Pronouns Matter: Her, Him, and How We Talk About the Presidency

Originally posted on Presidential Gender Watch

At the final GOP debate before the Iowa caucus, then-presidential hopeful Jeb Bush was met with applause for his answer to a question about veterans’ affairs. Bush ended his statement remarking that “The first duty of the next president of the United States is to fix the mess at the Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s his first responsibility.” Just last week, at the pre-Super Tuesday GOP debate, Ted Cruz explained in a retort to comments by Marco Rubio, “…we need a president who knows what he believes in, is willing to say it on day one, not at the end of his term…” These relatively minor responses were glossed over in most debate coverage, yet they erased the candidacies of the women vying for the presidency with two words: “he” and “his.”

Now, this is not to condemn these candidates for maliciously excluding Carly Fiorina, Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, or women at large from the election. There is no reason to believe that either candidate intended to present a sexist message or that the audience understood their words as such. In fact, most would regard such criticism as nitpicking, especially because both men were likely referencing themselves as the potential occupants of the Oval Office. However, they are not alone. The truth is that, regardless of our identity or ideology, we envision the president as a man, and that shapes how we talk about the presidency. All 44 presidents of the United States have been men, and even the United States Constitution frames the role of the presidency as “his.” Despite this masculine precedent, we still have a responsibility to call out these word choices as the sexist microaggressions they are. It is not 1787, women are no longer excluded from politics, and “he” is not, nor should be, the default pronoun used in writing or speaking. Hearing and reading exclusively male pronouns in association with the presidency influences how people think about the presidency, and the subconscious use of this gendered language suggests that it lies at the surface of a much deeper problem in American politics.

The subconscious use of male pronouns as the default descriptor of the presidency, and roles of leadership in general, stems from the masculinization of leadership. Hundreds of years of studying and following leaders have shaped understandings of what qualities make good leaders. Since men have long-dominated leadership roles, including the presidency, the qualities of good presidents — strength, decisiveness, assertiveness, etc. — align with stereotypes of masculinity that are assumed to belong to men. While traditionally feminine qualities, such as empathy and patience, might be valued in presidents, they are not seen as the qualities most essential for ensuring the security of citizens. Furthermore, because women are not men, they are often seen as lacking in these leadership-defining “masculine” qualities, raising doubts about their fitness for the presidency. The dominance of masculinity in presidential expectations is perpetuated by the lack of women as both presidential contenders and inhabitants. Moreover, these stereotypic associations we make between men and presidential leadership are reinforced by language that describes the presidency with exclusively male pronouns, communicating to young women and men that no matter how qualified a woman is, the presidency is not for “her.”

The dissonance between norms of femininity and expectations of the presidency causes female pronouns to stand out when describing the presidency. “He” and “his” are oriented with the presidency and perceived as normal and not notable, while using “her” is more likely to catch our collective attention because it’s perceived as abnormal. However, Hillary Clinton has sought to capitalize on this abnormality en route to normalizing the idea of a woman president. As a woman running for president, Clinton frequently utilizes female pronouns when discussing the presidency on the campaign trail. Clinton has gone further on her social media, where she and her followers use the hashtag #ImWithHer. The use of the female pronoun in #ImWithHer, instead of #ImWithHillary, makes its message distinct and layered. By sharing one’s support of “her” for president, the hashtag demonstrates not only that someone is in support of Clinton’s policies, but that they support normalizing women’s leadership and challenging gender stereotypes of the presidency.

However, women are not the only ones who are, or should be, disrupting masculine stereotypes of leadership. Men must also be conscious of the importance of their language. Former Secretary of State Robert Gates exemplifies this in his new book A Passion for Leadership, alternating between male and female pronouns when describing qualities of great leaders. When asked specifically about his use of female pronouns on Andrea Mitchell Reports in January, Gates explained his desire to reflect growing involvement of women in leadership and that “the lessons that [he’s] derived from a half century in public service are applicable across the board…male or female.”

Research shows that exposing young women to images of successful female role models can alone improve their confidence and performance in school. Altering language to include “she” and “her” in discussions of leadership could generate similar positive effects. If equal opportunity for everyone regardless of gender is a goal, then we must recognize the power and consequences of our words. It is important to ensure that all genders are included in these discussions, so that “he,” “she,” and “they” know that the presidency is not just a job for “him.”

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