Using a feminine universal

In my lectures and class discussions (and out of class, for that matter), I tend to use a universal female pronoun. Not in cases where a universal is inappropriate because it conflicts with specific facts, obviously — “Mr. Jones went to the bank and she deposited her check.” But in cases where a universal pronoun is used, and where traditional English would therefore call for a “he,” I tend to use “she.” (Ditto for “her,” “hers,” and so forth). Thus, “for a testator to execute a will, she has to meet the following requirements.”

This is normally not much of a problem. Substituting she for he is not exactly rocket science.

I’d say about 60 or 65% of my universal references are generally either neutral or positive in nature. The universal is describing people selling securities or writing wills or forming trusts; there’s no reason not to use a feminine universal in these cases. (Indeed, it’s a real positive to use it in those cases.)

About 20% or so of the universal references I make turn out to be negative in nature, but not in a gender specific way. So, “if a devisee murders the testator, then she can’t take under the will.” There’s really no problem with that. The use of a universal pronoun brings both the good and the bad; and if “she” can be a testator, then “she” can be a murderer.

The more difficult area is this: I’d say 10 or 15% of my universal references turn out to be references where, if I simply flip the gender, I run the risk of invoking negative gender stereotypes. There are a lot of underlying negative stereotypes about women. In the wills context, these include ideas that women are less able to manage their money than men; that women are prone to emotional rather than logical decisions; that women are more likely to be “gold diggers”; and so forth.

So, in-class discussion may turn to a testator’s ability to put assets into trust because a beneficiary’s money management skills are suspect. I might wish to say (using masculine pronoun), “if there are questions about whether a beneficiary can adequately manage his property, the testator may choose to put that property into trust.” And my instinct is to flip the gender of the pronoun. But if I flip the gender there, I’m suddenly bringing up sexist notions about women who are unable to manage their property — “if there are questions about whether a beneficiary can manage her property . . .”

(And the problem is not a particularly sentence-based one that can be easily fixed with more innocuously structured sentences. I spend entire class periods talking about beneficiaries who can’t manage their money, and I’m going to use a universal at some point during the class, no matter how many semantic gymnastics I use.)

In part, I think the problem comes up because the way a universal feminine pronoun is processed. If it’s an innocuous reference (”the testator writes her will”) then it’s just treated as a universal. But if it’s a sentence that corresponds to an existing negative stereotype, then it may be processed as relating to that stereotype. And so students might interpret my statement as being “people put assets into trust because some women can’t manage their money well” rather than its intended meaning of “people put assets into trust because some beneficiaries can’t manage their money well.”

And so, weirdly enough, I find myself consciously switching to a masculine universal in some of those cases. (I specifically remember thinking, as I taught, “there’s just no way I can structure this particular sentence with a feminine pronoun.”)

This means that my universal pronoun usage is not consistent. For positives and neutrals and gender-neutral negatives, I use the feminine universal; for potentially-gender-problematic negatives, I use the masculine universal.

I’m not entirely okay with that. I don’t know whether it confuses the students (assuming that they listen to the gender of my universal pronouns, which I’m not sure they do). It creates a weird double standard, with positives and neutrals and gender-okay negatives getting one treatment and potentially-gender-problematic negatives a different treatment. It sends a negative message of its own, that I’m okay with a masculine universal sometimes.

That said, I don’t know that there’s a better solution. I don’t want to invoke negative stereotypes; and given that these stereotypes exist, I don’t feel comfortable using a universal feminine pronoun in those kinds of situations.

Is there a good solution for this problem? How do others handle this?

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34 Responses

  1. “It sends a negative message of its own, that I’m okay with a masculine universal sometimes.”

    not sure why you consider a masculine universal a negative but we all have our demons, I guess…

    beyond the obvious observation that this is just another example of political correctness hoisted by his -oops, I mean – her own petard, why don’t you just discuss this weighty matter on the first day of class, announce your intended policy, present your feminism-supporting bona-fides as you assert, in no uncertain terms, that nothing should ever be taken to indicate that you buy into negative feminine stereotypes…I suspect the reaction of most of your students in a Trusts & Estates class will be “yeah, whatever…is that going to be on the final?”

  2. John Armstrong says:

    Ah, poor Kaimi. Haven’t you learned yet that, being possessed of a Y chromosome, you simply cannot win this battle? Just duck, cover, and realize that you’re wrong no matter what you do.

    I, myself, choose the traditional “masculine” universal in the absence of a true neuter universal pronoun. I avoid looking like I’m playing politics, and if anyone really insists on getting into histrionics over my usage they’re probably not someone whose opinion I care about anyhow.

  3. A.R. says:

    I am a huge fan of the “singular their,” just this reason. For historical support of this construction, see Henry Churchyard’s linguistics page

  4. Brian Duffy says:

    I think consistency is more important here for everyone’s sanity.

    If you’re choosing to ignore common conventions and assign feminine pronouns as universal, fine. But switching back and forth creates alot of confusion without any real benefit.

    That’s why you’re better off sticking with how the rest of the english-speaking world uses pronouns — you won’t need to be concerned with creating new stereotypes.

  5. Wordlab says:

    The trick question on the final exam in Trusts & Estates will be: What is a testatrix?

  6. Kaimi says:


    Laughing out loud at that one. Alas, I have enough trouble getting students to remember what a testator is; I’m not even going to _try_ to get anyone on board with testatrix. . .

  7. recent grad says:

    It’s actually not that confusing to alternate pronouns unless you do it constantly – many of my casebooks alternated male-female pronouns by chapter, which generally worked fine. If you are worried about negative stereotyping (whether by using traditional pronouns or flipping them) you could just announce you will use male pronouns on Mondays and female on Wednesdays, etc. Probably, as said above, no one will really care as long as it’s not on the exam, but as a female student I actually did appreciate some variation.

  8. If it’s an innocuous reference … then it’s just treated as a universal.

    I beg to differ. While I’m certainly capable of treating it as such, it’s jarring to have to convert from my stuffy old “standard” politically-incorrect English. It interrupts the flow of reading, interfering with overall comprehension.

    I wonder: what’s the goal of the language appearing in these legal documents? Is it to make everyone feel good and prevent hard feelings, or is it to clearly convey the intent of the author? It seems like you’re sacrificing (a degree of) the latter in order to achieve the former, and I don’t think that’s the right trade-off.

  9. Jeremy says:

    You speak of positive, neutral, and negative stereotypes. A stereotype is basically what we assume everybody else assumes about something. I know that I usually have little more than anecdotal evidence to support my assumptions about others’ assumptions. Sometimes they’re right; sometimes they’re wrong. In short, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I say–if it makes you feel better, do it.

    James Gould Cozzens wrote that, if we really thought about it, nobody is much concerned with what we do or say except for us.

  10. A.R. says:

    Aside from the larger social debate about the value of gender-neutral language, I would also point out that some courts’ guidelines specifically request gender-neutral usage: “3. Use gender neutral language in all court correspondence and jury instructions.

    Use ‘Dear Counsel’ when not using the individual’s name and where appropriate include reference to he/she, him/her. The plural (witnesses/they) is helpful.”

    Students who get used to hearing gender-neutral constructions in the classroom will have an easier time using them in practice. And I also agree that, as a woman, I don’t really find the masculine construction to be “universal.”

  11. Paul Gowder says:

    Let me add another vote for the singular “their.” We really have to choose which problem we want to solve: are we to be anal about traditional rules of grammar, or are we to be anal about gendered language? Choose one.

  12. Kate Litvak says:

    Kaimi, no matter how you assign genders to characters in your hypos, in the eyes of Ann Bartow, you are always a sexist. It’s bad to use a woman as a positive character (exacerbates stereotypes of women as selfless barefoot-and-pregnant caregivers). It’s bad to use a woman as a negative character (exacerbates stereotypes of women as greedy, deceitful, conniving critters). It’s bad to switch back-and-forth to avoid placing female characters into stereotyped roles (assumes that female students are so psychotic and irrational that they can’t analyze the structure of a hypo without attaching themselves to an imaginary character).

    You can’t beat paranoid feminists by succumbing to their demands. You can only beat them by ignoring them.

    When my hypos have only one character, I always use “he”. When my hypos have two characters, I use “he” for the first and “she” for the second, which helps to distinguish the two. Cry me a river, shrinking violets. If you are seriously debating whether my Contracts hypos should involve a female breacher or a female breachee, you shouldn’t be a law student.

  13. A.R. says:

    When my hypos have only one character, I always use “he”.


  14. kristine says:

    I’m casting a third vote for the singular “their.” There are plenty of historical justifications for it, and using the singular “their” mirrors most spoken English. Yes, written English is more formal and therefore most editors will insist on “he” or “she,” but written English is profoundly different from spoken English and using “their” quickly bypasses the uncomfortable gender issues.

  15. Humpty Dumpty says:

    “Negative gender stereotypes?” The three you mentioned are quite true when discussing women in general. Women do save less money, are less astute at finance, etc.

    Every stereotype has a foundation of truth to it.

  16. David Bernstein says:

    Way back in 1996, I assigned my George Mason students a chapter of writing exercise book, which included a section on gender neutral writing. Of the three women in the class, two of them angrily volunteered (on the papers they handed in) that they found the gender-neutralizing insulting, degrading, and a huge waste of time. Quite a difference from my Yale Law School classmates! Anyway, since then my default is the “neutral” (male) pronoun, though I throw in a “she” and “her” sometimes to make it clear that I’m aware of the issue. If I taught somewhere that I thought it might be a distraction in the opposite direction, I’d likely to otherwise.

  17. Allan says:

    Prof Wegner,

    You might want to listen to Kate Litvak and Maryland Conservatarian. They seem to have a good handle on the situation.

    You don’t tell us why you are using a feninine universal, . What is it supposed to accomplish? Are you just trying to identify yourself as a feminist sympathizer or do you think there’s a patriarchy that needs to be smashed, and that this does it somehow? I would have thought that if anything it is males who are being shortchanged in the educational system.

    I would suspect that all except the most ardent feminists are rollng their eyes when they hear the feminine universal, and that the ardent feminists would be laughing at it (assuming they had a sense of humor.)

  18. Bruce Boyden says:

    There’s an awful lot of snarkiness aimed here at Kaimi’s attempt to avoid negative stereotypes in his classroom instruction, which strikes me as a good thing to attempt, even if you think he’s going about it the wrong way. I think this says more about the snarkers than the snarkees, frankly.

    It’s odd, despite being concerned about this issue myself, I haven’t paid much attention to how I actually handle it in class. I know that in writing I typically use “he or she”/”his or her” — which can get clumsy fast if you have to use 2 or more such phrases in a single sentence, but usually I can rephrase to avoid that. I believe, but I’m not sure, what I do in class is avoid pronouns — the “client” comes to you and asks you a question; what do you say to the “client”?

    But I think if your policy was to always use female pronouns as universals, I think the effect of the occasional instance where that overlaps with prevalent negative stereotypes would be muted; and the stereotypes actually might be called to the forefront if you suddenly switch.

  19. Kate Litvak says:

    Bruce: the snarkiness is aimed not at Kaimi, but at people who forced Kaimi into worrying about this sort of nonsense. If Americans bothered to learn other languages, they might have noticed the flimsiness of the connection between the natural gender of the signified and the grammatical gender of the signifier. In Russian, “Saturday” is feminine, “Sunday” is neuter, and “Monday” is masculine. Homework assignment: explain how this reinforces patriarchy.

    Next item on the discussion list: are the words “breacher” and “tortfeasor” sound too Jewish?

  20. contributor says:

    When writing, I have taken to use hir (contraction of his and her) or hes (contraction of her and his) sometimes to make the point of both PC and changed usages.

    I am learning spanish and noted that the multi-cultural society will have way to go (or maybe not, praise A***h or G*d or Supr*me B*ing or nobody) : padre means father, padres mean parents.

  21. Jack says:

    Try a pure Latin based language instead. They don’t have this gender problem. It’s all built in.

  22. Bruce Boyden says:

    Kate, I’m not sure why you think attempting to avoid sex stereotypes is “nonsense,” or who these people are that “forced Kaimi into worrying about this.” Do they fly black helicopters? If so, can I have one?

    And your days of the week analogy is inapt. The pronouns we’re talking about refer to actual people. Days of the week don’t, and the only thing “masculine” or “feminine” about them is that what people call the articles that precede them (they could also have been called A and B, or left and right). I don’t see a connection.

  23. Allan says:


    People are being snarky? Not that I can see. No commenter has suggested that the good professor was not motivated by the best of intentions.

    The problem is that he is making an error of judgment. For all his good intentions, he is trying to appease those who cannot be appeased and should not be appeased. They have their own agenda, and they have no right to browbeat others with that agenda..

    And even if they don’t fly black helicopters, they might have the power to affect his employment.

    And what exactly is the sex stereotype that he’s trying to avoid? As Kate Litvak ably pointed out, any choice you make can reflect a stereotype. And besides, one man’s stereotype is another man’s empirical reality.

  24. Heidi Kitrosser says:

    The benefit of trying to incorporate female pronouns in discussions, writing, etc. is that, even if subconsciously, it can help stir up or at the very least make noticeable the often automatic, unquestioned assumption that male = universal and female = particular.

    The fact that this view so upsets some folks to the point that they paint the view’s proponents as radical, irrational, unappeasable lunatics reflects the very mindset to which folks like Kaimi and Bruce are trying to respond with remarkably small and simple measures.

  25. Sympathizes With Everyone says:

    The fact that this view so upsets some folks to the point that they paint the view’s proponents as radical, irrational, unappeasable lunatics reflects the very mindset

    This is a little off? The problem that Kaimi has is the neutral form always connotes a specific gender. Thus, in Context XYZ if he chooses the feminine, negative stereotypes may be associated with women. If in that same context, he chooses the masculine, negative stereotypes may be associated with men. Why is it okay to associate bad essentialist traits with men — like your post seems to do Ms. Kitrosser — but not okay to do so with women? It would seem there is an assumption of female frailty and male stoicism. There was a post here earlier, perhaps that was deleted, which suggested not all men are indifferent to being negatively stereotyped. If it is okay for women to be upset by negative stereotyping, why not men? I just don’t get the double-standard. Why should anyone, male or female, be rational and calm in the face of dignity-stripping insult?

  26. AP says:

    I don’t understand how these discussions get so ugly, so fast.

    Kaimi, I think it’s fine to use the feminine pronoun in either positive or negative situations. I definitely notice when a speaker interchanges the genders in examples, and I certainly wouldn’t assume a bias or offense if a female character demonstrates some kind of flaw. I’d probably only notice if women were always good/men always bad, or vice versa; as long as you’re mixing it up, I think it flows well. I guess the point, for me, is that women are automatically referenced without having to think about it.

  27. John Armstrong says:

    I actually really like Kate Litvak‘s idea of using the (classical) male pronoun for the first instance and the female pronoun for the second. On the other hand, I’m not so sure that learning another language would help much. Yes, we’re all more familiar with gendered-English debates, but these all have their roots in the French critical theory world, where the proposed exercise is taken as dogma.

    David Bernstein‘s experience with students feeling patronized is sadly common. Again: there’s simply nothing a male speaker can do, since there will always be someone to see him as reinforcing the patriarchy. Besides, spending time being so precise with form at some point must come at the expense of content. As long as the form isn’t bad enough to obscure the content, the latter is what I’m more interested in, and what I hope my listeners are more interested in from me.

  28. Bruce Boyden says:

    On reflection, I got snarky in my response to Kate, shortly after complaining about snarkiness. So I retract the quip about helicopters as unfair and internally inconsistent. I also second Heidi’s and AP’s comments.

  29. Joe Schmoe says:

    The reason why these discussions get so ugly is that people are making a big deal about something insignificant.

    500 years ago, people were getting worked up about how many angels were dancing on a pin.

  30. Thomas Aquinas says:


    I don’t see how Heidi’s and AP’s comments can be reconciled. They seem at odds.

  31. pure latin language says:

    Jack, pray point me at a pure latin language (apart from latin ?) – I posted about spanish (where the generic plural is masculine), the purest I guess is Portuguese (because they got occupied by the M*slims before everybody else), not sure of the pronouns over there.

    I also would like to know why name (pseudonym) and email address (email address?????) are required to post – on this blog as in thousands of other btw.

  32. Richard Campbell says:

    Another vote for the singular their, plesae.

  33. Kaimi Wenger says:

    A lot of folks have suggested that I switch to the gender-neutral “they/their” formulation. I can sympathize with this approach. It allows for consistency (and who doesn’t like consistency?). Also, it would make life easier in some cases, such as those I discuss in the thread.

    On the other hand, I think that there is something positive gained through the use of the feminine universal. It’s sufficiently unusual that it may jolt my students just a little, and make them think about the assumptions inherent in the universal pronoun. And so, despite the consistency gains from “their,” I doubt I’m going to switch. (Though I may try it and see.)

    Also, I think that the universal pronoun (like a lot of gendered structure in society) is an appropriate forum for a corrective approach. Language has used a (male-favoring) gendered structure for years, and certain assumptions have been built into the status quo. Simply switching to neutral now may stop the bleeding, but isn’t going to do much to correct that existing imbalance. A neutral usage implies an acceptance of the existing status quo, and I _don’t_ accept the status quo, which is why I use the feminine universal in the first place. Given that corrective desire, I suspect I’m sticking with the universal feminine — though, as I noted, I may experiment with other options to see if the practical benefits of consistency outweigh the corrective goals.