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Monday, June 28, 2010

Peggy Noonan, Our Soldiers, and the Question of Gender in Writing

Below you will find a guest post from my friend and sometimes writing partner Phyllis Zimbler Miller. I thought subscribers of this blog would be interested in how affecting the use of grammar can be in one's perception of gender. Heaven knows how this happened! Was this slipup a result of Noonan's age and therefore style of writing? Could it have been a deliberate omission? Did it have something to do with Wall Street Journal policy? Where were that venerable paper's editors? I'm sure you may find even more issues surrounding this he/she conundrum. Phyllis and I would love to hear about them.

The Question of He and She for Writers

The question of how to handle he and she in writing can be a complex one.

Sometimes the question is really not about gender. For example: The best way for a scientist to research his subject is to ...In this case changing to plural solves the problem: The best way for scientists to research their subjects is to . . . .

In such situations, I’ve seen some writers in switch off from paragraph to paragraph with using he or she. One paragraph the scientist is a he; the next paragraph the scientist is a she.

Personally, when I can’t use the plural, I do use he/she or "she or he" in this form.

But there is another area of writing where the use of gender language is very, very important. This is the area in which we as writers influence public perceptions and it’s one of the reasons that writers must be very cognizant of the basic issue of gender and how to make it work well in their writing.

Let me give you a very specific example:

In the June 26-27 Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan in her Declarations opinion piece "McChrystal Forces Us to Focus" wrote:

"Their sons and nephews have come back from repeat tours ..." while failing to include daughters and nieces. She also wrote "... children reaching 12 and 13 without a father at home" without including “a mother."

There was no indication anywhere in her opinion piece that U.S Armed Forces women are deployed to--and die in--Afghanistan and Iraq.

It was as if, in Ms. Noonan’s view, we were back during the Vietnam War when the only U.S. Armed Forces women in harm’s way (and who did die) were nurses sent to Vietnam.

In this example from Peggy Noonan, only using the masculine gender is a grave disservice to the women who serve and have served as well as to those deployed women who have paid the ultimate price.

Given her writing style, Ms. Nooan could have easily said “Their sons, daughters, nephews and nieces have come back from repeat tours …” as well as “without a father or mother at home.”

While the correct use of he and she can be debated among writers, when it is a case of influencing public perceptions, it is incumbent upon us to be very careful how we deal with this complex issue.
FYI – I emailed a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal pointing out the errors on Ms. Noonan’s part.

© 2010 Miller Mosaic, LLC

Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller on Twitter) is the author of the novel and the co-founder of the social media marketing company Miller Mosaic Power Marketing. Many years ago she taught newswriting courses and copyediting courses at Temple University Center City in Philadelphia.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success at Learn more about her other authors' aids at, where writers will find lists and other helps on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. Find me tweeting writers' resources at And please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:


Maryann Miller said...

I agree that the Noonan piece was way off the mark when it comes to gender representation. That was a gross bit of negligence in my estimation. However, I do not strive to always include both genders when I am writing. The he/she is awkward to read consistently in an article, but I do switch to the plural whenever it works smoothly so I can implicitly include both genders.

Darcia Helle said...

I'm surprised that a female writer would make such a blatant gender omission. Reading a piece like that would absolutely make one think that women were never harmed in war. Have you heard back from The Wall Street Journal regarding your email?

In my writing, I try to use he/she whenever the gender is unclear. In an article like you cited with the scientist, using one or the other gender pronoun will at most irk a few people. Peggy Noonan's choice of gender pronouns, on the other hand, eliminates the role all women play in our military.

Nancy Famolari said...

The Noonan piece makes you realize how important it is to be as clear as possible in writing. I find it hard to believe it was a simple mistake, but I don't understand why she wouldn't include female soldiers.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Thanks for all your comments. I agree, Maryann, that the he/she thing can be awkward. Sometimes I choose just one or the other for a whole article, too. And, it's said (in some style books) that using "their" can solve the problem, even though it doesn't correspond with a singular antecedent. Thus, we end up breaking one grammar rule to accommodate something that is--at least in my opinion--more important and that is gender equality.

And, I had trouble believing Noonan would make this error, too! And that the Wall Street Journal editors wouldn't have caught it!

Karen Cioffi said...

Thanks, Phyllis for making it so clear as to why and how to be gender conscious. Noonan's article certainly is a prime example.

Thanks for sharing this, Carolyn.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller said...

Thank you, everyone, for all these comments.

(No, I have not heard from the WSJ and don't really expect to. Plus I don't expect the WSJ to run my letter to the editor.)

I'd like to share a story from the mid-70s when I taught newswriting courses at Temple University Center City in Philadelphia:

At that time women were portrayed terribly in media. (I had quite a collection of examples, including one from the WSJ frontpage that said, when referring to a woman, "The blond ......"

I devoted one three-hour class each semester to portraying women the same way as men in news stories.

Now here's the interesting thing -- I had to convince the women as well as the men that women were equal before the students could even be conscious of how they portrayed women in news stories.

I found Peggy Noonan's article so upsetting because women are deployed and are paying the ultimate price and she totally disregarded this fact.

It's 2010 and I feel as if the ERA just failed to pass.

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