On Gender Equality in Personal Writing

In a recent thought that I published, I used the very non-gender-neutral words 'he' and 'his':

A man can lose everything, but if he still has his soul, his heart, his mind, and a quiet place of solitude in which to reflect on all three, he will have everything he needs to regain what he has lost.

In response to this thought, my friend Kit wrote the following:

"This gets to the heart of what’s important in life. Really like it. I find myself disappointed with the English language though. There seems to be no way to write this in a gender-inclusive way without it sounding awkward."

Kit's comment got me thinking about gender equality in writing and language.

I often make an effort to remove things like 'he' and 'his' from my writing so that it can be applicable to both genders. For some reason, in this particular case, the thought of making such an effort hadn't even occurred to me before publishing the writing. But why not?

It hadn't occurred to me because I was writing and publishing the thought straight from my heart, straight from the perspective of a man, as unedited and unfiltered as possible. It felt right to publish it using 'he' and 'his' because I was thinking, writing, and sharing from my perspective. It was something that was coming from me, not from some gender-neutral entity.

Yes, I am a man. My thoughts are coming from a brain situated inside a male body. Why should I discard that fact? Why should I throw away so much information about the very perspective that helped generate the thoughts that I'm sharing? Why should I be afraid to be me? So that I can be politically correct?

I am a man and that is politically correct enough.

Yes, there are probably occasions where writing in a gender-neutral tone makes sense, but if you're sharing something personal, if you're sharing something that came from your heart, don't be afraid to be yourself. You are who you are and that is politically correct enough.

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  1. I understand where you are coming from, Raam. I understand Kit’s frustration as well. For women this is a sensitive area because for so long the male perspective was all that was received. These are good truths you share. I love them.

    Below, is my not too awkward gender-neutral version.

    We can lose everything, but if we still have our soul, our heart, our mind, and a quiet place of solitude in which to reflect on all three, we will have everything we need to regain what we have lost.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Dawn. 🙂

      I agree that sometimes a gender-neutral tone in writing makes more sense, but I also feel that sometimes using a gender-specific tone makes the writing feel more authentic… more personal. When I read your version with “we/our” replacing “he/his”, it doesn’t sound like the voice of a particular person having an introspective thought… it sounds like a more obscure voice speaking from a position of authority and broadcasting said thought/opinion about what is being said.

      In my case, I wrote and published the thought casually, not speaking to anyone in particular but sharing what I was feeling in that very moment.

      I shared these follow-up thoughts on gender-neutral writing because I realized that too often we (see, there I go) don’t make things personal enough. (In this case, who is ‘we’ anyway? How often do we say ‘we’ without considering that maybe we don’t speak for everybody else?)

      If I make things more personal when I write, perhaps more of my personality will come across. Perhaps it will make my thoughts and my writing more powerful because I’m putting myself — as a writer — at the center of that writing and taking responsibility for my thoughts. Instead of saying that ‘we’ all think this or feel this or experience this, I’m saying that I think, feel, and experience this.

      • Thanks so much for this response Raam. I love what you say here, and I will remember these words when I write. You are right. There are times when we need to write and speak from our own truth and our own place of power.

        Peace to you!

  2. Hi Raam,

    The article is online now!

    I’m not getting notified when you reply to my comment. Now that I’m looking around, I can’t actually see a tick-box to say ‘notify me of replies to my comment’. Funny, I’m sure I’d ticked it at some point.

    • Hey Kit,

      I disabled the Subscribe to Comments plugin because there was a bug that caused the feature that allows people to subscribe to only replies to their comments to stop working. I’d rather people not get lots of email they don’t expect to get. However, I’ll work on fixing that bug now so I can re-enable it. I know the usefulness of being notified via email about replies to your comments!

  3. Hi Ramm,

    it looks like you’ve got it working again!  I’m using ‘Subscribe to Comments Reloaded’ as it seems to be more up-to-date. When I installed the latest version of ‘Subscribe to Comments’ I hit errors from the word go.

    No-one could really start to guess how much work there is involved with running a blog-based website, if you really care about the details (as we both do!).

  4. I followed your links through to git hub. I tested it and found that you’re absolutely right. I tested your improved version yesterday and found it didn’t work, but will try again today and make sure I’m being completely methodical about it.

    I just posted a comment on Manuel Loigeret’s blog, which uses Livefyre, and am sorely tempted to install it on my blog too! I used it in the past but found that adjusting their css is messy (lots of !important required), and it makes my site’s html invalid (according to the validator I use). But it is a slick system and makes it very easy for me, the site administrator, and the users (once they’ve signed-up, that is).

    • Are you receiving these notifications about my replies to your comments now? If so, then the plugin should work for you. Did you install the Email Log plugin I mentioned earlier? What does that say?

      Also, I’m just curious, is there a reason you’re not replying to my previous comments to keep things in one comment thread, as opposed to starting a new comment thread each time? (Pressing “Reply” under my comment embeds that comment underneath it and keeps things organized.)

      I’ve given up even considering using an external commenting platform like Livefyer or Discus. Comments are so essential to my site that I simply don’t want to have them stored elsewhere or rely on an external service for my commenting system. Instead, I’m focusing on improving the WordPress commenting system using plugins (I have a few ideas for how I can improve WordPress comments, for both admins and users, and I’m starting to work on those). I’d love to hear your ideas for what improvements would make your life easier.

      • Hi Raam,

        Yes, I’m receiving email notifications for your site now. I’d actually missed when you  mentioned the Email Log plugin, but I’ve installed it as it looks very useful, not just for this situation but for many.

        I tested your modified version of Subscribe To Comments Reloaded and found it’s all working nicely. It’s great that you’ve put in the hard work to get the plugin working again. Thank you.

        About nested (threaded?) comments, I thought I was using it right, but it turns out I have been starting new replies accidentally instead of keeping all our comments in a thread. I think I may know why. The last notification email from your site is:

        Reply to this comment: https://raamdev.com/wordpress/2013/on-gender-equality-in-personal-writing/#comment-34569

        So I clicked that link, typed my reply and clicked ‘Post Comment’. But it wasn’t actually a reply; it was a new comment. I just found that the link to the reply would be https://raamdev.com/wordpress/2013/on-gender-equality-in-personal-writing/?replytocom=34569#respond.

        Would it be possible to get that link into the notification email? That would help improve the threading. I’d like this for my site too.

        I think the layers of nesting can be a bit confusing (if I understand it correctly):

        A makes a comment.
        B replies, and asks to be notified to replies to her comment.
        C replies to B. B is notified.
        D replies to C. B is not notified because it wasn’t a direct reply to B’s original reply.

        If this could be simplified it would be good. I expect B would like to be notified of everything in the thread, including what D said in reply to C. I think that should be the default, but currently I can’t see an option to do it at all.

        It would also be great if users could edit their own comments. But I guess this isn’t possible without them registering as members first.

        And one more note for improvement. The new comment notification emails I’m getting from your site are plain text but with visible <p> and </p> tags around every paragraph. I’m guessing this isn’t what you want.

        Just one more: a bug I just noticed with this plugin.

        I would really prefer not to use LiveFyre again. They do actually store comments on the site’s database, but it still feels like by using their plugin my site isn’t wholly my own any more. Having their logo on every page is something I’d rather avoid, but I think the issue is deeper than that.

        • Thanks for all the feedback, Kit, and for the suggestions.

          Very good point about the reply link needing to be adjusted so that replies get nested properly. I’ve gone ahead and updated my version of the plugin (download again here) to support a new tag inside the ‘Notification message’ section (Settings -> Subscribe to Comments -> Notifications tab -> Notification Message box) called [comment_reply_permalink]. You can use now use that in the notification message instead of (or along with) the [comment_permalink] tag. The notification you receive about this reply should contain the new reply link.

          • Well, thank you for helping me get this plugin to do what it should. I would feel good knowing that the comment system is working efficiently and effectively.

            I’ve updated to your latest version and that new tag is working perfectly. Great.  (Though in the notification email I just got from your site, the new links pointed to the right place, but they weren’t actually links. Screenshot here.)

            I’ve just remembered that I made a post about the language used on the comment subscribe form. In the end I had real difficulty tracking down the plugin owner and so I don’t know if he ever read my comments, but I think the default wording should be changed.

          • Thanks for the screenshot. Normally your email client will turn URLs into clickable links (GMail and most email clients do this for you). However, now that I’m using HTML emails, I modified those two links anyway to simplify the footer. (You’ll see the new format when you get the notification for this reply.)

            I agree that the wording should be something you can edit. When I get around to starting a new project for this, I’ll be sure to add that to my TODO list. 🙂

          • It looks like we’re both set now. The last notification I received from your site is looking great. I was wary about using html emails, but in fairness almost everyone reads emails in html these days.

            Actually the wording is editable (Settings -> Subscribe to Comments -> Comment form -> Default label. I just think the default wording should be changed!

          • Cool. Thanks for the update. FYI, I was referring to the wording of the drop-down selection box itself (Replies only, All, None).

    • Because I’m a man. I’m a “he/his”. Depending on the perspective from which I’m thinking and writing, using “he/his” might feel more personal to me (as a man) than writing “I/my”.

      When I wrote, “A man can lose anything”, I was writing from the perspective of a man—I was thinking about me as I wrote it, but as I wrote it I felt the need to keep what I was writing a bit further away than “I/my”. Would it work with “I/my”? Definitely. But that doesn’t mean I should always replace “he/his” with “I/my”.

      In some situations it may feel more natural (to me, as a man) to write “he/his”—I feel there shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. 🙂

      • I’m not trying to say this should be wrong, rather to understand what made you go for this choice.
        Our self has many pieces, gender being one. Sometimes it makes sense to me to stress the male or female perspective (the experience of walking home alome at night which seems to differ significantly, the expectations society has just because you have certain body parts&shapes).
        In this case, it feels to me like you either made a personal discovery true to you (with all parts of your self – “I”), or think you discovered a general (genderless) truth. I’m trying to understand what makes this a particularly male experience to you, where the focus on the “male perspective” comes in, more so than the focus on this coming from you as a writer for example.
        I don’t see what triggered it, so I’m trying to learn where it came from.

        • I did not spend much time debating the perspective—it was written in the spirit of the moment and the perspective that came through was the one that I was viewing it from. I recall this thought being a very personal thing (I very much enjoy solitude), so the perspective that came through when I shared the thought was from a male perspective. There certainly wasn’t anything conscious about the decision. 🙂

          I will say, however, that all of the discussion the thought provoked has caused me to consider perspective a little more carefully before I publish something, which I have no doubt will make me a better, more empathetic writer in the long-run.

          • I guess that’s what I was wondering about: the subconscious part. I can’t know for sure, but I highly doubt any of my female friends would subconsciously choose to write a similar paragraph, but with a “she”. I certainly wouldn’t. It would be a deliberate choice. And I’m wondering if the “male perspective” part isn’t really that we all just are more used to seeing writings with a male pronoun (standing in for “all humanity”, with different interpretations of who counts as fully human im different times). Hence the subconscious reflex. It’s just a pattern stored more prominently/firmly in the brain, easily accessed. I’m not sure if I’m phrasing this right, if it’s clear what I mean, sorry.

            In any case, be it as it may, thanks again for taking the time to answer, even on this old post. And to think about this topic to begin with 🙂 Cheers!

          • I find it hard to believe that none of your female friends would subconsciously choose to write a similar paragraph with a “she”—that to me is like saying that none of your female friends subconsciously identify with being female, or that none of them would write something that wasn’t a deliberate choice. We’re all imperfect and writers who choose to share vulnerable pieces of what’s inside them are constantly exposing their imperfections.

            As a writer, am I influenced by the world and by all of the writing that has come before me, where the male pronoun has been prominent? Certainly. And so are women influenced by that same history, in a different way than a man would be.

            We’re all human and that’s how I try to relate to everyone when I’m writing, because I’m not writing for an audience of men but for an audience of humans. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m a man and you’re a woman—and if I was talking about you to a friend, I wouldn’t refer to you as “he”, just as if you were talking about me you wouldn’t say “she”. Likewise, if I’m talking about me, I will refer to myself has “he”, as I did in my original thought (as I mentioned earlier, I was sharing a personal thought).

            Thank you for sharing your thoughts here, Eva. Discussion like this—discussion that makes me think—is why I love blog comments!


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