|Image courtesy Antony Pranata via
For thirty years I’ve been committed to both using and promoting nonsexist language in writing and speaking. I was criticized for using “he or she” on my papers in law school in 1984, instead of the accepted “he,” meaning “people.” When my son was in fourth grade and I sat in on a day of classes, I was dismayed that the teacher used “man” instead of humanity or humankind to refer to homo sapiens, but when I spoke to her about considering using nonsexist language she looked at me quizzically, truly perplexed by my comment, unable to comprehend my concerns.
In our graduate programs at the Institute for Humane Education the faculty all point out to students when they are using non-inclusive language, explaining that “he” used to refer to all people perpetuates assumptions in our culture and fosters continued sexist thinking, and sometimes sexist behaviors.
Because the English language doesn’t have a word to describe a male or female in the singular (we have “they” to describe both in the plural), we are constantly faced with the challenges of using language that is not discriminatory. As a writer, I often turn statements about a generalized person in the singular into a statement about generalized persons in the plural simply to avoid “he or she,” which I admit is awkward.
This is particularly challenging when trying to avoid speciesist language as well as sexist language by not referring to an animal as “it.” It can’t be done without resorting to “he or she,” and so I often choose to subvert our assumptions and challenge the default “he” by referring to a wild animal whose gender I don’t know as “she,” simply to shake things up and get us all thinking. Recently, walking with a group of teenagers in the woods we came upon a snake. I chose to refer to the snake as “she,” and one of the students asked how I knew the snake was female. I explained that I didn’t and why I used the female pronoun, but I knew that none of the students would have asked how I knew the snake was male if I’d referred to “him or her” as “he.”
And so I was delighted to read this article in The Atlantic about the decline in sexist language. It’s about time.
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxConejo talk: “Solutionaries”
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach”
My TEDxYouth@BFS “Educating for Freedom”
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