Thursday, July 20, 2006

Debating The Feminine Universal

(To be cross-posted at Feminist Law Profs)

Kaimi Wenger has this interesting post over at Concurring Opinions:

In my lectures and class discussions (and out of class, for that matter), I tend to use a universal female pronoun. But in cases where a universal pronoun is used, and where traditional English would therefore call for a “he,” I tend to use "she."

The use of a universal pronoun brings both the good and the bad; and if "she" can be a testator, then "she" can be a murderer.

The more difficult area is this: I’d say 10 or 15% of my universal references turn out to be references where, if I simply flip the gender, I run the risk of invoking negative gender stereotypes. There are a lot of underlying negative stereotypes about women. In the wills context, these include ideas that women are less able to manage their money than men; that women are prone to emotional rather than logical decisions; that women are more likely to be “gold diggers”; and so forth.

In part, I think the problem comes up because the way a universal feminine pronoun is processed. If it’s an innocuous reference (”the testator writes her will”) then it’s just treated as a universal. But if it’s a sentence that corresponds to an existing negative stereotype, then it may be processed as relating to that stereotype.

And so, weirdly enough, I find myself consciously switching to a masculine universal in some of those cases.

This means that my universal pronoun usage is not consistent. For positives and neutrals and gender-neutral negatives, I use the feminine universal; for potentially-gender-problematic negatives, I use the masculine universal.

I’m not entirely okay with that. I don't know whether it confuses the students (assuming that they listen to the gender of my universal pronouns, which I'm not sure they do). It creates a weird double standard, with positives and neutrals and gender-okay negatives getting one treatment and potentially-gender-problematic negatives a different treatment. It sends a negative message of its own, that I'm okay with a masculine universal sometimes.

Sometimes it's good to wait a day or two before commenting on another blog post, because the comments thread picks up the discussion and takes it wholly elsewhere:


Aside from the larger social debate about the value of gender-neutral language, I would also point out that some courts' guidelines specifically request gender-neutral usage: "3. Use gender neutral language in all court correspondence and jury instructions. Use 'Dear Counsel' when not using the individual's name and where appropriate include reference to he/she, him/her. The plural (witnesses/they) ishelpful." Students who get used to hearing gender-neutral constructions in the classroom will have an easier time using them in practice. And I also agree that, as a woman, I don't really find the masculine construction to be "universal."

Kate Litvak:

Kaimi, no matter how you assign genders to characters in your hypos, in the eyes of Ann Bartow, you are always a sexist. It’s bad to use a woman as a positive character (exacerbates stereotypes of women as selfless barefoot-and-pregnant caregivers). It’s bad to use a woman as a negative character (exacerbates stereotypes of women as greedy, deceitful, conniving critters). It’s bad to switch back-and-forth to avoid placing female characters into stereotyped roles (assumes that female students are so psychotic and irrational that they can’t analyze the structure of a hypo without attaching themselves to an imaginary character).

You can’t beat paranoid feminists by succumbing to their demands. You can only beat them by ignoring them.

When my hypos have only one character, I always use “he”. When my hypos have two characters, I use “he” for the first and “she” for the second, which helps to distinguish the two. Cry me a river, shrinking violets. If you are seriously debating whether my Contracts hypos should involve a female breacher or a female breachee, you shouldn’t be a law student.


You don't tell us why you are using a feninine universal, . What is it supposed to accomplish? Are you just trying to identify yourself as a feminist sympathizer or do you think there's a patriarchy that needs to be smashed, and that this does it somehow? I would have thought that if anything it is males who are being shortchanged in the educational system. I would suspect that all
except the most ardent feminists are rollng their eyes when they hear the feminine universal, and that the ardent feminists would be laughing at it (assuming they had a sense of humor.)

Heidi Kitrosser:

The benefit of trying to incorporate female pronouns in discussions, writing, etc. is that, even if subconsciously, it can help stir up or at the very least make noticeable the often automatic, unquestioned assumption that male = universal and female = particular.The fact that this view so upsets some folks to the point that they paint the view’s proponents as radical, irrational, unappeasable lunatics reflects the very mindset to which folks like Kaimi and Bruce are trying to respond with remarkably small and simple measures.

The comments thread is about 30-odd long, and run the gamut from suggestions on how to duck around it by using the "singular 'their'," to a rumination on how gender-conscioud pedagogy was rejected as patronizing by a class of students. It's all very interesting, particularly the back and forth between those who support gender-conscious pedagogy as being sensitive, practical, and transformative; and those who appear to believe that it's a waste of time and silly acquiescence to the ridiculous constraints of political correctness.

It's not hard to guess that I come on the side of gender-conscious pedagogy. And yes, I am an ardent feminist with a sense of humor.

I've thought about this issue lately, oddly enough. While I am very conscious of patriarchy and how it shapes the law and social culture, I'm not enslaved to the idea that I must on every front fight against every symbol of patriarchy. I pick my battles. I have the English major's penchant for correct grammar and spelling combined with a quirk for gender-bending monikers. But I do not demand that "women" be spelled "womyn," can't stand "humyn," and always wonder how you spell "humanity" without the "a." Yes, the Washington Monument and the Eiffel Tower may look like giant architectural phalluses, reflecting our phallocentric culture--but I really don't care to critique that (or really care about that at all), and to be honest I think that they're pretty structures. In other words, no, I do not blame patriarchy for everything. And I don't rise up in arms over everything remotely patriarchal. I do have a sense of humor and the ridiculous. I pick my battles.

And this, dear readers, has just become one of them. Once again, I join the fray--though at least this time, at Kaimi Wenger's request. I'm young enough not to know better.

What's strange is that while I'm sensitive to the use of the male/female universal, I'm terribly inconsistent with it, and often favor the male universal reflexively, out of habit/laziness. After this though, I'm going to watch myself more. It takes a good deal of de-programming in order to change your internalized language structures, and I admire Kaimi for doing so. I dislike the neutral "their" because it's ungrammatical, although Paul Gowder has a point that it may be better to be ungrammatical than to support gender stereotypes. In my papers, I try to write s/he or his/hers, but in speech or casual writing, I'm terribly inconsistent, going back and forth between the male and female. The ingrained impulse to parrot back the standard male universal competes with my gender consciousness that yes, there are women in the world. Why shouldn't our speech and writing reflect that? Why is the male the universal? Is it some biblical throwback, that Adam came first, that God is a He, who then created mankind? English is not a gendered language the way the Romance languages are. We are supposed to be a secular society.

Why then, the insistence on the male universal? Why the antipathy towards changing that standard in freakin' 2006? At a time when females make up half or more than half of higher education (and sorry if that "shortchanges" male students), why can't we acknowledge their presence at the university by changing how we describe our world? Should our descriptions, if they are to be truly descriptive as opposed to normative, reflect the world? And when such descriptions carry normative weight, should we not be sensitive to whether such descriptions accurately reflect our modern sensibilities, our abandonment of incorrect stereotypes and prejudices, and yes, political correctness? If we know better, why can't we speak with such knowledge? Is it better that our language remain archaic and rigidly adherent to the old stereotypes and conceptions, for the sake of "correctness"? If so, what is correct--the old standard English grammar rules (which will of course be male-centric, having been conceived at a time when only men were worthy of consideration and mention--the so-called patriarchy), or political correctness, which is supposed to reflect our changing world and social mores? I would submit the latter. And so yes, maybe I'll start using "their," even though it's ungrammatical, and I'll be more vigilant about using "she" when I can.

So I support Kaimi's flip of his use of the feminine universal where it would invoke a negative female stereotype. Let me clarify what I mean by negative female stereotype though: like Kaimi, I believe that it is "neutral" to classify testators and murderers as female (the universal, if it is truly universal, is both bad and good). But when do our "neutral" descriptive terms carry normative weight, and when should we thus take responsibility for the potential implications of how our descriptions frame the discussion? This is dependent on the context of the discussion and the social context.

There are indeed negative stereotypes about women that educators have a responsibility not to promote. Kaimi gives a few examples. And in the context of the law, where only recently are women gaining equality in law school admissions (but not in academic performance, pay and promotion afterwards, or partnership), should we not be sensitive to how women have been consistently patronized or ignored by the law? Shouldn't we address how women were once indivisible from their husbands in the context of citizenship for the purposes of diversity jurisdiction? Shouldn't we discuss how women were indivisible from their husbands or fathers as independent legal entities, the lateness with which women arrived to juries and to the Bar itself, and the continuing lag behind the Bench and in the tenure ranks?

I am not proposing that women of the world, unite in arms against every use of the feminine universal (or conversely, male universal) in every instance of negative stereotype. I am merely suggesting that we be conscious about the degree to which the framing of language contributes to the internalization of incorrect stereotypes that occurs independently from our framing. Language is an important (probably, the most significant) pedagogical tool. How do we talk to our students? How do we address them? In the law, so much is about "framing the issues" to favor or disfavor the plaintiff or defendant--why then can we not address how our use of pronouns "frames" the issues too?

And such internalization is easy: read Becoming Gentlemen by Lani Guinier (and a law student named Ann Bartow). You walk through the doors of the law school and you see the proud portraits of the male deans and dead judges. At orientation, you get lectures about how to conduct oneself with "dignity and decency, to always choose what is 'right' rather than what is merely 'easy'," which while gender-neutral is evocative of that "go forth, young man, and do good" kind of speech from the senior partner to the junior associate. You do moot court, and from the nice judges the male students get complimented ontheir "assured manner" and "directness" while the female students get complimented for having "poise" or "grace." It's a gendered world, law school.

And the gender constructions don't stop there. Read some of the cases. You cannot teach rape law without talking about gender. You shouldn't avoid this, and you should acknowledge that most victims of rape are women. You should talk about battered women's syndrome and raise some of the gender issues there. These are areas of the law where you cannot avoid talking about gender, and in which you have to confront gender stereotypes head on (the rape shield laws about the victim's sexual history, the difficulty of prosecuting rape, the potential for false accusations, the general inavailabilty of the battered women's defense for male victims of domestic violence, etc.). But there are many areas of law that non-obviously invoke gender stereotypes, or areas of law that it is only recently that women are the significant players.

In property law, for example, was it that long ago that the woman was the property of the man? When she herself could not own property, but had it held in trust by someone else? Or in Contracts law, when was it that women were deemed to have the legal capacity to independently enter into contracts? If we cannot (or rather, should not) teach property law without learning about Native American history or slavery, should we not also recognize and refuse to reinforce the very real injustices that occured because of such stereotypes? Or do we teach in a vacuum, obeying the rules of grammar, and willfully ignorant of our own history and our own part in perpetuating that history?

I would rather educators be aware of the historical and social context in which they teach, aware of their audience, aware of our changing world and social mores. And I would rather the descriptive terms used to "frame the issues" be careful not to reinforce the wrong lessons when they carry normative weight.

Further Reading:


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