This is hardly a new observation, but I’ve been reflecting lately on how much easier and less painful many people’s lives would be if the gender dichotomy were not etched into our speech by the necessity of choosing between male and female pronouns when referring to a person. Not to mention all the other ways in which gender is a central axis of social organization. I’ve been wondering if it is possible to make the pronoun shift and whether it would help.  Feminists used to push for neutral pronouns, i.e. ve or ze, but that push seems to have died down. Should we try to rev this up again, or is it a hopeless cause? After all, for the majority of heterosexuals, the binary is a pretty important part of how we think of ourselves. Are there languages that do not mark the sex of a person being referred to?  From the common mistakes of Chinese speakers in gendering English pronouns, I’m guessing that Chinese lacks the equivalents, but perhaps Chinese marks gender some other way. Even if it does lack gendering in speech references, I don’t get the sense of that Chinese people are any less dichotomous in gender thinking than the rest of us. I know some languages (Japanese?) mark the sex of the speaker as well as the sex of the object, so it could be worse.

I also find that my intellectual understanding of the social construction of gender does not take away unsettled feelings about gender ambiguity nor are constructionist concepts necessarily helpful in being supportive of the identities and struggles of transgendered people.  Just to be clear, I’m not blaming other people for making me feel unsettled, I’m just commenting on how deep these feelings go.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

2 thoughts on “pronouns”

  1. English already has a perfectly good gender-neutral singular pronoun: “they”.

    On this subject, see e.g. the discussion in The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing by Miller & Swift (Chapter 2: “The Pronoun Problem”).

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