She Is Not He

Alison Cadbury

Written for computer sculpture “I AM She” by Magiamma

Copyright ©1991 magiamma All rights reserved.

We are always looking for who we are, individually and collectively. But language,  tradition gets in our way.  In English,  for instance,  there are several ways we can express general ideas.  We can use “one:”  as in,  “One learns from experience.”   We can use “You:”  as in ,  “You learn from experience.”  But the first sounds stilted when it is necessary to repeat the pronoun:  “One learns from one’s mistakes,”  and the second becomes confused with the specific “you,”  the second pronoun.  Another,  more appealing way is to use a singular noun so that one stands as a type.  “The child,”  we say,  (or a child)  “learns from experience.”

But as we continue to discuss this typical child,  we need to use pronouns,  and here is where language and tradition,  because they are inseparable,  have dictated the use of the masculine pronouns — he,  him,  his — to represent the general,  collective,  typical child,  adolescent,  adult.

Unlike other European languages,  which have grammatical gender for people and objects alike,  English has gender only for masculine and feminine beings,  all objects being neuter.  And again,  unlike other languages,  only our pronouns — neither our nouns,  adjectives nor  articles — have gender.  Therefor,  to use the masculine pronoun to express generality or universality is to definitely minimize or obscure female participation in that generality.  The female looks into the mirror of generality,  as it were,  and sees a male.  But she knows from her body that she is not a male.

Traditionalists say that when we use the masculine pronoun and such nouns as “man” and “mankind” to express something true of all people,  that we understand that women are included.  But I wonder how well we do understand it.  For the effect of gender words in English is very strong.  Small as they are,  they blaze out like sparse stars in a cloudy firmament.  It is more likely that this usage,  heard,  read millions of times in childhood,  adolescence,  adulthood,  confirms masculine hearers and speakers,  boys and men,  in a monocular view of the world,  in a view that the Word as well as the World belongs to men,  that the image in the mirror IS the prototype;  at the same time,  it confirms feminine hearers and speakers,  girls and women that they are  somehow outside the definitions — unspoken  of,  unspeakable,  nonexistent,  shadow beings without souls .[1]