Should one write: he and she or she and he?

On: October 3, 2010
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About Cristina Reyna
Cristina Reyna New Media Master Student 2010/2011 Cristina was born in Colombia, she moved to Belgium to study in the Catholic University of Louvain, since then she has been involved in women rights issues. She works in the field of development, migration and peace.


I posted on the Spanish version of Wikipedia an item on the World March of Women, an international feminist movement. I thought it was a nice way to participate in the 3rd international Action that is taking place this year on October 17th in Bukavu, DR Congo. From Monday to Thursday I spent each evening completing the information making the hyperlinks, etc. But on Saturday my contribution was taken off the Wikipedia site, with a message of plagiarism. My contribution did not last long in cyberspace.

In fact on the World March of Women’s, website there is a page with information for the media, which contains standard information for publishing, for flyers, brochures, etc. Normally you can use this information for publishing text; I used it then for Wikipedia. I think I was quite naïve in thinking that the editors of Wikipedia would enter in the free sharing mood of the World March of Women. I sent to the coordination office of the movement an email informing them about my idea and they answered shortly but enthusiastic about it, but they couldn´t help me right now, because they are too busy with organizing the next 3rd international Action taking place in two weeks. So by the time I got in contact with them on the issue of publishing in Wikipedia, my post was already removed from the Wikipedia site. I am waiting from them the official authorization in Wikipedia´s form, to post again the information, but in the meantime I couldn´t recuperate all the text with references, links etc, that I had worked on. My main point is to understand how something that is published and available for public use can be understood as plagiarism? I will continue with this discussion in the coming weeks.

About an internal Gender debate in Wikipedia

My curiosity on the Wikipedia concepts discussions brought me to have a look into a particular case related to the word GENDER. This concept from the social sciences point of view has always been a topic of discussion inside and outside of the feminist movement. I first looked at the word in English GENDER, and I find the link to the disambiguation of the word, so it means that I have the possibility to choose between the most relevant meanings, so then I went to Gender refers to the distinction between male and female individuals, especially men and women.

I found a very diverse and broad approach related to the social sciences meaning, I then went in to the discussions around the use of the term and I found an interesting discussion around the use of the words ‘he’ and ‘she’, male and female. See “Systemic bias” in regard to putting “male” before “female”.

Comment: “Editor, Tyranny Sue, feels that constantly putting “male” before “female,” “man” before “woman,” etc. creates systemic bias within the article. The editor would prefer parts of the article be worded as follows: “female and male,” “woman and man,” “she and “he,” “her and his.”

The discussion that follows this comment is quite extended, I would say even emotional. The arguments in favor or against go from historical, to conservative then to more progressive discussions as follows:

Comment: “Years ago, it was standard to say “he” and it was accepted that “he” could refer to a male or female subject. In the 1920’s, using “he” in English in this way was no more political than saying “ellos” in Spanish. Then there was a big upset, part of feminism, part of the natural progression of the language, combination of factors, etc., and the standard changed. In 2010, saying “he” in that way is sexist. Now, saying “he” in that way makes a political statement because the standard is “he or she.” In order for this change to occur, a bunch of people had to get up there and write in a way that looked awkward and distracting and made a political statement for a long time. I am not saying that it would necessarily be bad to do this for “male and female”; I am saying that Wikipedia is not the place to do it. We are not here to make our own political statements or reinvent the English language: to that are rules in which male have to precede female in grammar.”

Comment : “your notion of there being a “standard order” or some kind of authoritative “custom” is exactly where the systemic bias occurs. These notions translate into personally preferred order. You say that the compulsive prioritizing of all male-related terms before all female-related ones “doesn’t make any particular political statement”. It actually does, just not in an overt way. Political statements are often made covertly.”

Later another reply: “So, if I’m understanding correctly, there is no written rule in English that says the “male” goes before “female” and, although there is no rule, we should ask the opinion of the wider community to change a rule that didn’t exist in the first place.”

What I find interesting in the discussion are the different arguments used. I have participated in many debates on the topic of Gender from the social sciences point of view, and the reflections I heard are not far from the ones discussed on this concept. From the conservative, to the political and to the emotional, the question of power relations makes always controversial debates, the ones in favor and the ones against will come at the end to a conclusion.

Comment: “Speaking here in my capacity as an ordinary user (not wearing my admin hat). I don’t think there is any enforceable policy reason to alter phrasing in this way (she/he). Articles should be recording what sources say and when they have ‘she’ before ‘he’ it’s fine to put it here that way, and vice versa. Changing the phraseology of a sentence is asking to changing between British and American spellings – we just don’t do it.” The Policy of The Neutral Point of View (NPVO) was at the end the rule applied.

Wikipedia presented as space for dynamic and critical knowledge in the CPOV: Critical Point of View, “critical insights into the contemporary status of knowledge, its organizing principles, function, and impact; its production styles, mechanisms for conflict resolution and power (re-)constitution. New strategic and tactical operations of knowledge/power are clearly at work”.

After reading this discussion I can imagine how other discussions on controversial concepts are going. A neutral point of view could be quite different from the Social sciences, the scientific or even the religious perspective. Who will take the decision on each point? Who claims the truth? Who is the “expert”?

My point is how such an insignificant change can create such a big debate and diverging positions? Isn’t Wikipedia just the expression the society we already are? We can´t invent anything new if we don’t move from the conventional way of relating to each other. The whole topic on ’she’ and ‘he’ and which should go first is in fact a political statement of the feminists, and could even be illustrated in the concept, but it doesn’t, in order to preserve the ‘Neutral point of view’.

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