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?