Have you seen a doctoress lately? A lawyerette? Back in the seventies it was so unusual for females to be professionals that a simple, gender-based riddle stumped almost everyone the first time they heard it. The riddle said that a boy and his father were in a serious accident, the father was killed but the boy survived and was taken to the hospital. The surgeon came in, looked at the boy and said, "I can't operate on this boy, he's my son!' Most people missed the explanation because it never occurred to them that the surgeon, a female, was the boy's mother, but today this riddle doesn't work any more. Everybody today knows that surgeons, lawyers, and other professionals can be female, and we don't have to call them surgeonettes. We educated people to realize that inclusive words like doctor and lawyer, which everyone had previously assumed referred only to males, really did include females. Due to the high intelligence level of female professionals and their need to be taken seriously, along with the obvious belittling connotations of diminutive endings, there were no female doctors who, for fear that otherwise female contributions to the medical profession might become invisible, insisted on being called doctorettes.
But diminutives are not always so easily recognized. Only those of us who are over fifty may remember when grade school grammar recognized three types of pronouns: 1) The masculine or inclusive, such as he or him, 2) The feminine or diminutive, such as she or her, and 3) The neuter or indeterminate, such as it or that. Patriarchy noticed the rise in feminist consciousness well before feminists could recognize all the ways in which females are ritually diminished in a patriarchal society, and grammarians stopped referring to feminine pronouns as diminutives long before feminists could become conscious of and begin to protest grammatical diminishment. The use of feminine pronouns as the generic is increasing but that doesn't make them equal to the masculine or traditionally inclusive pronouns. It doesn't take much math to understand that something which can include another thing is greater than the thing it includes. The feminine as generic is still less than inclusive. We can find plenty of examples in legal rules and contracts of the masculine as inclusive, but examples of the feminine as generic are relatively recent and few.
The difficult in recognizing something that is pervasive is what led to feminist consciousness-raising. No matter how oppressive a practice may be, it can become invisible when it becomes part of cultural identity. The examples of footbinding and female genital mutilation are the most shocking examples of this problem. It took a revolution to end footbinding because it could not be ended by individual protest. We know from the literature that many females with bound feet took pride in their mutilation and ensured, if at all possible, that their daughters were similarly mutilated. The female child who protested was mocked or pitied, but unless it were for reasons of family [poverty or eccentricity, never spared. In the January/February 1996 issue of "Ms" magazine, Rita Henley Jensen writes about female genital mutilation (FGM) in the United States today. Even the threat of imprisonment for child abuse is not necessarily enough to convince female parents to refrain from mutilating their female children the way that they themselves were mutilated. The fact that we as females may be oppressed in a specific was as a class, even when the oppression takes the form of severe physical mutilation, doesn't mean that we can recognize what is done to us as oppressive. If generations of women didn't recognize physical mutilation as oppressive, and some, even today continue to perpetrate such oppression on their own female children, why should I imagine that it will be possible for us to recognize something as subtle and innocuous as a sex-based pronoun as being oppressive?
However difficult it may be to recognize something from within, it is often easier to identify it with a little perspective. Those who are not oppressed have the perspective that the oppressed lack, but it is not common for them to communicate their perspective or for their attempts at communication to succeed. A recent male caller to talk show expressed astonishment that females in our culture, given the way this society treats female, don't "rise up with machetes and knives and kill every male they find." This is a natural reaction for someone who isn't discriminated against: 'If I were treated the way that oppressed group is, I'd revolt.' But those of us who are members of oppressed groups have been inured to oppression since birth and have no experience of equality or perspective on our own oppression. An added difficulty arises from the fact that whenever we complained of inequities as children, we were told that we were just as good if not better that those who were more privileged. If we believe that we are already equal or even better off than males, there is no reason for us to protest oppression or fight for equality. But if the only way to recognize oppression is to step outside one's culture and self-identity, and actually experience equality so as to have the perspective with which to look back and identify discrimination, how can we as females ever gain that perspective without becoming male?
A partial answer may be in the history of the United States of America. People from all sorts of cultures have come here and stepped out of their traditional roles to the extent that the new world permitted them freedoms they could never have had at home. But the solution cannot be one of geography because we know of no truly matriarchal cultures in the world today. Another part of the answer in in the process of education. There isn't anyplace we can go and be treated as equal so that we will recognize discrimination when we return to our own culture. But sometimes we can learn from other people's experience without having to undergo the same thing ourselves.
There's an old story about a magician who had a flock of sheep but was too lazy to build a fence and too cheap to hire a shepherd. In order to keep the sheep from running away the magician simply hypnotized them and convinced all the sheep that they were magicians. Believing that they were magicians instead of sheep, the sheep saw no reason to run away. It wasn't until I was over 40 that I acknowledged a parallel to that parable in my own life. By concealing the fact that my sex is female I found myself being treated as if I were male for the first time in my life, and for the first time in my life I began to realize that I hadn't been equal to males or treated equally to males previously. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I had spent 40 years of my life believing that I was equal to or even superior to males, and it wasn't until I began being mistaken for a male by others that I actually experienced equal treatment and was able to admit that I'd never had it before. Freedom to step outside a traditional sense of identity, perspective from which to see oppression that would otherwise be invisible, and the strength of spirit to accept the truth, however disconcerting it may be--these are only some of the prerequisites for being able to recognize and resist oppression. But even more important is the simple fact that in every single phase of feminism the fear that females would turn into males proved unfounded. Females who wear their hair short are still female, females who wear pants are still female, females who practice law and medicine are still female, and even those females who become "legally male" because they feel more comfortable in the male gender role, are still female according to most scientific and biological definitions. We can become equal, but we cannot and in most cases would not want to become male. Of course if we were truly equal even those few exceptions would probably cease to exist--why would someone want to change their role in life if everyone was treated equally?
Back in l982, Douglas R. Hofstadter used the riddle mentioned in the beginning of this article to introduce a paper entitled, "Changes in Default Words and Images, Engendered by Rising Consciousness." (Metamagical Themas, Basic Books, ©1985) The following year Hofstadter wrote "A Person Paper on Purity in Language," substituting race for sex to illustrate just how unnecessary sex-based pronouns really are and how they cannot be anything but discriminatory. The problem, of course, is that Hofstadter is male and the only ones who could profit from understanding discrimination by means of pronouns are females. If a male tells me that the word "she" is unequal and insulting, my reaction will be, "Of course a male will think that--but I'm a female and I've been called 'she' all my life, and to imply that I've been insulted all my life is itself an insult." One may carefully point out, as Hofstadter did, as I frequently do, and as others sometime shave, that separate and different pronouns are not equal, are not necessary, and have no purpose other than to discriminate on the basis of sex, but the psychic pain of having to admit that one has been diminished verbally by others all one's life is no less painful and difficult to accept than the fact of having had one's feet bound or of having been genitally mutilated. In order to survive we have to accept who we're told we are and what is done to us, absorb these things into our identity, and persevere as best we can. If others find it strange, that is because they aren't us and, we rationalize, not as capable and worthwhile as we are either. A male might find the feminine pronoun insulting, having never been referred to that way except possibly as an insult, but a female who has never been referred to in any other way can hardly have the same perspective.
The first thing we are taught in a patriarchal society is that it is necessary to discriminate on the basis of sex at all times. Sex-based discrimination being the sine qua non of a patriarchal society, we are taught as soon as possible that the most important thing about us and about other people is sex, and that the most important thing we must do in life is to learn to identify others by sex and to make it easy for others to identify us by sex. Since nature often fails to distinguish between males and females before puberty in any way that is not normally covered by clothing in public, patriarchy has to resort to distinguishing costumes, gender-identified names, and, most ubiquitous of all, sex-based pronouns. The Constitution of the United States of America identifies females as persons and citizens entitled to equal treatment under law, but so long as we ourselves as females, indicate a preference for separate and different treatment, we continue to waive our right to equality. The tendency towards unisex names is useless in this regard if everyone needs to quickly identify a person's sex and thenceforth refer to them with sex-based pronouns. Living in a patriarchy we simply cannot imagine a circumstance in which knowledge of a person's sex might be irrelevant or unnecessary. But let us pretend for a moment that such a circumstance is possible.
We'll use the name Sam, which could be short for either Samuel or Samantha. Sam is applying for a job that is, in accordance with law, offered without regard to sex. Sam fills out the application and leaves the box for sex unchecked. The people reviewing the application immediately feel the need to know Sam's sex, so they look through the application for clues. Finding none, they may call a previous employer or other reference and listen for a pronoun in order to ascertain if Same is "a he or a she." Now let us suppose that the person called is a friend of Sam's and respects Sam's preference for inclusive terms. Since Sam is referred to with the traditionally inclusive "he," the prospective employer now assumes that Sam is male. If the employer has been illegally screening out females and at the interview finds that someone who they thought was male is actually female, they will have a problem trying to find a nondiscriminatory reason not to hire Sam. But suppose that Same, a female, shows up for the interview and appears to be male. Sam is not particularly masculine in appearance, but is not wearing any makeup, jewelry, or any clothing that could be considered sexually attractive. If the employer, assuming that Same is male, offers Sam the job and then, subsequent to a pre-employment physical, learns that Sam is female, Sam is going to have a very irate employer. Chances are the employer will, in violation of privacy laws, inform coworkers of Sam's sex so that they won't be "fooled" also, and Sam will be subjected to extreme harassment and discrimination on the job. The job may be offered "without regard to sex" by law, but in a patriarchy it is a law that is not and cannot be enforced since the basis of patriarchy is discrimination on the basis of sex which is not possible without knowing everyone's sex.
If the law was enforced and we had equal rights and respect for privacy, there would be nothing more private than a person's private parts, and Sam could be hired without the employer needing to know Sam's sex. I know from personal experience that when employers require applicants to list personal matters such as race and sex "for statistical use only," those forms are not routinely kept confidential because in a patriarchy, where everyone understands the need to distinguish on the basis of sex in order to discriminate on the basis of sex, it is considered deviant to attempt to keep one's private parts private and everyone is expected to flaunt their genital status as overtly as possible as a condition of employment.
But back to our experiment. Let us suppose that the employer really doesn't care about an applicant's sex and Sam is hired without a genital exam. Sam is assumed to be male and since male is the default in a patriarchy and Sam does nothing to deviate from default standards, and Sam is referred to with the traditionally inclusive pronouns "he" and "him" under the assumption that Sam is male. Now suppose that somebody learns that Sam is female. The first thing they'll want to do is tell everybody else so that Sam will be referred to with the feminine pronoun instead of the traditionally inclusive pronoun. But Sam is already accustomed to inclusive treatment without regard to sex and takes the use of feminine pronouns to be insulting, exactly the way a male would. What is the solution? Should Sam have a sex change in order to attempt to qualify for inclusive terms?
Hofstadter pointed out that it is incredibly easy to raise consciousness with regard to inclusive terms. If we can learn that words like doctor and lawyer, which traditionally referred only to males, are actually inclusive and refer to females also, there is no reason that we can't readily understand that traditionally inclusive terms like he and him can also be used inclusively without regard to sex. In the event that there is a bona fide reason to communicate another person's genital status, it is as simple to say that "Same is female," or "He is female, as it is to say that "The surgeon is female," or The attorney is female." Having once established a person's sex, it is no more necessary to refer to them in terms of their sex, than it is in Hofstadter's satire, to refer to people continuously in terms of their race.
Gender roles are, like all social roles, a matter of rank or status, and in a patriarchy that status is based on sex and has appropriate verbal indicators of status based on sex. If there is a word that a dominant group considers to be an insult, because it refers only to an oppressed group, then that word cannot be redeemed and should be discarded in favor of equal, inclusive terms. If we learned nothing else from the O.J. trial, we should have learned that if an oppressor considers a term to be insulting, no amount of "redemption" of that term by an oppressed group will change its meaning.
There is no real need for feminine pronouns. Think about Nora. He is female. When he was a little girl he wanted to grow up to be a nurse but today he works as a journalist. Nora is 34 years old, healthy, 5'6", and feminine in both appearance and manner. He is married to a male named Paul and they have 3 children.
Nora has never before in his life been referred to as "he." He actually believes that he prefers separate, different, unequal, feminine pronouns because he is accustomed to them, although he readily admits that he was never offered a choice in the matter. He has never thought of using traditionally inclusive terms so that they were truly inclusive, and would be surprised to learn that he can be referred to in this way with no harm to his sexual identity or integrity. I have taken the liberty of doing so anyway and Nora's life has not changed. He is still female, but now he is on equal terms with males. Should he and his spouse decide to raise their children on equal terms, in a few generations patriarchy might vanish from the face of the earth.