The Universal "He" Just Isn't

An example of a recent Facebook post.
Yes, squees are an acceptable response.

Picture this: An overworked, vastly underpaid college instructor unwinds by using Facebook to do what it does best: feature pictures of cute animals. Up go pictures of her cats, of frolicking puppies, of pink, besnouted piggy wiggies (squeeeeee!). All is happiness and wet noses in her life… until. Until. Until someone calls an animal “he” without knowing its sex.

Contrary to people’s beliefs, approximately half of sexually dimorphic animalkind* isn’t male. Crazy but true. If all the animals called “he” were actually male, much of animalkind, including humans, would die out because there simply aren't enough females to reproduce the species.

“Oh, Elle, you wacky but lovable feminazi,” you say, “don’t you know ‘he’ is a gender-neutral pronoun? We learned in the fourth grade that ‘he’ is just as acceptable a gender placeholder as ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ are for ‘human.’ It has no bearing on gender or sex, you eccentric cutie pie.”

Dear captioner: Are you an ornithologist? No? Then you might
consider ixnaying on the ehaying. Sincerely, Cranky Elle
Yeah, except… it does have bearing on gender and sex. Studies prove that when people hear “he” and “mankind,” they think of… wait for it… MEN! Shocking, I know. Furthermore, and not to cast any stones or anything, but some studies also link sexist attitudes to resistance to gender-neutral language. Ya sure that's the company you wanna be keepin'?

Don’t take my word for it. Well, actually you kinda should, since, in all modesty, I’m kinda what people call an “expert” in gender stuff. I have a fancy-shmance degree and everything. But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a fantastic article that discusses the problems – and some solutions – for sexist language.

If you’re not sure about this “he” thing, let me present the same sentence I do in my Intro to Sociology course when we discuss the politics of language: “After giving birth to his young through his vagina, mankind then suckles his newborn with milk from his breasts.” If that sentence in any way makes you uncomfortable (well, other than seeing vaginas discussed on an author blog), you, like everyone else, probably don’t actually associate “he” and “man” with humans in general.

“But, Elle, you wacky but lovable feminazi,” my partner just finished saying after listening to me discuss this blog post, “you’re right about the ridiculousness of pretending ‘he’ means all sexes. But it’s still a rule of grammar, right? Aren’t people, even those who know it’s gender-exclusive, just trying to be grammatically correct?”

“No, my cuddly, curly-headed beloved,” said I. “It’s no longer taught in most schools and is, in fact, becoming increasingly passé. Regardless, I have two main responses to that argument. Number one, I think it’s faulty to assume most peeps are aware of their tendency to assume anything not obviously sexed is male. Given the nature of cultural privileges, we regard ‘male’ and ‘masculine’ as sex and gender defaults; in other words, we assume maleness unless proven otherwise. Number two, why would we resort to an obviously exclusive pronoun or word when we have so many others? For example, I use words like ‘frosh’ for first-year students, ‘chair’ instead of ‘chairman,’ and ‘y’all’ in lieu of ‘you guys.’ Why not use these when they’re just as easy to choose? How could anyone balk at being inclusive?”

But it doesn’t really matter, right? This is just about pictures of cute little chimps and hippos adorning some Crazy Cat Lady’s Facebook wall, right? In fact, it matters a lot. Given the relatively recent expansion of our worlds into more virtual realms, language has become even more important. We live in the Informational Age, and most of that information comes in the form of writing. When language becomes the main, sometimes the only, medium through which others knows us, it obviously matters. A LOT. The symbolic annihilation of 50% of animalkind (including humankind) from our main mode of communication is kind of a big deal.

So I ask you to take a minute and consider scrubbing “mankind” and the universal “he” from your vocabulary. "Mankind" and the universal "he" don’t mean gender neutrality to me, to others who hear it, or, I strongly suspect, even to you. Luckily for all of us, countless alternatives exist. People’s refusal to use them isn’t a neutral choice.

Let’s please stop erasing femaleness and femininity from the world.

* Given the social construction of sex, as well as the prevalence of transgender (~.5% of the population) and intersex folks (~1% of the population), I would argue even humankind isn't actually sexually dimorphic. But, ya know, that's a topic for another time.


  1. You are so right. So very, very right.

    1. I can say with utter certainty that you are a woman of great brilliance and correctness. :-D

  2. When you say "countless," you are quite right in two ways because nouns and verbs and pronouns of "count" are often the basest offenders as far as loaded gender identification goes. Bravo, Elle!

    1. Always a pleasure to read your wisdom, my friend. <3


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