by Tess Dufrechou
In ninth grade I thought that I was the coolest little feminist on the block because I was really into writing “womyn” instead of “women” (until my older brother made fun of me and said I would only make lesbian friends who didn’t shave their leg hair, but that is another story). Then I felt awkward—I was in that conforming age (do we ever leave it?) where I did not want to be the only person spelling womyn with a ‘y,’ so I switched back. Why make a big deal about some small letter that you can’t even hear? While I am still not sure that “womyn” is an effective form of feminist activism, I do know that grammar and language are not just topics that we learn in dusty old books written by older white gentlemen—they are political tools that we can use for social change.
Systems of oppression, like patriarchy and heteronormativity, seep into and replicate themselves within our language, revealing its influence even in the smallest of grammatical tools, like pronoun usage. Recently a friend was telling me about her acclaimed professor, and I asked “what’s his name?”—automatically assuming that a professor, someone in a position of knowledge and power—would use male pronouns, even though there are many acclaimed professors who are women at Stanford.
Consciously deciding to use language that does not replicate harmful power structures in place can seem frustrating and awkward at first, but will get easier the more we make a habit of asking ourselves simple questions before speaking, like, “did this person identify which gender pronoun they prefer when referring to themselves?” If you catch yourself making assumptions in your language, correct yourself. Correct your friends. Be that person that corrects someone you don’t even really know, if you feel safe doing so. If you are not sure about which gender pronoun to use when discussing someone, use “they,” or, if appropriate, ask them what they prefer, and remember next time.
Speaking intentionally does not only mean respecting others’ identities and their terms to describe themselves, but also means stating out loud your ‘cis’ identities—or identities that fit in with a perceived societal norm—in order to remind yourself and others that this imposed norm is not a “default” identity that should be assumed. For example, if your gender identity matches the gender you were assigned at birth (called cisgender), you should still introduce yourself as preferring she/her gender pronouns.
Speaking intentionally and politically also does not mean always defaulting to gender neutral language—ignoring gender in situations of relationship abuse and sexual assault, for example, where by far the majority of perpetrators are men, erases a key piece of the problem and cloaks patriarchy behind a lens of gender equality, which can be just as dangerous as assuming gender.
When in doubt, do some research. Look up the implications of the language you use, and always allow people to self-identify when it comes to pronouns. Be kind to yourself as you make mistakes, but learn from them, because sometimes talking the talk can be a part of walking the walk.
If you would like to read more about the historical and present use of “they” as a singular pronoun (replacing he/she), check out this slightly cheeky yet informative article.
Have any more helpful tips for socially conscious grammar and language use? Comment below!