The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘The His’er Problem’, by Anne Fadiman

On the essays shelf:

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman

This essay, charming and funny as it is (it has the funniest line in the entire collection), is an important discussion about gender parity in language, a topic dear to my own heart. When men (some men) say, “What’s the big deal?” or – worse – “You feminists and your stupid non-issues”, I always think: “Imagine, though. Just imagine. Try to put yourself in a woman’s shoes for once. Just try. Imagine what it is like to have so much of the language not include you.” You are a man. Imagine Neil Armstrong stepping off onto the moon. The entire world watches. And Armstrong says, “One small step for woman … one giant leap for womankind.” Now. Doesn’t that make you feel excluded? Doesn’t that make you want to say, “Uhm, hello, please include me in this huge moment.” Those who get irritated by such arguments always say, “Oh, come on, but you know that ‘women’ are included in that statement.” Sure. I understand. But that’s only because I live in a patriarchal world, where I have accepted and internalized the fact that men are the default, and I am expected to just imagine/accept that I am included – in language that doesn’t actually include me. This is nothing against Neil Armstrong, obviously. I am not trying to diminish his awesome statement. And I DO feel included in it, and I don’t think he was some misogynist MRA jagoff trying to make a statement about the superiority of “Teh Menz” in his first moment on an object in outer space. I know he meant “me” in his beautiful statement. Of course I do. But it’s a prime example of what I am talking about, and what I wish men (some men) would stop to consider. It is always better to try to understand what women are saying, to try to understand where people are coming from, than to just dismiss, degrade, make fun, and ignore. I am expected to just understand that I am “included” in words like “mankind”, but I am a critical thinker and a language junkie, and no, I do not just accept that at face value. I want to TALK about it.

It is good when language develops. It is good when things change. There is nothing bad about people having to stop, think a bit, and change how something is described – in order to remember that if you are being inclusionary, then the language must reflect that. You know, like when I was growing up, Crayola had a crayon that was called “Skin”-colored. It was pale pink. That is outrageous, when you think of all of the varieties of colors of skin, and when you think about small black children, or brown children, looking at that stupid crayon in their box of crayons – and believe me, they get the message: “Oh. Okay. I’m not included in this.” They will not dwell on it, they are children, but these things are internalized. You get the picture, EARLY. You are NOT the default. You are “Other”.

Language matters. As a woman, as a feminist, if I thought too much about the fact that the very word “woman” is built to somehow include the word “man”, while “man” stands by itself … my head could explode daily in outrage. But a certain amount of weary acceptance is just part of being a happy member of our culture, but I will certainly call a spade a spade when I see it. I don’t like being called a “girl”, for example. You would never call a man of my age a “boy”. It’s condescending. Please think about what you are saying, and stop doing it.

So while I feel strongly about gender parity, I am also with Anne Fadiman in that I feel strongly about language, too. And how things SOUND. “His or her” just doesn’t cut it, although I enjoy being included. But it doesn’t sound “good”. It jars. Those who are annoyed by the fact that people even want to have this discussion are irrelevant to me. Because we are going to have this discussion whether you want to be involved in it or not. It is now commonplace to say “chairwoman” of the board, or, better yet, just “chair” -and things like that: and this is good news. This is not NOTHING. Now we don’t want to lose our senses of humor about this, either. I know some of it can tread into ridiculous territory (“womanhole cover”, etc.) – but regardless: it is a worthwhile conversation to have. Like I said: language matters. The Latin root for “pudendum” is “shame”. Don’t tell me language doesn’t matter. If the Latin root for “penis” wasn’t “tail” but was “disgust” or “horror” or “gross”, wouldn’t you have some feelings about it?

Fadiman’s essay takes on the “his or her” problem head-on, in her typical humorous and humanist way (oops, but there it is again: “huMAN”). She does not scold and hector, but she presents the problem. She presents the problem as a person who loves language above all else. She cannot say “his or her” without feeling like some poetry is being lost, and yet she cannot accept the ungrammatical “their” in its place (and neither can I).

She writes (and the last bit in this paragraph made me laugh out loud when I first read it, I remember roaring about it with my dad):

My reactionary self, however, prevails when I hear someone attempt to purge the bias from “to each his own” by substituting “to each their own.” The disagreement between pronoun and antecedent is more than I can bear. To understand how I feel about grammar, you need to remember that I come from the sort of family in which, at the age of ten, I was told I must always say hoi polloi, never “the hoi polloi,” because hoi meant “the”, and two “the’s” were redundant – indeed something only hoi polloi would say. (Why any ten-year-old would say hoi polloi in the first place is another, more pathological matter, but we won’t go into that here.)

Here is an excerpt from Fadiman’s essay.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘The His’er Problem’, by Anne Fadiman

I said “to each his own” until about five years ago, believing what my sixth-grade grammar textbook, Easy English Exercises, had told me: that “or her” was “understood”, just as womankind was understood to be lurking somewhere within “mankind”. I no longer understand. The other day I came across the following sentence by my beloved role model, E.B. White: “There is one thing the essayist cannot do – he cannot indulge himself in deceit or concealment, for he will be found out in no time.” I felt the door slamming in my face so fast I could feel the wind against my cheek. “But he meant to include you!” some of you may be murmuring. “It was understood!”

I don’t think so. Long ago, my father wrote something similar: “The best essays [do not] develop original themes. They develop original men, their composers.” Since my father, unlike E.B. White, is still around to testify, I called him up last night and said, “Be honest. What was really in your mind when you wrote those sentences?” He replied, “Males. I was thinking about males. I viewed the world of literature – indeed, the entire world of artistic creation – as a world of males, and so did most writers. Any writer of fifty years ago who denies that is lying. Any male writer, I mean.”

I believe that although my father and E.B. White were not misogynists, they didn’t really see women, and their language reflected and reinforced that blind spot. Our invisibility was brought home to me fifteen years ago, after Thunder Out of China, a 1946 best seller about China’s role in the Second World War, was reissued in paperback. Its co-authors were Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby, my mother. In his foreword to the new edition, Harrison Salisbury mentioned White nineteen times and my mother once. His first sentence was “There is, in the end, no substitute for the right man in the right place at the right moment.” I wrote to Salisbury, suggesting that sometimes – for example, in half of Thunder Out of China – there is no substitute for the right woman in the right place at the right moment. To his credit, he responded with the following mea culpa: “Oh, oh, oh! You are totally right. I am entirely guilty. You are the second person who has pointed that out to me. What can I say? It is just one of those totally dumb things which I do sometimes.” I believe that Salisbury was motivated by neither malice nor premeditated sexism: my mother, by being a woman, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment.

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10 Responses to The Books: Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, ‘The His’er Problem’, by Anne Fadiman

  1. This is good. As always, I’m torn between language that works (“man,” unlike “person,” being a tiny monosyllable that can be appended to anything without drowning it or knocking it over) and that sudden doorslam that seems to come out of nowhere, just when I feel closest to the writer. Did you ever read Dubus’s “A Father’s Story”? It just killed me. “I could bear the pain of watching and knowing my sons’ pain, could bear it with pride as they took the whip and nails. But You never had a daughter and, if You had, You could not have borne her passion.” W, as they say, TF? It’s maddening. Still, I won’t say snowperson, and I will use the masculine singular pronoun rather than sink to the level of the forward slash or succumb to the inappropriate “their.” It seems there is nothing to be done about it.

    • sheila says:

      Jincy – yes, I cannot say “snowperson” and I also don’t want to turn the language inside out so that it is ugly and yet inclusive. I say “mankind” all the time, I say “to each his own”, etc. I cannot use “their”. The grammarian in me shivers in horror.

      So it is a problem.

      I did not read Dubus’ WTF story.

      • sheila says:

        And all of the “his’er” types of solutions just don’t work. It’s too late. We are stuck with “his or her”, and “mankind” is okay, I guess, although inside I still feel excluded about it. I’ve made my peace with it.

        But I STILL want to talk about it!

        I love how you describe it – the doorslam just when you feel closest to the writer. Yup!

  2. Bob says:

    As a man I can honestly state that I have almost no understanding of this issue. I would encourage all women to tell the men in their lives how strongly you feel about this. Most men are willing to learn; unfortunately, I can’t think of a single example of this issue being discussed amongst male friends. We really are clueless.

    • sheila says:

      Bob – I guess I feel like if men want to understand us, then they need to ask us about it. I’m a bit tired of explaining it to men – especially when so many men respond with, “Oh god, you’re over-reacting” or “Of course ‘mankind’ includes you” – completely dismissing the issue.

      There is a lot of literature out there about this issue and I would encourage men to learn about it on their own. Women have been talking about this stuff for decades!

      I do get that most men are clueless in this regard – and not overtly hostile or misogynist! It’s just a blind spot. But it’s up to men to rectify that.

      • sheila says:

        and Bob – when you hear people talk about “male privilege” – it is the being totally clueless to other ways of seeing things that they are talking about. This is not a criticism. It is built into our culture.

        Straight white males are considered the default, and the entire culture, down to our pronouns, and the language, etc., is built to reinforce that. Of course most men won’t see it and of course many men will resist having it pointed out to them, because it threatens their status.

        But it’s everywhere. Like I said, I encourage men to do their own research, because women have been talking about this stuff for a long long time. :)

  3. Bob says:

    I totally agree that it is not fair for the burden to be on women to educate men about this subject. Hopefully, knowledge and compassion will finally get through. On the plus side I have several nephews and nieces, all under the age of 12, who seem to truly understand the things that old people like me just never quite comprehended.

  4. Bob says:

    Thanks Sheila – Your post has dredged up some feelings of extreme on my part. I grew up in a large Irish family with some very strong women. My sexism was in the form of thinking women were better than men in so many areas of life. It was just given that the women of the family would shoulder the emotional burdens of life. We should have known better and we should have helped. I never realized what a fragile human being my Mother was until she became very sick. I should have helped her with her burdens instead of adding to them. I thought my thinking was advanced in that I put women on a higher level. I had to find out the hard way that women are all to human and as fragile as the rest of us. Sorry – It really hurts to write this.

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