Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gender in Writing

There have been a number of very well written blogs on care, justice, and forgiveness recently and I feel that as important as these subjects are, there isn’t much I could add to the discussion that hasn’t already been said. Therefore I thought I would write on an unrelated, but hopefully still pertinent topic that often comes up when I am writing papers: namely, those situations in which I must choose a gender for the pronouns that I am using. For example, when writing about a generalized student in my philosophy of education paper I had to choose between simply “he” or “she,” or the more inclusive but certainly more awkward “he or she.”

It’s definitely prime paper writing season here at Rhodes so hopefully others have been thinking about this as well. The internal debate that I often have, and maybe others do as well, is between style, which favors picking a single pronoun and sticking with it, and the desire to be inclusive, which mandates that I treat both genders equally. More often than not, I end up erring on the side of inclusiveness, but I always feel that this inevitably interrupts the flow of my writing, especially when I must write “he or she” multiple times in a single sentence.

This awkwardness seems particularly evident when I consider the work of accomplished writers. As a history and philosophy double major I spend most of my time reading books and essays written by men who have been dead for centuries or even millennia. These writers, as was the style of their time, often refer to humanity as “mankind” and to people as “men.” Granted, such terminology is clearly the product of the sexism of the age in which it originated, but even so, it has a certain rhetorical appeal. There seems to be something more grand and moving to Neil Armstrong’s declaration of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” than there would be had he said, “one small step for a human, one giant leap for humankind.” In my opinion, the appeal of this outdated terminology comes precisely from the fact that it is outdated; it recalls the work of the great writers and orators of history, which we admire for obvious reasons.

Still, recognizing the sexism inherent in such language, I strive to make my writing as gender neutral as possible. I am very curious, however, to see how others on the blog deal with this problem.


  1. I'm glad someone finally voiced difficulties similar to mine for this blog: Much of what could be said has been said. While utilizing these conceptual frameworks to dissect external issues in some novel manner is what I assume Prof. Johnson expects from us, little progress can be made without reiterating the points already made on the blog or merely regurgitating the content of our readings. Many feminist interpretations of the lives of famous persons, of which I am inclined to pursue, have been completed long before my foray into feminist philosophy. Any mention of them seems forced or redundant, though serving the purpose of directing others' attention to them. Perhaps that is enough for our purposes.

    I almost began a similar post on the subject of gendered pronoun usage, but I couldn't effectively relate it to our readings in a substantial way. My introductory example would have been a dusty text from the library entitled "The Mental as Physical" by Edgar Wilson (who seems to be otherwise unknown.) While Wilson sometimes mentions "women" in dealing with metaphysical issues, the gendered pronoun of choice is always masculine. I become uneasy in light of such consistency.

    Consistently gendered pronoun usage when referring to generalized others has become an issue for me in my writing as well. The more essays I compose, the more imposing the problem becomes. As you said, the use of more inclusive forms often becomes, stylistically, awkward or unwieldy. Perhaps alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns for this purpose is all we can do, other than counteracting predominantly masculine pronouns with predominantly feminine. Richard Rorty attempts to avoid this problem in "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" by footnoting his concerns upon using his first masculine pronoun to refer to the generalized other, "Terms such as "himself" and "men" should, throughout this book, be taken as abbreviations for "himself or herself," "men and women," and so on," (Rorty, 4). Is such a "remedy" sufficient?

  2. Colin- I really liked reading your post. It seems like such a small issue whether we use the pronoun "he" or " he or she" for the sake for gender neutrality. However, I think you bring attention to a very important point that needs to be considered seriously. My English teacher in eighth grade always made a huge deal about using just " he" in paper because she always said that we were eliminating women from writing and literature as a whole. I don't think we need to go to that extreme but even though it is horribly wordy to say " he or she" in papers- it seems like a small yet important step toward properly acknowledging women.

  3. Kevin,

    Thanks for such an extensive comment! I have to admit that I have used Rorty's method before, although, as I'm sure you've considered, one could very easily argue for the use of "herself" and "women" as an abbreviation for "herself or himself" and "men and women." Sometimes I almost feel that it is my duty to favor female pronouns to make up for the gross imbalance. This is a tricky subject...

  4. Colin, your post has been one of my favorite throughout our whole blog. One of the best aspects about it is the fact that it was written by one of the few males in our class. It shows your active attempt to create equality in your actions as well as your written work. I feel this displays the two fold idea that comes from saying something and following up on that idea. It is easy to act one way to please the majority or to be "PC" about something, but the important part is to incorporate the idea of women equality into your daily activity. Another aspect that makes paper writing so unique is for the most part professors will be reading your papers, and probably not going to criticize whether you use "he" or "he and she."


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