Gender-Inclusive Language

In writing papers for school, I continually find myself confronted with questions about language and gender. Like most of the academic world, I pretty much take it for granted that saying “man” and “he” simply isn’t going to cut it if I’m talking about the entire human race. The lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular is awkward at times– my own preference is usually to alternate between “she” and “he”– but I’m very much a believer in the importance of not writing as if all humans were male.

The place where I admit that I’ve found myself a bit less certain is in discussion of God. Like most Mormons, in casual speech I nearly always refer to God as “he,” and that was initially how I wrote my papers. Yet the more I’ve thought about the issue, especially as I’ve encountered feminist theology, the more uneasy I’ve become with that choice. I’m quite sympathetic to the argument made by feminist Christian theologians that if God transcends gender, which is how mainstream Christians (a term I’m using in contrast to “LDS Christians”) view deity, then there is no reason to limit our metaphors for God to masculine ones (like “father), or to use exclusively male pronouns when referring to the divine. (I’d recommend Elizabeth Johnon’s She Who Is for a good discussion of this.) I also share Mary Daly’s oft-quoted concern that “if God is male, then male is God.”

The problem takes on different contours, of course, when one comes at it from an LDS perspective– our belief in an embodied God means that we aren’t merely being metaphorical when we use the pronoun “he.” Yes, we have a vague and very underdeveloped notion that there is a Heavenly Mother out there, too. But the God who acts in scripture, the God of official church discourse, is always male. And unlike mainstream Christians, I find that I can’t dismiss such references as simply the language convention which the speakers are opting to use as they struggle to describe a being who is in reality neither male nor female.

I don’t know where exactly I am right now on the question of how to refer God. At the moment, at least in my academic writing, I usually go for the strategy of avoiding gendered references altogether in my discussion of the divine. I don’t entirely like that, though, as I think it comes across as making God sound more distant, more abstract, more impersonal.

When I go to church, however, these questions seem far away, because we’re still back on the question of whether gender-inclusive language is even needed when we’re discussing human beings. I do think this is an area where things have improved greatly over the last few decades, but I still find it jarring to hear talks about “man” and “brotherly love” given to audiences of both sexes. For years, I’ve changed the words of the hymns when singing them. (I remember one entertaining incident when I was sitting with several of my sisters and we all substituted “sister” for “brother,” causing the people in front of us to turn around and laugh.)

I realize that the God-language question raises some real theological issues. But it strikes me as a fairly straightforward matter to at least note that women as well as men are members of the Church, and to acknowledge that reality in the way we talk. I’m a bit puzzled by the fact that those who resist the practice are so often the same people who are emphatic about the reality of gender differences; it seems to me that they would in fact be highly motivated to ensure that women weren’t inadvertently being referred to as “men.”

What are other people’s thoughts on this?


  1. I sort of suck at this. When I took a communications class a few years ago, my instructer said I used some un-PC words, referring to car salesmen as “he.”

    I wrote a letter to the editor of the University paper and one part I said, “thanks, you guys” referring to men and women. That’s how I talk. They took it out.

    I don’t know, I know who people are talking about and this issue doesn’t resonate with me. I guess I don’t really care.

  2. I, on the other hand, care deeply about this issue.

    I have many of the same concerns you have, Lynnette, and now I try to refer to God as “Our Creator” or “our Heavenly Parent.” I just feel really bad about leaving Heavenly Mother out so conspicuously when I talk or pray, so it feels better for me to leave the door open by using non-gendered words. If I were you writing academic papers, I might try “s/he” when using the pronoun. I know it’s inelegant, but at least it’s a way of acknowledging the question of gender.

    Hah! I also change the words of hymns when we’re singing in sacrament meeting. I just can’t force myself to use the word “men” and exclude myself when I can stick in “all” or “souls” just as easily. Or even “people” which always sounds a little funny and makes me and my husband laugh as we’re singing.

    Things have improved over the last 20 years, at least in General Conference. They really do try to use “brothers and sisters” a lot. My main problems are the scriptures and the hymn book. Oh, and the manuals. I think it’s definitely time for some updating…

  3. I was thinking about this sort of thing last night. Other denominations that believe in a vague all present spirit as God have no trouble seeing genders as perfectly and eternally equal. Especially considering that they don’t believe in eternal progression. The idea that God has a body, and that humans can become like Him conspicuously leaves women out. Human men can become just like God, but what to do with the women? I really wish that someone would give a talk in general conference addressing the place of women in the Celestial Kingdom, and what, exactly, Heavenly Mother is doing.

    Anyhow, about using gendered pronouns I find it interesting that Gerber uses feminine pronouns consistently to describe babies on all of it’s products. “Your baby is ready for solids when she…”

  4. The role of the Heavenly Mother is one of those great conundrums in Mormon thought/doctrine. Mormons do believe in a Heavenly Mother, but what exactly does she do?

    If She is the equal partner that earthly mothers are to earthly fathers, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father work together (and have worked together to create this world).

    I’m confident that someday, in Mormon religious discourse, we will be able to acknowledge Her role and Her hand in our lives. (hopefully before the millenium)

    P.S. This is an excellent website! I love reading your extremely well-written, thoughtful essays. Thank you all for writing them and sharing them with us.

  5. For me, the human-based gender language doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the diety-based gender language. When want to speak to or about God, I use that word, “God” becuase I think it is more gender inclusive than “heavenly father.”

    Human-based gender language also bothers me, but again, not nearly as much as leaving the feminine out of diety. (although, I’m not a linguist, so the word “god” could, in fact, be as masculine as “he”–anyone know?)

    As for hymns. I don’t switch the language, but I think those of you who do, ROCK. I wish you were in my ward.

  6. On hymns: I either alternate (e.g., between “brother” and “sister” in “Lord, I Would Follow Thee”) or, like Caroline, go for the non-gendered “all”. I’ve never thought of “souls” before, though — glad to have it in my

    I don’t think the word god has anything more originally masculine to it than Old English grammatical gender; although I haven’t (yet!) studied Old Norse, I’m almost positive that guth is used in Old Norse mythologies to refer to Freyda. Moreover, in English the word goddess isn’t attested until about 1340, and I don’t know of any Old English word for a specifically female god, so I suspect that the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons used god to refer to both male and female deities. I should look into Old Frisian and Old Low German just to be sure . . .

    . . . and I’ll get back to you on the etymology if anyone else cares. 🙂

    Maybe the solution is to start referring to God in the plural, e.g., “God loves all their children even the insufferable trolls,” so that we can acknowledge both parents at once and avoiding gendered language altoghether. Would that fly in divinity school, Lynnette?

  7. I’m glad to have it in my vocabulary of potential masculine-replacement words in hymns. I was going to say that or something like it with the paragraph I didn’t finish.

    Carry on.

  8. On the few occasions that I’ve begun sacrament meeting talks with “Good morning, SISTERS and brothers,” several people have been notably offended. Go figure.

    I also try to use “she” as much as possible at church (but not in the deity context), just because I think that most people are so unfamiliar with it that it causes them to pause and think for a moment.

  9. I’ve prayed for or greeted “sisters and brothers” several times in church. And I do the hymn substitution also (at least when I’m paying attention) – “souls” or “all” are good options. In Lavina Fielding Anderson’s essay in Women & Authority, she says the end of one of the verses of “I Believe in Christ” is the trickiest and her family would go for broke and sing “to rule among the sons and daughters of men and women.” I discovered one day that this fits: “to rule among all God’s children.” I think it’s appropriate and necessary to use inclusive language.

  10. I’ll chime in and add my voice to the chorus of “yeas” in favor of gender inclusive language in church.

    When people tell me that it doesn’t matter, my response is: it matters to me, so if it’s all the same to you, we may as well do it my way. It’s a small gesture, but it makes a significant difference.

    But I still refer to God as “he,” though I’m not entirely comfortable with it. The problem, as I see it, as that the Church would actually have to acknowledge Heavenly Mother’s role a bit more explicitly to shift to “they” as the appropriate pronoun for deity. But we allegedly already believe, right this moment!, that women and men are equal, so I guess I see no excuse for not including women in our discussions of humankind.

    (My experience with divinity school, at least in theological discussion, was that everyone carefully referred to “God in God’s self” and other such constructions, carefully avoiding pronouns of any sort. I’m sure Lynnette has had much more exposure to that sort of thing. But in discussions of the Bible, Israel’s God is simply “he”–there’s no way around it.)

  11. It’s good to hear from some other hymn-changers out there! Heather, I really like your alternate ending for “I Believe in Christ.” And Melyngoch, thanks for the clarification that “god” isn’t necessarily masculine. My experience in theological studies has been quite similar to Kiskilili’s; I’ve often encountered sentences like “Now we will discuss God godself.” (Something to entertain all you linguists out there, perhaps?) I think a “they” would probably raise a few eyebrows (:gasp: polytheism!) . . . but then, that could be fun.

    I’ll save my thoughts on Heavenly Mother for Kiskilili’s new post on the subject, but I appreciate all the different perspectives on this (including Anne’s reminder that when people opt for different usages, it’s not necessarily out of some kind of ill intent.)

    P.S. Elisabeth, thanks so much for the kind words. I’m really thrilled that so many interesting people have come by.

  12. When I taught freshman (and freshwoman? Ha!) English at UI I used to rile my students (mainly small-town Idaho 18-year-olds) when I would insist on gender-inclusive language in their essays. When I’d get the inevitable argument that “men” refers to both men and women, I’d exclaim, “YES! Now I can bypass the long bathroom lines at the Vandals games and head straight for the Men’s room! Thanks!”

  13. I’ve now spent years teaching freshpeople to write, and I absolutely LOVE your suggestion for deling with objections to gender-inclusive language, idahospud. I haven’t encountered any strong objections since I taught at BYU, but your example so nicely illustrates the fact that men does not mean women! Thanks.

  14. I have a distinct memory from childhood (maybe 8-10 yrs old), standing in the upstairs hallway of my home, pondering whether or not I wish I’d been born a boy, and whether in the afterlife I might ask god to resurrect me as a man.

    Please understand, I did not and do not want to be a man. But even at that tender age I recognized the power of the masculine in my world (which at that point was fairly well cocooned within mormonism). Seeing all the power within the church held within the hands of men was one influence, but so was, certainly, the doctrinally dictated masculinity of god.

    I don’t have any good suggestions, because none work in the context of the cultural and doctrinal practices of the church (neither plural nor neutral alternatives are acceptable). I guess I prefer the solution to avoid the issue entirely, even at the cost of convoluted sentence constructions that avoid using pronouns at all. That is often the solution I choose in my own business writing (I write technical documentation for an IT group). It’s a bit cold for church, but better, for me, than the constant reinforcement of the idea that god is a man — and the correlary implication that I am *not,* in fact, made in his image.

  15. Remember though that the language actually used in all the creaction accounts (Genesis and Moses) it reads “Let US make man in OUR image.”

    There’s our plural again. Plus, if you’re looking to distinguish, say a tiger from a horse, you don’t usually start with the reproductive organs. I’d say that in distinguishing humanity from whatever else, breasts and penises would be pretty far down on the check list. Take a cue from sci-fi; any aliens with two arms, two legs, hands, with a head on shoulders and that walk erect are called “humanoid.” “Human” isn’t defined by those few organs we find so titillating and controversial.

    Going back to gender-inclusive language, I’d say you have two choices: you can butcher the language along with the rest of the academic world and use “godself” if that’s what you have to do to get published. Or you can stick to your guns and your personal beliefs and refer to Him with the masculine pronouns that He Himself uses.

    I think we should wait on revelation about Heavenly Mother before we go making things up based on our own feelings. I would dearly, dearly love to know more about Her and Her role in everything but I think it’s treading on dangerous ground (in terms of the mistakes to be made) if we start trying to refer to Her before we have the necessary knowledge.

  16. “refer to Him with the masculine pronouns that He Himself uses.”

    My question is, “are those the words He uses or are they the words we hear?”

  17. Great question, Lynette. I hadn’t thought about this aspect before.

    I generally use “she” as my general gender-neutral single-person pronoun, at work or in general discussion. (One example straight out of last week’s powerpoint slides: “This is a discretionary spendthrift trust, so the most that the court can do is order the trustee to satisfy or partially satisfy the obligations out of trust payments, when in the trustee’s discretion she makes such distributions.”)

    I would be fine doing this in church as well, but I don’t know that there are many opportunities for doing so. In some contexts, such as discussion with a priesthood leader, it would just sound artificial. (“You can always go to your bishop and ask her . . .”). And in the context of Jesus or of God the Father, we’re told that they _are_ male, so again, it would sound pretty funny.

    What’s left are a few vague uses of generic pronouns that could refer to deity or exaltation or whatnot. (Such as “each of us can know that one day, she will be exalted” perhaps — but that’s a funny construction; I probably wouldn’t use “he” there either, I’d use “we”).

    And of course, I continue to substitute a “she” for the generic “he” — “go talk to your neighbor and tell her” or “when you see a friend, ask her” or whatnot.

    (Though now I’m wondering — is there a negative effect of replacing my generic he with a she, but keeping the specific he’s of specific figures of authority? Is that yet another problem, making the generic people into women but keeping specific leaders as men?

    Either way, I think that substitution of generic-she for generic-he is worthwhile. And until we _have_ female leaders, I don’t know that there’s a way around the problem.)

  18. gst, I think the question here is more to do with whether when we say “God,” we’re only referring to Heavenly Father.

    In some contexts, such as discussion with a priesthood leader, it would just sound artificial. (“You can always go to your bishop and ask her . . .”).

    Kaimi, I don’t know why that comment made me laugh so hard, but I appreciated it. 🙂 I think you’ve described the problem quite well.

    I was actually quite impressed on Sunday when one of the sacrament meeting speakers (and a male, to boot!) said something along the lines of, “when a person is baptized, she . . .”

    harpingheather, I think you make a fair point; there is certainly plenty of academic jargon that I find off-putting and try to steer clear of, even if it is trendy. But in this situation, I’m actually not sure what “sticking to my guns” entails, because I’m still trying to figure out my own views on the subject. Like Andermom, I’m not entirely convinced that the exclusively male scriptural references aren’t the result of human interpretation.

    AM, I can relate to that story of pondering whether you’d like to have been born male. Like you, I don’t think I ever really wanted that, but I do remember wondering as a kid whether people would take me more seriously.

    Kiskilili, I completely agree.

    Idahospud and Eve, it’s interesting to hear about your teaching experiences. And I agree–Idahospud’s response is a great one!

    Melyngoch, I’ll support you in trying to get “freshling” into wider use; I rather like that. (It calls to mind Yoda saying “Younglings! Younglings!”)

  19. Why would we also feel invited, much less compelled, to refer to Heavenly Mother in any context? We don’t know anything about her. Have we been taught somewhere that she’s co-God? Maybe she is, but assuming so without being so instructed seems to me to be a huge leap.

  20. GST–The idea that no one reaches an exalted state without being coupled is what leads some to believe that God must refer to Father and Mother. Especially given scriptural statements like we were created in the image of God (plural)–male and female.

    How about “sibling(s)” rather than sister or brother?


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