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There are some questions on gender-neutral pronouns both here and on Writers.

User Christine Letts writes:

In academia, there is currently a movement toward using the feminine pronoun at all times.

I wonder why that is. I came across several examples on papers I read, but the only one I can remember at the moment is a book: Seth Godin's Linchpin. While some might not be comfortable labeling it as part of academia, it suits my point perfectly. Every time he refers to a person, he uses the feminine pronoun.

This strikes me as (sigh) affirmative action. This is as sexist as the reverse, and should be frowned upon by more enlightened English Language users, who should know better.

User Senseful writes the following, potentially identifying affirmative action as the precursor for this trend.

I remember reading somewhere that it was recommended to use the opposite of what most people stereotype the profession as. So, for example, when talking about a chiropractor, you would use "her", and when talking about a secretary, you would use "his".

So, where do you think this trend comes from?

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Generic pronouns are pronouns used for both sexes, "genderless" pronoun meaning "it", or neuter pronoun. –  Thursagen Jun 4 '11 at 9:05
Thanks — I'm not a native speaker ;) –  Júlio Santos Jun 4 '11 at 9:28
There is a better word than “generic pronoun”. It is typically called a gender-neutral pronoun. –  F'x Jun 4 '11 at 9:30
I use "he" actually (and kind of always seen that)... –  Alenanno Jun 4 '11 at 9:57
@victoriah, @Marcin: OP was offering a potential explanation, while being unaware of the actual one. As such, OP reached out to the only community he knew which could help him. OP regrets his English skills weren't enough to convey the right tone. –  Júlio Santos Jun 4 '11 at 17:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 13 down vote accepted

This practice began round about the time of the feminist movement in the late 20th century(c.1980-c.1990)

Taken from the Free Online Dictionary:

Usage Note: Using she as a generic or gender-neutral singular pronoun is more common than might be expected, given the continuing debate regarding the parallel use of he. In a 1989 article from the Los Angeles Times, for instance, writer Dan Sullivan notes, "What's wrong with reinventing the wheel? Every artist has to do so in her search for the medium that will best express her angle of vision." Alice Walker writes in 1991, "A person's work is her only signature."

Wikipedia notes why:

One response to this (use of generic pronoun he) was an increase in the use of generic she in academic journal

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I can't assert wether this is actually a «correct answer», but sounds like a pretty solid explanation to me. –  Júlio Santos Jun 4 '11 at 10:29

I wouldn't call it a trend, if by that you mean "something that's growing noticeably and is likely to become common"; I've seen it only sporadically. Calling a movement--meaning, some people are doing it, without specifying how many — is probably more accurate.

Where it came from philosophically is clear: from a desire to challenge stereotypes. Perhaps more interesting is where is it going — will it catch on?

As for "should be frowned on" — that's an aesthetic/political judgement. I can't see a basis for rendering an academic answer to that.

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My mentioning frowning was due to my belief that this movement, as you call it, is moving from one end of the sexist axis to the other. What good is that? –  Júlio Santos Jun 4 '11 at 9:32
@Julio Santos, good point: basically, no good. –  Thursagen Jun 4 '11 at 9:43
It's not moving from one end of the sexist axis to the other. If we accept that the use of the male form of pronoun is acceptable because mention of one gender implies all others, then using the female form should be just as acceptable for the same reason. By using the female pronoun in this way, it provokes the question whether use of male forms is really neutral. –  Marcin Jun 4 '11 at 10:00
Using the male form pronoun is acceptable since it's now consuetudinary. Using the female one is making a point — a sexist point. –  Júlio Santos Jun 4 '11 at 10:15
@Júlio Santos: You seem to imply that something that's customary (I wouldn't use consuetudinary here as it's an obscure legal term, and 99% of people will never have heard it), that means it's not sexist. However, many practices now considered sexist were once customary, and the way that customs change is largely by people doing things differently! That said, I haven't seen the usage of she exclusively as a gender-neutral pronoun become common, though I have seen far more often is writers that try to use a mixture of both he and she. Perhaps the unusual she is more noticeable? –  psmears Jun 4 '11 at 11:56

The trend is a reaction to the cries for gender-neutrality and political correctness, in technical writing. For example, this article says:

Regardless of what you may have been taught in grammar school, the use of masculine third-person pronouns (he/ him/ his/ himself) as generic pronouns is no longer acceptable to many people in business communication. Whatever your own intentions may be, some readers will regard this usage as insulting, insensitive, or at the very least, distracting.

And this one:

While it might be excessive to read history as if every general use of “man” is overtly sexist, today’s culture calls for alternatives.

There are many alternatives suggested by those articles and others, but one of them is to purposefully use "she":

For example, always use he/him/his in odd numbered chapters, and always use she/her/hers in even numbered chapters. This strategy does promote balance and has sometimes been used to good effect in textbooks, but it doesn't solve the real problem of distracting the reader.

Personally I find it very distracting, and also a bit silly.

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