So gender specific

This happened. The British Humanist Association publicly posted a Happy Humanist Day message on Facebook:

A humanist is someone who does the right thing even though she knows that no one is watching.

[Random bolding theirs.]

A good message, right?

Ah no, not so fast. There’s a problem.

Jane Brown Why the she? Big mistake to be so gender specific.

Did your jaw hit the floor? Mine did.

“She” is gender specific, in sharp contrast to “he,” which is not.


Anyway, happy world humanist day.


  1. Al Dente says

    He is just as gender specific as she. If the British Humanist Society had used “he” would Jane Brown have noticed?

  2. The Great God Pan says

    My first reaction was that she’d rather see “they” or one of those non-gendered singular pronouns, not that she thinks “he” is universal.

  3. anon1152 says

    Re: Ophelia Benson @3

    I disagree with you when you say “people never say that when it’s ‘he.'”

    Many people have said exactly that, which is why (I think) we increasingly see the word “she” being used to refer to a random human being in general (instead of “he”, which has been the common practice). After a few centuries of everyone using “she” instead of “he”, complaints about the “gender specificness” of that humanist day poster might be justifiable.

  4. says

    It wasn’t an absolutely literal “people never” – not least because I have been saying it for years. On the other hand I don’t phrase it as “so gender specific”; I’m more likely to call it default male.

    But it’s very far from usual for people in general to pounce on default male, while the use of “she” was pounced on instantly. That’s very bizarre.

    And we don’t see “she” used anywhere near enough, yet (and when we do there’s a fight). Also I’m not sanguine about delaying a few centuries, given climate change and all.

  5. anon1152 says

    “Also I’m not sanguine about delaying a few centuries, given climate change and all.”

    Sorry if I was ambiguous. I wasn’t saying we should wait a few centuries. I was suggesting that we spend a few centuries using “she” in the way that “he” has been used for centuries before complaining about the use of “she”.

  6. anon1152 says

    The use of “he” in the canon of western political philosophy has interested me. Female writers in this tradition, e.g., Hannah Arendt, would use “he” to refer to humans in general, regardless of sex. (I know that’s not an argument in favour of using “he” and not “she”).

    Did male writers in this tradition mean to include males and females when they wrote about “man”? Yes, sometimes. John Locke was explicit about this in the 1st Treatise. In a comment about how to interpret some lines in the Bible, he says: “…Man there, as is usual, is taken for the Species…” (1st Treatise, Paragraph 30). And the Bible (well, the KJV) seems to agree with Locke. E.g.:

    – “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (Genesis 1:27).

    – “Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.” (Genesis 5:2).

    But Locke wast exactly a feminist. And it is clear that those male thinkers didn’t always have females in mind when they wrote of “man”. Susan Okin is right when she quotes Rousseau–“It is of man that I am to speak”–and says that he’s only talking about males (Women in Western Political Thought, p.5).

    In another book, Okin mentions this new tendency to write “she” instead of “he” to refer to humans generally, and warns against “false gender equality” (Justice Gender and the Family, pp.10-13). Replacing “he” with “she” is not nearly enough. In fact, it could make things worse if the change in our language obscures the lack of change in our lives.

  7. says

    The writer Anne Fadiman once asked her father Clifton (a fairly famous columnist in his day) if all those assumed males had really meant women too, and he admitted that no, they didn’t at all. When people wrote “men” they meant “men” however much they might pretend otherwise.

  8. says

    I think the worst case of assumed male I’ve ever encountered is Janet Malcolm, who even when saying “a journalist” when actually talking about herself would still use “he.” Completely ridiculous, and because so ridiculous, insulting. And, frankly, bad writing. How is such an obtrusive absurdity a good way to write? She’s a brilliant writer, but the religious obedience to the putative default male rule is unbelievably grating.

  9. Ysanne says

    Looked weird to me, too, just like any other reference to a person of unspecified gender as he/she instead of singular-they these days. I think it’s a good sign to be so accustomed to “they” that the alternative looks out of place.
    The only place where I still routinely see the alternating/random use of “he” and “she” for a person is in parenting books, and that use can be confusing (because some authors don’t keep the pronoun constant when talking about one single kid).

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    chrislawson @ # 11: It’s also a bad message.

    I see several lines of potential criticism of this message, but the one which stick out the most to my eyes: many people (though without any mention of humanists) have said it before.

  11. =8)-DX says

    I always get a “yey go women!” moment whenever she is used. The only place it is out of place is when it’s one of those entrenched male professions… priest, pope, patriarch.

  12. Dunc says

    I was suggesting that we spend a few centuries using “she” in the way that “he” has been used for centuries before complaining about the use of “she”.

    Actually, the use of “he” as the generic singular pronoun is relatively recent, only really taking off in the late 19th century, and the arguments used at the time in favour of “he” (over the singular “they”) were mostly explicitly androcentric. And it’s never really taken as successfully in British English as it seems to have in American English, despite the best efforts of several generations of prescriptivist grammarians…

    The relevant wiki article gives a good overview of the matter.

  13. latsot says

    Defaulting from the default gender was obviously – and rightly – part of the message.

    I always use “she” to refer to hypothetical people unless there’s a reason that would be confusing. I mostly do it because defaulting to “he” is thoughtless in a fairly literal sense; if you can’t see a good reason not to use “he” as default, you haven’t thought about it.

    But I do it also because it triggers double-take in some people, which is what I assume the BHA wanted too. It was a subtle and welcome Fuck You.

    Related anecdote: years ago I did a mandatory course on scientific writing. The premise of the course was that scientific writing style is necessarily different from…. writing… which I still don’t agree with.

    I made a point of writing examples involving people, all of whom were “she” and was told off for writing about people (however hypothetical) rather than just obliquely referring to them as passive objects. Other people on the course used examples with “he” without comment from the organisers.

    To be fair, though, I purposely made a nuisance of myself in general, so perhaps it was personal.

  14. Pieter B, FCD says

    I do the same thing as latsot, for the same reasons; it provokes a double take which may plant a seed. I was inspired to do it back in my hippie days by a poster or T-shirt which said “God is coming back soon, and she’s pissed.”

    There’s quite a history of writers we consider excellent using the singular “they,” but it still bothers me a bit when I see it. However, if the Oxford Dictionary is OK with it, I guess I’ll have to get over that reaction.

  15. latsot says

    @Pieter, 17:

    It was Doug Hofstadter who made me realise – sometime in the 70s – that we had all been fucking up language and the way we tend to think about language.

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