I remember being told as a young girl at school that the pronoun “he” is the default when the sex of the person is unknown or is used in a general way. The default human was male. Females were the exception. I accepted this rule as a linguistic quirk, but the idea of it also burrowed into my skin. The desired sex must be male. Females were an afterthought, not the assumption. Writing about women was less common, so female pronouns were less necessary. This rule explained a lot.
As I got older I noticed that there were times when a female pronoun was used, when the nameless person being referred to was assumed to be female. If it was a nurse, it was a “she” even though men were also nurses. Often teachers, particularly those in non-STEM lower education were assumed to be female. Child-care providers were also relegated to female pronouns. Suddenly it seemed that there was something else going on. Female pronouns were only used when men were considered a remote possibility, a decided minority. When women and men participated equally in a profession, male pronouns were used.
In adulthood, I noticed that Star Trek captains were referred to as “sir” even if they were women. “Sir” was the designation of respect for the leader of the starship. It felt both right (adding gravitas to women) and wrong (giving women the borrowed feathers of male authority) .
As I watched Elizabeth Warren’s campaign go from front-runner to non-starter in a few short weeks and my dream of a female president during my lifetime died yet again, an idea occurred to me. What if we only referred to the President of the United States as “she” or “her”? Would that change how we view the office? Would some men self-select out because of their view of women as less than men? Would it reveal and even alter the hidden sexist assumptions that have prevented people from voting for a woman (or worse–the belief that other voters are sexist and that because they won’t vote for a woman, I’d better not either, even though I prefer the female candidate, e.g. the electability argument).
I was discussing Warren’s failed bid when my friend pointed out that she was far from perfect as a candidate. I about lost my mind! Far from perfect? Compared to Trump who literally boasted of sexually assaulting women? Compared to Biden who sniffed women’s hair and offered to fist-fight someone in one of his audiences and called someone a dog faced pony soldier? Compared to Sanders who is ancient and just had a heart attack a few months ago?? Just how perfect does she have to be?
My friend added that only one in ten women in her home state voted for her. I’m not sure why we are separating the women and men who voted for her (no candidate wins on strictly one demographic’s vote, and lots of women are sexist), but some contributing factors to losing her home state were related to how the media covers the candidates, assuming the men will prevail and often ignoring the women candidates, giving the men a lot more latitude for mistakes, and of course there’s the momentum achieved in earlier states. Additionally, women are perceived to be more liberal than men even when their policies are aligned. We have a constant barrage of “just not her” syndrome in which voters can’t explain why they don’t like her. They just don’t.
So here’s an example of what that might sound like. From an article in the Atlantic:
At moments of national crisis, there is a strong instinct to support the president’s leadership. In the media, this instinct expresses itself in the impulse to suppress our knowledge of the president’s history and character, and to report on her the way we would have reported on her predecessors. But just as the president has a duty, so do we. Our duty is to describe things as they are, not as we would wish them to be.
That’s one type of example, talking about the office in general and assuming female pronouns. This is a simple change, one that we should test out across the board. I’ve begun attempting to favor female pronouns whenever I don’t know the sex of the person. “I’m not sure when the exterminator will get here, but can you let her in the back?” or “Do you have a hematologist you would recommend? What’s her name?”
Here’s taking that idea even further. See what you think.
The coronavirus is a powerful force, but it is not powerful enough to transmute Donald Trump into a different person from the one she was before the crisis. So when we talk about the president and her protracted refusal to test, we should not write about that decision as if the president who were refusing the test were a figure from Mount Rushmore. It’s Trump. Why did she delay such an urgent health precaution for so long?
So why would that also help us to finally have a female president? Well, there are some men who would object to a female pronoun as a condition of the job, and I say to those potential presidents “Good riddance!” If you think it’s shameful to be a woman, when women have always been asked to tolerate male pronouns, then you are probably too insecure and misogynistic to be president. We have too many men in politics, particularly in the Republican party, who feel entitled to weigh in on women’s health without even a rudimentary understanding of it. I suspect many of them would not want to take a job with female pronouns, and if they are legislating about women’s concerns, that’s a problem.
If you think all men would object to female pronouns, let’s be clear: that’s a problem. I can think of one who would be totally chill with them: Jean-Luc Picard. He would not object to female pronouns if those were the ones used for the office. If we are electing leaders who fall short of the Picard standard (and you know we are), we should expect more. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where a mediocre man with serious flaws can easily best some very remarkable women.
- Do you think this would move the needle on sexism in voting?
- Would you take the extra step of using female pronouns for a sitting president to discourage seriously sexist men from running or do you think that’s a form of deadnaming? (I mean, it is, but still).
- Will you commit to using female pronouns as the default or at least to attempting more egalitarian pronouns? (Baby steps)
 Case in point, Oaks’ explanation of how women use the priesthood in our callings. Novel approach, but still, I don’t feel like it’s quite right. It’s still a male default rather than a model of female leadership. How does Heavenly Mother get stuff done? Borrowed light? There’s no female power?