I’m typically not a fan of gender neutral pronouns like “s/he” because they are awkward to use. I’m fine with using male pronouns by default. That is because I use “he” as just a default gender-ambiguous pronoun. I ascribe no gender biases when I say “he.” I can just as easily refer to a hypothetical corporate CEO as “he,” as I do for a hypothetical emotionally unavailable spouse.
Once upon a time, “he” was the acceptable gender-unknown pronoun by default. With the rise of the women’s movement, “he” fell to the wayside in favor of “she” to be more inclusive of women. This is especially the case when referring to professions and other formerly male-dominated roles. For example, it seems more common these days to refer to a gender-unknown judge, police officer, accountant, astronaut as “she.” Even in industries that are still statistically overrepresented by men, gender politics have seeped through. I acknowledge the arguments that a default masculine assignation might perpetuate glass ceilings and stereotypes of female versus male gender roles, especially in the workplace. If we always refer to positions of power by male terms, we associate men with those roles.
Therefore, I accept using “she” as the gender-unknown pronoun since we don’t objectify people as “it,” even if it would solve all these problems and “they” is grammatically incorrect. If it is now more politically correct to always use female pronouns when the genders are unknown, that should always be the case, even when using “she” perpetuates negative female stereotypes. Case in point from a New York Family Law outline regarding divorce for constructive abandonment:
“The willfull, continued, and unjustified refusal to engage in intimate relations with a spouse for one year or more may constitute constructive abandonment [as grounds for unilateral divorce]….In cases in which the parties have not engaged in intimate acts for a period of one year or more, the plaintiff must establish that he repeatedly requested resumption of the marital relations.”
The poor pleading husband who doesn’t get laid often enough has grounds for divorce. I haven’t looked at the actual statute, but I’m assuming that a wife who has not had sex in more than a year can also seek divorce. Would it have been confusing to use “she” in that instance? I’m guessing that some students would’ve done a double-take if it did read “she.” It wouldn’t have been as clear precisely because people assume it’s the husband who has “repeatedly requested resumption of the marital relations.”
After establishing that it is men who aren’t sexually fulfilled in marriage, the outline continues to paint them as deadbeats:
“Spousal support is the obligation of one party to provide the other support….It is awarded in a divorce if one spouse cannot provide for his own needs with employment.”
In this example, the former husband is the one who cannot provide for himself. So we’re not going to perpetuate the stereotype that men are the breadwinners, but we’re going to assume that it’s men who beg their wives for sex? This is the problem with picking and choosing which gender-unknown pronoun you want to use. The point of a default is that it is supposed to be free from any bias. If we’re all going to use “she” from now on, then that should apply across the board, even when it reinforces negative stereotypes of women, e.g. the divorced housewife. Simply reversing the male and female, reserving “she” for positive associations and using “he” for negative ones only reflects the biases of the speaker. Guy Kawasaki, in The Art of the Start, puts it best, ”If only defeating sexism were as simple as throwing in an occasional he/she, she, her, or hers. I use the masculine pronouns merely as a shortcut. Successful entrepreneurship is blind to gender. Don’t look for sexism where none exists.”