Imagine being six years old and reading an anthropology primer
about Stone Age Man: "After a hard day's search for food on
the veldt, stone age man was probably glad to get back to the
warm cave. No doubt he was comforted by the same everyday activities
we are today: the heat of the fire, good food, his family about
him. Can you imagine him laughing and tousling your hair? Can
you see him picking up your six month old baby brother and breast
this point, the six year-old might burst into tears in sheer
confusion. He? Breast feed? "Don't cry," says the teacher.
"It's all right. We all get confused at first. You just have
to remember that he really means he or she. See? It's easy!"
But it's not easy. It makes no sense to her. Why say "he"
when you mean "she?" As she grows older, she will keep asking.
No one will give her an answer she understands. Her tears
of bewilderment will become ones of rage. She will get tired
of reading about Man the Hunter, mankind's outward urge to
the stars, the exogamous impulses of man, the man on the street,
one man one vote.... She will be sick to death of continually
no, no," you might say gently, "she's not being excluded.
He is inclusive. He means us all. She'll learn. After all,
he is the generic pronoun in English."
that truly were the case, if "he" and "man" really did mean
"he and she" and "man and woman," our six year old would not
have been confused. But at age six, she has already internalized
the real architecture of language; she knows that he means
he and she means she. The only thing she doesn't know is how
to pretend otherwise, the way grown ups do. She doesn't understand
why she shouldn't point out what seems so obvious to her:
he-man language isn't wearing any clothes.
you start to sputter, answer the following question honestly.
How comfortable would you feel reading this next sentence
aloud from our hypothetical anthropology primer: "How long
ago was it that man found himself available for sex throughout
the whole of his menstrual cycle and not just during a clearly
may tell us that when we read "man, mankind, or he" we are
supposed to imagine "people, humankind, or he and she," but
we don't. In our mind's eye we see men, or boys.
we are toddlers we know little and care even less about the
generic he. We say them/they/their quite happily. "The person
in the blue hat looks happy, they're smiling!" Everyone knows
what we mean. Then we get to school, and the rule books take
over. It is dinned into us that he is the generic pronoun;
it must be used. Anything else is sloppy, incorrect, bad grammar.
At the same time, everything we see and hear contradicts this.
In the written form, for example, we would never see a primer
such as the one I have invented. Oh, we would read about Stone
Age Man, about him hunting and protecting and inventing fire
and all that, but as soon as the authors have to talk about
things that only women can do (and no matter how hard they
try to make it otherwise, they have to mention women occasionally),
they switch pronouns. He, it seems, is only generic insofar
as it means "one of us," and "one of us" means "one of us
we lift our head from our text books for a little conversation,
we find that our parents, our friends, and the teachers themselves--even
at the university level--do not use the generic he in conversation.
Person to person, in every day speech, we all understand that
"he" does not really mean "he and she."
dichotomy of oral and written form originated three or four
hundred years ago in the first English grammars. These grammars
were designed for boys preparing for school (girls, of course,
did not get any formal schooling). All the examples in the
books were for and about boys. The pronouns were all male.
They were all male not because it was understood that he meant
both male and female, but because women simply did not enter
into the equation. These teachers and students were men and
boys in a male world, with a male viewpoint and male-centered
was not until the eighteenth century that some grammarian
had a brain cramp and decided to make this very specific use
of the male pronoun a general rule. Less than a hundred and
fifty years ago, in 1850, the "rule" was still uncertain enough
to need mention in an Act of Parliament: "words importing
the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include
females." And then it was cast in stone.
but women are the ones who teach the children to talk. We're
not about to collude in our exclusion from humanity. We all
grow up saying "them" and "their." I shudder to think what
might happen if that were not so.
is an institution--like family, or education system, or church,
or peer group--and is one of the prime agencies of socialization.
That is, it's one of the means whereby an individual learns
the culture of their society. Language tells us what is possible,
permissible and expected. It is through language that we meet,
explore and understand our world. Our understanding of the
world is shaped by the words we use to describe it. Those
words we use are born from existing words. Those related words
are informed by the very concepts and objects they describe.
Words do not exist in a vacuum. They do not inhabit the rarified
atmosphere of a grammarian's sterile rule book. Words have
weight, texture and form. They have provenance.
our eighteenth century grammarian made man the generic noun,
man has already existed as a noun for a long, long time. It
meant then and means now "an adult male person." (I'm not sure when this changed. In Old English, ie. Anglo-Saxon, the terms for "man" and "woman" were, respectively, "wer" and "wif." "Man" meant "adult human" with "-man" (there's some disagreement here) meaning "intelligent animal" as opposed to animal animal, if you know what I mean.) Unless we
find a new word for adult male person, man as a generic will
not work. Its provenance is irreparably male. We may genuinely
try to use man as a generic but our attempt will be subverted
by the implicit values and attitudes attached to the word since the middle ages.
I do not understand is why we even try to use male nouns and
pronouns as generics when we already have perfectly serviceable
alternatives: Humankind, they, their, them. Why cling to an
eighteenth century rule which is confusing and contradictory
and which, with its every use, further excludes, alienates
and reduces the importance of more than half the human race...all
to no apparent purpose? Ah, but perhaps there is a purpose.
Language, sociologists tell us, is the most profound and effective
means of control society exerts over us. The words we use
structure our thought and our reality, they help form our
opinions and mould our attitudes. The only explanation I can
think of for continuing to use this he-man language is because
we actually want women to feel excluded, alienated and unimportant.
shapes our thoughts and therefore our imagination. When we
read science fiction, or watch it, or listen to it, we are
absorbing one person's vision of the future (or present, or
past). Whether we like it or not, television now provides
visions of the future for more people than all the SF novels
put together. Of all the women who grew up on the original
Star Trek, I doubt there is a single one who did not get a
thrill, a frisson, the urge to shout Yes! when she saw the
premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation and heard Captain
Picard saying they were all going to boldly go where no one
had gone before. The future opened like a flower: women could
think that maybe in the twenty-fourth century we were a bit
more important than we are now. That is a very powerful imaginative
tool for a young girl. She will watch that series (and Xena,
Warrior Princess; and Buffy The Vampire Slayter) and know deep in her
bones that women can. She will probably stay loyal to the
series, the spin-offs, the novelizations. She will make the
bottom line a lot more healthy for the producers. I suspect
that Babylon Five's audience would increase significantly
if they changed "The Third Age of Mankind" to words that included
us. To me it doesn't matter if the second in command of B5
is a woman, we are still slapped in the face every time we
hear those opening credits. Such a slip with the old he-man
language, even once, indicates a certain lack of thought on
the subject. It means the writers have not sat down and properly
examined their attitudes to gender. It makes me wonder: Where
else will they slip up with women's roles? Is this series
worth my time and effort? It is such a little thing, the "Third
Age of Mankind," but it sits like a rock in the road. People
like me will be tempted to point the car in a different direction.
[Two months after writing this, I discover that the opening
sequence has changed. It will be interesting to see what happens
with the ratings.]
fiction novelists and short story writers don't do much better.
It seems that many SF writers can see men fairly clearly in
their crystal ball, but women are obscured by a veil. When
the spaceship is manned by cadets with IQs matched only by
their height in centimeters we think: oh, did the women all
die? When we read of the extinction of mankind, we think:
oh, well maybe it was only the men who died...but in that
case, where are the women? When we hear of man being in a
death struggle with some alien species, we wonder: which side
are the women on? Always: where are the women? What are we
doing? How do we fare in this imagined world? It matters.
Women need to be see their reflections shining back at them
from the future.
all, our six year old as she grows up will not see many images
of herself in her science text books.
while ago I was invited to go talk to a class at the Georgia
Institute of Technology who were studying Ammonite and Russ's
The Female Man. Students do not go to Georgia Tech to study
the classics. They generally do not care much for gender studies,
or literature, or the humanities. They go to learn about nuclear
engineering, mechanical engineering, computers and other hardware-related
subjects. But here they were, brows furrowed, trying to make
sense of what I was trying to do in my fiction. The marvelous
thing was: they got it. One man who was studying digital video
something-or-other said to me, "I was a third of the way through
Ammonite and it was making me more and more uncomfortable
and I didn't know why and then I realized: all the characters
are female. It's all 'she' and 'her.' There were no pronouns
for me. It made me feel weird, as though I didn't really matter.
And I realized that this is what it must be like for girls
growing up, reading their physics books or whatever."
Women and girls feel like that a great deal, and not just
while we're growing up. I can't blame men for feeling uncomfortable
when they get a taste of it. It's not very pleasant. It would
be nice, though, if men could take a lesson from the feeling.
was at a party recently and a man I had never met before buttonholed
me. "When I got half-way through Ammonite I got really pissed
off!" he said. I sighed and asked why he thought that was.
"Because I was lied to!" By whom, I wanted to know. "The publishers!
The back cover copy never said a word about the book being
about women!" He was pretty het up. I asked him if he had
finished the book. "Yes, I liked it. It's just that, well,"
he looked vaguely puzzled, "I was misled..." I pointed out
patiently that the only person doing the misleading had been
himself: the back cover copy did not lie. It talked about
security forces, and natives, and deadly viruses. The only
pronouns used were "they" and "them." If he went ahead and
assumed that meant men, he had no one to blame but himself,
had he? After all, women are human. We are people, too.
man wandered off, not terribly convinced. Deep inside he knows--though
he may not know that this is what he knows--that people are
really men. Women are just, well, women: the also-ran, the
other, the alien. This is what he-man language does, this
is how it survives today when it is demonstrably unfair, inefficient
and unnecessary. It forms part of a feedback loop: men (and
women) condemn women as Other every time they say mankind.
They may not mean to, but motivation doesn't matter. The result
is the same. What we hear is: less than human. The very words
we all use build a hierarchy in our heads and women always
come in second. As a result of that internal hierarchy, we
find it harder to point to the naked ridiculousness of he-man
language. Which reinforces the hierarchy. Woman as Other becomes
embedded in our very language. We become alien in our own