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.”
“Who cares!” you might exclaim, or, less generously, “What feminist harangue is about to ensue!” No, my friends — think instead on the words of Loren Cannon, transgender triathlete from Northern California, as quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle on June 3, 2011: “It makes it hard to participate in society when all you want to do is order a Coke and people are so confused about what pronoun to use.”
In 2008 I had the pleasure of judging the Tupelo Press Snowbound Series Chapbook Award. From the start, I could not shake the effects of the ultimate winner, the lake has no saint by Stacey Waite. Comprised mostly of prose poems, the first half of the manuscript was particularly interesting to me, as it chronicled a young girl’s ambivalence about — even refusal of — the fact of the female body:
when praying for gender
then there is my crying in dresses. “since I was a born,” my mother says. my mother walks the line of my crying. the church dress i will not. the pigtails i will not. the long nights praying: please god if you let me wake up and be a boy, i will never say another swear word again.
Titles beginning with “when” and the eschewing of capital letters are signature moves of lake’s 26 poems. These are basic gestures, but toget...read more