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The Ruth Bader Ginsburg Theory of Pronoun Usage

How many feminine pronouns will be enough?

In February of 2015, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave an interview at Georgetown Law School. At one point in the interview she offered her position on women justices in the Supreme Court. Ginsburg said, “People ask me sometimes—when do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” For almost the entire history of the court, it consisted of nine men. No one thought that was weird. So why, then, shouldn’t it consist of nine women?

Ginsburg’s statement is provocative because it runs counterintuitive to the way we typically think about equality. The way things usually work is that when we identity an inequality we want to compensate for it by striking a balance. If women get paid a fraction of what men get paid for the same job, then solution should be to make it so everyone can earn the same wage for the same work. Our first instinct isn’t to say, “How much would be enough? When a woman makes 2x what a man does.” We don’t, in other words, over-compensate for it. The equivalent to RBG’s statement is that if men make 30% more than women, then the problem isn’t fixed until women make another 30% more than men. That’s a pretty dramatic position.

But there are some cases of inequality where it is the right position to take. Let me give you another example.

For the entire history of the English language, we have using male pronoun to refer to the generalized human. For example, if you read old psychology papers, the author always assumes that the reader—and therefore any legitimate colleague—is a "he." It wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized our mistake. Almost everything you read before, say, 2010 uses what we now think of as sexist language. Then we all, quite suddenly, agreed to stop. But what did we settle on as a solution?

We concluded that the solution pronoun problem is the same as the solution to the wage problem: we need equal proportion. And we developed all sorts of linguistic conventions to accomplish this. One strategy is to include the female pronoun in addition to the male one. “The student may turn in his homework” becomes “The student may turn in his or her homework.” Another strategy is to fudge the line between plural and single. “The student may turn in their homework.” Unfortunately, some people even think that “s/he” is a plausibility. It’s not. When Steven Pinker addresses the problem in his book on writing, The Sense of Style, he equivocates, contending that there is no obvious best solution. In his own usage, he alternates between boys and girls in different chapters. The student is a she in chapter one, and a he in chapter two. But Pinker is wrong. There is an optimal solution. I call it the Ruth Bader Ginsburg theory of pronoun usage.

We used exclusively male pronouns for hundreds of years. No one ever questioned that we were excluding half of the population from participating in the conversation. The only conceivable way to address that slight is to invert it. The only legitimate solution, then, is “The student may turn in her homework." When, you ask, will there be enough feminine pronouns? When all of the pronouns are feminine.


Originally posted on Psychology Today.

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