The Common Good

Power of a Personal Pronoun: 5 Suggestions for Gender Inclusivity

I just finished my first semester of seminary. It’s a place quite explicitly supportive of women’s ordination. It’s a place that just announced a new Women’s Initiative. It has a female chaplain. But the most affirming moment of my gender and my future came from two white male professors.

Male & female figures, StockThings/Shutterstock.com
Male & female figures, StockThings/Shutterstock.com

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As I was studying for the Systematic Theology exam, I re-read all of the semester’s lectures from the professor and his doctoral student.

In the first lecture by the full professor on “what is systematic theology,” I re-read this:

What this means is that everyone stands in a tradition when she does theology — even if her church does not formally authorize and legitimate dogmatic theology in the way I have described it here.  … This the theologian does through her attentiveness to the ancient creeds and the confessions of her own church. 

Notice anything in particular?

In the second lecture, on revelation and Karl Barth, the doctoral student had written:

Psalm 19:1 (“The heavens declare the glory of God”): … The Psalmist*, Barth argues, is only able to proclaim such a thing because she is already a part of the specially revealed covenant that forms this confession’s basis. She is not a secular pagan philosopher exerting ones reason, but a believer already within the response of faith. 

Do you notice anything perhaps unusual?

It’s the feminine (she, her) as the “default” generic personal pronoun.

I remembered after the first lecture I came home and told my husband about the pronoun, but as I read through all 20-something lectures, I noticed it again and again. I was the theologian; was the believer.

Was this difficult for my professors to do? Did it take lots of conceding to women’s different or special needs? Or, rather, was it a possible and reasonable upsetting the “status-quo” that still often tells us that “he” or “man” means everyone and that I’m just too touchy if I refuse to accept that.

This small kindness was, I think, one of the best things about my first semester of seminary. These two white men — one in his early 60s and one in his early 30s — were incredibly intentional about the female pronoun being the “default” for the generic personal pronoun.

Now, before anyone thinks they are liberal-“get-rid-of-all-masculine-pronouns-for-God-and-Christ-because-God-is-a-woman,” you should think again. Every time a personal pronoun was necessary in regard to Jesus, the masculine form was used. Every time it was impossible to use “God” instead of “he,” they used “he.” Theologically, these men are faithful to the witness of Scripture.

In 160 pages of typed single-spaced lectures, this is the approximate breakdown of generic pronouns:   

Not a lot of generic pronouns were used, but the feminine ones were 71 percent to the masculine 29 percent. Now, this wasn’t done because theology is a female-dominated field. Even at my mainline seminary, the overall seminary population is 58 percent men and 42 percent women. The gender breakdown of the tenured professors is a little more uneven: 68 percent men and 32 percent women.

With such small words, I felt included. I felt like I belonged and maybe, just maybe, I too could do systematic theology. Maybe I didn’t need a dumbed-down version just because I was a woman.  

So readers, here are some practical and easy-to-employ ideas on how you too can make women feel a part of God’s history and Christ’s plan to share the Good News of salvation to the whole world:

Contemplation

1. Listen to yourself talk. Do you use the masculine pronoun for the generic/every-person? Do you use man to stand in for person? (If you want a fully fleshed out rationale on why I do not feel include into generic “man,” let me know. Happy to give it.) Are there times when you might be able to be more female-inclusive?

2. Start paying attention to what you read and see. Are women routinely being left out? (Recently, there was a conference on Neo-Calvinism at my seminary and none of the plenary speakers were women, with only one woman in a symposium. Why?)

Action

3. If you are feeling really brave (although I could question if this should be such a radical idea — the masculine pronoun has been the “norm” for hundreds and hundreds of years), then switch the generic pronoun to the feminine one. See what happens. Ex: (from above quoted lecture): “What this means is that everyone stands in a tradition when she does theology — even if her church does not formally authorize and legitimate dogmatic theology …”

4a. If you are not so sure about this “radical biblical equality,” then make sure that you use both the feminine and masculine pronouns together — and start with the feminine one. Ex: “What this means is that everyone stands in a tradition when she or he does theology - even if her or his church does not formally authorize and legitimate dogmatic theology.”

4b. Or if 4a feels clunky and difficult to speak in conversation or preach or write, then switch off, figuring out what works best for your writing, preaching, or speaking, whether sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. (Just notice if you’re adding “gendered” things to this — such as: Did you see a doctor and did hetreat you? Your nurse, is she nice?)

5. Or you could do nothing, but I think most Sojourners readers want to work for shalom in all arenas of life. 

Because of women and men like my two professors, I feel welcomed. I feel at home.

And all because of the power of the personal pronoun. It’s amazing how easy sometimes it is to do a little bit of good.

*One small problem here is that Psalm 19 is attributed to David, so technically we would need to say he for the Psalmist. However, we could say it’s possible that a woman wrote Psalm 119, because no author is mentioned. Or 120. Or 121. Or 123 …

Emily Louise Zimbrick-Rogers is a fiction writer and current seminary student at Princeton Theological. A graduate of Wheaton College and Old Dominion University, she is passionate about gender equality, art in the Church, and feminist research. She edits and writes at wild-wisteria.com

Image: Male & female figures, StockThings/Shutterstock.com

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