious about the discussion. Many of the women were pretty adament that they felt excluded when the paper was, by default, written using the pronoun “he”.

    I protested, saying that really, it was up to the individual to include themself, whether in conversation, reading or whatever, that it was implied in an historical understanding that the term indicated, in many cases, men and women.

    Finally, because I can be quite dogged about an opinion (less so, I hope, now) one of the facilitators said to me, These women are telling you their experience, not asking you to tell them how they should feel.


    I immediately adopted gender inclusive language and experimented with different forms, because I wanted women to feel included in what I write.

    A few years later, I was working in Hong Kong as a writer, and considering returning to North America to finish my degree. I was in that dreamy stage of thinking about where I would *like* to go, and was reading an interesting package created by some students who had attended film studies at NYU.

    The writing was so good I could actually envision myself getting there, making a film, struggling with the things with which film students struggle. I marveled about how much I connected to the piece of writing.

    Suddenly, about half way through the book, I realised. The entire thing was written in the feminine. She.

    So even though I’d always thought I’d felt included in the things I had read that used the masculine pronoun, I now believe I didn’t. It was an incredible moment, both humbling and exciting.

    I now write in the “they” singular exclusively, unless I mean to write about a specific sex for good reason. I want everyone to feel included in things I write about, regardless of their gender. Unless, of course, they are slighted by my refusal to use “he” exclusively. Those people are welcome to skip what I read entirely.

  2. I need a “Like” button.

    Karen wrote:

    “Suddenly, about half way through the book, I realised. The entire thing was written in the feminine. She.

    So even though I’d always thought I’d felt included in the things I had read that used the masculine pronoun, I now believe I didn’t. It was an incredible moment, both humbling and exciting.”

    And that I suspect would be what’s probably at the heart of the hegemonic discussion (or at least a major part of it): being inclusive at the very foundation of our language.

  3. To be honest I am absolutely shocked that the conservative CBC is asking this question. I never thought I would see the day when they would consider gender neutral pronouns. I think that people who want to use he or she should be identified that way and people who want gender neutral pronouns should be identified that way. But yeah, good for CBC, again another comment I didn’t think I would ever say.

  4. I would be delighted to be interviewed on this subject. I feel strongly that a change is required, that is, that a gender-neutral pronoun be introduced into the English language, once and for all.

    This is not about treating people as genderless “until they decide”, and not about including trans-sexual/trans-gendered people (although I’m glad if they feel a gender-neutral pronoun addressed their issues too). This is about including the 50% of our population that is female. Culture defines our behaviour, and language is a large part of our culture. To constantly use a default “he” disregards the contributions of women in general, and feeds the idea that women are grudgingly included in every aspect of life. When I hear “policemen cordoned off the area” it makes invisible the contributions that no doubt many women police officers made (or did they check the gender of each police officer before they made that statement?), once again reinforcing the idea that police forces consist solely of men. I’m tired of women being the “invisible” gender. I believe that it will not be until we acknowledge that a company representative or a board chair can be someone of either gender, that women will be able to more fully participate in society and the economy. Surely the government would like women to rise to their full potential, considering the increased income tax revenue that would be generated?

    “He” is truly a false generic. Otherwise, we’d say things like “When the secretary smiled, I noticed his teeth were crooked.”, and ignore the role’s history of being predominantly occupied by women.

    I was saddened to read yesterday that the writers of “The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing” (of which I own a copy) have both passed away since releasing the second edition of this book in 1988. Sadly, Kate Swift, the last remaining of the two authors, died in 2011. I would have loved to ask one of them whether she thought we’d have better success at introducing a new pronoun this time around, 30 years after the release of the first edition.

    Let’s finally change our language to reflect that women, and men, can, and do, do anything they want. But to continue to say “the doctor, he” and “the nurse, she” does a disservice to everyone by perpetuating false stereotypes that limit what EVERYONE can aspire to.

    I’d love to share a key moment in the US primaries that so clearly exemplified to me how our language is totally outdated. Please contact me.

  5. i’d be ecstatic if more people used singular “they” rather than “he or she” simply because i’m neither a “he” nor a “she.” i’d love to be included a little more often.

    also, if gender isn’t relevant to the topic at hand, why even mention it? so people can make sexist assumptions? because we’re told that gender always matters? i think singular “they” would take the emphasis off gender.

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