When grammatical purism meets politics

I'm teaching a class on feminist theory this fall and have been giving a lot of thought to feminist pedagogy. So, I have been thinking about the way I try to teach the essentialism vs. social constructionism debates, including the later incarnation of essentialism in the weird French feminist opposition to gay marriage (because marriage between a man and a woman symbolically enshrines sexual difference, which is the job of feminists--in their argument--to insist upon). I've asked students to think about what it would mean to think about gender as something not symbolically central to everyone's existence. This doesn't necessarily mean obliterating gender altogether, as some conservatives might claim. But what might gender be other than a central organizing category of human existence? The ruse I usually use with students is this: why is the first question we ask about a baby what "sex" it is? Why don't we ask other things first? Of course, it's a grammatical question. To talk about a human in English you almost necessarily need a gendered pronoun. Which leads me to my dilemma. I am something of a grammatical purist, as some loyal readers may be aware. But is grammar the Law?

Thinking about pronouns I find myself thinking a lot about they (as opposed to he or she) and, somewhat secondarily, that (as opposed to who, as a relative pronoun). Now, I spend a lot of time correcting inappropriate uses of gender-specific language in student papers (presumably students in a feminist theory class will be a little more thoughtful than most). One of the options I suspect my students would be more comfortable with than I is "they." "They," as a "singular" pronoun. It's common in colloquial English as a gender-neutral solution. It fits, after all, with my mad scheme to collude in the decentering of the "individual" as the central organizing principle of both historical and theoretical inquiry. (Or rather, to keep re-decentering something that has been decentered to so little effect many times over the past 40 years.)

Monique Wittig used her novel Les Guerrillieres to point out how rare the French feminine plural pronoun "Elles" is. It is also untranslatable into English.

But maybe that's a good thing: no gender-specificity for the plural pronoun. A plural form of humanness, or post-humanness. The gender-neutral "they" instead of "he or she." Should I just embrace it?


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