she as a gender-neutral pronoun

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Sun Jan 2 06:07:25 UTC 2011

Several years ago, I started noticing the use in academic prose of
"she" as a gender-neutral pronoun to avoid the supposedly sexist "he"
and the no-matter-how-much-descriptivists-say-it's-okay-somewhat-problematic
"they." My unscientific impression is that this use of "she" is
gradually becoming de rigueur in academic prose, at least in the

The New York Review of Books recently asked "six accomplished critics
to explain what it is they do." Note their use of the pronoun "she":

Stephen Burn: A solitary reader, brooding over an obscure contemporary
novel, or slowly puzzling out a page of “Finnegans Wake,” is suddenly
not so solitary. Amid the network of networks there is always another
reader, an improvised community into which she can merge and make
visible her invented self.

Katie Roiphe: Now, maybe more than ever, in a cultural desert
characterized by the vast, glimmering territory of the Internet, it is
important for the critic to write gracefully. If she is going to
separate excellent books from those merely posing as excellent, the
brilliant from the flashy, the real talent from the hyped — if she is
going to ferret out what is lazy and merely fashionable, if she is
going to hold writers to the standards they have set for themselves in
their best work, if she is going to be the ideal reader and in so
doing prove that the ideal reader exists — then the critic has one
important function: to write well.

Adam Kirsch: Of course, this is an ideal. Most of the time, depending
on the kind of piece she is writing, the critic also has other
responsibilities. She is a journalist: a review is, in part, a news
story about a new book and why it matters. She is a consumer advocate,
giving the reader enough information to decide whether to buy the
book. At times — as we saw recently in the discussion of Jonathan
Franzen’s “Freedom” — she is a social commentator, trying to determine
what the success (or failure) of a particular book says about America
at large, how the nation lives or thinks or imagines.

I know, "they" has been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun
since the 15th century if not before, but many writers still try to
avoid this use of "they" and in some circles "she" now appears to be a
standard gender-neutral pronoun, though even in academic prose it
obviously still refers to women more often than to men.

It would be interesting to know in which disciplines this use of "she"
is more prevalent. It's not surprising that it's common in lit-crit


Paul Frank
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Neuchâtel, Switzerland
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