Monday, March 7, 2011

Gender-Neutral (Poem)


He is standard form.
We use him

standing for her.
He's universal.

Man she is not,
nor human seen,

nor in hir alternative
accepted. Encased

in brackets, (s)he takes up
too much space

and change of letter —
that simple e to i or y

some womyn like
but spell checks catch,

grammar rule refutes.
Zie who settle for splitting

the difference leave
symbol to divide the one

for two, though he/she cannot
agree with everything

that follows and the plural
that and sign so easily holds

together makes her once more
disappear. Some switch

every other she with he
but guess who goes first

how often. Hu might work
at being gender-neutral

can no longer play the words
for one side or the other

when she a room of her own
takes, leaving him to reason

what matters more: to be
a man who lives by bread

alone or one more sun in her orbit.

© 2011 Maureen E. Doallas

I wrote this poem for this week's Random Acts of Poetry at The High Calling.

The prompt is "What's in a Word?": Read Marcus Goodyear's post and his suggestions for what others are saying about the power of language and then "write a poem that tells a story or paints a picture in order to answer the question: What's in a word?" Be sure to add your link in the comment section by March 9 to have your work considered with other RAPs.

I've chosen to evoke and provoke thought about the traditional and not-so-traditional uses of the words he, him, and his; the problems that such forms as hir, womyn, (s)he, and he/she create; and how our customary use of the masculine excludes, thereby shaping perceptions of women as somehow inferior. 

"Zie" and "Hu" are two of the more unusual forms created as substitutes for masculine and feminine pronouns and possessives. My own uses are wordplays.

UNESCO offers a useful downloadable publication titled "Guidelines on Gender Neutral Language" (it's available in both English and French). As the guide states, ". . . language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking. If words and expressions that imply that women are inferior to men are constantly used, that assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset. Hence the need to adjust our language when our ideas evolve. . . ." The Purdue Online Writing Lab provides for its students a guide on "appropriate" language. The International Reading Association has produced a "lesson plan" for "Avoiding Sexist Language by Using Gender-Fair Pronouns".

In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives included in its rule changes language for "gender neutrality".  The digest of House Resolution No. 5 called the gender-neutrality provisions "clarifications [that] do not amount to any substantive rules changes".

A very informative article by Leslie M. Rose published in the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy takes up the issue of "The Supreme Court and Gender-Neutral Language: Setting the Standard or Lagging Behind?" (January 2010), underscoring the points above.

Thousands of articles have been written about rewording the Bible to ensure gender-inclusive language, including posts herehere, and here. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, Ph.D., have published a book on the subject, The TNV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Broadman & Holman, 2005).


Unknown said...


What composed a fun and lyrical poem about an important issue, Maureen.

As a product of those old grammar rules, I have to work on this. I've been made even more aware of it lately since I have been attending some lay pastor classes and our Presbytery is very much a stickler for gender neutral terms referring to God.

I"m working on it. :)

S. Etole said...

I'm pondering those last three lines ...

Ann Tracy, Maine's Digital Alchemist & Artist said...

Wonderful poem....

Personally I think we should start using She Her etc... and let the boys see how it feels... but I've always been a radical ;~ D

Hannah Stephenson said...

Super thought-provoking!!

I usually switch between he/her. So I trade consistency for equal opportunity, I guess :).

Maureen said...

Hannah, one thing I found in some research is that when the the he/she form is used or "he" and "she" are alternated, the custom is to use "he" first, with the result that "she" is mentioned fewer times.

Glynn said...

It was our generation that fought this war. I don't think anyone actually won. But language lost (I'm having a Neanderthal moment).

Good poem. I wouldn't expect anything less thatn that.

Jerry said...

Thanks for posting this unique play on gender terms and all the sites that grapple with the issue. I have much to learn...You would think that growing up with just a mother and six sisters (three brothers too)that I would have this in the bag but...
I was talking to my mother recently
about the truth that God is gender nuetral and she was surpised...
The Catholic religion might have an edge on protestants with all the hail Mary's and The Holy Mother of God and such. I have a newly ordained niece in the Methodist church that keeps me from leaning back in my chair as well...

Jerry said...

P.S. I really think it would be really tricky to level out the language in the scriptures perfectly...Not to mention all the other writings. The pendulum will swing.

Maureen said...

Yes, Glynn. I think the jury was out then and is still out.

Thank you for the great comment, Jerry. I think it takes a conscious effort to examine how language is used to exclude. The subject fascinates me (I took some courses in college taught by feminists), and, of course, the implications of exclusion are profound in ways most people would not imagine. (Btw, I come from an equally large family, sisters outnumbering brothers.)

Anonymous said...

then there is the grammatical the naming of things in some languages.

the word car is not a gender word...but, a lot of people think of their car as female.
when i was growing up, our car's name was bright eyes betsy. sounds like the fifties all right.

my husband calls his car speedy.

Maureen said...

Great point, Nance. Also boats and ships come to mind and, as I learned last night from Glynn, in fantasy novels, the leader is referred to as a wyrm (female) and a dragon is called that.

Louise Gallagher said...

This has always been a sticky subject for me -- I want to only use the 'feminine' and know it excludes too many 'meminine' (I made up that word :) )

Seriously -- I do want to use only the feminine just to balance out the scales of time and justice which have been weighted too far to one sex for aeons.

But... being a woman, I don't like excluding, even for a century or two, the other gender!

Great poem

Marcus Goodyear said...

I've always tried to be sensitive to the idea of gender neutrality. It's a hard thing, though, because grammar can't be prescribed in the way that people sometimes suggest.

Even the he/she thing just feels awkward.

And it always gives me pause in church when I sing the doxology and repeat the phrase "Praise God... Praise God... Praise God..." Most of the congregation ignores the printed text to sing the traditional "Praise God... Praise Him... Praise Him..."

It is a complicated issue and your wordplay made it a bit more fun than it sometimes can be.

Unknown said...

Well, you helped me dust some cobwebs off Maureen...I grew up in an extremely conservative church and then began my own journey of what exactly God thought of women and what they can do, began the process of ordination...was led a different way...

all this to say, good reminders throughout and still being in more conservative places, well, the debate doesn't even exist (sadly) too often...I am very much with you though!