What’s in a word? The debate about gender-inclusive language

Some people contend that gender-specific terms are exclusionary and hurtful to transgender and genderqueer people. Others insist that, particularly in the context of a women’s college, feminine words have power and history. As our understanding of gender is changing, so too is our language.

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By Dawn Cunningham ’85

Cisgender. Mx. They (as a singular).

Expect to hear and read these terms a lot more in the future, even if they aren’t part of your everyday speech now. In the past year, each has won definitive recognition as a part of modern English.

Mx, a gender-neutral honorific, and cisgender, which denotes “a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex,” were both inducted into Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries. The gender-neutral, singular pronoun they—used in place of she or he—was voted the 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society and adopted by the editors of the Washington Post.

These words are just a few examples of ways English speakers are expanding their vocabulary and adjusting their grammar to reflect changes in their understanding of gender. There’s a growing awareness that one’s birth sex (the physical features by which we are classified as girls or boys) need not determine one’s gender identity (one’s internal sense of being a woman, man, both, or neither). High-visibility transgender celebrities (including Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner) and cultural phenomena (like the success of Amazon’s Transparent series) have provided many people with a window into what it means to be transgender: to have a personal identity and gender that do not correspond with your birth sex.

Even laws that discriminate against transgender people have helped raise awareness. In May, while announcing a lawsuit against North Carolina for enacting legislation to restrict transgender people’s access to bathrooms, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said to the transgender community, “We see you; we stand with you…. Please know that history is on your side. This country was founded on a promise of equal rights for all….”

The increasing visibility of transgender people has been matched by a growing lexicon for gender identity. In 2014, for example, Facebook added a custom gender field to its profile settings, allowing users to choose from more than 50 nouns and adjectives to describe themselves. Besides cisgender and transgender, the options include genderqueer (when your gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female), trans man (a self-identified man who was assigned to the female sex at birth), and trans woman (a self-identified woman who was assigned to the male sex at birth).

Pronouns, too, have multiplied. Not only is the singular they gaining widespread acceptance, but several invented genderneutral, third-person pronouns have been embraced by genderqueer people—most notably on college campuses.

She pinches

Over the decades, college students have been a bellwether of shifting attitudes across the country on such issues as civil rights, women’s liberation, the Vietnam War, and apartheid—and now, it appears, transgender equality and inclusion. College students are advocating for policies that create a more welcoming educational experience for transgender and genderqueer people.

Some of these students identify themselves as transgender or genderqueer—but many do not. A 2015 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute found that just 0.3 percent of first-year college students identify as transgender and 0.5 percent identify as queer. The great majority identify as female or male—the standard cisgender categories.

Yet even cisgender students today have an understanding of gender that is less binary than it used to be. “When students who are 17 or 18 years old arrive on campus, many have already encountered gender nonconforming people in their high schools. Even students who haven’t personally met trans people know that they exist,” observes Ajuan Mance, professor of English at Mills College. “It’s a very different world than it was just five years ago.”

There’s been strong student support for the Mills policy, adopted in 2014, to admit transgender students who identify as women—in fact, the effort to develop that policy was instigated by student advocates. Students helped push seven other women’s colleges to follow Mills’ lead and enact similar admission policies. At coed colleges, students have backed gender-inclusive policies such as making bathrooms gender neutral, providing access to gender-appropriate housing, and use of gender-inclusive language. Harvard is one of several universities that has adopted registration procedures allowing students to designate their preferred gender pronouns, including the recently coined alternate ze and the singular they.

“At Mills we’re asking ourselves, ‘What does it mean to be an institution committed to gender equity and gender justice?’” says Chicora Martin, vice president of student life and dean of students. “We have some areas where we can still improve. One of these is our use of language.” Erin Armstrong ’16, a trans woman who cofounded the Gender Splendor Club on campus, explains: “A lot of the students in our club identify as gender nonconforming. They go into a classroom and they’re called she and her, which aren’t their preferred pronouns. Or they are called the name they were given at birth, which isn’t their chosen name. It’s not conducive to a positive educational environment and can even make you less willing to go to class.”

Armstrong adds, “I find female pronouns to be incredibly empowering. That’s partly because for so long I had to fight to be recognized with female pronouns. But we don’t need to create a situation where we only ever use one set of pronouns. You can be the most empowering when you use your language to showcase the diversity of gender.”

She pinches a little and he slips off me too easily.” Martin recites this line, from “Imagine a Pair of Boots” by poet Ivan Coyote, to convey the feeling of living in a society where the pronouns don’t fit you. Martin says, “It’s about how we try to push people into these categories which keep them from becoming everything they could be. It gets you to think, what would it be like to provide other options?”

A few years ago, Mance became one of the first professors at Mills to provide options: she made it a standard practice to ask students to introduce themselves with their preferred names and gender pronouns. “The surprise for me was that cisgender students also enjoyed thinking about what those pronouns meant to them,” she says.

One of these cisgender students, Jessica Glennon-Zukoff ’13, recalls: “We were all sharing our pronouns as a normalizing act. I can’t look at someone and know what their name is; in the same way, I shouldn’t assume I know what pronouns they use.” Glennon-Zukoff says, “It’s not just a liberal arts, women’s college thing. I’ve seen people stating their pronouns in progresssive professional settings as well.”

Among the alternatives to she/her/his are pronoun sets like ze/hir/hirs or xe/xem/xyr. Dozens of other gender-neutral pronouns have been created, but the set most commonly used is they/them/their, as in, “They are a graduate of Mills. This Pearl M is a gift for them.” This isn’t a grammar mistake: it’s a conscious choice, and it builds on historical precedent.

The problem with pronouns

The current decade is not the first time that English has evolved in response to changing ideas about gender. “When I grew up, male pronouns like he were routinely used as the generic pronoun and man was used to refer to humanity,” recalls Anita Aragon Kreplin ’63. One of the great successes of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s was to make such communicative practices generally unacceptable or, at best, anachronisms.

You don’t hear doctress any more in American English, only doctor. Stewardess has been outmoded by flight attendant. Words ending in –man (like chairman) have largely been replaced by gender-neutral equivalents (like chairperson).

A particularly powerful example of feminism’s impact on our vocabulary is the honorific Ms. In 1901, when the standard honorifics for women, Mrs or Miss, described a woman’s marital status, Ms was proposed as a polite solution for addressing women when their marital status was unknown. Handbooks on business correspondence gradually picked up on this solution. In the 1960s, feminists who did not want their identity pegged to their marital status began advocating for Ms as an alternative to Mrs and Miss for all women. In a New York magazine column in 1970, Gloria Steinem wrote, “I’m all in favor of the new form and will put it on all letters and documents.” The next year, she launched her groundbreaking feminist magazine with the title Ms. Although considered a radical neologism at the time, Ms caught on and, in the following decade, became a standard honorific in American English.

The newest honorific, Mx (pronounced “mix”), is even more inclusive, used “by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female,” according to Oxford Dictionaries.

Pronouns, too, can change over time—though the process tends to take centuries rather than decades. Linguists consider pronouns a “closed class” of words because they don’t readily accept new members. Pronouns reflect deep linguistic and social structures: they are governed by complex semantic, syntactic, and morphological rules, and, in many languages, they indicate social status and relationships between speakers.

Take the example of you, which once upon a time was exclusively used as a plural pronoun meaning, essentially, “you all.” By the 15th century, you had acquired a second purpose—it served as a singular pronoun in certain formal situations, as when upper-class individuals addressed each other or when people of lower social status talked up to people of higher status. Thou was used by commoners speaking with each other informally in the way we use you now. According to the Shakespeare Resource Center, “Thou implied intimacy; you implied a polite reserve” (for linguistics nerds, this an example of the classic T-V distinction, as in the French tu/vous pair or the Spanish tú/usted pair).

By Shakespeare’s time, you had begun to encroach on thou—Shakespeare himself did not follow the rules. And by the late 17th century, you had completely replaced thou as English’s singular second-person pronoun.

They seems to be evolving in a similar way, from use mainly as a plural pronoun to both singular and plural usage—free from gender bias. In fact, writers have been using they as a singular pronoun in certain contexts for centuries. Here’s an example from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “…nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”

Although this phrase sounds right to most English speakers, it’s incorrect by the grammatical standards that have dominated since the 18th century. Because nobody is singular, “they fall” in this sentence should be “he falls” or “she falls”—unless you accept that they functions as a singular pronoun.

The rule that they should be used exclusively as a plural pronoun became codified only in 1745, when Anne Fisher, a British schoolmistress, published a best-selling guide titled A New Grammar. Fisher’s book also promoted he as the correct singular, gender-neutral, third-person pronoun—despite the ambiguities resulting from this usage. In the 19th century, several high-profile legal cases in the United States raised questions about whether he in the Constitution and other laws referred specifically to men or to all people. Susan B. Anthony, after being arrested in 1872 for registering to vote, argued that if masculine pronouns meant only men had the right to vote, then they should mean that tax and criminal law only applied to men as well. She failed to persuade the courts, but helped inspire the quest for a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

In the last two centuries, writers have floated dozens of ideas for gender-neutral alternatives to he. None of these invented singular pronouns became widely accepted, although in some circles with a strong feminist culture—including Mills—she has been used as a generic pronoun in place of he. The New York Times standards editor says, “My guess—just a guess—is that they is far more likely to become the default pronoun in these cases, rather than xe or other neologisms.” Yet singular they faces resistance not only from grammarians, but from some people concerned about gender inclusion. Rachel Patterson ’16, president of the Associated Students of Mills College, says: “We’ve had conversations about how using they for everyone is problematic. It allows the speaker to feel comfortable about being inclusive without bothering to learn the pronouns that people actually prefer.”

Several people interviewed for this story made the point that if you can learn a person’s name, you can learn their pronouns— even if their pronouns are recently invented ones like ze and xe. Yet for many of us, remembering individual pronoun preferences is much harder than learning a name. Pronouns are among the most difficult parts of speech to get right when learning a new language. Even monolingual English speakers frequently use subject pronouns (like she) when they should use object pronouns (like her) and vice versa. All this gives they a strong advantage over invented pronouns, since it already belongs to English’s “closed class” of pronouns and is wired into our speech patterns.

Lucy Do ’75, president of the Alumnae Association of Mills College, confessed, “I try to use inclusive language, but it’s difficult for me to remember different pronouns and who uses which ones. I make mistakes, though I’m not trying to be hurtful. I don’t mind being corrected, and I want to get better at it.”

The feminine plural

Besides pronouns, other words under debate at women’s colleges include feminine plural nouns, like women and alumnae. Is it possible to continue to use these words to characterize people in the college community if the goal is to be more inclusive of people who don’t identify as women?

A few years ago, students at Mills started dropping women from the SPAM chant made popular during the Strike of 1990: “Strong Women! Proud Women! All Women! Mills Women!” has become “Strong! Proud! All! Mills!”

Last fall, the Black Women’s Collective at Mills voted to change its name to Black Students’ Collective. “The idea for changing the name emerged from a conversation about how to make the club an inclusive space for all people who would want to join, says Patterson, who is also a member of the collective. “We recognized that women are not the only marginalized gender in society, and we wanted our name to reflect that.” Among alumnae, however—even those who strongly support gender nonconforming students at Mills—language about feminine identity remains highly valued. “I want Mills to be a women’s college that is welcoming and inclusive,” says Glennon-Zukoff. “And I also believe it’s still okay to embrace language that acknowledges womanhood and a sense of sisterhood. There are reasons to have solidarity as women and to have women’s spaces. Maybe language doesn’t always have to be completely inclusive.” Although it is open to graduates of all genders, the Alumnae Association of Mills College (AAMC) is committed to retaining the feminine plural form alumnae, rather than the masculine plural alumni, which at most coed colleges is the term used when referring to all graduates. As a Latin word, there is no gender-neutral form, and many graduates dislike shortening the word to alums. AAMC bylaws specifically call for use of feminine plural nouns and female pronouns: Gender and Pronouns. The term alumnae and alumna herein shall refer to both the feminine and masculine without distinction and any reference to the female pronoun shall also mean comparable male pronouns.

This passage was added to the bylaws in 2008, when Anita Aragon Kreplin was president of the association. “The bylaws had used alumnae and feminine pronouns exclusively since they were first written in 1920,” she says. “We added the language on gender and pronouns because we wanted to make it clear that the bylaws applied to all graduates, even though we retained the feminine pronouns. Calling ourselves alumnae has been an emblem of our unique experience at a women’s college—and that’s an experience shared by Mills graduates no matter what their gender.”

“There’s been no discussion among the Board of Governors about changing the name of the Alumnae Association or the use of alumnae in our bylaws,” says Do. “Alumnae tell me that they are proud that Mills is a women’s college, and many have a negative reaction to the idea of making our language for alumnae gender-neutral.”

Allison Marin ’12, a former College staff member who worked closely with the AAMC, says, “Mills offers an opportunity for women to be prioritized. It’s special. Using the term alumnae is a unique opportunity to center women and celebrate women— and to celebrate Mills.”