Feminism causes the death of the English language

// 26 February 2008

One of the unexpected pleasures of reading right-wing tracts is the excuse to indulge in a heady few minutes of utopian fantasy. According to folk like David Gelernter of the American Enterprise Institute, the feminist revolution is a done deal.

In this case, Gelernter sets out how feminists have ruined modern English for sexists such as himself, with our ‘he or she’ and our ‘chairperson’. Encountering such a viewpoint is a refreshing change from the real world, where our language is absolutely permeated with patriarchal norms. Where the casual use of ‘he’ to refer to both men and women has been replaced with ‘guys’ (except when it hasn’t been replaced at all); words like woman or girl, and all those terms associated with being female or feminine, are seen as heinous insults; I could go on…

“College students and full-fledged young English teachers emerge from [a] feminist incubator in which they have spent their whole lives,” Gelernter asserts. If only it were true!

But his main concern, we are meant to believe, is not to return to a mythical time when men were men and women were women (and mended his socks), but the impact of feminism on written English.

How can I (how can any teacher) get students to take the prime rule seriously when virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite? When students have been ordered since first grade to put “he or she” in spots where “he” would mean exactly the same thing, and “firefighter” where “fireman” would mean exactly the same thing?

I am sure I don’t need to explain to a writer that fireman does not mean the same as firefighter – one could be either a woman or a man, and the other is a man, or perhaps a rare woman allowed by some quirk of fate or leftist politics into a job generally set aside for a man. A male firefighter is the default, a female firefighter the exception, we understand.

The column is riddled with telling phrases, such as this:

The fixed idea forced by language rapists upon a whole generation of students, that “he” can refer only to a male, is (in short) wrong.

Language rapists? What better phrase for those pesky feminists and their silly insistence on consent!

Even Gelernter doesn’t believe that one pronoun can stand in for men and women, though, as becomes clear when he describes his reaction to hearing ‘she’ used in exactly the way that ‘he’ supposedly is:

At the bottom of this junkpile is a maneuver that seems to be growing in popularity, at least among college students: writing “she” instead of neutral “he,” or interchanging “he” and “she” at random. This grotesque outcome follows naturally from the primordial lie. If you make students believe that “he” can refer only to a male, then writers who use “he” in sentences referring to men and women are actually discussing males only and excluding females–and might just as well use “she” and exclude males, leaving the reader to sort things out for himself. The she-sentences that result tend to slam on a reader’s brakes and send him smash-and-spinning into the roadside underbrush, cursing under his breath. (I still remember the first time I encountered such a sentence, in an early-1980s book by a noted historian about a Jesuit in Asia.)

It’s tempting to quote this whole article:

Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone’s ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one’s whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway. Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose? Bargaining over the next word, shaping each phrase, netting and vetting the countless images that drift through the mind like butterflies in a summer garden, mounting some and releasing others–and keeping the trajectory and target always in mind?

Yeah, who cares! Misogyny makes for good copy, so go for it. Why not throw the n-word in that tricky paragraph a couple of times for good measure.

However, this is the most deluded paragraph of all:

The depressing trail continues one last mile. What happens to a nation’s thinking when you ban such phrases as “great men”? The alternatives are so bad–“great person” sounds silly; “great human being” is a casual tribute to a friend–that it’s hard to know where to turn. “Hero” doesn’t work; “Wittgenstein was a great man” is a self-sufficient assertion, but “Wittgenstein was a hero” is not. Was he a war hero, a philosophical hero? (Yes and yes.) “Wittgenstein was a great heart” (also true) can’t be rephrased in hero-speak, and can’t substitute for “great man” either.

Whatever fantasies anyone might indulge about ‘he’ acting as a gender-neutral pronoun, surely nobody could be as idiotic as to think that this is a comparable phrase. Was Jane Austen (almost the sole woman named in the column) a “great man”? Or are women simply incapable of achieving enough to qualify for this high praise? To answer Gelernter’s question, what happens to a nation when phrases such as “great men” fall out of favour, is that greatness is no longer narrowed down to a purely male attribute. Which terrifies men like him.

Comments From You

Laura Woodhouse // Posted 27 February 2008 at 12:25 am

neutral “he”?!?!?! Someone needs to take off their patriarchy shades…

Redheadinred // Posted 27 February 2008 at 12:53 am

The assertion that ‘He’ is neuteral is indicative of a society which believes that male is the default and female is somehow a derivative.

Which is actually the opposite of the truth, since all babies start female. This never fails to strike me as ironic.

Danielle // Posted 27 February 2008 at 2:02 am

“In this case, Gelernter sets out how feminists have ruined modern English for sexists such as himself, with our ‘he or she’ and our ‘chairperson’.”

Well you can’t argue can you, clearly ‘he and she’ and ‘chairperson’ are the sole reason for the decline of the English language, it has nothing to do with the (male-dominated) hip hop and rap scenes, or chavs, with their street lingo. It has nothing to do with the fact that language naturally changes over time.

No, it’s those pesky feminists. Those wonderful, all-purpose excuse providers. What would they do without us? More to the point, who would they blame?

Schneewittchen // Posted 27 February 2008 at 2:33 am

Hmmm…. well since crossing the Atlantic, I have come to realise how much Americans have impoverished the English language with their aversion to correct use of tenses, moods, adverbs, adjectives, articles, past participles, oh and actual meaning of words.

In the New Scientist a few weeks back, there was a tiny snippet about how use of ‘they’ to mean either gender when it is non-specific, can be seen in literature as far back as 1526.

Lauren O // Posted 27 February 2008 at 4:44 am

The assertion that ‘He’ is neuteral is indicative of a society which believes that male is the default and female is somehow a derivative.

Spot on, redheadinred.

Gelernter’s article makes me so mad I can barely contain myself. I can understand wanting to be stringent about grammar, but is there any reason why “firefighter” is completely unacceptable, but “fireman” is good to go? Is his problem that “firefighter” has one extra syllable? Because that seems like a dumb thing to get worked up over, while gender equality seems like a worthwhile thing to get worked up over. Even from a purely linguistic standpoint, isn’t “firefighter” more accurate and evocative than “fireman”? A “fireman” could be a man who’s on fire, or a man who sells fire, or any number of things. A “firefighter” fights fires. Done.

The point of being strict about grammar is to keep communication as accurate as possible, right? Referring to everyone with a general “he” simply isn’t accurate. I just don’t understand why it is more important to this man to insist on linguistic inaccuracy in the name of grammar than to believe in equal rights for all human beings.

Amity // Posted 27 February 2008 at 8:15 am

“Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose? Bargaining over the next word, shaping each phrase, netting and vetting the countless images that drift through the mind like butterflies in a summer garden, mounting some and releasing others—and keeping the trajectory and target always in mind?”

Oh, those pesky feminists and their female minds like butterflies, floating around all pretty-like, meandering and thinking about something other than how to keep the status quo in place. Don’t they know that they risk upsetting the realscholars who simply want to keep on their self-absorbed trajectories? You’d think they’d just acquiesce quietly and be thankful they’ve even been allowed to learn to read and write. Sheesh.

vibracobra // Posted 27 February 2008 at 10:50 am

“It has nothing to do with the (male-dominated) hip-hop and rap scene and chavs and their street lingo”

Er, you don’t have to publish this comment, but it might be a good idea in future to put a ban on racist and classist comments in future as well as anti-feminist ones, particularly containing the slur ‘chav’ and referring to the way working-class people talk as ‘street lingo’, and the current dominant type of black people’s music as ‘male-dominated’.

Besides, suggesting that either of these groups of people are male-dominated is the height of ignorance. I might make a comment about the huge positive influence of rap and and slang in general on language but I’m too enraged at the moment. In fact that comment was a much more virulent spit in the eye of working-class and black people than anything that pundit said was a slur against women.

Louise Livesey // Posted 27 February 2008 at 12:18 pm

Whilst I’d agree with the sentiment (that he is about as gender neutral as man or penis) I too have to take issue with the classed and raced nature of this comment. Chav is a perjorative term, used to deride and insult non-middle class cultures. It is also inherently insulting, as insulting as using the term Boy to refer to a black adult male, as it is the Roma word for a child. “Street lingo” is a way of denigrating non-mainstream styles of language which ultimately has the most effect on oppressed groups such as women, LGBT communities, minority ethnic/diasporic communities and the working classes.

Musical styles, diasporic communities and working class cultures have long added to the English language in positive ways. You’re entirely right, language does evolve and a large part of that is exposure to other communities and cultures which are not part of the middle-class (presumed) mainstream. Gelernter is fundamentally wrong in his elitist and static view of the English language. But to reproduce those notions of power over other oppressed groups is merely buying into the way in which multiple oppressions have been used to divide, rather than unite, oppressed groups.

Traykool // Posted 27 February 2008 at 1:56 pm

I would just like to add that I do not believe Chav is a term to describe anyone who working class. I am working class and notice the differences between chavy people and myself. I would say it is a chosen way of life.

vibracobra // Posted 27 February 2008 at 2:31 pm

Gelernter is attacking conscious academic attempts to make the English language more gender-neutral. That’s pretty reprehensible on the whole (although I giggled at the images drifting through his mind like butterflies through a summer garden. What a douche! Also, shut up about Wittgenstein you idiot, he wouldn’t have liked you). These turns of phrase can be awkward, they have their flaws and personally I try to change the structure of my sentences to avoid them rather than use them, because using ‘he or she’ can be a bit awkward, and I’m not a huge fan of ‘they’ either. But I still find both of those preferable than using ‘he’ all the time.

That’s one thing, and it’s certainly a very conservative view of language. But attacking oppressed people’s language and culture is worse. You can only really understand how much worse until you’ve been on the receiving end of it or seen close friends in that situation, being treated less seriously because they have a ‘chav’ accent for instance. (Of course, it’s not possible to attack women’s culture and language as a block, because women are spread out throughout many different cultures, so Gelernter is doing the next best thing).

It’s a bit mind-boggling to think that ‘chav culture’, if such a thing existed, would be male-dominated anyway, since the most well-known representatives of chavdom are Jade Goody, Vicky Pollard and Catherine Tate. In fact, it’s used as a slur against women more often than men if anything, for being loose and unrefined.

I just find it mind-bogglingly infuriating that there are so many critiques of sexism in rap and manga, and no critiques of sexism, classism and racism at the Proms, and that certain feminists will look at anything that’s not middle-class and decide it’s ‘male dominated’ and sexist.

As for what I was going to say about slang, Louise already said it.

vibracobra // Posted 27 February 2008 at 3:37 pm


Yes, but it is used exclusively of working class people or people with those characteristics. I’ve certainly never seen anyone self-apply it, and it’s almost always used pejoratively.

‘Slut’ isn’t applied to all women either, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exclusively applied to women, or that it’s a lifestyle choice. You might notice the difference between slutty people and yourself, but that would still be a pretty misogynist thing to notice.

Seph // Posted 27 February 2008 at 5:00 pm

Seems like someone’s just annoyed that he has to type a whole 4 more letters when he wants to write about firefighters.

I think your definition of ‘chav’ depends where you come from. I’m from a working class, mining background as is almost everyone in my hometown, there ‘chav’ is used, by both people who identify themselves as ‘chavs’ and others, to refer to people who have a racist, sexist and homophobic outlook.

As for ‘slut’ I don’t think that word would be considered offensive at all if more people used it to apply to both genders.

Fred Vincy // Posted 27 February 2008 at 5:20 pm

Well said, Jess. I might have saved the time writing this if I had found your post first….

Danielle // Posted 27 February 2008 at 6:08 pm

You’re right vibracobra, I was rather flippant in my comment and didn’t stop to consider exactly what my implications were, so guilty as charged.

But I’d just like to clarify a few things: I think the current dominant type of that genre of music IS male-dominated (and, thinking of MTV here, the mainstream versions at least are extremely sexist, “Supersoak/superman that ho”?) And as for it being racist, well I have to say, you’re the one who mentioned race. That had nothing to do with my comment, and the fact that rap and hip hop may happen to be the dominant forms of black people’s music has no bearing whatsoever on my critique of the genre.

Chavs, I’m not going to comment on because it’s clear to me that I do have rather an intolerant and stereotypical view on them, though this in no way reflects my attitute to class, being of working class origin myself.

I didn’t mean to sound as derogatory as I obviously did, I was in no way suggesting that “street lingo”, as I so (thoughtlessly) put it, was necessarily bad (although I still take issue with “bitch” and “ho”), I was just trying to make the point that many different groups of people have an affect on language, which, as I said, changes over time. It’s not purely feminists being pedantic.

But yeah, it was probably a mistake to use that tone of voice (metaphorically) and I will try to be more careful with my examples in the future. Sorry for any offense caused.

gb // Posted 27 February 2008 at 11:00 pm

This is the most ridiculous sexist thing I’ve ever heard. Language has to be all encompassing and I don’t want to see “he” all the time when I’m reading. It’s like being slapped in the face repeatedly as I try to get through a book. This article is nothing more than traditional misogyny coming from some old white man… natch. Guess what old white man… you are only a very small representation of our world. Get over yourself.

q // Posted 27 February 2008 at 11:40 pm


I can’t wait till the current US Administration is out of office so that people like this will have to put their bloviated opinions away (again) or face a little more public pressure.

Does anyone else feel like the sexists, racists, homophobes, and other demonizers of those who are not rich straight white men have been having quite the free rampage through the public sphere these last few years?

It’s the professor who seems to be lacking imagination here (or perhaps, as an instructor, he’s just plain lazy).

One can use s/he for the gender-neutral pronoun.

It’s NOT rocket-science.

james // Posted 28 February 2008 at 2:49 am

Once upon a time feminists took a very different view about the “neutral he”. There are wonderful c19 legal debates on the subject. All the voting legislation up until 1832 basically said men can register to vote. If men is (rightly) construed as neutral then there was nothing in law to stop women from voting. They actually replaced “man” with “male person” in order to try and deny women the vote.

dzho // Posted 28 February 2008 at 4:13 am

“Man is a mammal who nurses his young.”

pv // Posted 28 February 2008 at 2:28 pm

Pendantic point, but anyone who has read ‘Farenheit 451’ or remembers steam trains will be aware that ‘firefighter’ is not only more accurate term than ‘fireman’ (for reasons the blog gives) but is also a more precise one.

The term ‘fireman’ does not specify the relationship of the individual to the fire (do they put them out or start them?) ‘Firefighter’ does, so is surely an improvement, no?

kentuckienne // Posted 28 February 2008 at 4:56 pm

“Wittgenstein was a great man” is a self-sufficient assertion

What an utterly pointless point — of course it’s proper to describe Wittgenstein as a man. I’m sure he would have identified himself as such. I have no problem with the use of gender-specific nouns or pronouns to describe people of that specific gender. The problem, of course, comes when you’re describing roles or characteristics — “firefighter” is an excellent example, “nurse” is another — that are not gender specific.

Joshua Zucker // Posted 28 February 2008 at 6:24 pm

No discussion of sexist language is complete without a reference to Douglas Hofstadter’s “Person Paper on Purity in Language”, which takes all the usual arguments about generic “he” and transports them into a world where we have different pronouns depending on the person’s race rather than their sex.


sonikokaruto // Posted 28 February 2008 at 10:03 pm

i was gonna post what i thought and saw this:

This blog is a safe and friendly space for feminists and feminist allies. Debate and critique are welcome where it is constructive and deepens analysis or understanding. Anti-feminist comments will not be approved. We get to decide what’s anti-feminist.

Well, that pretty much sums it up. If you are only gonna let people say what you wanna hear, you are no better than the article that was written in the original link.

I mean, c’mon, what’s the point of argu-eing about something as trivial? why are you deforming something that worked just so that “you are taken into account?” It’s the fault of the language, not the fault of the people. In spanish they have ellos, ellas, but you refer to the group as either ellos if the majority is male, and ellas if the majority is female.

Please stop trying to fix something that is not broken, and please, post this comment, because if not, then you are not trying to make any difference and you just sound like hormoned up women, or woman, or girls whatever.

Laura // Posted 29 February 2008 at 9:31 am

“In spanish they have ellos, ellas, but you refer to the group as either ellos if the majority is male, and ellas if the majority is female.”

No – any mixed group, even if there is only one man and 1000 women, will be referred to with the male plural “ellos”. Spanish is a sexist language – the male is – like in the rest of society – the default and dominant.

The reason we have comment moderation which prevents anti-feminists from commenting is so we don’t have to waste time on twits like you who think you have the right to tell us what we should and should not fix, what we should and should not get angry about, what is and is not trivial.

So take your disgust at female hormones, your inability to see why calling grown women girls is offensive, and your patriarchal arrogance, and get lost.

Benjamin A'Lee // Posted 1 March 2008 at 1:59 am

I’m confused. Is anybody actually arguing against calling someone a great man, when it applies specifically to a single male, or to a group of only males? If the group contains both men and women, what’s so hard about saying “great men and women”? And if it refers solely to women, then saying “great men” is simply nonsensical.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 5 March 2008 at 11:33 pm

It’s kind of ironic that someone (Gelernter) who feels they have the right to lecture us about language use and Wittgenstein in the same breath fails to realise the political implications of language. Wittgenstein’s most famous work argues that language creates the reality that we live in. Thus, how we use language is hugely important and it must change to meet the needs of a society. The reason we changed from he to ‘he and she’ was to fundamentally change the patriarchal structures of society. To miss that point either demonstrates incredible naivete or a willful ignorance. You almost want to read his work as satire as in many respects forcing people to ‘think about feminist ideology’ when they write is the very purpose of that change, not an inconvenient bi-product.

“What happens to a nation’s thinking when you ban such phrases as “great men”?” You get a more equal society.

Have Your say

To comment, you must be registered with The F-Word. Not a member? Register. Already a member? Use the sign in button below

Sign in to the F-Word

Further Reading

Has The F-Word whet your appetite? Check out our Resources section, for listings of feminist blogs, campaigns, feminist networks in the UK, mailing lists, international and national websites and charities of interest.

Write for us!

Got something to say? Something to review? News to discuss? Well we want to hear from you! Click here for more info

  • The F-Word on Twitter
  • The F-Word on Facebook
  • Our XML Feeds