This is turning into a month of listening, for me.
After the controversy erupted over J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans people, I realized how little I actually know about that side of human experience. Where did these new pronouns come from? What’s the difference between transsexual (which has been around since I was a kid) and transgender? Why nonbinary?
So I decided to start with digging into pronouns. Because a) I’m a grammar nerd, and b) Getting more comfortable using new or different pronouns is a concrete action I can take, right now.
And I’m glad I did! This book is a delight, a quick read that doesn’t skimp on the details.
For example, I had no idea of the controversy over generic he that raged in the US and UK over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Suffragettes like Susan B Anthony argued that if he covered women when it came to paying taxes and being arrested for crimes, then it covered them when it came to voting, too.
This passage, in particular, struck me as completely bad-ass:
If, for instance, in a penal law there are no feminine pronouns, women should be exempt from the penalties imposed. And if men are to represent woman in voting, let them represent her in all. If a wife commits murder let the husband be hung for it.
She (and suffragettes throughout the nineteenth century) lost that argument, and the argument that the fourteenth amendment covered women, since it used not he but persons and citizens.
Which is why the current discussion over the ERA — where detractors insist the fourteenth amendment already covers women — is so specious. There’s hundreds of years of American jurisprudence that says otherwise. We absolutely need an explicit amendment that grants women full and equal rights.
As even this one example, shows, arguments over pronouns go back a long way.
Calls for a new “gender-neutral” pronoun go back three hundred years (!).
Use of the singular they in just that manner go back seven-hundred years! It was never accepted by grammarians, but it was used in print and daily speech all the time.
Baron traces all of this history — the legalities of the generic he, the rise of new pronouns, etc — and links it together, showing how the current debates about pronouns and trans rights echo debates we’ve had down the centuries. Every time, the side of “existing usage” is really on the side of weaponizing grammar to suppress certain populations.
That’s a side I don’t want to be on.
If you’re at all curious about where the “new” pronouns have come from, and why using the right pronouns is so important, I highly encourage you to read this book.
Or if you’re already onboard with explicitly asking for people’s pronouns (and sharing your own), and just like language, I’d still recommend it, as a fantastic and informative read.
So: What’s your pronoun? I’m he/him/his 🙂