I am old enough to have been taught that the masculine third person singular was a gender-inclusive form. The issue was raised, and unambiguously answered. There are problems with it, to put it mildly, chief among them that masculine-only is not “gender neutral,” and therefore fails in its manifest purpose. That this was its manifest purpose, however, whatever its degrading latencies, is undeniable.
I had a brace of women’s studies students one year, however, who were deliberately taught that the masculine-only third person pronoun was intentionally not gender-inclusive. These students therefore refused to read an article from the 60s – on music at college parties, for heaven’s sake. I explained the custom of the time, admitted its undeniable irritation, and asked that they make the appropriate allowances, holding their nose if need be. Again they refused, telling me that this was a clear case of intentionally sexist, gender exclusive usage.
I asked where they got this idea. They told me their WS teacher said that the masculine third person singular was never considered gender neutral. I asked if this instructor was old enough to remember this first-hand? No, but she, quote, “just knew.”
At this I exploded, and called her a goddamn liar. They ran to her, and petitioned the chair not to have to read the article (on the basis that it was insulting to them as women). I prepared a simple affidavit, to be distributed and signed by all faculty over 50: “I was taught that third person masculine usage is not gender inclusive.” I said that if a single faculty member signed it, I would resign, and return my salary for the year. That was the end of that.
[and this was written by MW, in a discussion in another forum]
An interesting reply by Carolyn Hax, to a somewhat common generalisation. Found at the Washington Post site, in the advice column Tell me about it online discussion today:
RE boys will be boys: Well…if men’s self-worth and societal ‘value’ were predicated on looks and looks only, they’d freak out too.
Carolyn Hax: Is that really how you feel? Like nothing you say or do matters because you’re female? Are you reading this because you think I’m pretty? That is some serious self-loathing you’re carrying around. And I’m saying that not in a what’s-YOUR-problem-way, but in an I’m-worried-about-you way.
In a discussion about new music and “avant-garde composers”, some people were defending the use of “he” as the neutral personal pronoun in normal English. I don’t know what is normal in English (it is not my first language), but the reason I pointed out the use of only he and his as a problem in the first place was to see what happened to people’s thinking. I just changed all the “he” to “she” in a post, without comments. Two British gentlemen took it as a provocation. So I had to reply something, which was:
Don’t generalise about the personal, if you can avoid it. I prefer saying he/she/it/they when I speak about avant garde artists, politicians and God. You can’t be sure that the generalised person in question is not a hermaphrodite polar bear, the whole cultural industry, or a computer.
A more serious reply could have been to refer to a neutral article at Wikipedia about gender-neutral pronouns:
I haven’t yet decided which pronoun/re-formulation I prefer to use when I write. Sometimes I write “he”, or alternate with “she”. Sometimes I use the explicit but clumsy “he/she(/it)”, and lately I have started to try the dubious singular “they”. I sense that it is a problem to use only “he” when meaning any human, but in fact I do this quite often, contrary to what my opponents in the recent debate may think! This is what feels most comfortable (even with that nagging sense that it ain’t just right and fair, because it isn’t obviously inclusive language), so when I int’ ids struggle with the political correct, I pretend that we’re each and everyone just one of the boys… However, there is this question of whether I as an enlightened intellectual and compassionate human has a moral duty to always help the less fortunate to think about and understand what they say and mean? (If you get the irony.) Should I be an example in creative and correct use of language, even if I risk to provoke people into conservative reactions? If I don’t want them to feel attacked, but want them to think sensible and with humour about a problem we have no good solution to yet, then I can hardly use the methods associated with senseless militant activists. Whatever. Sigh.
(int’ ids, or, ids inte, is the succinct Swedish expression meaning “can not be bothered to”. Short “i”, as in rinse.)