Thursday, May 26, 2016
Transgender button, 2014. Memorabilia collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryTransgender button, 2014. Memorabilia collection. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Recent media attention has highlighted how personal pronoun choice is linked to an individual's ability to define their own gender and sexuality identity. Transgender people and activists, as well as those who feel they don't fit neatly into a gender binary, have questioned the use of gendered pronouns in the English language, and shifted public awareness and conversation on the topic. The American Dialect Society chose "they" as the word of 2015, defining it as "gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, as a nonbinary identifier." Feminist activists in the 1970s also struggled with binary and sexist language and advanced options for new words. Their efforts, while not as publicly effective as those of current activists, created awareness of the transformative power of language.

Schlesinger Library collections often provide historical context to many current public conversations, and we continue to collect material, like the button pictured above, that reflects lived experiences of and changing attitudes about gender and sexuality. Evidence of historic engagement with gender-neutral or nongendered pronouns can be found in a number of the Library's collections.

The United States women's liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s sparked a broad conversation about how language contributed to gender assumptions and oppression. The now widespread use of "Ms." as an honorific instead of (and in addition to) "Miss" and "Mrs." was one of the movement's linguistic successes. Feminists advocated nonsexist language that moved away from the use of the suffix "-man" in words that described vocations or opportunities that could be filled by persons of either gender. Cambridge's own feminist bookstore, New Words, embodied in its name the idea that changing gender roles and stereotypes required changing language itself.

Ms. magazine—itself named for a "new word"—ran articles on non-sexist and gendered language and received a number of letters on the topic, including the one pictured below from folk singer Pete Seeger. "They" or "their," now in common usage, was felt by Seeger to be "too obviously plural." Seeger also suggested adopting the suffix "o" instead of "man" or "person," stating, "Now's the time to make the changes more creatively."

Feminist Mary Orovan originally advocated the creation and use of "co" as a nongendered pronoun in her 1970 pamphlet, "Humanizing English." In a second, revised edition of the pamphlet shown here, Orovan suggests "E" and shows how it would be used in speech. At the pamphlet's end, she writes, "Consciousness could be raised by asking, do you mean E, for everyone, or just he?"

Gendered language and individuals’ relationship to and choice of pronouns will continue to change. The Schlesinger Library holds several archival collections and many periodicals related to transgender persons and organizations, some of which document personal and community conversations about pronouns and other gendered language. We are pleased to be collaborating with the Digital Transgender Archive at the College of the Holy Cross to make some of our trans* collections available online. As we expand our holdings in this area, our documentation of the ways public gender discourse affects and responds to linguistic issues will continue to grow.

As Seeger wrote in his letter, "Building a new and livable world will necessitate thousands of little changes."

Letter to the editor of Ms. magazine from folksinger Pete Seeger, 1974. Letters to Ms. Collection (MC 331). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryLetter to the editor of Ms. magazine from folksinger Pete Seeger, 1974. Letters to Ms. Collection (MC 331). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Page from "Humanizing English" pamphlet by Mary Orovan, ca. 1970. Bernice Resnick Sandler Papers (MC 558). Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPage from "Humanizing English" pamphlet by Mary Orovan, ca. 1970. Bernice Resnick Sandler Papers (MC 558). Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

 

Author: 
Jenny Gotwals