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S. M. Hutchens on the Universal Grammar Feminists Can’t Speak
In a letter to the editor that I will always prize, I was accused of weakness and equivocation in matters pertaining to feminism. (I was wondering who would finally discover what a pallid softie I really am.) The evidence for this was that I had resorted to the “feminist lingo of ‘gender,’” anathema to many in our circles because in feminist usage the customarily grammatical term relativizes the strong division implied by “sex.”
It is true that I am often quite willing to use the term “gender” where others would prefer “sex.” I trace my own attention to the subject to the fascination that dawned upon me when as a boy I began studying languages other than my own, discovering the regular use of grammatical gender, and wondered about its connection to sex. (Boys wonder about the connection of everything to sex.)
Naturally, I was told by my teachers that these were conventions, and that we shouldn’t trouble ourselves to discover the connections. I understood what they meant, and it made sense. Something remained, however, of the thought that although it was fruitless to seek a relation between grammatical gender and biological sex, still—since the connection seemed obvious in certain instances—one would not be remiss in thinking there might be one somewhere, and that in this connection something was hidden about the mystery of the deep structure of language and hence also of being—something that existed, but would always by its nature remain more than elusive.
A More Fundamental Reality
When I got around to reading C. S. Lewis, I was delighted to find he thought the same, and had developed the thought a bit. In Perelandra he describes the titular deities of Mars and Venus, and observes, “At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the true meaning of [nota bene] gender.”
. . . Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them.
In fact, they did the opposite, he continued.
Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality, than sex. Sex is, in fact merely an adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have female gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. . . .
If this is so—and I thought immediately that it was so—while grammatical gender is not an “imaginative extension of sex,” this is not to say that those things to which we attach grammatical gender are not connected to what is expressed as sex through the fundamental polarity of gender at a higher level than either. There should be room in our minds to suppose the reason le chat has masculine gender and die Katze is feminine is neither arbitrary, nor based on the form of the words themselves, nor solely connected to diverse perceptions of the thing itself, but related in a way we cannot see to the fundamental polarity dividing all created beings of which Lewis speaks, and to the beast itself in the mystery of cat-ness.
To dismiss any possible relation of biological sex to grammatical gender because the connections are invisible or apparently contradictory strikes me as premature. If all creation partakes in some way of this polarity, expressed more intensely and vividly as the created order ascends, this partaking with respect to the words symbolizing that creation, while passing beyond difficult (for us) to impossible, cannot be dismissed as meaningless.
My own use of the term “gender” rests upon this understanding. If grammatical gender and the male and female sex represent something that is beyond either at higher levels of concretion, resting finally in God who created man male and female in his own image, then a term is needed to represent the universal quality. In English, I think that term is “gender.”
It is quite the opposite of feminism, which attempts in its private use of the word to blur or relativize the distinction between the sexes, not only by making them “equal” in a way that denies the masculine, but also by making gender as arbitrary and conventional as it appears to the unmetaphysical eye of the mere grammarian. •
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.