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.”
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.
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