(2nd in a series of articles exploring gender-inclusive language issues in church and culture.)
American schools have long taught the English grammar rule that allows the words “man” and “he” to refer to both males and females. This practice has evolved along a convoluted path.
According to Carolyn Jacobson (English Department, University of Pennsylvania), "man” was once a truly generic word referring to all humans. One document even refers to a seventh-century princess as “a wonderful man.” But the meaning of the word “man” has gradually narrowed to refer only to males.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, upper class boys needed help preparing for their Latin studies, so English grammar rules were created. As a result, "he” officially came to mean “male, only," not “male and female.”
Then a problem arose with using “they” as a singular, rather than plural pronoun. Eventually, grammarians drafted legislation that included establishing “he” as a generic pronoun. An 1850 Act of Parliament officially stated that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”
The new law sanctioned "he" as a generic pronoun, but application of that law was quickly ignored. In 1879, for instance, female physicians seeking admission to the all-male Massachusetts Medical Society were denied acceptance because wording in the Society’s by-laws referred to members only as “he.”
English, like other languages, is still evolving. In the 21st century, pronouns like “man,” “men,” “he,” “him” and “his” are officially generic, but in practice they are usually male-specific. Studies show that, despite knowing traditional grammar rules, both adults and children tend to think of male, not female persons when hearing or reading masculine pronouns.
Author Carol Becker (Leading Women) observes that our grammar rules promote a double standard which allows both men and women to hear male language as neutral and female language as gender-biased, noting that "Our habit of using masculine pronouns reminds us constantly that men are active in human history. …Using 'he' to talk about humanity works in favor of men and contributes to the invisibility of women."
In O Come, Let Us Bow Down and Worship, author Deborah Moore Clark adds that we must choose our words carefully, because "language often warps and filters meaning and understanding. …Words, like mirrors, reflect our attitudes…bear witness to our beliefs…influence our behavior and the behavior of others."
That is why gender-inclusive language is foundational to the issue of "women's place" in church and society. The way we speak shapes the way we think and act. Women will never achieve full equality and opportunity as long as female gender is absorbed into male terminology and imagery.
It's not a matter of being politically correct; it's a matter of putting our theology into practice. The gospel message of inclusion cannot be delivered adequately in the vehicle of gender-exclusive language.
The good news is that we can begin changing the status quo, one individual at a time, by adjusting the way we speak and write. It will take sustained effort, akin to becoming fluent in a second language, but it can be done.
Where to begin? People often stumble over feminine imagery for God (a theological issue for some, which I will address in an upcoming article in this series). So it seems easier to start with using gender-inclusive terms (rather than male-oriented terms like "man" and "he") when speaking of males and females as a combined group.
1. A short list of terms that excludes females:
he males lords guys
him man/men brotherhood gentlemen
his boys mankind fellowman
sons lads fathers brothers
2. A short list of terms that excludes males:
she woman/women gals lasses
her females girls ladies
daughters sisterhood mothers sisters
3. A short list of terms that includes both females and males:
person parent people
internationals sibling nations/nationals
multitudes people of God child/children
everyone/everybody one/one's humans
child(ren) of God anyone/anybody community
mortals human race souls
they/their all creation family/familial
humankind/humanity human beings saint
all/some/many/most co-worker lovers
laborers together sage neighbor
group/people group friend loved ones
world/worldwide folk all races
kin/kindred all generations team
flock/sheep tribe heir
all ages all lands
The idea is to select inclusive terminology from list #3 (avoiding list #1) when speaking of women and men together.
Remember there will always be naysayers who dig up awkward grammar problems (most of which can be worked around) created by substituting gender-inclusive language. But with practice, everyday usage will become second nature for those who are intentional about including women linguistically.
As author Brian Wren (What Language Shall I Borrow?) notes: "Language, like tobacco, is habit forming. Some patterns of writing and speaking are addictive and may damage both the user and others who breathe the same linguistic atmosphere. If we . . . decide to kick the habit, we may get withdrawal symptoms and hostility or derision from other smokers. But in the end, we shall enjoy breathing fresh air.”