Lexicon Valley

The Real Story Behind The New Yorker’s “Pronoun Envy” Poem

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photo by Stockbyte/Thinkstock

is a phrase
coined by Cal Watkins
of the Harvard Linguistics Department
in November 1971

Above are the opening, very matter-of-fact lines of “Pronoun Envy,” written by the poet and classicist Anne Carson and published February in the New Yorker. The poem unfolds briefly as a straightforward narrative—involving “female students” and male pronouns—before lifting off, as Carson put it to me, “as a sort of air balloon whose buoyancy depends on bits of ‘meaningless plunging’ that hold up the corners.” Beneath the exquisite wordplay, though, and the compelling imagery and the meaningless plunging, a phrase borrowed from the poet Wallace Stevens, is a real story about language and gender.

In the fall of 1971, Linda Barufaldi, then a student in the master’s program at Harvard Divinity School, enrolled in “Eschatology and Politics.” The class, also known as “Church 174,” was about the influence of religion and spirituality on liberation movements, fertile ground after a decade of protests, marches, and many an “-in” in the service of social change.

As part of their coursework, students were required to write regular “reaction papers,” brief thoughts about the week’s readings, and discuss them in small groups led by doctoral candidates. “We had been reading white men writing about everybody else’s revolution,” Barufaldi wrote in an email recently. “When we read a white man about women’s liberation, I blew a gasket and wrote an angry reaction paper.” As it happened, so too that week did Emily Culpepper—one of only a handful of other women in a class of about 80 students—who wrote at the time, “My response to this course so far is a growing sense of rage.”

Barufaldi and Culpepper soon after became friends and together submitted a proposal to their professor, Harvey Cox. For a couple of weeks, they suggested, students should effectively run the class and even choose the syllabus. Readings would emphasize contemporary voices from the intellectual front lines of feminism—including, for example, Anne Koedt, who had written The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm just a few years earlier, and other second-wave authors who emerged out of the sexual awakening of the 1960s.

Culpepper felt strongly that the class should abandon not only its outdated reading list, but also its own bad habits. What is theory, after all, without practice? “We said we have to speak in a way that isn’t patriarchal, not use the generic masculine for human beings and for any attempt to talk about the divine,” she told me. Words like He, Him, and His for God and mankind for humanity, she argued, were sexist relics that belonged in a museum, not a university. “And to Harvey’s credit,” recalled Culpepper, “he said, ‘Well, I’ll let you put it to the class, and if the class votes to do it we’ll do it.’”

It wasn’t surprising, perhaps, that Cox would find the idea intriguing. In 1965, Time Magazine wrote that Cox, an ordained Protestant minister, was “[o]ne of the nation’s most radical and respected young Christian thinkers.” Thirty-five years old at that time, Cox had just published his first book, The Secular City, in which he saw opportunity for salvation in the burgeoning areligious “technopolis”—where life is a “set of problems, not an unfathomable mystery”—and argued that secularization:

raises the stakes, making it possible for man to increase the range of his freedom and responsibility and thus to deepen his maturation. At the same time it poses risks of a larger order than those it displaces. But the promise exceeds the peril, or at least makes it worth taking the risk.

The Secular City, which sold nearly a million copies in two years, envisioned the need for a more secular language, appropriate to the time, with which to talk about God. But, as Cox would later admit and come to regret, the book’s chapter on the subject—“To Speak in a Secular Fashion of God”—hadn’t “take[n] into consideration that employing exclusively male language for the deity has contributed to the marginalization of half the people of the world.” After rereading his own book, he wrote that he “winced” every time he “saw the word ‘man’ blatantly wielded to refer to anybody and everybody,” like in the passage above. Six years after the publication of The Secular City, Barufaldi and Culpepper were offering Cox a kind of redemption, a real-world attempt to discover that new vocabulary without excluding women. But it wasn’t their professor who needed convincing. It was their classmates.

While many of the men embraced the idea of a democratic coup, others were more grudging, including the few students of color, who were courted as allies but, according to Culpepper, were “leery of white feminists, even though we had come out of the civil rights movement ourselves.” And no one in the class was confident that they could eliminate from their speech, in an instant, words that had rooted for nearly a millennium. Mankind as a surrogate for “all people,” for instance, dates to at least the 13th century. And so the question arose, said Culpepper, “How are we going to hold each other accountable? We thought, we don’t want to be in this critical position up there at the front of the class saying, ‘Shame on you.’ We have to all enter into it. How could we all do that?”

Culpepper brought several dozen “paper tongue” noisemakers to class, the kind that unroll when you blow into them and are common at children’s birthday parties. Her idea? Everyone in the class, including Professor Cox, would get one, and anyone in the class was free to buzz, as a gentle rebuff, unthinking allusions to God as male or humankind as men. In the end the proposal passed, but not without careful politicking and creativity.

Word of the upcoming student takeover of Church 174 quickly spread around campus. E.J. Dionne—then an undergraduate reporter, now a Washington Post columnist and political commentator—wrote a piece for the Harvard Crimson titled “Two Women Liberate Church Course.” In it, Harvey Cox noted that Students for a Democratic Society, the lefty college movement active in anti-war demonstrations in the ‘60s, used the occupation of campus administration buildings as part of its tactics. “Women are smarter,” he was quoted by Dionne as saying. “They take over courses. Who needs administration?” Not all administrators, however, would see it that way.

The following week, 17 members of Harvard’s Department of Linguistics—including the chair, a renowned Indo-European language expert named Calvert Watkins—signed an open letter in the Crimson regarding, in particular, Barufaldi and Culpepper’s plan to rid class discussions of male-centric words. The letter did not begin auspiciously. “This proposal to recast part of the grammar of the English language reflects a concern which we as linguists would like to try to alleviate,” it read up front.

Watkins, who is presumed to have written the letter, went on to explain the linguistic concept of “markedness.” Simply put, there are many pairs of words in our vocabulary that can be thought of as “lexical opposites”: tall/short, for example, or young/old. The unmarked member of the pair is the one that is used more generically or as the default. It carries less information, in a sense. We typically ask How tall is he? or How old is she?, not how short or how young unless we want to call attention to his shortness or her youngness. He/she can be thought of as one such pair. The letter continued:

For people and pronouns in English the masculine is the unmarked and hence is used as a neutral or unspecified term. This reflects the ancient pattern of the Indo-European languages … Thus we say: All men are created equal. Each student shall discuss his paper topic with his section man. Madam Chairman, I object.

How this “ancient pattern” became established or why we should accept it as immutable, however, Watkins does not say. The letter concluded:

The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English (or that the feminine is unmarked in the language of the Tunica Indians) is simply a feature of grammar. It is unlikely to be an impediment to any change in the patterns of the sexual division of labor toward which our society may wish to evolve. There is really no cause for anxiety or pronoun-envy on the part of those seeking such changes.

The oblique, tongue-in-cheek invocation of “penis envy”—a theory of female sexual identity that only a man could conjure—imputed a you-can’t-fight-your-nature air of inevitability to our use of pronouns, ignoring the many decades of struggle by women to reform language that undermines them. Ironically, as the late authors Casey Miller and Kate Swift point out in Words and Women, Watkins had previously written that language “is at once the expression of culture and a part of it,” and here was failing to apply his own insight, as if grammar were handed down from on high with no choice but to maintain it.

After the proposal was finally enacted, on Nov. 29, off-campus media picked up the story. In early December, Newsweek called it “yet another tilt at the windmill” and referred to Barufaldi and Culpepper as “distaff theologians”:

And every time anyone in the room lapsed into what they regarded as male chauvinism—such as using the word “mankind” to describe the human race in general—the outraged women divinity students drowned out the offender with ear-piercing blasts from party-favor kazoos. … But what annoyed the women most was the universal custom of referring to God as “He.”

The magazine, which implied erroneously that only female students had kazoos, quoted Barufaldi, though not with the reportorial “said” or even “claimed.” Barufaldi, rather, “complained” that, “The education here is geared for males, with a view toward their working in a male-oriented church with a male-dominated theology, male symbols and a male God.”

If the Newsweek coverage, suffused as it was with condescension, wasn’t bad enough, the resentment filtered down to the Divinity School itself. “I had men in seminary say to me, ‘Do you just need a good fuck?’” said Culpepper. “I’m standing there in the hall saying, ‘I can’t believe you just said that to me.’ These were men who were preparing for the ministry.”

Interestingly, the men of Church 174 found themselves in the enlightening, if awkward, position of experiencing an anti-feminist backlash from the other side. According to Culpepper:

Many of the men in the class were not used to having stuff they did not taken seriously or ridiculed. It was very—to use a phrase that’s not much “in” now—it was very consciousness-raising for quite a number of these men to see an effort they had engaged in in good faith, and saw some merit in as an experiment at least, to see that belittled. They were not used to that. They said that. I’m not imagining this about their reaction. They were rather vocal about it.

One male student, Randall Blake Michael, wrote a letter to Newsweek, saying, “Our society’s oppressive nature is all too obvious and all too real to these female human beings; and their expressions of pain should not be dismissed as a party game. Their experience deserves a deeper and more profound interpretation than your article provided.” Barufaldi and Culpepper wrote a letter of their own—anonymously as a made-up organization called the Women’s Inspirational Theology Conspiracy from Harvard, or WITCH—which Newsweek published and contained just a single word: “Hex!”

For many in the class, despite the negative attention, the two-week takeover was a great success. The silliness of the blow-out kazoos, observed Culpepper, allowed everyone to laugh at what otherwise might be chafing, the policing of other people’s speech, and to even stumble upon a few discoveries. They found, for example, that it was much more difficult to change unconscious language about the deity than about human beings. In other words, students were comfortable with “he or she” or “everyone” when talking about people, and would quickly self-correct after slipping, but phrases like “God or Goddess” or “the Eternal Deity” somehow got stuck on the tongue or were overpowered by an impulse to use “He,” including for Barufaldi and Culpepper, who both remember getting buzzed a few times.

It’s unclear if Watkins, who died last year at the age of 80, was ever asked about the “pronoun envy” coinage and whether he stood by it. But it was after reading an obituary of him that Anne Carson became interested in the story. Her poem pokes fun at Watkins’ oddly naïve defense of the generic male pronoun:

As if all
the creatures in the world
were either zippers

or olives,
way back in the Indus Valley

in 5000 B.C. we decided
to call them zippers

and non-zippers.

By 1971
the non-zippers
were getting restless.
They began bringing

kazoos to their lectures
to drown out certain pronouns
and masculine generics.

Carson imagines that the noise from a kazoo “scrubs away the air”:


can you do
with a piece of scrubbed-away air?
Various things.
You can fill it with neologisms.

There have indeed been dozens of attempts over centuries to neologize a set of English-language gender-neutral pronouns—catalogued chronologically by the linguist Dennis Baron in his 1986 book Grammar and Gender. Perhaps the most successful came in 1884, when Charles Crozat Converse, a lawyer and composer whom a contemporary newspaper said was “bitten with the old malady, a desire for a common pronoun singular,” proposed thon. A portmanteau of “that” and “one,” thon managed to climb into a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary as early as 1898 and later the august Webster’s Second New International Dictionary in 1934. By the time the fully revised Webster’s Third came around in the early 1960s, though, the pronoun had been dropped. The 1970s saw an epidemic of invented pronouns, including the anthropologist Steven Polgar’s alluring “ze paradigm” (ze, zim, zees, zeeself) and the mock suggestion in Forbes Magazine to contract he or she and it as h’orsh’it.

Such a profound change, of course, doesn’t generally happen by decree, and if gender-neutral language has been slow to take hold, it’s in part because true gender parity remains a low priority. A linguist from the University of Washington, James L. Armagost, wrote a letter to Newsweek back in 1971 and summed it up this way: “A reasonably inquisitive person might wonder why the masculine is unmarked. The question deserves a better answer than: ‘What a coincidence that the masculine is unmarked in the language of a people convinced that men are superior to women.’”

In 1973, just two years after the “pronoun envy” incident, the Divinity School inaugurated its Women’s Studies in Religion Program “in response to the need to transform theological education to reflect the unprecedented presence of women as candidates for the ministry and students of religion.” Never mind that women were first admitted to Harvard’s divinity school in 1955 and to other divinity schools far earlier. Culpepper, who went on to get a Ph.D. in Theology and later founded the Women’s Studies department at the University of Redlands in California, and Barufaldi, who is a retired chiropractor, expressed to me, separately, similar mixed feelings about where we are in 2014. “I am old enough that I can say I do believe I have seen social change, even though there are areas where we still have far to go and we’ve made progress much more slowly than we would have imagined in the ‘70s,” said Culpepper. “Now that I have 40 more years of life experience, I’ve learned to be calmer and grateful that we are going in the right direction even when the pace seems glacial,” wrote Barufaldi.

In 2005, Culpepper returned to Cambridge for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of women at the Divinity School. She met with Cox, who was still teaching at the time, in his office, where he sifted through an old cabinet and told her, “I found some files from that class you and Linda took over and I think it’s time I returned this to you.” It was the party kazoo, which Cox had held onto for decades. Culpepper imagines that it’s the kind of ephemera a historian, a century from now, might be interested to find. And that maybe that historian, whoever thon or ze or s/he is, will blow into it and scrub away the air and replace it with something better and new.