This 1998 advice from Ursula K. Le Guin about gender-neutral language is still relevant.
On Tuesday, Literary Twitter came for Margaret Atwood after she retweeted, without commentary, an op-ed article written by Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno. The article, “Why can’t we say ‘woman’ anymore?,” is a near-hysterical argument that the word “woman is in danger of becoming a dirty word.” DiManno believes that so-called “language radicals” are threatening the gender binary and are purposely attacking anyone with a vagina. She brings up J.K. Rowling and insists that she’s not “hostile” to the trans movement, blaming the backlash to the Harry Potter author as “trans activism run amok.”
Although Atwood didn’t endorse DiManno’s claims, the initial resharing of the article was viewed as like-minded approval. Later, unswayed by the onslaught of public dissent, Atwood defended DiManno: “Read her piece. She’s not a Terf.” Now, I’m not really sure Atwood and I were reading the same article (equating gender-neutral pronouns to an act of misogyny seems a bit of a reach). But you know who has some better opinions on gender-neutral language? The GOAT Ursula K. Le Guin.
In 1998, Le Guin published Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, a guide to the craft of writing. The book, which has since been revised and updated, contains helpful advice about using singular and plural pronouns. Le Guin argues against the traditional rule that in English, “he” is the generic pronoun. Unlike DiManno, Le Guin explains, “My use of their is socially motivated and . . . politically correct: a deliberate response to the socially and politically significant banning of our genderless pronoun by language legislation enforcing the notion that the male sex is the only one that counts.”
Le Guin, refreshingly, also isn’t afraid to admit when she’s wrong. In the afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin discusses her regrets about not using gender-neutral language. She says, “English has a truly ungendered pronoun only in the plural. He, she, and it are gendered, they is not.”
I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll adopt Le Guin’s school of thought over the reasoning of DiManno and Atwood. Sorry (not sorry).