By Terre Spencer
Subjective: SHE; objective: HER
SHE and HER: how did these two words, a mere six letters in toto, become so contentious? Or rather, how did the uses of two tiny pronouns—SHE and HER—become so divisive? They are so small, can they not just be overlooked for the sake of, well, of something? Beyond feminist analysis, what is going on with SHE and HER? And how can feminists navigate from here?
Much has been written by established feminist bloggers incisively exposing MTTs’ (male-to-trans) outright appropriation of our feminine pronouns. When men—and, tragically, even young boys now—decide that they suddenly “feel like a woman inside,” they ppropriate SHE and HER en route to their first estrogen injection appointments. And more often than not, demand that everyone immediately accede to their “preferred pronouns.”
The transgender movement has caused—and is causing—great harm to women in political, legal, social, personal, professional, statistical, and ethical areas.
Within the broader areas above, there are many more sub-topics affecting women, such as: the silencing of women; the erasure of women; the MTT appropriation of womanhood; women’s lost political ground to all things trans; the MTT reinforcement of patriarchal gender norms; increased female exposure to male violence; the effects in sex-based statistical reporting; a myriad of legal ramifications; privacy, restrooms and changing rooms; abortion and contraception access and legalities; specific women’s health issues; maternity leave; childbirth and breastfeeding; the very definition of WOMAN—just for starters.
I urge every woman to read every possible feminist analysis piece on the many effects of transgenderism upon women. Feminists agree that transgenderism is an overarching threat to feminism and women. But there have also been online dust-ups specifically regarding the use of the third person feminine for “gender-critical” MTTs.
The first time I saw SHE/HER used for a MTT by a gender-critical feminist, it was disorienting. I thought it was the disregarding of feminist theory that left me disconcerted. But weeks later, the ongoing discomfort still bordered on a breach in a most perplexing way. There was something even more fundamentally askew, perhaps primal, beneath the abandoning of feminism.
Another impassioned flare-up on the issue occurred and more raw feelings arose. I had an ongoing sense of feeling unsettled. I began recalling two areas of study that I had not formerly connected to transgender appropriation of all things female.
The first was research that confirmed that once our brains identify an outline as human, our first mental task is to determine sex, then race, then other markers of status and power within varying social contexts. There are many more current studies confirming that the brain’s fusiform face area (FFA) identifies sex first.
The second was more recent, eminently more subtle, and perhaps even more relevant to the pronoun issue. After taking a 2009 writing and trauma course by one of James Pennebaker’s Ph.D. students, I immediately read everything that I could find by Pennebaker. In 2011, Pennebaker published The Secret Life of Pronouns, a compelling look at how the use of function words play a pivotal role in social and cultural cohesion.
After the initial rush of impassioned arguing that feminists should never, ever refer to MTTs as SHE/HER had subsided, these two studies began appearing in random thoughts while I was walking or making a grocery list. The random thoughts became niggling, and finally almost repetitive, so I re-read The Secret Life of Pronouns, to quell the intrusive thoughts.
And there it was in chapter one: a subtle, but critical, dimension well-aside from feminist political strategy that the very words SHE and HER contain in themselves: they are a specific type of word.
SHE/HER are not just any old words, and this is of particular feminist interest. It turns out that pronouns are function words. Function words have very little meaning outside the shared social understanding of the participants and, therefore, the brain handles function words differently than it handles context words.
FUNCTION WORDS ARE HIGHLY SOCIAL
Pennebaker attributes the following to function words:
Used at high rates
Short and hard to detect (stealthy)
Processed in the brain differently than content words
Very, very social
Pronouns are entirely referent to context words by mutual understanding between speaker and listener—or reader and writer. In other words, a social trust is required for pronouns to have meaning. Interestingly, the more engaged the participants are in a discussion and/or the better the relationship between participants, the higher the frequency of pronouns in the discussion.
The social Broca’s area of the left frontal temporal lobe is activated to process pronouns. A myriad of social cues are necessary to provide ongoing meaning for pronouns, and the brain expends considerably more energy when processing pronouns (and all function words).
In contrast, context words—such as: BOAT and CHEW—activate Wernicke’s speech area of the left posterior temporal lobe. Context words are handled in the background without engaging needed social cues. Social cues are not necessary to ascertain meaning for context words and the brain conserves energy by avoiding the extra social monitoring tasks.
Pronouns, however, require a shared understanding of who is being referred to, which is a social activity. The word THEY is meaningless unless the speaker clearly conveys who THEY are and the listener understands who THEY are within that specific context. A highly social trust between the speaker and listener is invoked in Broca’s area when pronouns are used. When this area of the brain is damaged, a formerly earnest and engaged person, such as Phineas Gage, becomes quite, well, anti-social.
When the words SHE/HER are used, a female is understood as the referent. The social brain looks and listens for additional cues and context to determine which female. The contextual trust between speaker and listener implies that the person referred to is female. To refer to a male with feminine pronouns creates not only a cognitive disconnect, but also a social disconnect, no matter how slight that might seem. The use of SHE/HER for males has—aside from the heated political debates about the advisability of doing so—relational, social consequences.
It was this relational disruption of trusted feminists using SHE for MTTs that remained long after the high-spirited disagreements faded. This was the unsettling disturbance that gave me no peace, not the disagreement itself.
SHIFT(S) IN MEANING
When words shift meanings due to new uses—semantic change—unexpected things occur. Calling males SHE/HER invokes a semantic change called a contranym or auto-antonymy, words that have opposite meanings. If the referent is male when SHE is used, the word SHE will become its own contranym. Examples of contranyms are: INFLAMMABLE, which means both combustible and non-combustible; and CLEAVE, which means both bring together and drive apart. Are we prepared to have SHE mean both male and female?
Because SHE/HER are function words referent only to context and social trust, the very meanings of FEMALE/WOMAN are at stake. Is this the semantic change that feminists wish to promote? Re-assigning the definitions of the words WOMAN/SHE/HER to the oppressor class, males? There are plenty of feminists who consider using SHE/HER for males a breach of trust. Knowing that pronouns are connective, social words, these feminists are not wrong.
Additionally, using the words SHE/HER for males necessitates the use of the word CISGENDER. By way of explanation: if SHE can refer to males, then the need to delineate females from MTTs exists. And, as always, this necessity occurs entirely at the expense of women. And that will always get my back up.
POLITICS (WITH SEMANTICS IN MIND)
Broadly speaking, there are four responses to the MTT SHE/HER appropriation issue.
The first and largest group simply do not have the interest in investigating, analyzing, and navigating the many issues surrounding what exactly to call these males. Well-meaning, they just go along with whatever MTTs request. Also included in this group are the liberal feminists who subscribe to the effects of po-mo/queer theory. This mass, unthinking agreement with MTT delusions is particularly dangerous. As stated above, when SHE and HER lose their connection to femaleness, WOMAN and FEMALE becomes open to re-definition. What feminist really believes that re-defining either WOMAN and/or FEMALE as male will benefit females? Not one of us.
A second group balks, realizing that no matter how much plastic surgery any MTT undergoes, no matter how much artificial estrogen he injects, a MTT is still a man. They decline to join in the pronoun-bending because it offends all common sense. These people will be called behind-the-times by the first group. (As if sex-based pronouns have sell-by dates!)
Third, some very thoughtful feminists have ceded on the pronoun issue, especially when referring to “gender-critical” MTTs. They call certain MTTs SHE/HER and try not to refer to other MTTs by any pronoun. Hoping that such “gender-critical” MTTs will help achieve feminist goals, they are attempting to be respectful. I wish I were that optimistic. I cannot help but wonder: if these MTTs were indeed so gender-critical, if they know that they are male, why do they continue to appropriate female pronouns?
Instead, I would endorse and cheer a MTT movement to create and employ MTT-specific pronouns. When respecting MTTs occurs at the expense of the very definition of WOMAN, it is too dear a price to pay.
Is it a good idea to participate in the semantic shift of the words SHE/HER, to actively join in MTT pretense that MALE = FEMALE? What possible gain is there in making the word CISGENDER a clarifying term, and offering the word WOMAN up for re-definition? Poof! No oppression of women here, folks, we can all go home now.
Is it a good strategy to accede the use of female pronouns to MTTs that admit that they are male (yet, whose Facebook profiles refer to themselves as “female” when they have other choices?).
It is quite telling that the trans movement did not come up with their own pronouns. ZE and ZER would have been good choices. Instead, MTTs insist upon calling themselves SHE and HER. This both reinforces gender strictures and contributes to the erasure of women. Note, please, that women cannot escape patriarchy and its oppressions simply by calling ourselves HE and HIM. Men, however, have further invaded womanhood by calling themselves SHE and HER.
The last group is the feminists who fiercely resist handing over feminine pronouns to MTTs. All males are referred to as HE and HIM by these women.
Using words differently changes perceptions. Have feminists really had the necessary discussions about the social changes that will follow from semantic changes of our pronouns? Are we clear about what is invoked in the blurring the meaning of the words SHE and HER, especially when these highly social referent words are being used to mean the oppressor class? Is disturbing feminist trust ever worth the risks, no matter how lofty the intended goals may be? I think not. There has to be another way. Or other ways. Ways that do not disadvantage women.
So what from here?
We can encourage MTTs to create their own pronouns. In fact, my message to MTTs is: “Come back when you do not demand/wish that I participate in your delusions. No one benefits by pretending that you are a SHE. Make up your own pronouns. Performing your idea of woman might as well include novel MTT pronouns.”
We can resist the erosion of feminine pronouns—a foundational move until we have a firm political strategy in place.
Alternatively, we can divert: Women could adopt the terms XXE/XXER, just as Ms. was a move away from the terms MISS and MRS. These new female third person pronouns will mean only the bearer of the XX chromosomal pair. If MTTs want to get plastic surgery and wear dresses, all the while retaining their male genitalia (as over 80 percent of them do), they can have SHE/HER. We would have to fight like hellcats to keep XXE/XXER from the clutches of MTTs.
We can employ a combination of the above. Women are afraid, and we have every right to be: we know that MTTs have proved to be at least as violent to women as other men. We know that exactly this threat is issued to women by males/MTTs every day, so often it is no longer necessary for males to utter the threats. Male violence, the ever-present patriarchal enforcement does not need to be explicit to be recognized.
A growing number of academic and/or publication editorial standards require women to accede MTT “preferred pronouns.” Alas, even using “preferred pronouns” does not make women safe. Women are de-platformed for being gender-critical even if they do accede to preferred pronouns. An attempt was made to have a women fired even though she does use “preferred pronouns” for MTTs. This is not blaming women being held to “preferred pronouns” by employers or schools, just pointing out the strategy of ceding political and semantic ground is ineffective.
Again, SHE and HER are rather special words, not to be casually given away. They are very specific words that involve trust between writer and reader, speaker and listener. I believe that they are worth fighting for—trust is worth fighting for.
We can suggest that a MTT movement to “re-pronoun” themselves develops, a movement much stronger than the MTT insistence upon getting into women’s spaces, restrooms, and prisons. Because women are not the cause of MTT problems. Males are. Note to MTTs: pushing your way into feminism and appropriating our pronouns is not going to ease one bit of your internal discomforts, nor resolve external issues. Really, is anything more ridiculous than pronoun appropriation as a panacea for a multitude of unrelated issues?
I sincerely hope that I am wrong. I hope that the willingness of many to oblige MTT “preferred pronouns” does not result in a total woman-erasing dystopia where MALE = FEMALE after our pronouns are made meaningless. I, for one, will resist with my last breath and encourage my sisters to do the same until we females have third person pronouns securely our own.
Breaths, Sweet Honey in the Rock
Her Precious Love, Alix Dobkin
Tomorrow, Miep Rowan finds the ladies of the canyon, Ann Foland is a Lesbian Crone, and Meghan Murphy reminds us to get personal.