Under The Collar Experiment

Friday, January 31, 2014

Ils, elles sont

 “Images of God dictate who will feel worthy in society and who will feel inferior, who will be respected and who will get easy access to the material goods of a culture and who will have to fight for those same goods.”- Naomi R. Goldenberg

Images of God are created with words. Words are only tools.  They are not reality.  Language serves as a guide.  Sometimes it points us in a direction that is close to our perceived reality.  Sometimes it crystallizes a concept into an idea so difficult to conceive in any other way,  it  almost becomes law. Sometimes, language, upon reflection, takes us to a place we might never have visited otherwise.
Teaching French gave me many gifts. I find language and, specifically, grammar quite fascinating. I made every attempt to infect my students with my passion.  One issue that always baffled my students about the French language was gender. The masculine plural subject pronoun “they” in French was particularly disturbing for many of them…but more so for the girls.

In French, similar to many other languages, there is a feminine “they” and a separate masculine “they." This appears on the surface to be reasonable once you can decipher the difference in vowel sounds.  A group of girls would be they, elles e-l-l-e-s, a group of boys, then, would be ils, i-l-s. The students could generally handle being assigned their separate pronouns. Yet, after a little more explanation, the apparent bias leaps out from behind these pronouns and they discover a sort of separate-but-not-equal situation.  If there is one boy in a group of girls…just one…then the masculine plural i-l-s is grammatically correct.  In fact, any mixed-gender group receives the male plural subject pronoun.

Every year that I taught French One, the same situation unfolded.
After instructing them on the rules for subject pronouns, a moment or two would pass. The significance would begin to percolate. Then questions would come in rapid fire.
“So, if there are 10 girls and 2 guys?”
“Masculine i-l-s,” I reply.
“300 girls and 1 guy?”
“i-l-s,”  I say again.
I was always torn between the joy that they actually understood the concept and the angst of its implications.  
“1,000 girls, and 2 guys?” they would plead.
“i-l-s," I spell.
“Why?”  they inevitably ask.
I usually answer with much despair: “Because that is the rule and the rule has been around for a long time.”  I can blame the Academie Francaise, which is a French institution funded by the French government that “controls” and “sustains” the French language.  The Academie Francaise controls advertising and print material, newspapers, and journals. The French are very proud of their grammatical structure. Some women have chosen to counterbalance the standard pronoun choice by using e-l-l-e-s for a mixed gender group, but I have been told on numerous occasions that e-l-l-e-s used in this manner doesn’t sit right in the French ear.  It sounds wrong.  

Every year, I would have to justify, that even in my classroom, a socially aware choice would be counted wrong, and that on their standardized tests it would be counted wrong as well because they had to prove that they knew and understood the concept. Yet, there I was, training another group of ears.  And all the while my inner voice groans with the injustice of it all.

Nearly every year, one of the few boys in the class would protest, “It’s just a pronoun.” After the past few decades of sensitization to gender bias, I, too, have struggled with our attempts to neutralize or feminize the gender of our language in order to be more inclusive.  It is just a pronoun.   Why can’t we just say “he” for goodness sake?  “He” means mankind, which includes women, doesn’t it?  Well, actually no, it means Man-kind. Just as the French have been lumping whomever into i-l-s.

I am now trained to say humankind and mankind rings exclusive to me. I must admit, though, that my own ear still hears God when paired with she or her as distracting.
When I was teaching in Garland, Texas, there was a song on the radio:
                                                Tell me all your thoughts on God
                                                 Cause I’d really like to meet her.
                                                 And ask her why we’re who we are
This was my first real receptive encounter of God as “she" in popular culture, and it did catch my attention, distracted my ear, and made me think about my image of God.

As a minister, I choose very carefully when to distract the ears of those to whom I am speaking.  Often, my choice is to go with the male pronouns when referring to God in order to get a larger message across.  I bank on my relationship with the people hoping that they know that when I say God, I include an image that reflects me and other women. 

Maybe the very presence of a woman in a collar will stretch people's images of clergy and, therefore, God. Perhaps it will broaden their image of the divine to include all of the identities on the spectrum -- a God who looks like them, whatever gender they claim. Because my understanding of God includes the 1 in 1000.


  1. I always talk to a Heavenly Father when I am quiet before I sleep.
    When I am in the woods or by a nice body of water.. I think of a By-God. Male/Female
    If I find myself weeping, I think of a Mother God.
    Am I strange???? I have a whole village of Gods and I like it that way..

    1. Cynthia- By God No! I do not think you are strange (well not because of this wink, wink) There are lots of cultures who have different images of God to serve their needs at the time. I am more drawn to God as a feeling that I can connect with. But the images for me have shifted all over the place. And I had a very loving relationship with my own father, so father god works for me too.

  2. In a seminary class today, an ally suggested that we include in our covenant a commitment to use fully inclusive language, specifically to et beyond the gender binary, which excludes me (I am genderqueer). I had a reall challenge in a chaplaincy program with a supervisor who simply refused to acknowledge my gender and who refused to use appropriate language and pronouns in my final evaluation. Language -- particularly around gender -- matters. A lot.

    1. Dawn- I am aware that binary expressions of gender are not enough. I am an ally and in order to be an effective one I work on my own change theory of only moving 1/4 turn so that those I am trying to influence will come along with me and I will not leave them behind. It is painful to not be able to be in full support 100% of the time. That was the struggle I was trying to convey. If I try to bring folks along a full turn or even a half a turn they quit listening and I lose my sphere of influence with them. Sometimes I make the choice to plow ahead and leave them behind. Sometimes I have to compromise. I am just admitting that I know I am doing it. You aren't alone. And I know that it is frustrating trying to convince the world that there are more than two choices.

  3. Bah. It's the same in Spanish, and it's always driven me batty. Weirdly, though, "dentist" is "dentista", whether it's a man or woman dentist. :)

  4. I am now a pastor but I came to this calling having been a professional writer. I always did everything I could— sometimes to the point of writing an awkwardly structured sentence. Why? Simply in terms of language and, therefore, in terms of communication, personal pronouns hold more potential for confusing the reader/listener than any other part of grammar. I avoid them wherever I can. I even tend to use “we” as often as possible as opposed to the plural version of “you” since we have no way other than context in English to separate the plural and the singular “you.”

  5. Note: that is everything I could to avoid using a personal pronoun!!!

  6. This is a bit of a digression, so I apologize for it ahead of time. My undergraduate degree is in linguistics and I love to talk about language, especially the idea that words have power, but only because we give them power (both and individuals and as a society.)

    I'm a speaker of Esperanto, a constructed language. It was designed in the 1880s and although it doesn't have gendered nouns like most Indo-European language, all the nouns which refer to animate things default to male and become female by adding the suffix -in-. This isn't as bad with things like "edzo, edzino" (husband, wife) or "sinoro, sinorino" (mr, mrs), but when you get to "patro, patrino" (father, mother) and "onklo, onklino" (uncle, aunt) it gets weird. (Onklo is pronounced like English uncle.)

    The Esperanto speaking community is extremely progressive for the most part. (Most folks learn this language to communicate with people who don't speak their native language, and most are interested in world peace and mutual understanding, etc.) Because of this, the use of gender neutral nouns and pronouns has become a highly debated topic in the past few years. A common solution has been to default nouns to gender-neutral and add the prefix "vir-" for a male version, but this doesn't really work for things like patro which are derived from specifically male Indo-European words. They've also adopted shli as a gender neutral pronoun (a combination of shi + li (she + he)).

    We still have a long way to go, but it's neat to see the progression that is going on both in English and Esperanto.

  7. "As a minister, I choose very carefully when to distract the ears of those to whom I am speaking. Often, my choice is to go with the male pronouns when referring to God in order to get a larger message across."

    I humbly submit that I find male only pronouns for God incredibly distracting because they send me off into a place of feeling excluded and invisible. I am guessing I am not the only one. Just a thought...

    1. Indeed.. not just a thought... my whole point. Who do we exclude. what sounds right in whose ear? etc.

  8. Well...it reminds me of our own English slang. If there is a group of girls, and even just one male in the group...or NO males at all, in the group....we can say to that group, for example, "come on guys, follow me". BUT if there is a group of males, and also females in that group....we would NEVER say to that group, "Come on gals, follow me". I've always thought that was funny. The word "guy" is associated with the "male" gender....but can also be said and used when referring to a group of females. This is just something that I have noticed and always thought was interesting. Well...that's my two cents for all you "guys".

  9. I refer to God as "the divine" or "divinity" it took some people getting used to my replacement words for God but they seemed to follow along with less difficulty.