The first time I was asked my pronouns, it was 2014. I was sitting in a circle of women, in a women’s theatre collective, in New York City’s East Village. My co-producer and I had been invited to this meeting to see if our project might be a good match for this theatre collective. We were interested to find out if our style of producing—loud, a little bitchy, definitely irreverent and funny—could meld with this long established, storied, feminist theatre collective. I was all smiles and positive thinking until the meeting opened, and we were instructed to go around the circle, identify ourselves, our pronouns, and our discipline.
For many, this is a common occurrence, nothing to write home about. But for me, a feminist artist, by which I mean simply artist who is female and who’s into liberation, being asked my pronouns was an affront to the femaleness with which I thought we were all circled in solidarity. In fact, none of those in the circle had any pronouns other than the standard, basic, female ones. When we got to me, I stumbled. I wasn’t into it. I simply said my name, that I was a writer, and that I was female.
This asking of pronouns was pretty rampant in arts circles, and as it has made its way out into society at large, the question of what my pronouns are, what yours are, what everybody’s are has taken on new layers and dimensions. There are pronouns for every conceivable conception. This has maybe felt liberating for some people who don’t feel like they are defined by gender specific pronouns that they haven’t chosen, but for me, for example, it’s been oppressive to have to go around and keep stating my gender.
I don’t want to state my gender. I’m not super into gender, gender roles, gender stereotypes, or expectations associated with being female. In fact, going around stating pronouns tediously calls attention to something that I don’t want to be a front and centre aspect of my life. Can’t I just be female without having to talk about it all the time?
Apparently not. There’s been a big push for everyone to state their gender, online, in person, in meetings, in order that people whose gender pronouns may not be obvious feel comfortable letting everyone know precisely how to refer to them. Instead of alleviating the obsession with gender, it amplifies it, and makes us all think about our gender all the time, whether we want that to be a pinnacle of our identity or not.
A recent missive by Juliet A. Williams and Abigail C. Saguy in Scientific American has some solutions for all of us. “The universal singular they is inclusive of people who identify as male, female or nonbinary. … It avoids the problem of misgendering by not using pronouns to gender people in the first place. Plus, it reduces the salience of gender in everyday interactions, which is likely to be a good thing for women (regardless of whether or not their assigned sex at birth was female).”
Putting aside for a moment that a scientific journal actually posits that sex is assigned by doctors at birth, as opposed to determined by genetic determinants in utero without any control or care for assignations or doctors or pronouns, the idea being put forth is that all people, no matter their selected pronouns, should adopt the gender-neutral plural.
In addition to the standard trope of inclusivity, the reasons put forth are that women are faced with detrimental bias, both in the workplace and society at large, so it would be helpful for women to have their true sex hidden by these inclusive pronouns. So that makes loads of sense. Because there is bias toward women, in society, in the workplace, in giving out awards, or scanning resumes, or trying out for orchestras, women themselves should stop presenting themselves as women. Women, trans, men, all should present as non-binary/agender, so that those with biases cannot exercise their biases.
The concept that women must change to accommodate a society that doesn’t think very highly of them is nothing new, women have been doing that for years. Adjusting to meet emerging, constantly changing expectations of beauty, motherhood, sexuality, employability, compassion, women have taken on the role of fixing themselves to be more palatable to society.
We’ve changed hemlines, hairstyles, body types, exfoliated, quieted down, smiled while the men were talking, engineered the photographing of black holes, mothered literally all the children, and now we’re being asked to give up the language that categorizes us as female. Explaining female erasure as a helpful, woman forward concept, as a work-around for gender-based bias, is certainly new. If women are so abhorrent, let’s do an end run around that, and just not show that they’re women at all.
Erasing pronouns that signify gender in the English language is an intentional restructuring of the fabric of language in order to either be more inclusive of people who are so obsessed with gender that they are opposed to having theirs be recognized, or to make it hard to be biased against women because we don’t entirely know who or what they are. It is as an accommodation for inclusivity that’s been the selling point to HR teams and theater collectives alike. But there’s nothing wrong with being a female, who has a female body, and takes joy in female associated things like black holes, running marathons, motherhood, sunshine, and empathy.
On Twitter recently, some gender critical feminists came up with #GenderFree. Meant as an antidote to trans terminology appropriating female specific pronouns, #GenderFree is a means for women who do not identify as cis, but are in fact female, to state that they are not bound societal constructs of gender. #GenderFree is an attempt at gender atheism in an era when the primacy of innate gender has replaced the relevancy of the eternal soul.
But ceding gendered language to those who would appropriate women’s bodies and don the accoutrements of femininity as though they are equitable to femaleness itself, gives away too much without getting anything in return. Being gender-free doesn’t erase the erasure, it gives credence to it, by saying that gender is a choice, when we know that there are scientific differences in brain chemistry, and hormonal composition, as well as of the body.
That’s why I’m keeping my pronouns, because they either don’t matter enough to focus on them even for a little bit, or they are definitive tools in outlining a place where women can exist in language. It is the culture of boxing, defining, and reducing women that needs to change, not women themselves. We’ve changed and morphed over and over to suit the gender preferences of culture. If culture doesn’t want to change to suit us, we should at least stand firm.