Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

The importance of using feminine words and images

Using feminine pronouns to create a powerful effect

I know that masculine words such as “man” and “he” in sermons and books, including English translations of the Bible, do not necessarily exclude me, even though I am a woman. Nevertheless, these masculine words create a slight disconnect and distance between me and what is being said. This distance has become more noticeable as I’ve compared the experience of what happens when speakers and writers choose to include feminine words such as “her”, with what happens when they don’t. Here are four stories—personal anecdotes really—that have made me realise the importance of choosing to use words, as well as images, that deliberately include and engage women and girls.

Story 1: “She”

In the past couple of months Microsoft has been running a television advertisement called “The Ones Who Will Do Great Things”. It’s about children who may grow up to achieve something ingenious and vitally important, and even change the world. It’s a good looking advertisement, but what really grabbed my attention was this unexpected line: “We just need to make sure she has what she needs.”

She!

I’ve seen this advertisement a few times now, and every time this word jumps out and makes me happy. I love it that girls are depicted as potential world changers and are in no way secondary. In fact, this commercial has just as many images of girls as it does of boys.

Story 2: “Her”

I’ve almost finished reading Con Campbell’s 2015 book Advances in the Study of Greek (a must read for anyone seriously interested in New Testament Greek.) Dr Campbell tries to avoid using gendered pronouns, but where they have been necessary, he alternates between feminine and masculine personal pronouns. Here’s just one example of his use of feminine pronouns: “When the student begins her journey with Greek . . .”

The use of feminine pronouns makes me feel part of Dr Campbell’s target audience—I am not just an onlooker on the margins. And I am grateful for his deliberate inclusion.

Story 3: “Daughters”

My friend Lisa (not her real name) and I were at a Christian conference recently and the main speaker, a man, repeatedly used the expression “daughters and sons of God” when referring to our identity as Christians. Lisa was visibly heartened and moved by this expression, and she told me as much. The concept of our adoption as beloved children of God was given a heightened sense of immediacy, simply because of the use of the word “daughters”. Furthermore, the fact that “daughters” was consistently mentioned first, before “sons”, made us feel that we weren’t somehow secondary in comparison with our Christian brothers.

Saying “men” before “women”, “sons” before “daughters”, or “boys” before “girls” may be conventional, but to continually and routinely hear these words in this order can make women and girls think they are less important than men and boys. Words can be powerful, and the way we arrange our words can be powerful. We need to wisely use this power for the building up of both women and men.

Story 4: Images that feature Women

A few years ago, our pastor spoke about the “armour of God” in his sermon. While talking about the armour, he showed an image on the screen of a woman dressed in combat gear. It was a powerful image and I immediately felt greatly encouraged. I thanked our pastor afterwards for this simple gesture of choosing to use a picture of a woman rather than of a man. I still remember the picture and the sense of empowerment that it created.

Closing the Distance

In each of these stories, the speaker or writer has been a man, and yet by choosing to use feminine words and images, these men have effectively engaged with the women in their audience. Jesus used parables that contained masculine and feminine imagery to engage the men and the women in his audiences. Women were not excluded from his ministry or message, or distanced from him personally. We need to be careful that we are not inadvertently marginalising half our audience when the solution may be as simple as including words such as “she”, “her”, and “daughters”, as well as using carefully chosen images that feature women. I can tell you from experience, these words and images will immediately result in your message gaining extra attention and becoming more memorable. Try it.

Related Articles

Why masculine pronouns can be misleading in English Bibles and in the Church
Male-female pairs and parallelism in Luke’s Gospel
Reading the Bible with a Masculinist Bias
The Status of Christian Women, in a Nutshell

Posted October 30th, 2015 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

20 comments on “The importance of using feminine words and images

  1. Tim says:

    A singular use of male pronouns grates on me, whether in the pulpit, classroom, or wherever. I remember in law school 30+ years ago when our first year criminal law professor referred to a hypothetical judge as she when describing how a case might be decided. It was a welcome change from what I’d heard through college with the default pronoun being male. I would hope the church would have advanced away from that same default by now.

    • Marg says:

      It is a welcome change to use “she”.

      I think many women, myself included, are so used to being tacitly and invisibly subsumed by the masculine pronouns that when we hear “she” it is startling and empowering. We are no longer invisible.

  2. Dona says:

    A friend of mine in a men’s group tried to explain this and was met with typical responses: that of course women are included in their use of male pronouns and were simply being paranoid to allow it to bother them. So since that time whenever he shares in the group this friend has explicitly used only feminine pronouns. These same men are often irritated or outraged. I’m wondering how long (if ever) they will figure it out.

    • Marg says:

      How sad that these men don’t get it.

      Most of the time I don’t notice the generic-intended masculine pronouns, but I sure notice the deliberate feminine ones, so do, it seems, the men in the group. 😉

      I’m glad for the men, like your friend, who do get it.

  3. Donald Johnson says:

    http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html is a devastating satire on grammatical terms that are supposed to be neutral/generic but are not.

  4. Laura Droege says:

    The reference to the order of words reminded me of a story I heard Deborah Tannen tell. When her book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation was released, she made the usual TV/radio circuit to discuss the book. She wrote that the anchors constantly switched the words in the subtitle from “Women and Men” to “Men and Women.” They were so accustomed to that fixed order that even though they were reading the book title, they switched her deliberate inversion of the genders to the traditional order.

    Good post. These are excellent reasons. I particularly liked the image of a female wearing the armor of God!

    • Marg says:

      Hi Laura,

      I heard exactly the same thing a while back. Someone misread the title on air, and I had to double check that I knew the title correctly. I remember it happening, but I can’t remember which book it was.

      After I posted the article I thought about the conventional ordering of “Ladies and Gentlemen”. I wonder why the sexes are in a different order here. How did that happen?

      And I love how the sexes are flipped in Leviticus 19:3.

      It’s hard to break from deeply ingrained conventions, but we must if it implies and reinforces the idea that women and girls are secondary to men and boys.

  5. Lorena Wood says:

    Thank you for this. Not long ago a pastor I listened to was talking about discipleship. He quoted from Heb. 11 but left out all the women. He then went on to invite “us” to invite people to church and that they would be discipled. Then (not joking here) he had his elders stand up-all of which were only men and said “if you want to be discipled come see one of these guys.” All the while I was getting more and more perturbed. Is it any wonder that he is now wondering why (out loud from the pulpit) that there are no women to disciple women who want to be discipled??! I plan to have a little chat with him soon. Please men, when you have women in your congregation, include them in your sermons and on your leadership team.

    • Marg says:

      That is a particularly bad story. There are so few women mentioned in Hebrews 11 (Sarah, Rahab, the unnamed women who received their dead back to life) I wonder why he left them out? The sad thing is some men don’t even think they are diminishing women. Your pastor reminds me of my friend “Norm”.

  6. Bev Murrill says:

    These are such simple changes to make, but the reason so many will not make them is because though they are small, the implications and ramifications are huge. Huge doors turn on little hinges, as Martin Luther said.

    I’m encouraged that more and more people are making choices such as these, and there is rising a generation who doesn’t know what the fuss is about, which is great but can also be frustrating because they don’t know what they have gained that someone else earned on their behalf.

    Another great article, Marg, thanks.

    • Marg says:

      Hi Bev,

      I think the rising generation is divided. Some, like my older son, don’t understand what all the fuss is about, but others are being indoctrinated in hierarchical complementarian ideology.

      Hopefully, however, even these people would want to include women in sermons, etc. Then again, we have complementarian pastors like Matt Chandler who focus their ministry on men. This sends a terrible message to the women.

      • Bev Murrill says:

        Yes, I agree, but so much of the non-Christian West is accepting women and it’s bleeding into churches where complementarianism isn’t an issue. I know there are people like Chandler and Driscoll and others who maintain their viewpoints, but I’m encouraged that so many others are breaking through.

        It may be that I live in a bubble… but I can’t help but notice how many more men and women around who are singing the songs of freedom…

        • Marg says:

          I still hear sad stories everyday, admittedly most of these are from America. But even many churches in Australia still draw a line somewhere, a line that marks the limits of women’s participation in church life and ministry.

          Nevertheless, I am confident that we are heading in the right direction. 🙂

  7. Donald Johnson says:

    The switching of the order was done in some translations for Aquila and Priscilla, where her name was stated first in Greek, because of the desire of the translators to conform to the expected order in English. Fortunately, this is now frowned upon.

    • Marg says:

      Yes, the the editor of Codex Bezae, a circa 5th century Greek and Latin manuscript of the Gospels and the Book of Acts, made a few alterations in the Book of Acts which played down the prominence of women (e.g. Acts 18:26). Unfortunately this is one of the manuscripts used by Robert Estienne (AKA Stephanus) which was then used for the translation of the 1611 King James Bible which retained some of the editor’s alterations (e.g. Acts 18:26 KJV).

  8. the feminine and masculine words in scripture have absolutely nothing to do with gender, but are functions of the original languages that existed long before there ever was an English language let alone an English Bible. father of dew is interpreted as Abigail and taught as a woman…is a woman a father in our English thinking minds?

    he, she, it, him, her, they, them and their all mean SELF IN THE ORIGINAL TEXT. correct usage of those terms changes everything about masculine patriarchal dominant thinking…that chopped off the heads of women; leaving them nothing to think with and bowing the backs of men with the burden of trying to think for a woman,men and women do not think nor process in the same way. GREAT DISSERVICE TO BOTH GENDERS.

    • Marg says:

      This article is not about grammatical gender in the original languages of the Bible. It is about how we use gendered words in the here and now in preaching and writing.

      I have other articles about issues concerning grammatical gender in the Bible here and here. I agree that the use of masculine gendered words in the Bible, and in preaching and writing, has distorted the message and biased it against women, to the detriment of all Christians.

      I have an article about Abigail and the etymology of her name (which I believe is “my father’s joy” or ” the joy of my father”) here.

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