Departments

Gender neutrality

When I took up writing essays I learned that writing is best when it is gender-neutral. Tradition told me that he is an adequate contraction for he or she. Languages where gender is obligatory have no problem with it. But as soon as I tried it, I saw that tradition was wrong. In English at least, gender neutrality is simply better than gender conflation, for three reasons.

1. You cannot be gender-specific when you want to be unless you are first gender-neutral. There is no way to gracefully modulate from equating male and human to discussing men and women separately. If he is male… If he is a she… The man who, as a male… The man who, as a woman…

Of course confusing men and human beings may be evil, when it hides women; but even when it is not evil, it is still silly, because it will not let you say anything about the difference.

2. Gender-neutral writing is more forcible. True, formulas like he or she and men and women are tiresome. Interpolating a piece of gender-conflating writing into gender neutrality neuters it. But expressions originally conceived in gender neutrality are more direct and vivid than those that conflate genders.

Some people find men and women or human beings or people intolerably awkward expressions; they would rather say men. Now I like human beings—it asserts biological solidarity without anthropocentrism. But if you want to concern the human condition, why not say we?

For the most part, gender neutrality is only a problem because English overloads the third person. Balance the load and you avoid the problem. Are you talking about yourself? Stand up; say I. Are you addressing your readers directly? Look me in the eye; say you.

Not all gender-neutral expressions are more forcible; but those that are gain so much that they justify the rest.

3. Gender-neutral writing is underdeveloped. Someone who becomes a writer in admiration of great but gender-conflating works of literature will understandably suspect gender neutrality as a subtle form of philistinism. So it can be. So gender-conflation can be a subtle form of misogyny. But the strongest argument for gender neutrality is literary.

It was a favorite technique of the twentieth century to escape the weight of literary history by subjecting writing to constraints. Someone wrote a book without the letter e; which is remarkable, but trivial. Gender neutrality is a nontrivial constraint. Literature is desperately overcrowded, hopelessly competitive. Everything has been done before and done better. But gender neutrality opens a new world, with space, horizons, elbow room.