Say “yes” to gender-inclusive language

Photo by Ben White,

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.

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18 Responses

  1. Andrew R. says:

    Absolutely – yes. Let’s stop this idea that only men can become Children of Perdition.

    And why not sing, “Come all ye Daughters of God, who haven’t received the priesthood”
    What infuriates me is when we sing gender specific hymns in the wrong context. I wouldn’t choose the above hymn for a sacrament meeting – it’s priesthood hymn.

    I similarly would not choose “As sisters in Zion”.

    To be a little more serious, I believe there are instances in scripture where the message is only to men, or about men. Though I think they are few.

    Missionary work for instance – especially FT mission – is specifically a priesthood responsibility. Sisters may choose to serve, but there is no expectation. So “Every worthy young man should serve a mission.” Not every worthy young person.

    • Ziff says:

      You may be joking, but the idea that only men can become children of perdition is definitely out there. I’ve heard it taught in more than one Gospel Doctrine class. And I think it still clearly comes across as an insult to women, like they’re not consequential enough to be worth punishing if they’re bad.

      • Andrew R. says:

        I know it’s out there, and I don’t know whether or not it is possible for a women to become a daughter of perdition. There is no revelation to expound this. On that basis we have to assume that they can, until we are told they can’t.

        And if they can’t does that mean they couldn’t in the pre-mortal existence. And if that’s the case there will undoubtedly be more women than men coming to earth – assuming 50:50 distribution of male:female intelligences, which could also be false.

        We just don’t know.

        However, since there will be very few Sons of Perdition – in part because being eligible to become one is fairly limited too – dwelling on the sexism of the name is probably a waste of good time.

    • Dani Addante says:

      “I believe there are instances in scripture where the message is only to men, or about men. Though I think they are few.”

      Yes, that’s why we need gender-inclusive language. Otherwise it seems like the entire scriptures are written to men. If a certain scripture is only talking to men, then it makes sense that it should use “he” or “men.” But otherwise, it should use gender-inclusive language so that people aren’t left wondering if it’s talking just to men or to men and women.

      I agree with not using the “sons of perdition” phrase, since that’s insulting to men because it’s implying that men are more likely to be evil.

      • JJohnson says:

        Beyond the insult to men, saying that it is not in woman’s nature to commit that kind of sin limits woman’s ability to receive that kind of witness. If women can know completely, they can also choose to deny that knowledge.

  2. Sarah says:

    I love this! I try to alternate brother and sister in hymns (which was inspired by an awesome friend of mine who replaces with sister), as I want to lift my brothers up too. But I really like the idea of neighbor!!

    Great article. 🙂

  3. Emily says:

    It’s amazing how often I sit in mixed-gender meetings where the speaker is talking to everyone, but then says “our wives.” And then I realize that they probably aren’t really talking to me?

    But unlike your experience in the post, the only time I’ve experienced someone actually saying “brothers” instead of “brothers and sisters” was from a native Spanish speaker, so it was more of a translation issue than anything, I think…

    The next time I speak in church, I’m going to start with, “good afternoon, sisters and brothers.”

    • Andrew R. says:

      I too can’t remember an instance where a mixed congregation was referred to as brothers only. However, I can think of many times that a group of only brethren was addressed as Brothers and Sisters.

    • Dani Addante says:

      I completely understand. I’ve heard that so many times! I once heard a female speaker say “our husbands” though, so that was interesting.

      When I said that “brothers” was used to refer to men and women, I was just referring to the scriptures and the hymnal. I guess I could have made that clearer in the post. But I have actually heard a couple of times or so when a man spoke to men and women and just said “brethren.” That was annoying.

      I like your idea of saying “sisters and brothers.” I’ve actually heard a few people use that at church before.

  4. Emily U says:

    The hymnal is in desperate need of an update and I really hope the next hymnal will use inclusive language. The Church is wedded to the KJV, so there’s nothing to be done about scripture (though when I read scripture aloud as a gospel doctrine teacher I always say “men and women” or “priests and priestesses”), but there’s just no justification for having gender exclusive language in the hymnal and in new publications. I once read every hymn text in the LDS hymnal and cataloged how many could be easily changed to be inclusive (without messing up the grammar or logic of a hymn), and there are very few hymns that couldn’t be easily updated, and would still be in keeping with the poetic flow of the text. It’s in an Exponent II issue somewhere in the archives…

    • Dani Addante says:

      That’s awesome that you catalogued the hymns. I’ll look for your post in the archives. I definitely want to read it.

  5. Ziff says:

    Yes! Dani, I love that you edit the hymns on the fly to fix this. I do the same, and I agree that it would be great if the Church were to do it formally (edit the hymnbook). Especially since Emily U has already done all the heavy lifting!

  6. Moss says:

    With the last update of the hymnal in the 80’s many of the hymns were updated to have more gender inclusive language. I know, I, too, am shocked that this is the ‘more gender inclusive’ version. There’s a great Dialogue article about it.

    I loved it at this last conference when President Eyring amended a few scriptures to specifically include women. I wish more speakers would follow this example.

  7. Caroline Kline says:

    I also sing inclusively. I’ve found that “all” or “souls” is a good substitution for “men.”

    The sexist language really bothers me. I notice it Every Single Time. I feel excluded Every Single Time. Please let our church redo our hymnals soon. There’s just no excuse for its current state, as Emily U mentions above.

    • Dani Addante says:

      I completely agree! There is no excuse for its current state. I like your idea of saying “all” or “souls.” I hadn’t thought of that.

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