Say “yes” to gender-inclusive language
Ever since I was a child, I was aware of sexist language being used. We’ve all heard of the generic “he” or even “brother” used to describe a group of men and women. In a church that sees gender as a very important characteristic, it doesn’t make sense to use a male pronoun when referring to men AND women.
Back when I was in primary, I remember a female teacher asking if any of us were bothered by the word “men” being used to describe women as well. I said yes. Then my teacher wrote “women” and “men” on the board and said that it didn’t bother her too much because the word “men” was inside the word “women.” I thought it made sense at the time and sexist language didn’t bother me again until I went to college.
Despite not being bothered by the pronouns “he” and “men” when referring to both men and women, I never accepted the word “brothers” to refer to both brothers and sisters. As a child, I would go through the hymnbook, and whenever I found a hymn that said “brotherly kindness” I would cross out “brotherly” and write “sisterly” above it. Despite being okay with certain terms, I was never okay with using “brothers” or “sons” to describe women. No one ever taught me about sexist language as a child. It was just something I always noticed because it didn’t make sense to me.
Everything changed in college, when I took an English class at a church school. I remember the professor (who was female) one day firmly telling our class that sexist language should not be used in the English field. I was surprised at how adamant she was about this. Ever since then, I have not used generic terms like “he” or “men” when I’m referring to both men and women collectively.
The scriptures and some of the hymns are filled with sexist language. I admit I get annoyed and even a bit angry at times, but what I do now, when I sing hymns, is that I use a different word that correctly refers to men and women as a whole, such as “neighbor” instead of “brother.” Once I started doing this, my husband followed my example and began to do it too. When we read scriptures together, we alter the words so that it’s gender-inclusive. Obtaining a degree in English has definitely taught me that the words you use are important. I’m not a brother, and would rather not be referred to as a brother. I am a sister. How would men feel if they were referred to as “sisters?” That’s what I’d like to know. I don’t think they would go for that, and neither will I.
I once attended a service of another religion that used gender-inclusive language. Though there was sexist language in their texts, whenever they would read or sing together, the people would alter the words and use gender-inclusive language. It really caught my attention. Why can’t we do this in our church?
Why does sexist language bother me? Let me tell you. When I’m reading the scriptures, sometimes I feel like it’s not talking to me. I feel excluded. I feel bad that the world puts men first in language. Why should male pronouns be used to refer to both men and women? Women want female pronouns to describe them. If male pronouns are being used, then it’s not in fact describing women, but it’s leaving them out. It’s putting men first. And that is very distracting and hurtful to me as a reader.
Sexist language is definitely diminishing, and I hope for the day when gender-inclusive language will be the norm in our scriptures and hymnbooks. I imagine that young people growing up in the church will become more and more uncomfortable with sexist language and will increasingly bring about changes to make gender inclusive language the new norm in everything our church does.