There are times when writing a sentence that it’s necessary to use the terms “he” or “she”, but it would be better if there were a gender neutral pronoun. I could write, “Now the reader has the option to use a gender neutral pronoun, he or she can write sentences that are far less clumsy than this one”. It’s awkward, but it’s better than writing just “he” or “she”, or even the cumbersome “they”. In 1994, the linguist Hans Karlgren put forward a gender neutral pronoun for the Swedish language, “hen”, to free writers from this problem. Last week, the word “hen” was entered into Sweden’s National Encyclopedia.
The debate over gender neutrality is at the forefront in Sweden right now. The ultimate goal of its advocates is to make every aspect of the society gender neutral. The World Economic Forum designated Sweden as the most gender equal country in the world in 2010. There is now a movement to make the country gender neutral, starting at school level. A government-sponsored conference in schools last year explored ways to use alternatives to gendered expressions. The first gender neutral book for children, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog) by Jesper Lundqvist, was published in January, and it is about Kivi, who wants a dog for “hen’s” birthday. And the Social Democrats want to introduce gender neutral public bathrooms.
There is a monumental difference between gender equality and gender neutrality, and the nature of this debate raises fundamental questions about the extent to which all aspects of society are determined by gender. The problem is that you can not have gender neutrality in a gendered world. How can it be practically possible for a society to be gender neutral until all manifestations of gender are also neutral? Are we to become pod people, like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World? And if the idea of gender neutrality needs to be policed, with “gender pedagogues” in every preschool in Stockholm as the Green Party has suggested, will the society that advocates it become like something out of Orwell’s 1984? Interestingly, one of the articles I read on the subject used the term “watchdog” to describe the policing body. Is that a phrase that would also have to go as it is not gender neutral?
I beieve in gender equality. I am not convinced about gender neutrality. But that is not to say that I do not think it is an important idea to debate, if only because it makes us look at the extent to which gender implicitly regulates who we are and what we want to be.
The funny thing is that in Scotland there already exists the vernacular phrase “hen”, which is also gender neutral. It is an endearment, like “darling” or “sweetheart”.