I’m no animal expert. But when my fiancé Christopher and I relocated to 100 acres in Montana, I decided to unwind from New York City by watching critters more closely. One afternoon, lounging in a meadow, we saw an owl fly overhead. We knew this owl. We’d seen it coast between the creek and the Douglas firs many times. It kept an eye on us too. We hadn’t named it yet. But apparently, one of us had sexed it.
“There he is,” Chris pointed.
“She” I snapped.
“He,” he teased, pushing me over.
I shot him my meanest arched eyebrow.
“She,” I demanded, and he quickly let the tug-o-war go, let me seep into my own frustration. I was mad at myself, not him. I had also seen that owl (and the black bear, voles and hawks before) and automatically thought he. Why? How had I grown into a 30-year-old woman without acting on this before? How could I call myself an eco-feminist when correcting to she for the first time felt so brand spanking new? My ignorance shocked me.
So I spied on other people and children for months, mentally logging the gender they placed on any animal.
More Molly musings and a bio after the jump.
Then, icing on the cake, Christopher’s liberal parents visited. We told them about the prowling female mountain lion our neighbours had warned us about. When it bounded across our field, they both screamed, “There he is!”
“She,” I sighed.
Okay. I get that the personal pronoun he has masqueraded as an all-inclusive term for eons, along with nouns mankind or men. Some wave it away as one “minor” scrap leftover from a medieval form of patriarchy. But leftovers go sour. I’m not sure whether to blame Disney, organized religion, or the fact that not enough people read Vandana Shiva.
Instead, I gave the whole mess–this belief that “all animals are male”–a name: The Great Assumption. Yet we grant one exception. Any animal with a baby in tow is unanimously referred to as she. So to be a female, I guess you have to be a mother. Or flip it: to be a parent, you have to be a female, which makes it confusing for the dude penguins and sea horses who work as primary caregivers.
I am now sabotaging The Great Assumption. I call everything (toaster, lobster, human newborn, squirrel, car) a she. If this thing is parenting, I like to say he. I know it’s extreme. It’s the only way I can re-pattern my lingo into something more balanced. When I spotted a lone great blue heron recently, I exclaimed, “There she is.” Still my tongue twisted around the phrase like a foreign accent. But when others hear me say she, they gawk. That’s how I know it’s working.
Molly May has led creative writing workshops for young women in rural New Mexico, collected stories from farmers in New Zealand, and sat at an editorial desk at publishing house W.W. Norton & Company. She has written for Orion Magazine, Portland Press Herald, Middlebury Magazine, as well as a weekly geography-focused column for crucialminutiae.com. She now lives in Bozeman, Montana, where she is writing a book about placelessness.