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Words Matter: The Feminine Personal Pronoun Reveals Herself

April 8, 2011

Jan Sidebotham, K'79, from the 1979 Funny Book

While writing a philosophy of education statement for work recently, I found myself facing lots of pronoun/antecedent issues.

Here’s what I mean: I’d write a sentence like, “Even if a child doesn’t like their [his] teacher, they [he] like[s] the experience of feeling safe and valued.”

The problem is that the sentence is grammatically incorrect because the antecedent – child – is singular. The pronoun should be singular, but our third-person singular pronouns are gender specific (he, she, his, her, etc.). That reminded me of the Kirkland College catalogue, and why words matter. The singular pronoun was always feminine.

“Every student should meet with her advisor to discuss her concentration requirements.”

I’d never read anything that used the singular pronoun that way. It had a subtle but powerful effect. That sentence, this catalogue – they were written for me! It made me think of the pervasive but somewhat ignored male dominance in my life. In every other context, that sentence would have read, “Every student should meet with his advisor to discuss his concentration requirements.” I would have understood that the pronoun he included me, but it included me as an afterthought, sort of like “Oh yeah, girls can play, too.”

At Kirkland, though, I wasn’t an afterthought. I was the targeted audience.

Professor Wagner, from the 1978 Roots in the Glen yearbook

The sense of importance this kind of thoughtful writing gave me was underscored by an experience I had in one of my Hamilton classes. I was taking Restoration Comedy with Fred Wagner (a wonderful person, by the way). We had taken one of those blue book tests; we’d had to write several essays. Before handing back the tests, Dr. Wagner said something like, “I want to read some of your classmates’ work to you, so you’ll know what a good essay is.” He didn’t tell us who had written the essays, but mine was one of them. When he finished reading each one, he’d ask the class, “Now what do you think is good about this essay?”

The only specific observation I remember is that someone thought it was thorough. What I remember most sharply is that there were several comments and each one referred to the anonymous writer (me) as he or him. It was sort of surreal to listen to people talk about me and my writing and refer to me as a man. There were three women in that class of 20, so maybe it makes sense that students would use the male pronoun. I still think that someone a little more observant might have said “he or she.”

Kirkland's catalogue, in which the feminine personal pronoun was queen

As I look back, I’m keenly aware of the juxtaposition of my feelings. While Dr. Wagner’s choice of my essay made me feel good, my invisibility to my classmates made me feel . . . invisible.

I don’t include the anecdote about the English class to throw criticism at the other students. It’s just that women don’t often get the chance to feel so strikingly what the pervasive use of the masculine pronoun can do – make women somewhat invisible.

Every piece of writing the Kirkland institution produced — course catalogs, admissions and alumnae publications, flyers — used the feminine pronoun. As if I’d had a dose of vitamin D on a string of sunny days, I felt more immune to self-esteem issues in a world that didn’t always value women. Kirkland taught me that women — and words — matter.

Jan Sidebotham, K’79

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie Halporn 'K78 permalink
    April 8, 2011 9:10 am

    The pronoun “thing” is so frustrating–I just finished working on a Judo promotion handbook, and spent hours trying to get the language gender neutral…I am lucky in that we use Japanese words for the person doing the technique and the one receiving it –I used those terms as much as possible

  2. Kirkie '74 permalink
    April 8, 2011 10:08 pm

    When I was first ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister in 1978 our hymnal used all male terminology. Since then it has been revised ( and revised) to be more inclusive. One particular Sunday long ago when I was stuck with the old hymnal I was guest preaching . I asked the congregation to use the words “one” or “they” in place of “he” for the responsive readings. After the service was over, I was angrily approached by an older women who asked me who was I to request any changes in terminology?
    Somehow, I dredged up an old Kirkland anthropology class and talked to her about how what we say informs how we think. Your mind is molded by your voice. We proceeded to have a calmer,polite conversation although neither of us really convinced the other.
    All that being said, I still struggle with “they”,”one”, “he/she”,”hers/his” in anything I write or say. Some things have changed, the language struggle which really underscores our identity wars isn’t over yet.

  3. May 7, 2011 9:23 pm

    I just started reading “The Information,” a wonderful new book by James Gleik. In the prologue, on page 10, this sentence jumped out:

    “Not only is the observer observing, she is asking questions and making statements that must ultimately be expressed in discrete bits.”

    He’s not referring to any specific individual – everyone named in the paragraph is male. I felt like the author not only wished to acknowledge his female readers, but perhaps to nudge others, and waken their perception with a deliberate choice of words. This is, after all, a book about how we create and receive meaning.

    So it’s not always about gender equity, but also about becoming aware of our habits of thought. If the feminine pronoun can be used to jolt one’s consciousness, let’s have more of it!

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