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How Pronouns Influence Thought

I remember the first time I heard it.

I was a new administrator at a private school.  The year was 1987, and the headmaster was addressing the faculty at our day-long meeting before the opening of school.  “We need to make sure,” he said, “that every student gets the individual attention she deserves.”

She?  Did he say she?  I had never before heard a top school administrator use the female pronoun when referring generically to students in a school that enrolled both boys and girls.  It was always he, the pronoun my college professors told me was the one to use when referencing both genders, as in “Everyone should bring his book to class.”  I accepted that reasoning the same way I accepted that mankind was a term that actually included women.   But I had never heard a person of note in a school use she to mean both girls and boys before that day.

It is hard to explain the effect that simple pronoun had on me at the time.  At this school, girls we not subsumed as a group under boys.  Girls were seen as important individuals in their own right.  Suddenly, when we talked about students, I pictured a girl in class.  It was a game changer.

PronounsLater, when I moved back to public schools as a principal, I adopted the habit of alternating my pronouns.  Sometimes I used he; other times I used she.  “Please be sure every student brings his permission slip
back,” I reminded teachers.  Or “When a student is late to school, she should first report to the main office.”  I tried to use he/his or she/her together as in “I want to be sure everyone has his or her assignment before he or she leaves class” but the results were often clunky and contrived (as you can see).  So I stuck with alternating the pronouns to be fair and not to alarm my fellow administrators who might worry that I was just another crazy feminist (I object only to the “crazy” part).  But once, after a district principals’ meeting, another female principal told me she found my use of the feminine pronoun “liberating.”  In a way, it was.  Schools are often remarkably conservative institutions. 

So I was very interested in a new study that suggests that we began to see changes in the ratio of male to female pronouns that researchers attribute to the publication of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique.  Three university researchers tracked gender pronouns in 1.2 million books from 1900 to 2008.  The ratio of male to female pronouns was roughly 3.5 to 1 until 1950 and peaked at 4.5 to 1 in the mid-sixties.  But by 1975 the ratio shrank to 3 to 1, and in 2005 it was less than 2 to 1.  The researchers believe that Friedan’s use of she and her throughout her book  was unprecedented for a popular publication and began to change the way people thought about pronouns as they apply to gender.

James W. Pennebaker, the author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, says the numbers revealed by the study are “staggering.”  “Pronouns are a sign of people paying attention and as women become more present in the workforce, in the media, and life in general, people are referring to them more,” he says.  As of this week, for example, Augusta National has to remind its members when his or her dues need to be paid.

So if you think that what pronoun you choose when you talk about students doesn’t matter, I suggest you try using she instead of he a few times.  It looks and feels different.  Not necessarily better, but different.  Enough to make you think about alternating your choice so as to serve both genders equally well. 





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