What's in a pronominal name? On gender politics and English pronouns
When it comes to gender, there is no good solution to the problem that seems to many people to be posed by the fact that in the English language there is no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. This problem is a "political" one that involves the importance in “identity politics” of the names and concepts used to designate people of particular demographic “types.” The writer can take the position that he or she likes on this question, but should be aware of the expectations of readers, for good, clear writing and for writing that is correct by their lights, two purposes which in this case may be at odds.
It would of course be undesirable to give the reader the impression without at least a suitable and credible denial averring a different and more worthwhile intention, that you take for granted that universal subjectivity is masculine in form. The use of masculine pronouns for persons in general originally did mean that and be might be thought still to, at least until some literary or scholastic movement wins wide acclaim for a different interpretation of the old forms. Therefore, unquestionably the use of "he," "him," etc. in the old way is indeed problematic. This is surely a less important problem than funding maternity leaves and child care for women graduate students, or training more women philosophers and studying some of the excellent ones in France and elsewhere. And it is one that is cheaper and easier to implement but will itself probably do little to aid in the latter cause while having little or nothing to do with the former, but it is a problem duly and widely noted in its own places and times. It is also one with at present no good solutions in the English language.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that English is a largely uninflected language where grammatical distinctions are often marked syntactically. It does not, unlike most European languages, have gender as a grammatical form for nouns, but uses it only for personal pronouns. In languages where nouns are gendered (have "masculine" and "feminine" grammatical forms), a pronoun usually just refers to a noun, not the person who is the referent of the word, and it takes the gender of the noun to which it refers. In French, this might be, for instance, "la personne," which could be me, even though I am a man and not unusually confused about my gender identity. Are persons feminine? Call this "arbitrariness of the signifier." In our language and our more naturalistic culture, "he" can mean simply any person, but this fact (that is, the dual usages of the same term and grammatical form to mean either or persons or just male persons) has understandably become miserable to so many people. What then? "They" is misleading; "he or she" awkward; "she" the pointed protest and wish-fulfillment of those who would solve problems by changing our ways of using language.
Adopting as we generally do for professional purposes a non-partisan position of indifference in the matter, we suggest that:
-“He or she” is the best solution as long as the expression is not used more than once every few lines.
-Otherwise, the best options are:
-Use “he” and “him” and insert a footnote on the first usage (or place in the preface if you are writing a book), explaining your usage and mentioning your respect for issues of gender quality and lament that there are no good solutions.
-Or you can use “she” and “her,” likewise necessitating a justificatory footnote. Alternating masculine and feminine pronouns is also an option.
In the second case, the footnote is needed to explain your choice, so that the reader understands what you are doing and will not confused about whom you are referring to. If you choose the traditional use of masculine pronouns to designate a universal subject of indeterminate gender, than the explanation is meant to deflect criticism for violating the expectations of some of your readers.
But is it sexist?
Use of "he" and "him" for subjects who are persons of indeterminate gender will seem sexist in the mind of any reader who is troubled by the fact that this use overlaps, and arguably is derived from, the use that is restricted to persons of the masculine sex. And of course English usage until fairly recently could conflate the two because, for example, if you were talking about lawyer or scientists (more so than novelists), at that time almost all were men anyway, and that is no longer true, but our language has no simple way of marking the change. For readers who are likely to be concerned about this, using feminine pronouns as a protest or alternating genders as a less awkward alternative to saying he/she repeatedly, these strategies surely solve this problem. A mere explanatory footnote might not get you out of trouble because it is well-known that people explain what they are doing to justify it, but not everyone buys the justification (in which case it may be called "rationalization," meaning that the reasons you give justify your position but do not really explain it, as they cannot, since your position itself is false on some other grounds dear to your interlocutor). Many people are skeptical of the very idea of doing something and then justifying it and hoping to be justified by your justification, so to speak, when the plain fact of what you have done or said in the body of your text is there for all to see. If you are of the view that all of the concern here is a false problem, you may be right, but unlike most countries, the United States at least is a place where "identity politics" and "political correctness" has enough currency that unless you wish to fly in the face of it, you might prefer to maximize the good faith of your readership by placating those who think this way. In any case, whatever you think of the problem, these are the options we have, at least until some writer invents another and it catches on. Feminists did that with "Ms." to replace both Mrs. and Miss for married and unmarried women. The New York Times uses Ms., so I think we can consider it established. No equally elegant solution to the pronoun problem has been solved.
Of course, to give the reader the impression without at least a suitable denial averring a different and more worthwhile intention, that you take for granted that universal subjectivity is masculine in form. The use of masculine pronouns for persons in general originally did mean that and be might be thought still to, at least until some literary or scholastic movement wins wide acclaim for a different interpretation of the old forms. Therefore, unquestionably the use of "he," "him," etc. in the old way is indeed problematic.
It is ironic that often nitpickers for rule-following choose as object of their enforcements of propriety rules that are not universally agreed upon and have a questionable logic. If you discover or suspect that your papers will be graded by such grammar school grammarians, try if you can to switch to another section with a different Teaching Assistant reading and grading your papers, or something. Academics are trained to be critical, and often have a reflex to be gratuitously so. It is certainly true that in Rome you must do as the Romans do, and if your instructor says that all sentences must have fewer than 20 words (to take an absurd example) or that the serial comma must always be used or not be, then they want to make sure you are paying attention and have some minimal sense of order and discipline as indicated by docile obedience in such matters. In that case, you can only give Caesar what is Caesar's and just try to minimize your time and bother. Checking for these things is called proofreading, which is a small and elementary part of editing, and for writers of reading over to perfect by their lights their own work. But what really matters above all else is or should be making a good argument to support an interesting because in some way controversial claim, and doing so with a stylistic elegance of clarity, precision, wit, or illuminating conceptualization, in your writing that enables you to at least appear to be saying interesting things with, ideally, every sentence.
Doubtless the siting of the problem as a scholastic one is related to the debates going back to the 1980s about political correctness and identity politics. The problem is partly one of enforcing social norms and rules. This can only be done on the basis of knowledge, or what is supposed to be known. Thinking is different from knowing.
Writing a good college or university essay is thinking. You use what you know, but you do not just re-present it, or even marshall this data or information, as evidence in support of your claim. You must also make an argument, and that is a kind of thinking. Thinking well is one of the hardest things any of us ever do. You will still have to observe all the rules, and sometimes there can be debates as to what they should be, but for persons privileged enough to be studying at a good college or university and then hopefully have a shot at some more or less interesting jobs, it is the thought that counts, and if you get a chance in your formal education to learn to think extremely well, you should have an edge. So don't let grammar drag you down. While editing, we will notice your mistakes, but we will also give attention to how well you think and write, for writing is thinking, and writing well is thinking well. The philosophical world is quite undecided as to whether or not there are universal and necessary rules for thinking well, and if so, what they are, but there are some ways that work better than others, depending on your purpose, task, and particular problematic and ideas.