Genderqueering Language at a “Women’s” College


Drake, Kimberly


Recently, the idea that women's colleges could admit transgender students became a national issue, thanks to Calliope Wong, a transwoman who was rejected for admission at Smith College because her FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) identified her as male (Bennett-Smith). Smith's Dean of Admission Debra Shaver explained in the letter of rejection Wong received that "Smith is a women's college, which means that undergraduate applicants must be female at the time of admission" (Bennett-Smith), or, that applicants must "consistently show on their applications that they identify as female," no other "official proof" being required (Giovanniello). Once admitted, students may "identify as transgendered" (Bennett-Smith). This policy has been defended as necessary in order to retain Smith's status as a "single-sex school" and avoid violating Title IX, although Katherine L. Kraschel makes a compelling argument in the Harvard Journal of Law and Gender that "Title IX protects transgender individuals in the same way it protects women," and that in fact, Title IX "can be used to combat discrimination against transgender individuals by providing for their admission to women's colleges" (Kraschel). Admitting transgender students would not be the same as admitting male students, legally speaking. And yet of the women's colleges in the US, only a few openly admit transgender students, beginning with Mills College in fall 20141 (Kraschel). It would seem, then, that the possibility of admitting transgender students complicates a deeply held value embedded in the mission of women's colleges: the gender binary, or the "coalescence of gender, sex, and sexuality into exactly two fundamentally distinct natural kinds: women and men" (Marinucci 76).

In this particular case, one way the gender binary is complicated is its exposure as a discursive construct. In terms of both feminist theory and queer linguistics, the idea that "identity" is not a "stable, pre-discursive given" is foundational (Motschenbacher &Stegu 522), but women's colleges and other social institutions see gender as grounded in anatomy. In Smith College admissions, though, one's status as a woman is determined solely through language—through female pronouns and a check in any box that indicates "female." Perhaps this has been the case historically because no other proof was thought to be necessary.  Women's colleges exist today, the argument goes, because women need protected spaces free of men, spaces in which they can try out leadership roles or geeky intellectual passions without taking a beating from the patriarchy. Women's colleges were formed in response to centuries of oppression from a male-structured, male-dominated society; founded on the notion of a gender binary, they resist gender oppression in part by denying admission to males. Was Calliope rejected because admissions officers can only think of her as a male? Is it because the notion of women's colleges depends upon the maintenance of the gender binary, which recognizes only two genders?  If Calliope were admitted to Smith, would some aspect of the protected space be violated?2

As a professor of writing at Scripps College, the Women's College of the Claremont Colleges east of Los Angeles, I have some experience in considering these questions. In nine years at the campus, I have observed increasing diversity in students' gender presentation; simultaneously, students have begun to address gendered spaces on campus and gendered language in official documents. In this essay, I discuss my students' experiments in gender-neutral and genderqueer language and the history of gendered language at Scripps College. At a single-sex institution, the use of gender-neutral and genderqueer language can be far more radical than on campuses and in social contexts that are mixed-gender, because it can suggest a violation of the college's single-sex mission. More importantly, the use of gender-neutral and genderqueer language goes a long way toward turning the gender binary into a continuum.

Scripps College: A Case Study

Members of the Scripps College community, myself included, are regularly asked what characterizes women's colleges in general and Scripps in particular, and how the experience at Scripps is different from a college that men attend. The subtext of such questions is that we promote a special female community, a "safe space" of gender homogeneity, that might be liberating, limiting, or lesbianism-inducing, depending on the perspective of the asker. In response to such a question, a Scripps tour guide or admissions counselor typically anticipates the last concern and points to the fact that our college is bordered on all sides by colleges that admit men. Scripps is part of a consortium of five undergraduate colleges, including Pomona, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, and Claremont McKenna College, known as Claremont Men's College until 1976; this means that men are welcome on our campus—in our classrooms, in the dining hall, in the coffeehouse, and, escorted by a Scripps student, as visitors to the residence halls.  A tour guide would point out, however, that only women can register for a Bachelors program at Scripps (men can register for Scripps' post-baccalaureate pre-med program), and only registered undergraduate Scripps students can live in campus housing. The low walls surrounding the garden-like space that is Scripps College are not just a 1920s design option; they are a symbolic boundary.

On our website for prospective students, there is a page that asks, "Why a Women's College?" The question is answered with a "startling fact": "most Scripps students weren't originally seeking a women's college" ("Why a Women's College?"). However, when these students came to the campus, they saw that "students take their education seriously, women support each other, and the atmosphere is one of encouragement and high expectations, not cutthroat competition." Most people who attend and work at the college would agree that they enjoy the immense benefits of "single-sex education" on a daily basis. Students aren't confronted by enactments of sexism or gender discrimination to the extent they might be at a mixed-gender college, in part because most of their time in and out of the classroom is spent without a lot of cis-gendered men around. Two required first-semester courses, Writing 50 (first-year writing) and Core I (a multi-disciplinary humanities seminar) are Scripps-only, so students begin to work through their writing issues and begin thinking critically about norms, categories, and constructions of knowledge in a community of their Scripps peers. Outside of these two courses, students tend to learn about women's experiences and perspectives because Scripps faculty members highlight these aspects in the courses we teach. Our students tell us that during their time at Scripps, they develop strong voices in the classroom and to take on leadership positions in the campus community—for many of them, to a much greater extent than they did at their mixed-gender high schools or previous colleges. It goes without saying that the gender binary has shaped our students' subjectivities and that patriarchy regularly penetrates the "Scripps bubble" in various ways.3 However, in this "protected" space, manifestations of patriarchy are less likely to constrain the students and more likely to be an object of critique than at mixed-gender institutions. Students are free to explore their identities, including their gender identities.

One reason some of our students have given in the past for transferring away from Scripps, however, has been that Scripps is too "safe." While I would argue that even in the past, this perception is somewhat misguided, I will admit that my expectations of the college's gender politics were confounded upon my arrival nine years ago. I did not encounter the explicit interest in feminism I had expected to see in the classroom and in student organizations, nor did I observe a great deal of visible interest in queer issues. One student told me, with agreement from her classmates, that students at Scripps were by definition feminist, so there wasn't a pressing need to discuss feminist issues. (About this comment, I can say that not all Scripps students identify as feminist, and those who do hold political positions across the spectrum of feminism). The only mention of queer issues, outside of class discussion, was an email I received about a mentor program for queer students sponsored by the QRC (Queer Resource Center of the Claremont Colleges) located on the Pomona College campus. I looked up the QRC's website when I received this email, and I saw a lovely photo of a well-appointed rainbow-colored space with no one inside.4 While I knew that there were queer students on campus, my sense was that cis-gendered heterosexual women were the normative Scripps students, and those not falling into this category did not have a strong public presence on campus. This is reflected in the title of a Scripps senior thesis by Caily A. DiPuma, submitted in 2003: "An (in)visible history : queers, dykes and lesbians at Scripps College for women."

Just like Smith, Scripps has welcomed any student at the college and in the residence halls who, after admission, begins to identify as gender-queer, transgender, or male. As our administrators have put it, "Scripps admits women; it graduates students" (Marcus-Newhall). For Scripps students who do not identify as women, or who wish, in gender-queer fashion, to be "consciously political in their gender expression" and to "subvert oppressive power dynamics by undermining traditional gender expectations" (Bulldagger 139), the public and normative identity of the college has presented a significant conflict. For students who are transgender or gender-queer before college applications are due, the college's normative identity5 has been a barrier.

Language in the Scripps Public Area

Several years ago, Scripps' transgender students began to make their presence more prominent. I began to notice this in late 2009, around the time that students were discussing a proposal to change the language of the SAS (Scripps Associated Students) bylaws to be gender-neutral.  Articles in The Student Life (Pomona College's student newspaper) reported on this development, noting that "although Scripps is a women's college, transgender students who do not identify as female currently attend Scripps" ("Scripps Votes"). One transgender student, "David Jackson,"6 the SAS vice-president and the student-selected graduation speaker in 2011, states that a "changing dialogue on campus" about transgender issues led the students to propose gender-neutral language in formal documents. Anna Salem, Scripps SAS president in 2009-10, explains why SAS wanted to change the language of the bylaws:

We suggested this proposal because SAS's most important task is to advocate on behalf of and represent students . . . in order for us to be inclusive . . . we need to make sure that the language of our bylaws does not actively exclude and silence a population of our student body. ("Scripps Votes")

A year later, Scripps students had voted in this change, and the college had "issued gender-neutral diplomas" to "some members of the class of 2011" for the "first time in history" (Wu). I assume that by "gender-neutral diploma" the reporter was indicating the diploma's language and not some other feature of a diploma—Scripps diplomas aren't pink. In demanding gender-neutral language, Jackson, Salem, and many other students confronted the widespread assumption that all students at Scripps identify as women and use the pronoun "she" or "her" to refer to themselves.

As a solution to essentializing language, gender-neutral language has its own benefits and its own problems. Gender-neutral terms "refer interchangeably" to "members of all sex and gender categories," as Mimi Marinucci notes, suggesting that they are "semantically equivalent" (74). Changes along these lines have been successful in the sense that words like "man" and "mankind" are used less frequently, as are gender-marked terms such as "stewardess" and "mailman." However, in general society, the use of gender-neutral language is "inevitably exclusionary" because "priority" is "implicitly granted to members of historically privileged categories, such as heterosexual men" (Marinucci 75). Even when that is not necessarily the case, using gender-neutral language ends up reinforcing the "hegemonic binary" (Marinucci 76). This was the case when the language of Pomona College's constitution was made gender-neutral.  The constitution was revised primarily by making the singular cases into plural cases. When the singular was necessary, a student noted, a different strategy was required in order "to avoid disputes over the linguistic legality of using 'they' in the singular form":  sentences such as "'S/he is responsible for his/her…' were altered to the effect of 'That commissioner is responsible for that student's…'" (Wu). In other words, the strategy for creating gender-neutral language in these documents was to avoid singular personal pronouns altogether. Because these documents are formulaic and describe a generalized student, this strategy can work seamlessly to neutralize gendered language, as we are all undoubtedly aware. Akin to "tolerance" as a strategy for recognition of identity-based difference, it avoids active exclusion but allows the psychological and social structures that "enforce a binary gender system" to remain intact (Beemyn 78). 

Put another way, the particular change to the language of the Pomona bylaws and diplomas avoided linguistically excluding students but also avoided calling attention to the presence of trans and genderqueer students on campus. As Dean Spade7 notes in a recent article in Radical Teacher, trans people are increasingly demanding full access to higher education; full access requires that colleges and universities reject "compulsory gender assignment" and "the notion that binary gender is 'natural' or pre-political" (57, 62). Full access, in other words, will not be gained by avoiding pronominal reference to the gender binary.

Undertaking the same changes at Scripps had an entirely different connotation, and this is made clear in the reasons some students gave for resisting the change: tradition ("Scripps bills itself as a women's college") and a commitment to a woman-centered society and its corresponding language. These reasons are motivated by different political values, but both reasons recognize the clear significance of the changes: changing the language to be gender-neutral constitutes a recognition that in terms of its population, Scripps is not entirely a women's college, if "women" refers to gender identity expressed discursively and performatively.

In terms of language, however, the Scripps "tradition" is not as clear as current students might think: since 1926, a variety of pronoun choices have been made in official Scripps documents and at speeches given at major college events. In the "Bylaws of Scripps College for Women" in 1926, for example, plural pronouns are almost always used, even in reference to the Board of Trustees, although on occasion the singular "he"/"his" is used to refer to particular officers that presumably identified as male (Scripps Records). In the "Aims and Educational Policy" booklet of the same year, Scripps College is referred to as "she," and students are both "girls" and "freshmen." Yet the diploma of Helen Ruth Hoefer in 1928 avoids pronouns and gendered language altogether.8 The following year, at the "Dedication of Eleanor Joy Toll Residence Hall," students are referred to as "women" and even "daughters," something that becomes consistent in college documents in future decades. However, in 1970, at the dedication of the Humanities Center building, the three male speakers dedicating the building and presenting a statue entitled "Man and Nature" use "he" and "his" consistently, only mentioning "women" twice, both times in the phrase "men and women" ("Dedication of Humanities Center"). In that same year, in the Scripps College Bylaws, students are referred to using plural pronouns, although Board of Trustee and faculty members are still indicated using "he" and "his." It's interesting to note that the pronoun "he" is regularly used to refer to the Board of Trustees and Faculty, despite the fact that both groups included people who identified as male and as female, but the plural is frequently used to describe students, who would have been identified, by administrators if not by themselves, as an all-female group. I would suggest that the use of plural pronouns in Scripps documents and by official speakers during the past century was not intended to be gender-neutral in order to include those among the student body who did not identify as women, but rather as an expression of discomfort on the part of some people with describing a representative college student as "she."

This tendency over the decades of Scripps's history to avoid using "she" to refer to Scripps students helps to explain the second reason for continuing to use "she" in the Scripps Bylaws, best stated by India Mullady, SAS president 2010-11: "Many students find the use of 'she' in legal documents to be empowering" ("Scripps Votes"). This is a feminist idea with some political weight; as Robin Queen has noted, many lesbians prefer to use the pronoun "she" as their gender-neutral pronoun, or GNP, in resistance to patriarchy and gender norms.9  As the use of "she" as the epicene pronoun at Scripps College is relatively recent, using it still feels like a feminist statement. However, SAS leaders decided that ultimately, the use of "she" results in the exclusion of some members of the community, and by extension, is a form of gender oppression. Our student leaders have publicly stated that their mission as student representatives is to "comba[t] patriarchy" and to "resist" all forms of "gender oppression," including linguistic ones ("Scripps Votes"). In doing so, they have chosen an approach to language that refuses pronominal oppression, even if that usage is only oppressive to a minority of the population.

Language in the Writing Classroom

What such an approach must eventually lead to is the idea that minorities must not be treated as exceptions to general rules, but as system-changers. A gender system can't be a binary if it contains more than two terms, an understanding that my first-year writing students and I realized in a couple of memorable class sessions during 2011. My first-year writing course, with the theme "Writing for Social Change," is one section of about 18 per year. Because protest writing is my primary research interest, I have for years taught a FYW course with a protest writing theme, which functions as a "writing about writing" course. The students discuss protest writing from a variety of genres and disciplines, writing that works to incite a range of social effects from consciousness-raising to concrete changes in law and custom. Students also discuss texts by U.S. authors participating in almost every major social movement in the history of the U.S. My goal is for students to experience the powerful effects of protest writing and to become adept at using discursive tools for social change. I rely as well on the goals and some of the texts of student's first-year interdisciplinary humanities seminar, Core I, which asks them to think outside of categories and binaries, and to challenge their most basic assumptions. Doing so helps them become more critical and thus to write better papers.  I also want us to consider the power of discourse to determine who we are, or as Edward Sapír might say, to understand the "tyrannical hold that linguistic form has upon our orientation in the world" (68).

I spend a lot of my time creating a supportive classroom community within which we can challenge each other to think through and around a variety of social issues and create risky and interesting arguments that intervene in those issues -- what some students are calling a "brave space" rather than a "safe space". I thus begin my writing course with texts that reveal the ways we are constructed and controlled by discourse. In James Gee's discussion and redefinition of "Discourses," for example, Gee states that "it is not individuals who speak and act, but rather that historically and socially defined Discourses speak to each other through individuals. The individual instantiates, gives body to, a Discourse every time he or she acts or speaks, and thus carries it, and ultimately changes it, through time" (Gee 145). We discuss the ways we are formed through and are complicit in various social discourses, even those that oppress or limit us. Initially many students resist this notion (one student called it "un-American"), but it is similar to Foucault's theories about power that they find in their Core I reading, and eventually they find it energizing. In the last two years, we've also read Rachel Riederer's piece "Rape and Rhetoric," in which she characterizes Todd Akin's comments about "legitimate rape" in 2012 as a "rhetorical move" characteristic of hardened "ideologues" (1). Unlike Akin, "most students" that Riederer has "worked with" do not trot out illogical "facts" when experiencing "clashes of logical thinking and deeply felt ideals"; rather, such clashes "lead to epiphanies, restructured world views—the kind of macro learning that makes college a time of real growth" (2). I have tried to design my class to regularly bring logic and ideals into such "clashes," because being persuasive requires a truly open mind. But even in this state of alleged liberation, we will continue to uphold the social constructions that have formed us without some imaginative resistance.

One of the social constructions that my students have struggles to consider critically is the gender binary. To enable imaginative resistance to it, I assign Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, a feminist speculative fiction novel published in 1976. The book's protagonist is an impoverished woman, Connie Ramos, living in a mental institution in the early 1970s, who develops the ability to travel to a future world. This world is a 1970s anarcho-syndicalist utopia, in which inhabitants pursue environmental sustainability, communal values, and social equality. The citizens of the future have eliminated inequalities related to gender, race, and sexuality by separating human phenotype and anatomy from reproduction and from culture. Because children are not born from wombs but from the "brooder," a kind of womb-replicating aquarium, and adopted by three "co-mothers," and because the culture of each village has nothing to do with the genetic lineage of any resident, the classification and social control of an individual's body becomes unnecessary. The book is compelling to students because it allows them to imaginatively experience some possible outcomes of various social movements they know, and to imagine a space free of identitarian categories. But it's also interesting for its linguistic innovations: the future society has eradicated gendered pronouns and other forms of gendered language. As feminist critics and queer linguists have noted, Piercy substitutes the word "'person' for [the] nominative [subject] third person pronoun" and also uses it to replace "'a man' or 'a woman'"; she substitutes "'per' for [the] accusative [objective] third person pronoun" and the possessive (Burton 39; see also Weaver and Marinucci).  Piercy has stated that she created these ungendered pronouns to "reinforce the egalitarian nature of that society" (Livia "She Sired" 343.) However, Piercy's use of them also highlights the gender binary built into the language of Connie's present-day society and into the "Standard American English" my students use.

Students who six months earlier might have thought that gendered pronouns are not a pressing problem are now able to see that, as William Leap puts it, "speakers come to understand the obligations and limitations of normative authority, even as they are being regulated by them" during verbal interactions that address "expectations associated with gendered and sexuality norms" (645). Most of my students are familiar with the notion that the "generic 'he' is sexist and should be avoided," a notion that has been "established in linguistic scholarship for at least two decades," according to Anne Curzan (58). They have less trouble, apparently, than many linguists have had in understanding this issue as a social issue rather than strictly a linguistic one. They are surprised to learn, as Ann Bodine notes in "Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar," that the current "movement against the sex-indefinite 'he' is actually a counter-reaction to an attempt by prescriptive grammarians [over the past couple of centuries] to alter the language" (125) to enforce "he" as the epicene pronoun; they are happy to learn that what preceded this attempt was the use of the "singular they,"10 which they already use to solve the gendered pronoun problem in their everyday speech (as I do).11 Those such as Robin Lakoff (1975)12 and Dennis Baron (1986), who claim that attempts to create GNPs to replace the "generic 'he'" are "misguided" and "futile" (in Livia 333; Lakoff qtd in Bodine 135), are not seeing how widespread the "singular 'they' is at present" (Bodine 136). The singular "they" creates only an error in number, while the epicene "he" creates an error in gender; in that sense they are similar, with the singular "they" having the added benefit of not being complicit with patriarchy.13

Piercy's solution seems neater than either of these choices, and my students tend to approve of it. The parallel between "people" and "person" and the rhyming of "her' and "per" make this choice feel more natural. My students enjoy using Piercy's GNP in such phrases as "person must not do what person cannot do" (a slogan from the book) and "Person will be a bit late because per dorm printer is broken." In the fall of 2011, however, a small group of students took this usage a step further: they decided to write their academic papers using "person" and "per" as their GNPs of choice. I asked those using GNPs to include a footnote upon their first usage of the term; here is Lauren Mitten's footnote:

I use the pronouns "per," "person," and "person's" throughout this paper rather than "her" or "him," "he" or "she," and "hers" or "his" because I don't believe gender is something that is so important one needs to be reminded of it every time one uses or reads a pronoun and because the use of gendered pronouns perpetuates the gender binary and marginalizes those who do not identify within it. I credit Marge Piercy for creation of these pronouns. (3)

I admire the ennui Lauren expresses about gender identity, a view shared by other students, even those who continued to use gendered pronouns in their essays. But it was important, too, for Lauren to take a stand against the gender binary with pronoun choice. After we realized that it can be confusing to talk about one's non-human animal companions using "person," Lauren began using "ze" and "hir" instead of "person" and "per," terms that have had a "limited range of success" within "transgendered communities" (Stotko and Troyer 264) in the 1970s and still today (Marinucci 72).

The creation of alternative GNPs over the years has been well documented (see Miller and Swift, Martyna, Baron, Marinucci, Flanigan, and Stotko and Troyer).14 Attempts to create GNPs date from the middle ages; in the 1880s, a "lawyer named Charles Converse coined the gender-neutral pronoun 'thon' — a combination of 'that' and 'one.' 'Thon' even made it into the 1909 supplement to the Century Dictionary, but nobody actually used it" (Hersher). More than 80 alternatives have been suggested since the eighteenth century, including "ey" [ee] (to replace he/she), "eir" to replace "his/her," and "em" to replace "him/her; "se, ses, sem"; "na, nan, nan's, naself"—and "co" to replace all pronouns as well as "man" when appearing in compound words  (Stotko and Troyer; Williams; Flanigan). Recently, NPR and other media outlets have reported on Baltimore teenagers using the word "yo" as a GNP, something that was first noticed by academics about seven years ago. In this case, the pronoun has been introduced not "to solve a perceived problem in the pronoun system of English," as was the case with all other alternative GNPs, but "spontaneously" (Stotko and Troyer 264). Sociolinguist Christine Mallison states that "what these students are doing that's so fascinating is they have a view of the world that is, in many ways, gender neutral, and they're using language to reflect that . . . Maybe for them it's just a normal thing to just go around and not have gender so much on the forefront of the brain" (Hersher). Perhaps because of the "safe space" Scripps attempts to provide, my students at Scripps seem less interested in gender differentiation than many other students I have taught. However, those choosing to use GNPs were not simply expressing a lack of interest. Those who used GNPs were trying to avoid using a pronoun containing any kind of built-in error (e.g. the singular they); to allow for the possibility of using the singular pronoun; to avoid discrimination; and most importantly, to embed a protest within their academic papers, one designed to raise reader consciousness about the hegemonic nature of "standard English Grammar" and about the violence of the gender binary.

This last goal became explicit only after another moment in the course, which took place about a month after we'd finished Woman on the Edge of Time. In the last course unit, students lead discussion each day on sets of articles, including excerpts from Judith Butler's discussion of gender as performance, which I include because it so radically "challenge[s] essentialist categories and assumptions" about gender, assumptions my students largely share (Jones 33-34). Butler asks readers to "consider gender…as a corporeal style, an 'act,' as it were, . . . created through sustained social performances," which means that "the very notions of an essential sex . . . are also constituted as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed. As a consequence, gender cannot be understood as a role which either expresses or disguises an interior 'self'" ("Performative Acts" 278). My students tend to understand the idea that gender identity is both socially constructed and performed, although most of them probably believe they are female in some "essential" way. In Gender Trouble, Butler completely undermines the idea of "essential gender": all three "dimensions" of "corporeality: anatomical sex, gender identity, and gender performance," are "contingent" and thus not fixed or stable (137); put more simply, anatomical gender is just as much of a social construction as are the gender roles we live out or resist in our daily lives. Typically, my students have trouble understanding how anatomical gender could be socially constructed. In the fall of 2011, however, student discussion leaders managed to lead their peers to grasp fully what Butler was saying. The result was an extremely energetic and mind-bending discussion by the students about what it meant for them to be at a women's college, and how Scripps was defining "woman." Our carefully considered answer was that "if you are admitted to Scripps, it's because someone in power believes you have a vagina." Both gender and sex, in other words, are fully discursive, or, as the students determined, fictions. Eventually, the students decided on a class motto that they spray-painted on t-shirts: "Person's Gender is a Lie." This comes from a catchphrase "the cake is a lie" popularized by the video game "Portal," in which the computer falsely promises that at the end of the many tasks the player must complete, "there will be cake." Urban Dictionary translates "the cake is a lie" as "your promised reward is merely a fictitious motivator," which applies fairly well to the context of gender expression and heteronormativity.

Knowing that "gender is a lie" can allow us to use gendered pronouns subversively. As Anna Livia argues, in describing "individuals whose anatomical or psychological configuration outlaws them from the traditional categories," we can "make use of the system feminists decry"; "grammaticalized gender, which many feel acts as a trap to limit people in their gender roles," can thus be used "as a linguistic devic[e] to express gender fluidity" (368). In other words, using what appears to be the "wrong" pronoun might be a kind of social action that challenges gender binaries. Writing about African American gay men, E. Patrick Johnson similarly argues that reappropriating gendered language can be transgressive in the ways that Robin Queen describes: when men and/or trans individuals allow themselves to be referred to by "she" and "her," "the social category 'woman' . . . becomes something other than a category that sits in contradistinction to the category 'man.' Multiple ways of inhabiting 'woman' open up" (Johnson 291).

Such subversion was one effect of David Jackson's use of the male pronoun to refer to himself as a women's college student, and nowhere was this more striking than at the graduation ceremony of 2011. When Jackson, the Senior Class Speaker, was being introduced by Scripps President Lori Bettison-Varga prior to his speech, members of our community listened carefully to that introduction, wondering whether the President would use "he" to refer to David. In an introduction that lasted just over two minutes, the President referred to David by name only for the first 90 seconds, and then, at the end, used the pronoun "he" once and the word "person" once (Bettison-Varga). The President's use of "he" to introduce David presented a public challenge to the assumption that Scripps is a women's college. When normative communities such as ours (with an official gender norm) begin to use language queerly to describe individuals, the identitarian bases of that community must be reexamined. As Rusty Barrett has noted, "linguistics founded on the notion of community cannot adequately handle queer uses of language" ("The 'Homo-genius'" 181). But just because Scripps students have begun to dismantle the gender binary through its language and gender performance does not mean that the college is in a slow state of collapse. Nor will admitting transgender students destroy the ability of "women's colleges" to allow students a protected space in which to develop their identities and their intellects.

Thinking hard about the language that structures our identities and daily experiences led my students not only to realize that the gender binary is better described as a continuum, but to begin using language that foregrounds that continuum. My student, Lauren Mitten, performed this social action in a relatively high-stakes circumstance. Lauren submitted a research paper using the gender-neutral pronouns ze and hir, which ze came to prefer as hir GNP of choice, as hir entry for the Sands Essay Award Competition. All Writing 50 students are eligible, and the prize is a tuition scholarship; finalist essays are read by a committee of Writing Program instructors. My student understood hirself to be taking a risk, but ze was committed to the experiment.  While hir essay was a finalist, it did not win on the basis of its argument. However, when I asked my fellow judges about the essay's use of GNPs, some of them stated that they found it "distracting."15 In this case, distraction was purposeful and political. Lauren continued courageously to use hir GNPs of choice in hir papers the following semester in a different course I taught, thus alerting a new set of students to the idea that gendered language needs reforming, and that the gender binary is a lie.


I want to thank Mark McBeth for inspiring this article, Lauren Mitten and the other brilliant and courageous students of Writing 50 Fall 2011, Amelia Hamiter for her invaluable research, my "Get the Book Out" reading group for their wise feedback, and Rob Koch for his transformative feedback.


1Mills' new policy states that applicants "'not assigned to the female sex at birth' but "who self-identify as women are welcome"; that applicants "'who do not fit into the gender binary' - being neither male nor female - are eligible if they were 'assigned to the female sex at birth'";  and that female students who "become male after enrolling may stay and graduate." Mills will not admit a candidate to its undergraduate program if that candidate was "assigned to the female sex at birth" but has become male prior to applying (Asimov). Mt. Holyoke, Scripps College, and a few other women's colleges also have begun to admit students who identify as women and (to different extents) transmen and genderqueer students.

2Calliope gave up her fight to get into Smith, but Smith students did not; the campus organization "Smith College Q&A" continues to demand that transwomen be admitted to Smith. According to her Tumblr "calliowong," Calliope is now a "pre-med track English major" in the UConn Honors program. A 2013 entry notes that a trans friend of hers was admitted to Simmons College (Wong).

3Apart from manifestations of patriarchy that affect us all, I'm thinking of particular events like the anti-lesbian and anti-Scripps slurs spray-painted on campus on April 5, 2009; CMC student Shannon Miller's explicit attack on Scripps in her opinion piece "Don't Like the Gender Gap? Don't Encourage It" for the CMC Forum on February 5, 2013; Brendan Rowan's more generally sexist "Welcome to the Family" article in The Student Life, the Pomona student newspaper, on December 2011; and the physical and verbal assaults on Scripps students by other 5C students that my students report to me periodically.

4The QRC's history is relatively short: it began in 1993 as the LGB Resource Center, was first given a (half-time) staff position in 2006, and became formally funded and staffed by the Claremont Colleges only in 2011. The photo of the empty "rainbow ski lodge" is still on the home page of the QRC website, but in photos on other pages, students appear in the space ("Mission Statement," Queer Resource Center).

5I want to note that this term is problematic: as Davin Grindstaff notes, the term "identity" mobilizes "ideology in and through public discourse, for it creates the very objects to which it refers"; it is "a concrete social category with rhetorical force" (Grindstaff 10-11). Similarly, Motschenbacher and Stegu state that "from a Queer Linguistics perspective, all identity categories are problematic because they regulate and exclude people who do not fully meet their normative requirements," something that is true even for those inhabiting the identities "lesbian and gay" (523).

6"David Jackson" is the name this student chose for the purpose of this article.

7See also Bing and Bergvall.

8At that time, diplomas read "The trustees of Scripps College upon the recommendation of the faculty hereby confer upon [name] the degree of bachelor of arts in recognition of the successful pursuit of studies that characterize a liberal education."

9As Queen notes, "Of the many lesbians to whom I have spoken about their perceived relationship to the social category 'woman,' none has ever claimed that it was a category that did not apply to her. Most have expressed the essentialness of a deep connection to the category 'woman,' both for themselves and for those whom they love. Many expressed far more affiliation with women of all sorts than with men who shared their sexual identities as 'queers'" (Queen 291). For these women, "she" and "her" would be the pronouns of choice, empowering ones if used to refer to all members of their communities (whether or not those members identified as female).

10There are a number of accounts of the history of sexist language research; I like the one in Flanigan.

11As Anne Curzan states, Lindley Murray's "extremely popular" English Grammar (1794) notes that "the use of they" to refer to "an indefinite singular noun" is "an error" and corrects it with "he, without providing any further explanation. A little more than fifty years later, the 'correctness' of generic he went from being a theory to being a law: in 1850, an Act of Parliament legally replaced he or she with he to 'shorten the language used in Acts of Parliament.'" Further, "evidence for epicene he" can be found "as early as Chaucer," so "prescription of generic he should be seen more as suppression of variation than as an invention of the eighteenth century" (59).

12For more on Lakoff and GNPs, see Rusty Barrett, "As Much as We Use Language."

13In a "Lingua Franca" blog post, Anne Curzan defends the singular they as being "a very useful, efficient solution to the generic pronoun problem" and does not believe it is "ungrammatical," given the fact that it is "meaningful to both speakers and listeners in their everyday speech" and "writers have been using singular they effectively and often unnoticeably for centuries" ("Singular 'They'"). I disagree, having seen many occasions in which this usage was terribly confusing, but I agree with her advice to students that if they decide to use the singular they, they should footnote its first use and explain their choice of usage.

14Another option is to use "gender-inclusive" pronouns, defined as using "multiple terms" to "refer separately and specifically to more than one, and ideally to all, relevant categories of people" (Marinucci 72). The problem with this approach is that it still tends to reinforce the gender binary.

15This is a typical criticism. Lucy Ferriss writes in her blog post "Change Mustn't Be a Burden" that students in her partner's courses use these GNPs, although both Ferriss and her partner find such usage "distracting" and "occasionally nonsensical" (Ferriss).

Works Cited

Asimov, Nanette. "New policy clarifies 'female' for Mills College admission." SFGate. August 21, 2014. Web. August 22, 2014.

Baron, Dennis. Grammar and Gender. Yale: Yale UP, 1986. Print.

Barrett, Rusty. "The 'Homo-genius' Speech Community." In Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall. "'It's a Girl!' Bringing Performativity Back to Linguistics." In Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall, eds. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. NY: Oxford UP, 1997. 181-201. Print.

—. "As Much as We Use Language: Lakoff's Queer Augury." In Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. Language and Woman's Place: Text and Commentaries. Bucholtz, Mary, Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 296-302. Print. 

Beemyn, Brett Genny. "Making Campuses More Inclusive of Transgender Students." Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education. 3.1 (2005). 77-97. Print.

Bennett-Smith, Meredith. "Smith College Rejects Female Transgender Student Calliope Wong; Applicant Ruled 'Male' By Admissions." The Huffington Post  March 21, 2013. Web. March 22, 2013.

Bettison-Varga, Lori. Introduction of Student Speaker. Scripps Graduation, May 15, 2011. Speech.

Bing, Janet M., and Victoria L. Bergvall. "The Question of Questions: Beyond Binary Thinking." In Coates, Jennifer. Language and Gender: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998. 495-510. Print.

Bodine, Ann. "Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: singular 'they,' sex-indefinite 'he,' and 'he or she.'" Language in Society 4.2 (August 1975). 129-46. Print.

Bulldagger, Rocko. "The End of Genderqueer." Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity. Ed. Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore. Emeryville: Seal Press, 2006. 137-48. Print.

Burton, Deidre. "Linguistic Innovation in Feminist Utopian Fiction." The Journal of English Language and Literature, 29.1 (1983). 93-111. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. NY: Routledge 1990. Print.

—. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal 40.4 (Dec 1988). 519-31. Print.

Curzan, Anne. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.

—. "Singular 'They': a Footnote." Lingua Franca: Language and Writing in Academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 10, 2013. Web. July 8, 2013. 

Ferriss, Lucy. "Change Mustn't Be a Burden." Lingua Franca: Language and Writing in Academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 16, 2012. Web. July 8, 2013.

Flanigan, Jolane. "The Use and Evolution of Gender Neutral Language in an Intentional Community." Women & Language 36.1. 27-41. Print.

Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Education. London: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Gender Identity and Expression Sub-Committee of the Diversity and Social Justice Committee. "Mills College Report on Inclusion of Transgender and Gender Fluid Students: Best Practices, Assessment and Recommendations." April 2013. Web. August 30, 2014.

Giovanniello, Sarah. "'Just Check Female': Trans Women and Smith College Admissions." Broad Recognition: A Feminist Magazine at Yale. August 29, 2012. Web. February 20, 2013.

Grindstaff, Davin Allen. Rhetorical Secrets: Mapping Gay Identity and Queer Resistance in Contemporary America. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2006. Print.

Hersher, Rebecca. "'Yo' Said What?" "Code Switch." NPR: All Things Considered. April 24, 2013. Web. June 30, 2013.

Johnson, E. Patrick. "Mother Knows Best: Black Gay Vernacular and Transgressive Domestic Space." In Leap, William L. and Tom Boellstorff. Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Languages. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2004. 251-78. Print.

Jones, Lucy. Dyke/Girl: Language and Identity in a Lesbian Group. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.

Kraschel, Katherine L. "Trans-Cending Space in Women's Only Spaces: Title IX Cannot Be the Basis for Exclusion." Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 35.463 (2012). 464-85. Print.

Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. Language and Woman's Place: Text and Commentaries. Bucholtz, Mary, Ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Leap, William L. "Commentary II: Queering Language and Normativity." Discourse and Society 24.5. 643-48. Print.

Livia, Anna. "'She Sired Six Children': Feminist Experiments with Linguistic Gender." In Reinventing Identities: The Gendered Self in Discourse. Eds Mary Bucholtz, A.C. Liang, and Laurel A. Sutton. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. 332-47. Print.

Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall. "'It's a Girl!' Bringing Performativity Back to Linguistics." In Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall, eds. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. NY: Oxford UP, 1997. 3-18. Print.

Marcus-Newhall, Amy. Discussion of "Diversity in the Strategic Plan." Steele 101, Scripps College. April 18, 2013.

Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism is Queer: The Intimate Connection Between Queer and Feminist Theory. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Print.

Martyna, Wendy. "Beyond the 'he/man' approach: The case for nonsexist language." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5:3 (1980). 482-93. Print.

Miller, Casey, and Swift, Kate. Words and Women: New Language in New Times. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977. Print.

"Mission Statement." Queer Resource Center. Pomona College. Updated 2013. Web. March 08, 2013.

Mitten, Lauren. Unpublished Writing 50 Portfolio. Scripps College, December 2011.

Motschenbacher, Heiko, and Martin Stegu. "Queer Linguistic Approaches to Discourse." Discourse and Society 24.5 (2013). 519-35. Print.

Queen, Robin. "'I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar': The Importance of Linguistic Stereotype for Lesbian Identity Performances."  In Lakoff. 289-295. Print.

Riederer, Rachel. "Rape and Rhetoric." Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics. August 22, 2012. Web. August 23, 2012.

Sapir, Edward. "Language and Experience" (1931). Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. Dell H. Hymes, ed. NY:  Harper and Row, 1964. Print.

Scripps Bulletins. Denison Library Archive. Accessed Feb. 19, 2014. Print.

"Scripps Votes to Adjust Bylaw Language to be more Gender-Neutral." The Student Life. Friday Nov 19, 2010. Web. Accessed March 05, 2013.

Spade, Dean. "Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies."  Radical Teacher 92. 57-62. Print.

Stotko, Elaine M., and Margaret Troyer. "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study." American Speech 82.3 (Fall 2007). 262-79. Print.

Weaver, Stephanie. "Speculative Rhetoric: Where Speculative Fiction Meets Rhetorical Theory." June 6, 2012. Web Blog. March 10, 2013.

"Why a Women's College?" Scripps College. Updated 2014. Web. Feb. 20, 2014. 

Williams, John. "FAQ: Gender Neutral Pronouns." Æ April 30, 2004. Web. March 10, 2013.

Wong, Calliope. "Calliope's Honoring Her Parents."  July 14, 2014. Web Tumblr. August 30, 2014.

Wu, Carrie. "Students Vote to Adopt Gender-Neutral Constitution." The Student Life. Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. Web. March 08, 2013.


This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.

Publication date: 





No votes yet