Previously, I have written about the Women’s Movement and sexism, most recently here. Now I’d like to focus a little attention on language, specifically on how words easily and unconsciously shape culture.
As Marilyn Frye wrote (I believe in the Sixties): “many of the restrictions and limitations we live with are more or less internalized and self-monitored, and are part of our adaptations to the requirements and expectations imposed by the needs and tastes and tyrannies of others.” Such self-monitoring is a pervasive ingredient of culture. Indeed, during the Second Wave of Feminism, numerous women reacted to frequent and accepted cultural belittlement. They gathered in massive parades carrying homemade signs that exclaimed the end to the portrayal of “the little woman” or to the collective characterization of women as “girls.” At the present time, denigration of women through language continues in comedy skits, movies, and editorials. People might speak out against the most flagrant of those portrayals; yet, our culture continues to ignore women in the most widespread and accepted comments.
Let me offer an example of such pervasive language. When I meet friends for dinner in a restaurant, the server inevitably greets us with “how are you guys tonight?” — a phrase meant to be polite. Yet, it annoys me, especially when there is only one man at the table; it irks me even more so when a woman server says it to a table of women. I’ve mentioned this to my companions several times. Invariably the women blink and offer no comment while the men tell me it’s just a phrase used to mean the plural you. One of my favorite gentlemen explained that it was a “Northern thing” since people in the South would say “y’all.” At that point, the other woman sitting with us at the table agreed with the man’s statement: it was a way to include everyone. Therefore, I should accept it as a habitual part of our culture. Is that not a case of self-monitoring and internalized repressive behavior?
Eventually, such biases of language are accepted unconsciously. And so, schools teach the accepted grammar: using male terms to include both men and women. It hasn’t always been that way. Long ago, English included both singular and plural pronouns that did not denote gender. In fact, the switch to using male pronouns as “neutral” pronouns came about relatively recently; the institution of law required such a replacement in 1850. Yet, people have fought back, often by mangling grammar or through the use of “one” as a pronoun. Modern English speakers continue to find inventive ways to refer to individuals in general terms, typically by the use of “they.”
Setting aside the reasons why people might want to change the third person plural pronoun — personally, I would prefer to be you all (y’all) instead of being “you guys.” I would rather be genderless in this instance.
Really, what does my gender have to do with dinner? Will the restaurant offer each of us a different menu with food choices better for those of our sex? Of course not. Think of the uproar if that were to happen.
 Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza provided a good analysis of this shift in Bread Not Stone (Beacon Press,1995).