In Connecticut in 1975, a Bill was proposed with the following text:
at least twenty-four hours before any abortion is performed in the state, the person who is to have the abortion shall receive counselling . . . concerning his decision to have such abortion.*
It’s an unremarkable passage, with one striking exception: the bizarre use of his, a masculine pronoun, in a context that could only refer to women. I came across this nugget of non-sense in Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Words and Women (1976), a short, lucid and well-documented study of how sexist language reflects and perpetuates sexist culture. The authors write:
The decisive argument against using masculine terms generically . . . is not that they are often inadequate and sometimes ridiculous, but that they perpetuate the cultural assumption that the male is the norm, the female a deviation. It is this bias that the advocates of common-gender terms want to eliminate. Yet almost every attempt to evolve new, amplifying symbols meets with hostility: the response of purists is sometimes so highly charged it is as though the male-is-norm assumption itself is what they are defending rather than the generic terms.
In 1972, Miller and Swift argued for tey, ter, and tem as gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns, but these remain ‘almost invisible’ [PDF] despite some high-profile appearances. Workarounds like s/he and she or he are far more common despite being unsightly or ungainly. So I tend to be sceptical about newly coined (or resurrected) common-gender pronouns.**
Very few suggestions have attained any currency or widespread public recognition. Thon, ey, and xe did better than most, yet they’re unknown to most English speakers. Proposing epicene pronouns seems to be a doomed enterprise, albeit a persistently popular one that generates many curious terms, from a to zon.
Most of the time, semantically singular they, their and them work just fine, both in casual speech and in literature. But not always. Interest in this peculiar lacuna is therefore likely to continue, despite (or because of) the fact that there is no perfect solution.
For more on Miller and Swift’s work, there’s an interesting interview in the Fall 1995 issue of The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly.
* State of Connecticut, ‘An Act Requiring Counseling Prior to Abortion’, Proposed Bill No. 263, General Assembly, January Session, 1975.
** Other types of revision, such as humankind or humanity for mankind and generic man, pose no problems.