Is there a case for gender-neutral pronouns?

hen620.jpg Image by Elias Ericson 
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First aired on Q (25/4/12)

When it comes to gender equality, Sweden is one of the most progressive countries in the world. It has the highest proportion of working women anywhere and two-thirds of all degrees are earned by women. But in recent years the country has upped the ante, moving beyond just gender equality toward gender neutrality, that is, the erasing of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. For instance, Sweden has seen publication of a gender-neutral children's book, the end of gender-coded toys and books in at least one school and there are plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments, making that sport gender-neutral. Recently, Sweden hit another milestone. The gender-neutral pronoun "hen" was recently included in its National Encyclopedia as an alternative middle ground between "han" and "hon" ("he" and "she," respectively, in Swedish).

This is a move that Natalie Rothschild, a freelance writer based in Stockholm, opposes. Rothschild sees a big difference between gender equality and gender neutrality and argues that the introduction of "hen" is part of a larger ideological move by the government and academic institutions to determine how gender functions in society. "['Hen'] is something that has emerged in elitist settings, one could say, in gender research and seminars, in academic settings and institutions, in newspaper columns and television studios," Rothschild explained to Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent debate on the subject. "Those kinds of settings in which perhaps the general public doesn't converse."

Margret Atladottir, the editor-in-chief of Stockholm's weekly magazine Nojesguiden, disagrees. She thinks Rothschild is taking the introduction of the term too far and that it's an extra, useful tool for writers and speakers. "It's not a proposal to erase the word han/hon," she said. "It's just a very convenient word." Atladottir likens "hen" to "sibling," the gender-neutral term for brother or sister. Atladottir says it's not always practical to write "s/he" or "he or she" and welcomes this clean, simple alternative.

Rothschild, on the other hand, would rather the Swedish language continue to use the traditional ways "to express ambiguity or neutrality in terms of a person's gender" and feels the addition of  the word hen is not only unnecessary but also politically volatile. She points to the gender neutralization of childhood -- the recent publication of the gender-neutral children's book, the removal of gendered labels in children's clothing stories and the push to examine history through a gender-neutral lens -- as problematic. In her view, such an approach makes children more conscious of how they are interacting with and viewing the world. "We're intervening in childhood, we're intervening in children's freedom to play and to just interact and socialize."

Atladottir doesn't see a problem with this. She believes that as progressive at Sweden is, it still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality. She believes that people should have the right to refer to themselves as whatever gender they choose, and that this should include the option of remaining gender-neutral. "I think that using the word hen is just as damaging as using han or hon," she said. "Being more gender-neutral is a very positive thing, to let people be seen as individuals and not girls and boys or women and men."

Both Rothschild and Atladottir are troubled by how heated the conversation around the word hen has become. For Rothschild, it's an indication that the term is a "regressive" approach to achieving gender equality, a doctrine dictated by those in power and not an organic evolution of language. For Atladottir, it shows just how much further Sweden has to go when it comes to gender equality.

"When I see debates around this word -- and it's just a word -- people get very upset," she said. "Then I realize we have such a long way to go."

Do you agree with the inclusion of "hen" in the Swedish language? Do you think the English language could benefit from having an official gender-neutral pronoun? Share your thoughts in the comments below.