They oppress they? Why non-specific pronouns won’t ‘solve sexism’


“They” has been having a big year, as more and more language institutions are declaring it acceptable and progressive to use as a singular pronoun. The American Dialectic Society crowned “they” as its 2015 word of the year, and the Washington Post replaced she/he in its official style guide with “they” as its default pronoun.

No longer is “their” the red-marked mainstay of middle school English papers in sentences like: “Everyone loves their dog.” Formerly corrected with “his or her,” today everyone is entitled to their gender-neutral grammar. Though it can sometimes sound a bit awkward: “They has gone to the store. What does they want to buy there?” just doesn’t sound right… Perhaps you’re supposed to pluralize the whole sentence, as if you’re using the royal we: “They have gone to the store. They are only one person, but sound very majestic in their plurality.”

But language evolves (especially English), of course, and so any awkwardness will fade with time. What is more interesting, in terms of the “they” pronoun boom, is the discussion on how usage of a gender-neutral pronoun might serve feminist aims.

Writing for The Guardian, Lorraine Berry claims that using “they” as a singular pronoun could “solve sexism” in the English-speaking world by reducing our usage of gendered language. In this way, “they” as a replacement for “she” or “he” provides a universal term that is not exclusionary to any group. Berry states that the English language is inherently sexist insofar as it has relied on gender-specific pronouns, which perpetuate “insidious” “gender divides.”

Berry provides no support for her implicit claim that reducing gender-specific language will reduce sexism. Instead, her entire essay reads as a disjointed series of tangentially-related points and logical gaps. Berry is able to get away with shoddy reasoning because her general position is widely accepted in our current cultural paradigm. More and more, it is seen as politically progressive to despecify gendered language under the rationale that it will dismantle sexism.

It’s fascinating to observe how beguiled we are by the idea that “deconstructing” the linguistic categories of male and female will challenge the material reality in which males subordinate females. This idea is rarely explicitly stated, though it frequently underpins much of contemporary “feminist” thought in both academia (particularly in queer theory) and the public intellectual sphere. For example, Berry writes:

“In 1986, Joan Scott wrote that gender is not just about sex, but is also ‘a primary way of signifying relationships of power’: two [sic] decades since she wrote that, these battles continue.”

Berry cites Joan Scott in order to support the rationale that if we render gendered categories of distinction meaningless, the “relationships of power” between the sexes will no longer be able to “signify.”

But at this point in time, referring to every person on earth by gender-neutral pronouns will have no impact on the reality of sexist oppression — it merely stops us from speaking about it.

Berry argues that women are “inherently excluded” from language and so using a universal category such as “they” is good in that it is inclusive of everyone. Today, “inclusion” as a general concept is viewed as desirable by default. Likewise, “exclusion” is viewed as a necessarily “bad” thing. Therefore, Berry is able to get away with stating vague platitudes such as, “Personally, I think we should make a fuss over any use of language that excludes us by gender, race, sexuality, or religion” without explaining specifically what she means by this.

What if a group of people is not intended to be included in a specific statement? Would the statement then be an inherently negative one? If we render our descriptive social categories inclusive of everything, they lose meaning in their neutrality. This is not inconsequential in a world where “male” is the default version of neutral categories such as “human.”

When I’m reading the news, I want to be able to identify what’s going on. I want to identify the agents involved. I want to identify males, male privilege, and male violence. When I read about a murder-suicide that left a couple dead, I don’t want to hear about how “they” pulled the trigger killing “them.”

It is already a feminist struggle to ensure men are explicitly named as the agents of male violence. Typical headlines read: “Two dead in murder suicide” instead of “Man murders wife, then kills self;” or “Woman raped” instead of “Man rapes woman.”

I want to know if “he” pulled the trigger killing “her,” so that I can correctly identify it as an act of male violence against women, occurring within a larger context wherein men commit the vast majority of intimate partner murder-suicides, fueled by a culture of male entitlement that positions wives and girlfriends as a man’s property. But I want to know this not just so that I can identify male violence, but so that as a society we all explicitly acknowledge the gendered reality of male violence against women.

It is because of material reality that gender-specific language is still essential to feminist analysis. Socially specific language is crucial to any liberation effort, as it is required to name and contest oppression. Stating: “they oppress they” instead of “men oppress women” obscures only the meaning of what is said and not the reality of what must be changed.

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • I think singular “they” is just fine when you do not know the sex of the person you are discussing or you are making general statements that could apply to anybody. It is NOT an acceptable substitute when the person’s sex is known. Just because someone doesn’t buy into masculinity or doesn’t buy into femininity doesn’t mean their pronouns have to change. In fact they would dismantle sex a lot faster if they held on to their pronouns and made them mean something different in the public mind.

  • Rachel

    Inclusive language is starting to sound suspiciously like Newspeak.

    • Beard Trice


  • Beard Trice

    I am assuming, it is believed, that sex based violence won’t happen as long as females “identify” as non-victims. Yeah? Or, do I have this wrong? Oh, that’s right… Gender has nothing to do with this. It is sex based, and as long as ALL Women aren’t free, NONE of us are.

    • Anon

      Yes, Cox is critical of the idea that changing pronouns will change women’s reality. It doesn’t matter how we identify. It matters how we are identified.

    • Hierophant2

      Gender is assigned on the basis of sex.

  • Melissa Cutler

    Bravo, Susan.

    Replacing “she/he” with “they” will no more end sexism than erasing the N-word from common usage has ended racism.

    • ptittle

      I doubt anyone claims gender-neutral pronouns will END sexism. But, as I’ve suggested above, surely it will reduce the emphasis on sex as an identifier.

      • Melissa Cutler

        You doubt that anyone would clam that? How, when the title of the article in the Guardian that is cited in this FC post is: ” ‘They’: the singular pronoun that could solve sexism in English “?

        What is the point of your reply to my comment? Why are you coming out in defense of something that you obviously haven’t devoted much thought or time to studying? Most importantly, do you honestly think it would benefit women to not have sex as an identifier? We must be able to name the problem (i.e., male violence and patriarchal systems of oppression) if we hope to free women from oppression.

  • northernTNT

    Excellent analysis. I’d even go so far as to say that removing she/he from our language will strengthen patriarchy by silencing our words.

  • therealcie

    I’ve been using “they” for years when writing about someone of non-specific gender. However, the idea that doing this could solve sexism seems a little, shall we say, overly hopeful.

  • Nicola Andrews

    I am old enough to remember being trained to use he or him if *even one member* of a group was male. “A nurse will put the care of his patients first” for instance. Didn’t matter if most members were female or the group was generally thought of as being made up of females. That was male supremacy. Using they to refer to a nonspecific member of a group doesn’t solve sexism but it does demote maleness from being the default of groups. I do agree that language tends to minimize male responsibility for acts of violence, but I haven’t read “they were killed when they shot them before killing themselves”. When and where specifics are known they can be easily used. “He did this” “She did that”.

    • Anon

      No, you haven’t YET read “they were killed when they shot them before killing themselves”. But— this is exactly what is being proposed to replace “they were killed when HE shot HER before HE killed HIMSELF.” That you were taught to default to male is not relevant to the fact that one can just as easily say, “A nurse will put the care of patients first.” Frankly, I am just as old.

  • MsTerry

    Great article again! It’s why color blindness doesn’t end racism.

    • Anon

      …heck, doesn’t even really exist. The whole notion of “color blindness” is patronizing and disingenuous. The whole notion of blindness to biological sex? Equally, or more so. After all, most of us are a mix of shades, but only 1 distinct biological sex.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Why on earth would you think you were being censored?? All comments are moderated on the site so they don’t post immediately. They go up as soon as I can get to them, generally. Yours were in moderation for an hour only. Please be patient. Thanks.

  • Beard Trice

    I apologize. Later responses got to me before the first. I am very sorry. I love your work.

    • Meghan Murphy


  • fragglerock

    And what ever happened to solidarity? If an oppressed group want to separate themselves from a dominant group, it’s not exclusionary, it’s to create strength. This whole “inclusion” paradigm does nothing but silence oppressed people but taking away the language they use to describe their oppression. That’s not equality–that’s censorship.

    Women have been expected to accept everyone and everything (that’s done to them) for centuries, so accepting language erasures and anybody’s “chosen identity” is nothing new. Women are still viewed as receptacles, receivers, even the word “vagina” means “sheath” or “husk” as if it’s missing something inside of it. Oppressed people need language to describe their oppression! Using ambiguous language “solves” sexism like stuffing junk in your closet solves a messy room–eventually it’s all going to come tumbling out.

  • My native language, Filipino, only has gender neutral pronouns. We do not have a he/she or her/his equivalent and I find no problem with it.

    • Anon

      So how do you describe the reality of male violence?

  • Alice

    why did this post completely ignore/erase the existence of trans/gender non conforming ppl who use (in fact created the use of) “they” as a sing pronoun…? although this is a short piece, and perhaps not central to the argument…it seems like a huge oversight to only talk about “they” on the gender binary when the whole point of “they” is to escape it

    • Zuzanna Smith

      Transgender people are gender conforming, they just conform to the gender of the opposite sex.

      • Anon

        spot on!

    • Hierophant2

      Please do not insult gender non-conforming people by associating them with the trans lobby.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Susan has written tons of pieces for FC that aren’t What’s Current.

    • Refael Fishzon

      Well, I did check up her author page just to make sure, and although recently she posted more articles, there is a lot of WC there… I am new to this website though so I apologize if I’m wrong

  • Cassandra

    This is awesome, Susan!! Every word is true.

  • Anon

    Susan Cox, 100% spot on!

    What is up with this idealistic but naive younger generation who thinks that changing words (getting rid of accurate gendered language) and mere thoughts in their head (transgenderism) somehow alters material reality? If it were that easy, it would already be done. BTW, all this crap has been tried already. It failed already. Maybe if the younger generation read actual full-length books they would realize this. If I were among them, I would demand the money back for my “education.” Where are the critical thinking skills?!

    Susan Cox correctly points out that this ill-conceived quest will only obfuscate reality and make it impossible to talk about the exact source of our oppression: men and their male privilege.

  • Anon

    No, we need to keep naming male violence. No amount of “calculation” justifies obscuring it. The origin of “lots of issues” that you cite? Male violence and privilege. We need radical feminism to pull the weeds out by the root.

    • Refael Fishzon

      If that’s your opinion, I respect it. But I do think a society without patriarchy wouldn’t have male and female pronouns, which are not even make and female, but man and woman pronouns. By the way, when I say “calculation”, I’m not saying “calculate it until you choose to lose male/female pronouns”. That concept is antithetical to math itself.

  • Anon

    Most here do not believe in transgenderist dogma. Maybe read the articles and comments before presuming.

  • Melissa Cutler