Gender Neutering in the English Language

The article “In Defense of Gender” by Cyra McFadden is a satirical piece which attempts to point out the absurdity of the current trend of gender neutering in the English language. She does so by providing examples from her personal life, interweaving them as she moves between each example to emphasize how they are all connected. These examples range from irritating pronunciations of slashes to neutering the genders of Jesus and God in modern religion. The article concludes with a statement of refusal to continue playing this game of neutering the language. McFadden’s goal in writing this article was to convince the followers of this gender neutering movement that their actions are more damaging than helpful. She issues this cease and desist order by setting an example herself - a woman explaining her objections to the many neutering techniques being employed and refusing to participate.

It is rather unfortunate that we now live in a society where other people like to dissect everything you say or do, and shine rays of evil upon you if you it wasn’t done to perfection. The gender neutering movement is no stranger to this behavior. Even in situations where a person could not possibly know the gender of the person with whom they’re interacting, they can have the sexism card thrown back in their face. These people know full well that the situation has absolutely nothing to do with their gender, yet the moment something isn’t going their way, or you write something that isn’t completely gender neutral, they reveal their gender to the world and pounce on your writing with false accusations of your decisions and behavior being based on who they are.

Some women have even begun hyphenating their last names when getting married. McFadden claims that this hyphenating is “in the interests of retaining their own personhood” and while they may be accomplishing their goal of maintaining their equality with their husband, they only cause frustration among those who already have trouble remembering one last name who now have to remember two (1981). Those people, the ones who have immense difficulty remembering names and dates, are the true victims here.

History class is already difficult enough for some. Being able to parrot back exquisite detail of what happened isn’t quite enough. You also have to be able to name who was involved in those actions and when they took place. Easy for some, a nightmare for others, and compounded by additional names for little to no benefit. McFadden’s frustration with remembering two names may put her in the same, or maybe a similar, boat. Even though hyphenating is a simple act that on the surface looks like it only affects the one person, it does affect others quite a bit. Think about all the people you interact with on a daily basis who might need to write or speak your name - bankers, hotel clerks, the people at the Department of Motor Vehicles who already deal with enough throughout the day. Now imagine if every woman hyphenated upon marriage and how much that would irritate these people to no end. “What was her last name again? McFadden something or other?” It doesn’t end there, either. Hyphenating by nature makes your name longer, which also means more space is required on forms, identification cards, and other key documents in order to accommodate these excessively long names. Just be glad if your line of work doesn’t require dealing with this sort of thing.

The forcing of unwanted words onto others doesn’t stop there. One distracting modification of the language insists on replacing all forms of “he” with “he/she” because that is somehow considered to be a neutered form of the word. McFadden in this case cites her own experience at a professional conference where she “heard a text replete with ‘he/she’ and ‘his/her’ read aloud for the first time” and emphasized by the fact that the woman speaking pronounced the word “slash” between each of them (1981).

So now we’ve taken a single word which has commonly been used to encompass either males or females throughout the history of English and expanded it into three words in an attempt to be inclusive. While a noble attempt, slashing every instance of a subject whose gender is unknown is not the answer to the problem. Not only is this just plain unpleasant to read, but it is an assault on the ears when read aloud. Considering that they are so unnecessary, one reading and speaking exercise is to just mentally ignore them. When you encounter these atrocities in the text, skip over them by simply reading only the “he” in your mind or speaking it aloud. The “slash she” can save itself for other people who care enough to make a fool of themselves by preserving such an asinine butchering of the language.

Escalating the problem even further, some churches have even begun replacing instances of the gender for God and Jesus with a neutered form. This particular example comes to McFadden from one of her friends, who reports a neutered verse from I Corinthians (1981). While God has always been known as a male throughout time, it’s not completely out of question to consider God to be a female. After all, no one can prove God exists let alone prove the gender, and it could be just as plausible that God is a higher being possessing no gender. However, the neutering doesn’t stop there. A person of the very same church also decided that changing the verse Luke 2:7 would be a great idea, reading: ‘’ ‘And she brought forth her firstborn son/daughter, and wrapped him/her in swaddling clothes, and laid him/her in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. …’ ‘’ (McFadden 1981).

While this parson had the sense not to insinuate that the person giving birth (whom is commonly referred to as Mary) was male, given that it’s not possible for a male to give birth, implying that the gender of a newborn baby is still unknown simply doesn’t make sense. Having a baby right there in front of you, holding it in your arms, implies that you would know what gender the baby is. Unless the mother is suffering from some extreme form of denial extending from the “I don’t want to know the gender until the baby is born” mindset we see with modern science equipment, the baby has a defined gender that cannot be ignored. It only makes sense to neuter the gender when the subject of sentence can refer to a number of different people - thus the gender truly is unknown. But in this case, the subject never changes. It’s always the same baby, every single time, and thus we have reached the peak of the absurdity which is known as gender neutering. We end up with people making blatantly incorrect and nonsensical modifications to their text under the premise of respecting gender.

McFadden’s goal in writing this article was to convince the followers of this gender neutering movement that their actions are more damaging than helpful. McFadden makes many great points about the destruction of the English language through her many examples given in the article. The best example of her stance is how churches are modifying their texts to be more gender neutral in places which have no business being gender neutral. The entire purpose of a neutral pronoun is to emphasize that the gender of the person is not just unknown, but can’t be known. These ignorant and incorrect changes are an affront to the English language, and encourage the mindset that these changes must be made in all aspects of life where they do not belong. However obscene those edits might be, let’s not forget that other instances which might seem to be minor are still just as frustrating. Women hyphenating their names and speakers pronouncing “he slash she” may be noble efforts in defeating sexism, but the only thing they achieve is irritating those who have to witness it in their lives. The insistence on making these changes more common is only further driving a wedge between those who think it’s necessary and those who don’t.

That’s not to say the entire movement around neutering the English language doesn’t make sense. It’s embarrassing that our language does not have a gender-neutral word to use for identifying the subject. However, the solutions the movement has produced tend to have more side effects than benefits. It’s almost like they’re trying to make us take a pill that makes our acne go away, but also causes us to experience occasional fainting, dizziness, trouble urinating, and increased risk of cancer. All to solve an acne problem? No thanks. Sometimes everyone needs to just take a step back from the problem and decide if the solution they’re seeking is really worth the time and effort they’re putting into it, or if that time and effort is better spent devising and pursuing an alternate solution. Because it sure seems like a lot of people have skipped the analytical stage of life and jumped right into doing something without considering how it will affect others or how it even addresses the problem it attempts to solve. Especially in the anti-sexism movement, it’s just as easy for something you say or do in order to fight sexism to backfire and be sexist itself as it is for someone else to simply say or do something sexist.

McFadden, C. (1981, Aug 02). On language; IN DEFENSE OF GENDER. New York Times. Retrieved from