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In Search of the Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun, LARB Learns From Stacey Waite
In the lake has no saint, Stacey Waite’s speaker was a little girl who prayed, “please god if you let me wake up and be a boy, i will never say another swear word again.” Throughout the book, Waite artfully employs the strictures of English grammar to her/his benefit, crafting phrases like “i will not be the kind of boy who can not bear the memory of her body.” Los Angeles Review of Books writer Dana Levin uses Waite’s work as a springboard for a full-fledged investigation of gendered pronouns, tracing back to the 1800s, when Parliament decreed that “his” would serve in place of “his or her” and even “her.”
In 1850 in London, by an Act of Parliament, the singular pronoun ‘he’ was finally, legally, crowned. “In all acts,” the Act pronounced, “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.” According to the linguist Ann Bodine, the law was introduced “for the shortening of the language used in Acts of Parliament,” and was intended to relieve some of the burden of verbosity demanded by legal precision. Of particular weight, apparently, was the need to write “he or she” when referring to individuals of unknown gender. Perhaps too, having to intone “he or she,” often repetitively, when reading such acts aloud was felt to impede member eloquence; what politico would want to invite bruises to both vanity and persuasion? Thus for motives practical and egotistic, and for patriarchal ones too, “she” was voted off the island.
The Act of 1850 by the male-only Houses of Lords and Commons is but one link in a long chain of attempts to impose androcentric values on the English language. The history of third-person pronoun usage in this regard is both fascinating and absurd. By the late nineteenth century in Britain and America, a prime mix of Victorian kookiness, male privilege, and bourgeoning suffragism colored the terms of assertion and response regarding centuries of putting “him” first: from Thomas Wilson in 1553 berating English language users for setting “the Carte before the horse” by saying “My mother and father are both at home” to Bodine’s 1975 survey of then-contemporary grammar books, where she found in 28 out of 33 cases that “pupils are taught to achieve both elegance of expression and accuracy by referring to women as ‘he’.” For over two centuries, in both the education and publishing spheres, human beings “were to be considered male unless proven otherwise.”
There’s a lot more to this review, such as conjoined twins, early grammar Nazis, and breast binding. Read the whole article here.