Gender neutral or binary gendered

Tracy Chevalier’s book, ‘A Single Thread’, is set in the 1930s.  The main character is Violet Speedwell, aged 38, whose fiancé and brother were both killed in the first world war.  She is an understated radical, deciding to leave her mother’s home and make an independent life for herself, as a single woman, thus challenging societal norms and expectations of the time.   

She’s stigmatised for being ‘a spinster’, then for having a baby as an unmarried mother.  Alongside her story is the story of Gilda and Dorothy, a gay couple who feel compelled to hide their relationship.  Violet gets roped into supporting them when Dorothy loses her job because someone got wind of the fact she was gay (not a term used in the 30s though), and Gilda is expelled from her family home because of it.   

I read the book this week and it seemed to set the theme on my thinking about gender neutral language and assumptions about ‘assigned gender’.  

Take gender neutral language first, I have two grandchildren – one assigned ‘male’ at birth and the other ‘female’.  Thus, at the moment, I refer both to them and to others (about them) in the language conventionally associated with their assigned gender e.g. ‘clever boy’, ‘clever girl’.  

Now I’m wondering if this language use is reflecting my assumptions and also reinforcing a set of, perhaps questionable/outdated, societal assumptions around norms associated with each gender.   A Single Thread explored, via Violet Speedwell, then current societal norms around women, their place in society, and the expectations around what they could and could not do – often the could nots being reinforced by laws.   (It wasn’t until 1975 and the Sex Discrimination Act that a British woman could open a bank account in her own name).

Now for assumptions on assigned gender.  When I was at school my career choices, as a girl, were teacher, nurse or secretary.  My brother, a boy, on the other hand, was not offered those career choices but instead ‘male’ ones  – engineer, scientist, economist, etc.  Is that sort of career assumption still prevalent?  I think so, though maybe not quite as strongly held.  The Economist, on 1 September 2022, reported on the lack of male nursery school teachers, saying, ‘Men make up only about 3% of the staff in England’s pre-schools, nurseries and playgroups. Few professions are so drastically skewed. The proportion has not budged for decades.’  The article reports that ‘Even keen [male] staff sometimes try to leave jobs “that the whole world is telling them they shouldn’t be in”.’

When I was growing up in the 50s and 60s, my mother both irritated and amused me by often telling me I should marry a doctor, lawyer or architect.  She did not say – why don’t you train as a doctor, lawyer or architect?  She also assumed that I would marry which in those years, as in the 1930s, was a still a standard assumption. 

If we adopted gender neutral language, then would it help erode these sorts of stereotypes,  assumptions and expectations?  Is that, in fact, the aim of the gender-neutral language push we are now witnessing? 

I’m not sure.  What I’ve seen discussed most frequently is gender-neutral pronouns. These do not associate a gender with the individual who is being discussed.   So, instead of calling someone ‘he’, or ‘she’ you call them ‘they’, and the person refers to themselves as they, for example:  ‘Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author. Their novel Autonomous won the Lambda Literary Award and they are the co-host of the Hugo-nominated podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.”

The push to use gender-neutral language including pronouns is hard to understand for some.  A friend who works in academia told me that their Academic Board had received a complaint from students that lecturers were not using gender neutral language.  The Academic Board – mainly older white men – dismissed the complaint.

The age profile of people who know people preferring, and going by, gender-neutral pronouns, is revealing. A 2019 Pew Center research study (US) found, ‘Roughly three-quarters of Americans ages 18 to 29 (73%) say they have heard a little or a lot about people preferring nonbinary pronouns, compared with about two-thirds of those 30 to 49 (65%) and smaller shares of those ages 50 to 64 (54%) and 65 and older (46%).  Only 8% of people over 65 know someone who goes by gender neutral pronouns, compared with 32% of people aged 18 – 29.

I feel, that the aim of adopting gender neutral language rests less on changing entrenched assumptions and stereotypes around careers, societal norms, employment prospects, equality of pay, changes to the law, etc and more around respecting the widening spectrum of gender expression embraced by some and rejected by others.  But maybe an outcome of embracing gender- neutral language will be changes to societal norms and assumptions.

Although In ‘A Single Thread’ there is no mention of gender-neutral language, the slowly changing attitudes to Gilda and Dorothy are delightfully charted, and it maybe that as assumptions and stereotypes erode, language changes to reflect this?

Language changes are not without difficulty.   As one University notes, ‘Some languages, such as English, do not have a gender neutral or third gender pronoun available, and this has been criticized, since in many instances, writers, speakers, etc. use “he/his” when referring to a generic individual in the third person. Also, the dichotomy of “he and she” in English does not leave room for other gender identities, which is a source of frustration to the transgender and gender queer communities.’  This has also led to words being created (see image) to reflect the range of identities.  How many of these, and which, will reach mainstream we’ve yet to find out.

Reaching beyond binary ‘male and female’ to a more fluid gender expression, is publicly and legally unavailable in some countries and cultures.  Continuing the theme of gender that has come my way this past week, a friend running a workshop in a country, where same-sex activity is a criminal offence, mentioned their sexual orientation (not straight) to the class and caused outrage. 

And as I was discussing this, I remembered the moving, animated film ‘Flee’ documenting the personal experiences of Amin, a gay man, now living in Copenhagen, who was forced to flee Afghanistan as a teenager that I’d watched earlier this year. 

I’m now left wondering if the trend in many countries towards gender neutral language, more choices around gender expression, and (possibly) the erosion of stereotypes and assumptions that go with a binary view of gender, will sweep across the globe or whether there are equally powerful forces that will reinforce binary norms, attitudes and language. 

Enabling people to express their gender as they choose, without suffering penalties, seems me to be in keeping with the UN Declaration of Human Rights.  I’ve decided I can make a tiny contribution by stopping assigning binary gender to my grandchildren as I speak with them. It is perfectly simple, for example, to say ‘clever child’, or ‘clever person’.   Whether this will change societal attitudes to/for them or whether at, both under 6, they are already in a gender category with associated expectations that they may, or may not, have to break out of, remains to be seen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: