The male default, and why this excludes women

// 2 June 2008

It’s a shame that many people just can’t see why assuming men are the default excludes women, so I thought a short post on language would be a good reminder. Whether it’s the plurals always taking the male form, or writers presuming a male reader, this is pervasive. There is so much you could write about this, that I will only concentrate on a small part of, more as a reminder of why as feminists we need to examine how language can present problems than as an exhaustive. This is also more of a stream-of-consciousness post, so it may be more rough-around the edges than it should. If it comes across as more than a jumble of words, I’ll be happy. Any way, feel free to comment, and point out anything I seem to have missed or confused.

In language, some writers still use the male second person ‘he’ to refer to a general audience, for example: “It can be said that if the reader were to think deeply, he would consider this to be an exaggeration.” To me, this sentence is alienating. Yes, even after growing up in a society that aims everything at white men, assuming that everyone who is not one will have to like it and lump it, I still don’t feel included. I have never grown up being called ‘he’. Ever. Writing that assumes their reader is a ‘he’ is rarely written in a way that we can actually assume will be only read by men. Rather, it’s a throwback to the worse remnants of tradition that men mustn’t be insulted by not being addressed as men. To address any males as if they were women would be more insulting and alienating, we are taught, than addressing a majority of women as men. However, we’re not in the 18th century. Men are actually not fragile creatures who crumble if they are not directly addressed as men every time people are referred to.

It’s a poor excuse, as Richard Dawkins wrote in one of his books that some ‘feminist’ chastised him for writing ‘she’, because it was patronising, so sod it, just write ‘he’. Sorry, you can write ‘he or she’. And no, it doesn’t ruin everything, as some stuck-in-the-stone-ages sods claim. Those of us who have grown up with such innovative language don’t skip a heartbeat when we see it. If you hate using both, then occasionally use either gender. You can substitute ‘she’ for some examples and ‘he’ for others. Why not, nobody needs to assume the reader is always male in every example. Use ‘Zie’, if you think changing is too inconsistent. If that’s too newfangled for you, use ‘they’. If you’re too much of a grammar obsessive (I empathise), pick one of the above. But pick one. Show women that you have noticed they exist. We’ll thank you, believe me. Either way, there are many ways to try and be inclusive, by removing the repetitive focus on male pronouns. Not doing any of the above is sheer laziness, or more likely, an outright refusal simply because you don’t want to be inclusive. Neither deserves a pat on the back.

You also get the deluded souls who insist that phrases such as ‘mankind’ as in ‘man has done X’ or ‘Great men have done Y’ is inclusive, and totally not misogynist. The fact that ‘man’ has come to encapsulate many people who are NOT MEN, thereby masking their existence has never occurred to them. It probably wouldn’t, because many of the people arguing that these words are inclusive are men.

They are not. The words do not take parts that are male and female, and blend them. Nor do they take something that is neither, and can only used to refer to people in a non-gendered sense. They take words that focus on men. These words are like an invading army. They don’t live peacefully side by side with the other, they trample over it, masking its existence with their gendered association. They remind us that men have been controlling women throughout history, defining history (and no, I don’t see history as a gendered word, for crying out loud!) by silencing others not like them. They are a verbal reminder that men dominated over women, and that they don’t want to change that.

I don’t take the etymological roots of the word ‘man’ as proof of it NOW being gender-neutral. Yes, it originally was, but now, when we are referring to a single entity, the word ‘man’ is always used to refer to male person. We never use these to refer to a woman when we know her gender. Why? Because we see it as words designated to men. They are never neutral. The only reason we use them in a mixed gender context is because we as a man-centric society, cannot bear it if men aren’t recognised in a group. It’s not even about calling people all ‘women’. I can’t help but think that the people who have issues with using the word ‘humankind’, or ‘humans’, or ‘people’, do so because their maleness, their male-centric-ness is not being recognised and suitably flaunted. After all, none of the above words are coded female. They’re not taking away one’s manliness by grouping him in with ‘womankind’ or ‘women’. But they take away men’s special status as being the supreme group that everyone else fits around. And that is enough for people who conform to a male-centric society to feel that they are being erased.

These people insist that the word ‘mankind’ is not about men. To all these people, I say to you: prove it. Prove being referred to as if you are someone else is actually not denying your existence. Prove it by assuming the default instead is, unlike you (I’m assuming most of them are men), female. Ask people to refer to you, and the hypothetical reader as ‘she’. Refer to humans as ‘women’, and ‘womankind’. Instead of ‘great men’, say ‘great women’. If a word that most of the time is used exclusively for one group can be adequate for both, surely either will do?

Can’t do it, can you? You’ll go on about how you’re not a woman (what a thought! A woman!) and that the word ‘woman’ can only be used to refer to people who are, in fact women. It’s the same for me. It really is. No matter how many times you tell me ‘mankind’ is supposed to represent me, I still look at that little three-letter word at the front, and you know what, it isn’t me. Neither is ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ or ‘himself’. They’re not me. They never will be. Society has brought me up to answer to the label ‘woman’, the words ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘hers’ and ‘herself’ to describe me. We may have a discussion about what labels really say, and whether they are necessary, if you wish. That’s another long discussion for another day. But if I choose to keep the labels society has brought me up with, I and the other three billion like me, deserve to be represented. We don’t want invisible inclusion, to melt into a word designed around men.

I’m a human. The word ‘human’ connects us all, whether we have ovaries or testes, or neither, or both. It’s not perfect, because it has the word ‘man’ in it (and I’ll chalk this up to etymology, like the word ‘woman’), but it can always be used to refer to both men and women. Short of inventing new words for them all, I think ‘human’ is what I’m personally comfortable with. I appreciate that it is necessary when writing about problems people defined as women suffer, to use a word that encapsulates us, hence the use of the word ‘woman’. This is a complex issue, but I believe that if we choose to use any words already existing in common usage, we should properly use them. That is, male words only for men, not as words with which to mask the inclusion of women.

Don’t always put ‘his’ before ‘hers’ and try to pay attention to these things. Don’t frame maleness as being a rejection of all that is bad and female. Don’t’ frame femaleness as lacking all the positive points of maleness. These also assume male is the default. Men are courageous, strong and have a penis. Women are considered not strong, not courageous, and to lack a penis. We do not ‘lack’ male traits, because personality traits are not unique to a gender. We have strength, both of the kind seen as male and other kinds normally ignored. Next time, instead of framing it as lacking male traits, maybe turn it around. What if we said men lacked a uterus, or lacked breasts, or lacked ovaries? The focus on male gonads stems from the patriarchy. Whilst I don’t like focusing on either, maybe in the right contexts framing it in terms of being woman-centric will be a subversive way to demonstrate how male-centric society it. This one’s important in feminist discourse, because it’s tempting even as a feminist to frame things in male centric terms, without realising.

And whilst I’m at this, I’m not ‘a female’. I’m not a specimen, or nameless organism in an ecologist’s quadrat. I’m a woman, a person, a human who wants all of her rights, and wants rights for everyone else still owed theirs. Using the word as a noun rather than an adjective (‘a female’ instead of ‘female’) reads to me as if you’re appraising an animal. It creates a distance from their humanity. It’s clinical, and creepy. The use of these words as nouns is gendered, because it’s much rarer to see women calling men ‘males’ as if to herd them together as some amorphous group. Even the same men who usually sleazily refer to women as ‘females’ don’t refer to all men as ‘males’. They don’t refer to themselves as ‘a male’, and they don’t generalise about ‘all males’ or more importantly, don’t refer to their mates as ‘the males’. They don’t refer to a group of men as ‘males’ full stop. Men are still ‘men’ to them, when it comes down to it.

Whereas I have seen men refer to ‘females’ more times than I’d care to recall. And funnily, when they call women ‘females’ they’re even more likely to be either dismissive, or plain predatory, and I think this reflects the distance that the word creates from women’s humanity. Therefore men who are less likely to see women as fully human are more likely to call them ‘females’ and act as if they are some below par species good only for mating with.

So, people, here’s the deal. Women deserve to be included equally in mixed groups by not being masked by men. You realise, and probably admit that history has been very male-centric (even if you don’t agree with feminist views of how much inequality we still have left to battle). It is precisely because these words have been used historically to silence women, and to mask their existence that I don’t believe they refer to me. We want neutral words that can equally refer to both. And we deserve them.

Comments From You

BrevisMus // Posted 2 June 2008 at 7:41 pm

I use ‘they’ as much as I can (or in very formal academic writing, I stick things in the passive). I’m of the opinion ‘they’ is fine to use, given that once upon a time ‘you’ was only used for the plural but we’re all happy using it for the singular now.

I also use people/ person for generics.

One thing that winds me up is the use of ‘woman’ as an adjective (e.g. ‘a woman prime minister’). Female is the adjective, woman is a noun. I think people have become scared off of using the term ‘female’ in any context that they now use ‘woma/en’ erroneously.

Claire // Posted 2 June 2008 at 8:40 pm

Beautifully articulated. I might just print out this essay and insert it into the next book of literary criticism in which I as a reader am called “he”. I’m studying 20th century literature at the moment, but even some postmodern critics fall into the trap of the male default.

Jen // Posted 2 June 2008 at 9:14 pm

Cheers for this, I’ve been struggling how to explain this for ages!

SM // Posted 2 June 2008 at 9:42 pm

I mostly agree, but I personally don’t really have a problem with the word “mankind”, as it just seems to be one of those old word-root things(this is just personal preference though, and I can see the reasons for your objection). I’ve only got really bothered about when they just call humans “man”, because this seems to be specifically excluding women. That said, it’s only just occurred to me that in all those drawings showing evolution from monkey-type ancestors to modern day humans they only ever show men. Didn’t women evolve?

Jennifer // Posted 2 June 2008 at 10:43 pm

I agree with this post, and enjoyed reading it. Just one question, why does using “they” in the singular bother you grammatically? Nobody bothers about using “you” to refer to a person in the singular any more, and singular “they” is attested from a long way back..


JENNIFER DREW // Posted 2 June 2008 at 10:45 pm

Thanks Anne for this post. I have a huge problem with the generic term ‘mankind’ because it is constantly used when definition should always be humankind. But then mankind apparently becomes pregnant and produces children!! Yes, SM women did not evolve because illustrations on evolution always depict males so obviously women have never evolved. We are still apparently stuck in limbo!

Redheadinred // Posted 3 June 2008 at 12:35 am

Anne, this is the best article I’ve ever read on this subject. Hmm, well maybe on a par with that guy who wrote about ‘man/he/mankind’ as if it were ‘white/whites/whitekind’.

Schneewittchen // Posted 3 June 2008 at 3:32 am

There used to be a popular T-shirt here that showed evolution moving from an animal footprint to a male shoeprint to a female shoeprint.

I fully and wholeheartedly agree with all of the points about language. I think it’s immensely important and quite often feel like a complete weirdo nutjob for making a fuss about it.

Except that is, in the Church I attend, where the vicar refuses to replace the word ‘God’ with a pronoun and will only do so where she can immediately counter-balance using ‘he’ for God by using ‘she’ for the Holy Spirit (giver of life).

Juliet // Posted 3 June 2008 at 8:40 am

On the grammar note, the OED has for “they”:

2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).

The first references are 16th c:

1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 163b, Yf..a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt they omyt one verse or twayne.

1535 FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383 He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

which are both quite nicely gender-neutral (note “person” in the first one!).

So grammatically I think you’re A-OK with “they” for singular. I prefer it myself – find it less unwieldy than “she or he”.

IME the people who get really vociferouly wound up about “they” being ungrammatical are primarily using that as a smokescreen/excuse to avoid gender-neutral language. Also, as above, they are incorrect :)

Nice piece!

Saranga // Posted 3 June 2008 at 8:47 am

Thanks for that Anne. I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on why ‘female’ doesn’t sit well with me and I think you’ve just done so. Cheers!

Ledh // Posted 3 June 2008 at 8:50 am

I don’ really agree with this. This is difficult to change, language needs a lot of time to evolve. This really will require patience, as language is a habit. you don’t think about what tense you use anymore, and I believe that choice of words is the same.

however, I study translation and I was recently taught never to write ‘spokesman’ but always use the words ‘ spokesperson’ and the like, to avoid mistakes. :) I found it was fab that the (male) teacher thought of it and told us.

Rachel // Posted 3 June 2008 at 8:58 am

I come across this often when talking about God. Most people (that I know, who are christians) would acknowledge that God is neither a man nor a woman (as God created the sexes and so exists beyond them, men and women are both made in the image of God etc). However, God is always, always, always refered to as ‘He’. Mostly because its easier, because thats what the bible says, or because to do anything otherwise would require effort or create confusion. But I wonder, how much has our assumption that God is male (and therefore that male is normal) affected our understanding of the world and our understanding of the character of God (if we believe in God).

Cockney Hitcher // Posted 3 June 2008 at 12:43 pm

Rachel, that’s a good point.

I am a Christian and have had lots of conversations with Christians (and not just conservative ones, either), who simply *cannot bring themselves* to describe God as ‘she’, even though they are happy to proclaim their belief that God is neither male nor female.

I find it disturbing and indicative of a deep, underlying sexism that even reasonably egalitarian people are so averse to using female pronouns for God. To me, that aversion shows(whether they would admit it or not) that they ultimately believe that men are more like God than women are. Which, if you consider God to be omnipotent, omniscient, etc.etc., is a pretty ego-tripping-for-men thing to believe!!

The use of male pronouns and other (often capitalised) male descriptors such as ‘Lord’, ‘Father’, ‘Son’, ‘Brothers’ etc. must have a huge effect on how people view themselves, men and women, God and the world. I know they’ve had an effect on me and my relationship with religion.

Kathy // Posted 3 June 2008 at 1:26 pm

So, would strongly disagreeing with this somehow disqualify me from being female?

I don’t feel alienated by the default “he” (or, for that matter, by the default “she” that I see more and more often) or by being referred to as a man. I’d call myself a man. I don’t see how that contradicts me being a woman (both physically and psychologically). I am human, after all, and among the many dictionary definitions of “man”, the second is “a member of the species Homo sapiens or all the members of this species collectively, without regard to sex”. So would someone care to explain why is it wrong for me to call myself a member of my own species just because I do not possess the reproductive system of its historically dominant sex?

I just looked up the etymology of “man”, in order to check if the implication that it’s derived from the same source as “huMAN” is true (btw, it isn’t, the two have nothing to do with each other) and discovered something rather curious which contradicts what I had previously assumed:

“Traditionally, many writers have used man and words derived from it to designate any or all of the human race regardless of sex. In fact, this is the oldest use of the word. In Old English the principal sense of man was “a human,” and the words wer and wyf (or wæpman and wifman) were used to refer to “a male human” and “a female human” respectively. But in Middle English man displaced wer as the term for “a male human,” while wyfman (which evolved into present-day woman) was retained for “a female human.””

So there you have it. The word originally applied to all of us, but, if you will, the patriarchy has taken it away for its sole use. Well, I for one want it back! I do agree that “people” is a perfectly good default term for the human race, but “men and women”? Are we so weak and vulnerable that we need to be separated from the rest of mankind and given our own special mention? I personally don’t feel I am. On the contrary, I don’t feel comfortable with being told that I’m excluded from mankind – the term belongs to the whole species and therefore is mine, too, so I will resist attempts to take it away _again_.

Anne Onne // Posted 3 June 2008 at 3:12 pm

Brevismus, so true! Half the time it’s unneccessary anyway, but ‘female’ as an adjective is preferable any day. It just doesn’t work the other way around. You’d never say a ‘man president’, though you could say a ‘male president’, or a ‘male nurse’, if you were pointing out someone in an unusual gender role, seeing as people always assume presidents are male, so probably wouldn’t say ‘male president’… *eyeroll*

It reminds me of ‘political correctness gone mad’ stories. In some casesthey’re just about not having your unearned privilege, but in some, the issue doesn’t seem to have been very well thought about by whoever makes the guidelines, or at least, spokespeople and activists haven’t been consulted as to what is needed to support a minority. Hence you get people banning nativity plays or something relatively unimportant like that, and minorities having their real problems being ignored. It’s the same for feminists- nobody actually listens to feminists, or has a feminist on a show when they talk about gender issues or women’s rights, they just mention feminists, and speek for them. When there are discussions about gender and language, you normally get the pearl-clutching feminists-ban-any-words-with-his-or-man-in-them sob story about ridiculous words such as ‘mandatory’ or ‘history’, which I doubt any feminist ever demanded being replaced. Though I do like the word ‘herstory’ to highlight just how male-centric history has been.

That brings me to SM’s point. I personally don’t like ‘mankind’ because I feel ‘humankind’ would be fairer. It to me symbolises drawing a line between the past, where women were written out of history, and now, where we attempt to give women more of a voice, and more consideration. Maybe it’s because ‘mankind’ like ‘man’ is often used to refer to people in a general sense, but normally in contexts where female contribution has been historically limited. Etymologically, ‘mankind’ may be a sound word, but I feel it would be fairer to admit how male-centric history has been, and to try and put a focus on how we as a group of people have to move forward from that. I empathise with your not minding the word, though, since what we’re used to feels comfortable. It’s the reason I’m a bit leery of using words such as ‘Zie’ myself. I admire people who do, but I’m more comfortable with older words. I guess we have to work around people’s and our own desires to not change in all this. :)

And the evolution-man thing is definitely a good point! I think in part it may have to do with covering women’s bodies up because they are sexual and shameful (in the eyes of society), but it extends to medical diagrams, even. I find that even biology textbooks usually feature male ‘models’ of the body as defaults, with women only being used to illustrate the female reproductive system or breasts specifically. They are also usually white. So I’m always happy with seeing textbooks that have non-white diagrams, and diagrams where women’s bodies are used to illustrate something other than mammary tissue or ovaries. But it’s still far from equal. And I do think stuff like this and evolution diagrams does add up to othering women.

Jennifer, I personally use ‘they’, for singulars (after all, you’re referring to some person who may theorerically be female or male, or neither or both), but I have heard people complain that it’s ungrammatical. I wanted to highlight that even if you do consider it ungrammatical, there are plenty of other things you could use instead!

I do like my grammar generally, so I can sympathise with the importance of getting meanings accross exactly, but in this case, even if it is not grammatical according to some, I couldn’t care less. But if it is seen as grammatical, then I’m even happier! Less excuses! So thanks to Juliet for hunting that up. :D

Schneewittchen, that sounds like a really good idea. I do think in many cases it really isn’t essential to use a gendered pronoun, and using ‘God’ (or a name) wherever possible is another way of getting around that.

Ledh, it’s true, language does take time to evolve. But if people want to use a word, you’d be surprised how quicky it’s brought into effect, and how quicky it’s assimilated. The use of the word ‘spokesperson’ you mentioned (as well as the now common ‘he or she’) probably wouldn’t have been thought of if activists hadn’t complained about sexist language in the 60s/70s (and other times, I’m generalising) , and now it’s seen as mainstream, and people don’t fuss over it anymore.

We’re not demanding a sudden forceful implementation of getting rid of all words gendered, but a continuation of the thought that used to be put into these things. A lot of people seem to believe that whilst women’s rights activists were right to protest about these kinds of things in the past, everything’s fine now, and there isn’t as much of a focus on how language can still be a force for oppression as well as a tool for good. And in order for any changes to be brought into action, no matter how long they take, the reasons we want things to change have to be pointed out.

Rachel, that’s interesting. Mind you, you do get the types who insist that Adam was created in God’s image, and Eve was created from him, therefore that God was like Adam, and therefore male, they’re usually the type who only look for parts to excuse and justify misogyny, rather than to try and reconcile a dated text with newer beliefs of equality. A lot of people DO seem to imagine God as male, but I’d guess it comes down to the patriarchy. To me, it seems an extension of the male = normal thing, not the start of it. Since men wielded all the power even back then, it would have seemed natural to them to write their deity as a ‘male’ one, or interpret them as such.

Ah, and I forgot. I hate when people randomly refer to the other person’s gender out of nowhere in the sentence. I mean ‘ You need to get going, woman!’ or whatever. This isn’t really used in reverse as much (does anybody really say ‘man’ in that context!), and the word woman is used in this manner normally when the speaker, (usually male) is frustrated with the woman. I just think it’s unnecessary to refer to gender, particularly when this only seems to happen to women, and to me it reads as a put-her-in-her-place-she’s-just-a-woman dogwhistle, that isn’t that obvious, but is still on a subtle level meant to remind women of their status.

Thanks for all the comments. I thought the post was a bit fragmented, but it’s really meant to be a collection of points, so I guess it did the job. :)

Cockney Hitcher, I think you’re right. It’s all there, mixed up with everything. In some ways, we’ll enver be able ot experience what it might be like to be in a truly non-patriarchical society, since it’s so ingrained into culture and religion and how people percieve themselves and each other. It’s sad, but I guess we have to concentrate on improving what we can.

Kathy, it would make you human. We all have different things that set off our alarms, and different things we feel comfortable with, though I think we should always try to stick with what is safer, and try to offend less people overall. After all, one person not minding a behaviour or word (eg street harassment) is no excuse for the assumption that it should be a default, and that nobody else should complain. We’ll have to agree to disagree, since I don’t think I can agree with your reasoning, thuogh I don’t doubt the etymology. I knew that the beginnings of the words were gender-neutral, but for me, context trumps origins.

I personally feel it would go further towards equality if we acknowledged the male-centric past by making a specific effort to make language neutral, presicely because the patriarchy has claimed it and because of people’s assumptions. I don’t know if it can be reclaimed. I don’t personally see requesting use of words such as ‘humankind’ or ‘humans’, or use to ‘they’ as putting women specifically separate from the rest of people.

The patriarchy did claim a once neutral word, but it claimed it hundreds of years ago, and that’s a lot of history to try and reclaim the word from. I think it’s unusual to insist on the early roots of a word, when the context and use has been very different for hundreds of years, and I personally can’t see a reason for ‘reclaiming’ it when there are perfectly good words existing to refer to people.

When the default has been to ignore women, and to actually use the word ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ to not only refer to all people, but focus on the male aspects of it, and what ‘they’ have done, it does seem exclusionary to me. And I don’t feel that women who do feel words that ARE used to refer to men and men’s deeds and men’s interests, both historically and currently are ‘weak and vulnerable’ if they complain, or that it’s demanding special attention if we want neutral terms.

Asking that the word ‘man’ is not used to refer to everyone, and that the focus is NOT just on what men mostly do is not demanding to be ‘separated from the rest of mankind and given our own special mention’. Your points and reasons are valid, and food for thought, but I don’t like the implication that anyone who disagrees with you in turn is oversensitive.

Caitlin // Posted 3 June 2008 at 3:40 pm

Great post – it’s something I ended up arguing with my English class about the other day! A question set for Eng Lit a year or so ago referred to ‘mankind’ and ‘he’, forcing all the students to answer the question with the assumption that ‘man’ stands for all! Apparently I was the only one who saw the issue with it…

It’s great to see that ‘they’ is actually grammatically correct (thanks Juliet!) as that’s the argument I get quite a lot, and something which has bothered me personally too.

SM: read ‘Who Cooked the Last Supper? The Woman’s History of the World’ – it’s fascinating, brilliantly written, but also has a fair amount about evolution (and how men evolved to keep up with women…strange how that’s been ignored, huh?)

Rachel // Posted 3 June 2008 at 3:51 pm

I’m really glad someone else has noticed that men who refer to women as “females” are usually the type not to be trusted. It is dehumanising.

As for mankind/humankind, my own personal preference is for “humanity”. I just like the word better.

As an archaeologist, I’ve noticed that terms like “mankind” and “early man” are on their way out. The correct term for “early man” is “hominid/hominin” for pre-Homo species and “anatomically modern humans” or AMH to refer to Homo Sapiens Sapiens.

Steph Jones // Posted 3 June 2008 at 3:56 pm

Not only in writing does the ‘male default’ happen… I think that this can happen with someone presenting as ‘androgynous’ or gender-ambiguous also – irrespective of their actual sex. The default will always be to refer to a person as he/him/Sir/Mr.

Likewise, when communicating on the telephone, an ambiguous voice (actually, sometimes just anything other than a high-end voice!) is also met with Mr/Sir.

The ‘male default’ is another entrenchment of patriarchial society, religion, etc.

Soirore // Posted 3 June 2008 at 4:36 pm

I agree with this post so much. Unfortunately when I complain about masculine as default people often get “oh no she’s having another feminist overreaction”. I hate getting general mail/ emails to me saying Dear Sirs, I hate being criticised for writing s/he or her/ him, I hate being referred to as one of mankind. Grr

Anyway, it is not just default behaviour; it is persistently reinforced. I used to work for a local council, when it changed to Conservative a memo appeared stating that minutes of meetings should only refer to the chairman, not the chair, chairperson or chairwoman, even when the person chairing the meeting was female. There was lots of outcry and it was ignored by the, mainly female, people who minuted meetings. The union assured us that anyone who was disciplined over the use of Chairperson would have their full support. Of course nobody was. However, there were still many employees who couldn’t see the problem, who didn’t see why a woman might mind being referred to as a chairman. It was rather odd really. Oh, and this all happened last year, in the 21st century.

Kathy // Posted 3 June 2008 at 5:55 pm

Anne one – Iooks like I failed to make myself entirely clear (a relatively frequent occurrence, believe me). I most certainly _don’t_ have any problem with “humankind” or “they”: I do use them myself. It’s “men or women” when used to mean “humanity” as opposed to “humanity, and we’re going to be more specific about its sexes” that irks me; it’s like the “…and women” bit gets added on as an afterthought.

True, context does matter an awful lot. I tend to play with shades of context a bit when I’m trying to say something (trying to make words do what I want, not the other way around), which can lead to misunderstandings and overuse of inverted commas…

Agreed about agreeing to disagree, and I apologise if any offence was caused, it was not the intention. I do see your point, and I do agree with the general idea of the problems you address, it’s just that I disagree with the entire proposed solution. As you said, different people do have alarm bells set off by different things, doesn’t mean I think they’re oversensitive. Fair enough, some women feel excluded by the male default, they have all the right to do so, just don’t expect me to do the same.

On a slightly different note, I can think of several languages where the word for “person” is feminine and no male of the species ever bats an eyelid at applying the word to himself. Perhaps it’s an attitude we need to see more of over here, instead of “oh no, but I’m not a woman”?

Oh, and I do say “You need to get going, man!” in a “dogwhistle” sort of way, and so do some of my friends, although that’s just used between people who know each other well enough not to be taken the wrong way.

Jack Leland // Posted 3 June 2008 at 6:34 pm

I use “women” as do most males I know, and I use males instead of “men” quite often. I don’t think I have ever called a woman “a female” or heard any other than a very ignorant male say that. I am not sure how this fits into your framework here.

Anne Onne // Posted 3 June 2008 at 7:20 pm

Soirore, that’s awful! It really does seem that some people want to go out of their way unneccessarily to enforce this. Certainly, I’ve read the odd rant about ‘politically correct’ language, but it’s sobering to remember that these kinds of people are often in positions to reinforce the status quo, and that a lot of people can’t see why it might be offensive or alienating.

Kathy, fair point. I get what you mean about separating genders when a generic ‘humankind/humans/humanity’ would be best, and I agree that gender doesn’t always ened to be stuck in there.

And I empathise with your ‘shades of meaning’ admission. I have another problem – in my head I tend to rewrite the meaning of a word if it’s unsavoury to me, so I have to sometimes remind myself that many aren’t as liberal in their interpretations as I am, and remind myself what it generally means in a context. And trying to master language at a complex level is very difficult, and the internet is not a friend of nuance.

I didn’t mean to come at you full-throttle, and you’re obviously not a troll, so I respect your view and the reasons behind it. It’s just the tone of the end of your comment seemed a bit reminiscent of the kind of language that claims that those who disagree are the things you said you weren’t. I can see now that it wasn’t your intention, but I felt it important to point out that we all want to be careful to try and avoid the rhetoric of the Right, because it’s so insidious and a part of culture that we don’t always realise. It’s a bit of an automatic reaction to this kind of thing because of the kind of comments feminist spaces draw, which is why it’s good that commenters can reply and clear up misconceptions, and agree to disagree. So despite differences, I look forward to reading as many comments as you’d care to leave. :)

I do think some of the macho male posturing is unique to the West and English speakers, or rather that each culture has different ways of being patriarchical.

And I’m interested in the use of the word ‘man’ in that context. I supposed that some people used it, but I’ve hardly experienced every dialect or community!

Matthew // Posted 3 June 2008 at 8:12 pm


Thank you for a very interesting post. In his textbook on Game Theory, Martin Osborne includes an argument for his use of “she” exclusively as the third person singular pronoun. He cites a few psychological experiments that show the use of he is not neutral:

“a finding consistent with the observation that whereas people may say “when an airplane pilot is working, he needs to concentrate”, they do not usually say “when a flight attendant is working, he needs to concentrate” or “when a secretary is working, he needs to concentrate””.

And from the American Heritage Dictionary he quotes “Thus ‘he’ is not really a gender neutral pronoun; rather it refers to a male who is taken to be the representative member of a group referred to by its antecedent. The traditional usage, then, is not simply a grammatical convention; it also suggests a particular pattern of thought”.

I thought you might find that interesting.

Osborne’s approach reflects my own, so I’m interested to hear why Dawkins claims to have been told this is patronising.


I used to write “Dear Sirs” as opposed to adding Madam because I haven’t heard the word used in a positive (or neutral) light and forgot that Sirs was distinctly not neutral. I once sent an email to an academic department at a university and got a reply that, quite rightly, chastised me for using it. I now use “Madam or Sir” – I’m pedantic about alphabetical order – but I’m not convinced.


Katarina // Posted 3 June 2008 at 8:24 pm

“In language, some writers still use the male second person ‘he’ to refer to a general audience.”

Don’t you mean “third person”, Anne? First person is oneself, second person is “you”, “yours”, etc, and third-person singular is what the whole post is about.

Anne Onne // Posted 3 June 2008 at 9:00 pm

Matthew, that is interesting. I do think people don’t realise exactly how gendered our use of language (as well as language itself) can be, and that perhaps the subtlety of a lot of this is why people can dismiss it so easily. Then again many have no qualms about dismissing much more blatant sexism…

I can’t remember the specifics of the Dawkins quote(It was the Blind Watchmaker, I think, though the random word index in the back is unhelpful in my fishing for an exact quote), but it was something along the lines of ‘I did use ‘she’, but some feminist accused me of being condescending, so I stopped’.

Katarina, yes, whoops.Thanks. :)

Kathy // Posted 3 June 2008 at 9:27 pm

Anne One, that bit about rewriting the meaning of a word was pretty much exactly what was trying to say about myself, too. Also I suppose it’s appropriate to talk on the subject of meaning and context of words using a medium where it’s hard to get more subtle shades of meaning across (and I don’t like using emoticons, so that makes it harder still).

Here I wouldn’t get away with half the things I say in “real life”, since I often tend to use right-wing rhetoric, twisted and turned into a parody of itself and often laden with sarcasm. No way I could put that in writing properly.

Soirore, your Tory council seems to be trying deliberately to live up to the “nasty party” image! Not only are they limiting choice (grrr), they are not even limiting it to the most neutral term; nice way to make oneself look modern….

Alex T // Posted 3 June 2008 at 9:32 pm

I read a similar article last year, in which the writer managed to dimiss the whole ‘he’ thing by showing how ridiculous it is in one sentence:

“Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.”

Ha ha ha!

Jennifer // Posted 4 June 2008 at 11:35 am

Anne – I use “they” in exactly that way. My point was that in the second person we use “you are” to refer to one person or to many, and the plural is used instead of the singular form (which I believe was “thou”? It’s fallen out of fashion, anyway) even when we’re only talking to one person.

I just find it puzzling that people are fine with saying “you are” referring to one person but not necessarily the equally grammatical “they are”. To me, it seems exactly the same thing!

Anne Onne // Posted 4 June 2008 at 1:26 pm

Leigh, yes, it does sound impossible. The stories aren’t bad at all… ;) I think it’s so difficult because of the sheer amount of indoctrination we’ve ben subject to, and the fact that we’re used to most higher organisms we interact with having two genders. It’s there in our heads, and it’s almost like we can’t imagine a higher level organism without sexual reproduction! We should be beyond that…

I remember reading a book that managed it, called ‘the turbulent term of Tyke Tyler’, where the titular character was called Tyke the whole time, and you are meant to assume that all the japes and general mischief is being done by a boy, and then you find out in the last chapter that Tyke is short for Theodora, and it’s a girl. I remember really liking that twist. :)

Dave Bath // Posted 4 June 2008 at 1:40 pm

It’s long been unix culture (now dying out) to prefer “her” or “(s)he” or “one” or “the programmer” in man pages. Use of “he/his” is regarded as bad form. There were many olde jokes about “man pages” being one of the few allowable gender specific terms.

Indeed, not a few had scripts that munged documentation to alternate the gender of pronouns (so you could get “he thought herself a good programmer”)

Of course, you always had to be specific about the gender of cable connectors: e.g. “bugger… the cable and the box RS232Cs are both male – has anyone got a female/female gender-bender?”

The “he” bit even caused a kerfuffle in Canadian Constitutional Law. From Language Log:

The Persons Case arose when Emily Murphy was named a magistrate in 1916. Some lawyers challenged her appointment on the grounds that she could not perform the duties of a magistrate because she was not a person. They based their argument on the wording of the British North America Act of 1867, the law that established the Dominion of Canada and served, in effect, as its Constitution. In modified form the BNA Act remains the Constitution of Canada as it was incorporated into the Constitution Act of 1982. The BNA Act used the word persons when referring to more than one person, and the word he when referring to a single individual, which led some to infer that as a matter of law only men were persons.

Ledh // Posted 4 June 2008 at 3:23 pm

reply to Anne’s reply:

aah, but then I agree! We must keep pointing it out, like my teacher did. :) I just meant ‘don’t expect this to happen from one day to the other’.

great discussion!

azazel // Posted 5 June 2008 at 2:06 pm

Can’t spell humankind without man.

Isn’t this more to do with phonetic structure than actual misogyny?

Oh wait – for most people it is.

Michael // Posted 5 June 2008 at 5:25 pm

I mostly agree with this post but it is a tad Anglo-centric. English is a mongrel language with a very pared-down syntax compared to many languages, but to make Spanish or Russian, for example, as gender neutral as English is even now, would de-nature them completely.

Noticed // Posted 5 June 2008 at 6:30 pm

Thanks for this post.

As to the “men as default” argument, I have a recent example to share.

I am in a community softball league in my city and I recently attended the managers’ meeting where I received the league handbook. The cover says “Adult and Co-Ed Softball.” During the meeting, the league head discussed the three co-ed leagues and the two men’s leagues.

I realized my league is using “Adult” to refer to “men,” and “Co-Ed” to refer to “men and women.” Does that mean I’m not an adult?!

There are many examples of this in sports. I’m thinking of the NBA (in the U.S.) versus the WNBA. We talk about “college basketball” (men = the default) and “women’s college basketball.”

Alex T // Posted 5 June 2008 at 6:55 pm

Michael, you’re absolutely right, but several million of us women live in English-speaking countries and this is a UK blog written in English and read by Anglophone readers, and discourse on it is conducted in English, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that this issue affects a lot of the people reading this! Come on, nothing can accommodate 100% of all the concerns out there! All any of us can do is our ‘bit’ and if that means changing the way our native tongue is used then so be it. It’s not as though these debates don’t take place in other languages either: French and Francophone feminists are forever trying to sort out terms like ‘Madame le Ministre’ and so on.

Anne Onne // Posted 5 June 2008 at 7:36 pm

Michael, I understand where you are coming from (though I second what Alex T has said). Every language has its own constructions, some of which are fairly egalitarian or irrelevant (gendered nouns aren’t a problem per se), and some which need to be considered (eg groups with minority of males taking the male form) and hopefully changed. I beleive that whilst we can support native speakers (and fluent students) of a language to evolve it for the better, we can only really talk best about something we understand, that is close to our hearts.

I focused on English, both because it is the language that connects all of the readers here, on this site based around UK feminism, and because I assumed my far-from expert knowledge in other languages, including my own would be of little interest to readers. I can only, on a personal level write about what I feel ‘inspired’ to write about, and that will normally be something I know more about.

I did read this interesting post at which is mostly irrelevant, but they actually got a decent thread about etymology and different languages going!

Noticed, that’s very true. Sports are always assumed to be male, with ‘women’s X’ being different, a tack-on, and often seen as not as good as the ‘real’ thing. It’s very pervasive really, even in sports such as tennis, where women’s sports gets more attention than in say, football.

Ledh, I think I’m much better at replying and adding to discussions than starting them… ;)

bzzzzgrrrl // Posted 2 July 2008 at 9:08 pm

Thoughts on discussions of this as it pertains to faith, specifically:

My mother, who is now in her 60s, was raised to believe that “he,” “man,” “mankind,” included her, and she believed it. Until she was in her twenties and wanted to be ordained a priest in our church. Very quickly, she saw how easily men in power will assert that gendered language IS gendered, rather than inclusive, after all. (“It says, ‘man,’ right there in the Bible!” “The prayer book only refers to priests as “he.”) Years later, she was a pioneer, and was one of the first women priests in the Episcopal church. But you can bet that she did not raise her children to think that gendered language is inclusive.

I think that being raised to understand that God is male and female (or, more perfectly, neither strictly male nor strictly female) has shaped my relationship with God. It has also made me more comfortable, as I’ve gotten older, with the idea that gender is not binary. We’re created in God’s image, and all. Male and female, and all.

Lindsey Spilman // Posted 3 July 2008 at 11:54 am

I have always used ”(s)he” if i need to mention gender in writing. I also use ”individuals”, ”humankind” and ”people”. The worst one is ”lady”, and it is used quite a lot often for anyone who looks too mature to be called a girl. It is like the people who use it cannot handle the word woman. Women also get called girl’s well into there 20’s and it is seen as a good thing. Men in there 20’s do not like to be called boy’s.

lady brett // Posted 3 July 2008 at 5:53 pm

as a disclaimer, i think a lot of this is spot-on. that said, there are a few other perspectives that i find important.

for one, the fact that the masculine is always(ish) assumed the generic is not only robbing women of their part in “humankind,” it is also robbing men of their gender. if i address a group of people as “guys,” say, it is almost impossible to know if it is in fact a group of men or of men and women. that does not just render the women invisible, it renders the men invisible too (if less so).

my other, larger, problem with this whole topic is that the suggested remedy is so often replacing male pronouns with either female ones or both together. which doesn’t solve the problem, if the problem is exclusion. “she” and “he or she” are still gendered, they just manage to exclude either the current dominant gender (okay because it’s fine to bully the bullies?) or a large swath of transgender/intersex/genderqueer people (fine because at least we’re bullying way fewer people?). i don’t buy it.

Carol // Posted 3 July 2008 at 8:15 pm

I use both “woman” and “lady” when I talk. I think both words are equally problematic: doesn’t “woman” mean man with a womb?

Also when I was young here in NZ, “woman” was used in a quite macho and demeaning way by young men to refer to their girlfriends. It was often used interchangeably with “wench”. It referred to a girlfriend as a sexualised appendage to a male – as in, “Where’s your woman?” or “Have you got a woman?”

“Lady” has always sounded more respectful, and doesn’t have so many connotations here of the aristocracy. It reminds me more of US usage referring to any class of woman as “lady” rather than British class traditions.

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