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