Skip to main content

Gendered Language and Social Change: The Overton Window and Feminine Pronouns

November 2nd, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Language isn't static. There is no returning to the 'thees' and 'thous' of the King James Bible, at least in popular discourse. But the evolving nature of language does not mean that all changes are created equal, or that all changes happen naturally. As Paul Mankowski adeptly argues, some language changes are driven by agendas that may be at odds with the traditional (i.e. patriarchal) Christian worldview.

The question, of course, is how to respond to such innovations in language. Cate elegantly voiced the increasingly popular approach among many evangelical Christians--relax and don't let it prevent you from fighting more significant issues.

We should attempt to never become reactionary or unsoundly extreme when defending what we believe. It is easy when trying to protect biblical patriarchy (for lack of a better term) to observe the cultural distaste for it and respond with renewed and expanded vigor against American feminism and what can be viewed as postmodern language usage (Ah, postmodernism and feminism, can any other two things get us so riled up?). This would be a mistake. Making a small change like using “she” or “they” when possible is a culturally relevant and sensitive way to increase our communication with the secular world (and this is of no small significance). To include women in referencing humankind doesn’t—on its own—contradict even a traditional view of the created difference between man and woman, and it keeps us from dying in a battle of limited importance when we are waging a great and significant cultural war.

I have sympathies for this position. But I think it fails to understand exactly what is at stake in popular discourse.

While in Washington D.C., I got to hear Jon Henke (an extraordinarily bright fellow) wax eloquent on "the Overton window." Created (discovered?) by Joe Overton, the Overton Window is the range of acceptable political ideas (and language). On either side of the window are the two extremes.rt-overton.jpg

But the window isn't stable. As Henke pointed out, when organizations like MoveOn place malicious advertisements that seem extreme, they are intentionally trying to move the center of the window more to the left, making such discourse and ideas more politically acceptable to the American public. Organizations on the right do the same thing with their respective ideas. Whichever side is more effective in this moves the middle of the window closer to their ideas, making them more likely to be adopted by the general public.

The concept is useful in understanding what's at stake with the gender-inclusive pronouns, and provides support for evangelical patriarchalists to avoid using "she" as the inclusive pronoun. If the shift toward "she" is driven by an ideology, then to the extent that Christians reject they ideology, they would do well to resist the shift in language.

What's more, if patriarchalists want their ideas to gain traction with the world, the paradox is that they should simply continue speaking as though the window had never shifted, as that is the only way to move it back. As Milton Friedman put it, "That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." Such a strategy is applicable not only to conservative economic policies, but Christian social engagement.

Cate is right: the question of pronouns is a question of cultural engagement. She is wrong, however, in the insistence that Christians should ignore pronouns to fight the larger battles. For those who think the Gospel sanctions and redeems patriarchy, the question of pronouns is the larger battle. A culture that who regards "he" when used to stand for humanity as distasteful will bristle at a God who came as a man. This is the lesson of mainline theological liberalism and its rejection of the manhood of Jesus in favor of the Deity--but not Sonship--of Christ.

When the window shifts to the left, ideas on the right will inevitably sound reactionary and extreme (and vice versa). It may be undesirable, but it can hardly be avoided. But expressions of such ideas need not lack the grace that is fitting for expressions of the truth--the grace that endows us with humility, respect, and the quiet confidence that it is the world that is on its head and we who are lucky enough to be standing on our own two feet.

(Picture credit to RedTory)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.