On the Use of She as a Generic Pronoun

When reading the August 2017 issue of Communications of the ACM, I have been continually distracted by the use of she as a generic pronoun:

Instead of a field engineer constantly traveling between locations, she could troubleshoot machinery and refine product designs in real time . . .

There were times when one person had to be in charge while she captured the organization of the emerging article . . .

. . . we can let the user specify how much precision she wants . . .

A mathematician using “brute force” is a kind of barbaric monster, is she not?

I am not sure whether this is just my personal problem, but I find this usage obtrusive and annoying. I was reading something supposed to be objective and scientific, but the images of women kept surfacing. The last case was especially so, as I could not help envisioning a female mathematician (er, how many female mathematicians have there been?) who was also a barbaric monster, oops, how bad it was!

I dug around for a while for related resources. Before long, I realized one thing: my view is at least partly shaped by my education, which taught me that he be used as the third-person singular pronoun when the gender is unknown, for both English and Chinese. My unscientific survey shows that while many of my female friends are uncomfortable with either he or she used generically, most Chinese female friends actually prefer he to she! According to an online discussion, at least some peoples in Continental Europe still use the masculine pronoun when the gender is unknown, say, hij in Dutch and il/ils in French.1 I think the French example is quite interesting to Chinese speakers, as neither French nor Chinese has a gender-neutral third-person plural pronoun: the generic forms ils and 他们 are actually masculine forms. Unlike the English they, we never had a nice and simple way to escape the problem.

Talking about they, one fact during the search surprised me. My favourite English author, Jane Austen, apparently preferred they/their in her novels.2 Examples (emphasis is mine):

You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt.

To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.

Digging deeper, it is revealed that they has been used after words like each, everybody, nobody, etc. since the Middle Ages. The entries everybody and their in the Oxford English Dictionary are nearly a demonstration of such usages, with a note in the latter entry that writes ‘Not favoured by grammarians’.3 Professor Steven Pinker also argues that using they/their/them after everyone is not only correct, but logical as well.4 Oops to the prescriptivist grammarians and my English education!

Accidentally, I encountered an old article by Douglas R. Hofstadter,5 author of the famous book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (also known as GEB). It is vastly satirical, and it attacks most points I have for supporting the use of man and he (go read it; it is highly recommended even though I do not fully agree). It influenced my thinking, even though it ignored the etymology of man. The Oxford Dictionary of English has this usage note:6

Traditionally the word man has been used to refer not only to adult males but also to human beings in general, regardless of sex. There is a historical explanation for this: in Old English the principal sense of man was ‘a human being’, and the words wer and wif were used to refer specifically to ‘a male person’ and ‘a female person’ respectively. Subsequently, man replaced wer as the normal term for ‘a male person’, but at the same time the older sense ‘a human being’ remained in use. In the second half of the twentieth century the generic use of man to refer to ‘human beings in general’ (as in ‘reptiles were here long before man appeared on the earth’) became problematic; the use is now often regarded as sexist or at best old-fashioned.

Etymology is not a good representation of word meaning, but I want to point out that Hofstadter had a logical fallacy in comparing man/woman with white/black. Man did include woman at one point of time; one probably cannot say the same for white and black.

This said, the war for continued use of -man is already lost. Once aware of this issue, I do not think I want to use words like policeman again when the gender is unknown. I still do not think words like mankind, manhole, actress, or mother tongue are bad.7 The society and culture are probably a much bigger headache for women facing inequalities. . . .8

I started being angry, but ended up more understanding. And I also reached a different conclusion than I had expected. It is apparent that somebody will be offended, whether I use he, she, he or she, or they after a noun of unknown gender. I think offending grammarians would now probably be my default choice.

P.S. I have also found Professor Ellen Spertus’s article ‘Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?’9 worth reading. Recommended.

  1. StackExchange discussion: Is using “he” for a gender-neutral third-person correct? Retrieved on 21 October 2017. 
  2. Henry Churchyard: Singular “their” in Jane Austen and elsewhere: Anti-pedantry page. 1999. Internet Archive. 
  3. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1989. 
  4. Steven Pinker: On the English singular “their” construction—from The Language Instinct. 1994. Internet Archive. 
  5. Douglas R. Hofstadter: A Person Paper on Purity in Language. 1985. Internet Archive. 
  6. Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford University Press, macOS built-in edition, 2016. This is different from the famous OED
  7. These words are already banned in some places. See entry sexist language in R. W. Burchfield: Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, revised 3rd edition, 2004. 
  8. Henry Etzkowitz et al.: Barriers to Women in Academic Science and Engineering. 1994. Internet Archive. 
  9. Ellen Spertus: Why are There so Few Female Computer Scientists?. 1991. Internet Archive. 

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