I wore my white bead necklace to work the other day, and as I put it on in the morning I thought to myself “this should let everybody know that I identify as female”. But when I advanced that theory to some colleagues they expressed doubt. It would take more than that, apparently. Well, the insult to my femininity aside, it made me reflect for a moment on the zi zey him her they movement.
It’s a very current concern. I visited a high school recently, (admittedly it was an alternative high school in Boulder) and there were several students whom I honestly could not tell. Their youthfulness made it easy for them to adopt gender neutrality, but it still reminded me of the feminist sci-fi of the 70’s — Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin, where gender neutrality figured regularily. The students had a proud and self conscious air about them, and a desire to be looked at. Nevertheless, if gender specificity is on its way out, we’re going to need a pronoun to cover it.
My boss recently asked me to include my preferred pronouns in my email signature line. Something inside me revolted considerably, despite that I feel respect for the huge speed bump that is the pronoun liberation movement. Trying to say “ze” instead of ‘she’ when talking about someone really, really stops your mind, and requires mental gymnastics that very few can actually perform, to say the right pronoun for a person 100% of the time. That alone is worth a hat’s off.
It’s not up to me to bestow approval on the pronoun radicals, I know; I’m processing my own sense of it. It is a radical movement, a peaceful one, a disruptive one, even a slightly violent one, if you think of it. How many brain cells have died trying to get the pronoun right? And what is it protesting? Best leave that explanation to the professionals: why pronouns matter
Having said all that, I still want to ask, can’t we all just be we? I’ve been referring to myself as we, and it feels ticklish, bad-good. It could be the editorial we, or the couple-front we, or the gender neutrality we, or the royal we. Who cares? It’s a good substitute for gender specific pronouns, it’s already part of our grammer in the plural, it’s already in mainstream use, and it puts us all in the category of royals. I especially use it when I’m telling a story about someone and for whatever reason I don’t want the person’s gender to figure in the story. ‘We’ works, and it’s far easier to adapt to then ze. So heads up New York Times, Miriam Webster, Betty Azar. Let’s make the whole world do this.
Bravo. One of the most clear and direct expressions I have seen on this topic. I find ze easier than they for a singular being. “We” might actually work. Thanks!!
I’m so glad to have read this, Eileen. I noticed your signature line in a recent email, and wanted to ask you more about it. It feels strange to me to call myself “they,” which I tend to consider a reference to multiple others. I guess I still don’t quite understand the more recent use of the word. But I do feel most comfortable using a gender-neutral pronoun that encompasses all. I still view the universal “he” in that way – it sticks with me from my elementary school days in the mid ’80s. Your description of the royal we presents a good alternative, in my opinion, and it makes me smile that people are thinking and talking about this.
Hey Aunt Eileen!
I enjoyed the journey upon which this essay took “me” (which, by the way, Ms. Lea, is still what someone whose pronouns are “they” would use address themselves). While I find myself firmly planted in the land of “she,” I admire those who seek to explode the cages of the gender binary and explore the expansiveness of existing as something more. Thanks to you, I am toying with the idea of “we” versus “they” and thinking about belonging and possessing. Someone whose pronouns are they/them/theirs is decidedly their own, an individual or many individuals depending on the moment. Someone whose pronouns are we/ours may decidedly belong. That could be both good and bad, depending on whether the belonging is one that invites the whole self to be radically accepted or possessively owned. What if the “we” in question does not wish to be claimed by the parties present? Both acceptance and possession are possible within the “we,” which might be a plot hole in your beautifully devious plan for pronoun takeover.
On a grammatical note, one of the main points of protest that I hear folks use refers to the mental gymnastics required in using alternative pronouns, specifically “they”. I learned a helpful tool–a simple sentence– which has helped to unlock my mind. I’ll share it here for the good of the order. We actually use the pronoun “they” in regular language use without any trouble when we are referring to someone for whom we have no gender knowledge. Say someone found an umbrella. We would say “let’s leave the umbrella here in case they come back for it.” When my mind is doing panicked flips as I try to address someone who identifies as “they,” I say that sentence in my head to smooth the brainwaves. I hope that helps someone somewhere.
Niece Rachel (she/her/hers)