Guest Post: The Great Assumption

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 She now lives in Bozeman, Montana, where she is writing a book about placelessness.

Join the Conversation

  • jellyleelips

    On the flip side of people assuming animals (especially ferocious animals like lions) are a “he,” I’m constantly ticked off by people referring to cars, boats, or spaceships as “she.” It appears that any inanimate object that is a shiny box of metal containing an engine that a man can have total control over through the act of driving is female. And of course these shiny boxes of metal are classic phallic symbols.

  • Jessica Lee

    This reminds me of a commercial SNL did when January Jones hosted. It mocked 1960s etiquette, and she said something about how all dogs are boys and all cats are girls. I just thought that was a funny way of showing how people assign different animals different assumptions about their sex.
    Heck, I assumed my cat was female for two years, until I saw his penis, but that’s mainly because I never saw his penis before. Maybe I’m just rambling now, haha.

  • Jessica Lee
  • Edubs

    Not for nothing, but most true outdoors enthusiasts will at least make an effort to actually discern the gender of the animal in question, instead of simply referring to it as a ‘he’. It’s part of the identification process.
    My suggestion? Work on skills to actually confirm the gender of the animal in question. Or ask the person who identifies the animal as a ‘he’ “How do you know?” Call them out. They’ll be likely to ask you the same question when you identify the gender of the animal in question as a ‘she’.
    Also, seahorses are my favorite animals. :) :) :)

  • mandoir

    It appears that any inanimate object that is a shiny box of metal containing an engine that a man can have total control over through the act of driving is female.
    That’s EXACTLY how it works.

  • pedestrian

    I used to date a man from South America who was not particularly feminist and I was surprised by the seemingly gender neutral pronouns that he used. Sometimes an animal would be “he” and sometimes “she”.
    Finally I asked him one day how he knew a squirrel was a “she” but a hawk was a “he”. “Porque es ‘la’ ardilla y ‘el’ harcón.” Por supuesto.

  • lindsay

    You make good points. I also find that people are likely to gender animals based on how harmless they are. People never cease to refer to my male cats as female. On the other hand, my German Shepherd is always assumed to be male. It seems trivial, but I think the gendering of animals sometimes results from deeper seated ideas about femininity and masculinity. Since my cats are fluffy, seemingly harmless, and cute, they are assumed to be female. Just an idea.

  • ElleStar

    I have two dogs, both male. One is a big Black Lab, and the other is a very small terrier mutt.
    I’ve noticed that the smaller one always gets called “she” if they don’t know him.
    There’s also an industry for those elastic bows for baby’s heads so that bald female babies (even those dressed in pink) don’t get called “he” by mistake (the horrors!).

  • ila

    The debate about gender, language, assumptions and feminism resurfaces at least once a year in the Spanish media. You may know that, in Spanish, nouns and adjectives are inflected to express gender. For example, “the reader” might translate as “EL lector” (male) or LA lectorA” (female). However, when addressing or referring to a mixed collective, the male form serves as the default “neutral” form. This is justified by “tradition” (it has always been done this way, this is the way our language works!) and by the “economy of language” argument (it is shorter, it is faster, it is more practical!) Feminists have been arguing for the use of both male and female forms for years, convinced that using male as default or “all-inclusive” actually excludes and invisibilizes women, but apparently it is too much effort to say the two extra words necessary to include women (“el lector y/o la lectora”…)
    Especially disheartening personal anecdote: I was doing simultaneous interpretation (English-Spanish) at a conference, and the Spanish participants asked me to stop using both male and female forms, since it was a waste of time and it sounded awkward and forced. This was a conference about GENDER and reproductive health.

  • Comrade Kevin

    I try to avoid gendered pronouns altogether, meaning one has to be super creative or just downright evasive. :)

  • Attagrrrl

    Interesting. I don’t really talk about animals enough to have noticed it, but you’re totally right. I have the same problem, though it’s not animal related. I teach test prep, and people always assume that the unnamed author of a reading passage is male. Since the gender is unknown, I try to mix it up and sometimes use she and sometimes he, but from now on I’m going to try your tactic and just assume everyone’s female unless I learn otherwise.

  • Roving Thundercloud

    We have been working against this trend with our small child, and it has paid off: she now randomizes gender even more often than we do (we often forget). We are especially careful to identify parent animals as “he” much of the time, and that makes perfect sense to her, because her dad takes care of her most of the time. I wonder, though, how this will work out when she gets to school.

  • SuchGreatHeights

    In some academic fields there seems to be a strong tendency, at least among leftwing authors, to refer to hypothetical people with female pronouns by default. Given that this is unusual in other settings I assume it is a deliberate but unspoken of convention.
    I actually had one (male) professor when offering suggestions for sentence rewrites on sentences with hypothetical people correct things like “their” to “her” rather than “his or her” or “his.”

  • jouis-sens

    It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that “The Great Assumption” isn’t merely linguistic; masquerading inside what is, as you noted, typically waved off as just a “minor” language issue is the primary ontopolitical reality that shapes the lifeworld: the un-self-reflexive a priori that subjectivity (i.e. qua subjectivity) is, de facto, male. This operative belief emerges in an infinite spectrum of prosaic instances, from Facebook’s making its default icon male, to the famed Pioneer plaque on which it is the man who “speaks”, who greets with raised hand, to the fact that so many people, of any age or sex|gender, still automatically register most creatural non-tot-toting agents as “he,” and a no less numerous spectrum of decidedly more grave ones.
    In writing recently about cinema and gender, I had to spend a great deal of time dealing with the fact that in mainstream American film, a staggering 90% of all releases feature only men as chief protagonist; this is a problem for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is that it reifies and replicates to and in viewers that only men are the bearers of subjectivity (that, in fact, the space of subjectivity _is_ male). And us? We can be Second, perhaps: the love interest, the object of rescue, or the sidekick. We can, both on and off-screen, only be the next best thing: women aren’t doctors (unless they’re doctors only of the dead – “Bones,” or diluted as part of an ensemble), they’re nurses (Mercy, Hawthorne, et. al.); women aren’t pilots, they’re stewardesses (The Travel Channel’s “Flight Attendant School”, CBS/CW’s “Fly Girls”), etc., etc., etc. What such examples point to is the notion that what we cannot be, are incapable of being, is Singularity; the I Am; The Protagonist.
    Everywhere, in every strata of society, the message, unrelenting, and unchanged for millennia is: Only men are subjects; Subjectivity is male. People give the “what’s the big deal?” shrug about the universal male pronoun; the big deal is the incalculable psychic, physical and economic harm that its governing ontopolitical premise has wrought.
    Your blurb indicates that you are writing about placelessness; I can hardly think of any better example than woman – exiled from subjectivity itself.

  • partenope

    I am not an expert on this, but I believe that in English the gendering of animals is a recent (relatively) phenomenon, with animals having been indicated with the pronoun “it,” rather than “he” or “she.”
    In my anecdotal experience, when I walk the dog (a large border collie), people will refer to it alternately as a he or a she, depending on what gender of pet they have with them or at home. I do not tend to correct them either way.
    In reference to ila’s comment, when I write academic papers and use the personal pronoun, I had been staunchly using the “he or she” technique, but have recently defaulted to “she,” or will alternate between “she” and “he” depending on context.

  • Edubs

    This I don’t understand. As the parent animal with the young is MUCH more likely to be a female, if not close to 100% of the time. I can understand and appreciate what you’re trying to do for your child, but I can’t stand it when people ignore facts or directly lie to their kid in order to garner a certain belief. Nature is what it is.

  • Molly May

    The same thing happens when people mention certain professions? For example:
    A woman I deeply respect said this the other day: “So let’s say you ask a scientist. He would say…”
    Listen for it.
    Doctors, astronauts, scientists, carpenters, truck drivers–apparently they are also ALL male.
    I appreciate the comments on language and how that affects our associations with words. Ila, wild and disturbing that folks at a gender conference asked you to switch back to the masculine.
    It IS a worthy study to learn and understand the signs for an animal’s sex. Many are obvious (like deer); others, like birds or moths or bears, are harder to tell, unless you get up close and personal. One of my favorite children’s books was about the Easter Bunny being a single female with 10 kids to raise, and how Easter was hard work for her but someone, invincible lady bunny that she was, she managed. I mean, that was back in 1985, so someone was thinking about it.

  • Molly May

    Agreed on all fronts. It’s deeply embedded and requires a restructuring, but I think that might start to happen through the acts of individual people changing how they speak, what they watch, what they reference…, or enough Facebook devotees raising the roof on why the default icon is male. Wouldn’t that be cool?
    Sounds like Roving Thundercloud is intentionally offering a new model to her daughter.

  • pedestrian

    That depends on the animal. In some species the male does most of the child rearing or responsibilities are shared. Many bird species have a high percentage of same-sex parent couples.
    Of course we are projecting our own cultural biases when we emphasize one family arrangement over others, especially when we are talking about another species. However, it is no more factual or truthful to assume that animals follow 1950s Western gender hierarchies than it is to assume that they follow modern feminist values.

  • another constellation

    One of my college professors always said “she or he,” not “he or she.” It totally blew my mind. It had never occurred to me that women could be first in that phrase, so now I use it (or, preferably “ze” when I can get away with it).

  • kandela

    Perhaps we shouldn’t assume at all, but actually educate ourselves. At the least we should use gender neutral pronouns if we are too lazy to work it out.

  • kandela

    I like to mix it up.

  • Hypatia

    Recently, I shipped a book I was selling on amazon a bit late, and the buyer posted a comment on my reviews: “Don’t buy from this GUY. HE ships at a snail’s pace”. My screenname is gender-neutral.

  • Steveo

    It doesn’t make any sense to call an animal with an unknown gender either he or she. Changing the poor convention from assuming the animal is male to an equally poor convention of calling the animal female is absolutely stupid! The change should be made to a more accurate convention, of being gender neutral until enough information to make a reasonable guess at the gender.
    If someone makes a statement that expresses gender, such as “Look, there he is”, the best response is “How do you know that animal is a male?” because you will either point out the person’s poor convention, or find out something about that animal that is different between the females and males. Unless of course you knew that said animal was a female and could explain why to the person. Then that would be the best response, but I prefer to have people admit their own ignorance rather than accuse them of it.

  • heidi

    I’m a biologist; I call everything “it” unless I can differentiate sex by plumage, behavior, etc.

  • Mike Crichton

    In some species the male does most of the child rearing
    In this context, “Some” means “less than 1%”.
    or responsibilities are shared. Many bird species have a high percentage of same-sex parent couples.
    Even in those species, parental care is rarely equal. And while for birds, shared parental care is the norm, species where the mother provides sole care are a significant minority, while father-only care is extremely rare. For mammals, shared care is a rare exception, mother-only care is the norm, and I’m not aware of any species where fathers provide most or all care.
    This is a case where the stereotype is usually true. Using “he” as the default pronoun for animals that are clearly providing parental care is significantly less likely to be accurate than using “she”.

  • Mike Crichton

    The thing is, the vast majority of animals you see with children in tow _ARE_ females. This is not a matter of opinion or linguistic interpretation, it’s a biological fact. Insisting on using “he” for said animals is almost always going to be inaccurate.
    I agree with you there should be more pronounal equality in most other conversation, though. Personally, I like the way White Wolf Games used to write their books: Unless a named character was being referred to, they would alternate “he” or “she” with every example. “If your character does (such and such), then she will (whatever). If the other player character does (whatever), then he will (et cetera).” Hard to be this exacting in casual conversation, though.

  • Amphigorey

    When I worked at an aquarium, I made a point of introducing the animals as she rather than he, because pretty much everyone defaulted to he. If I knew the sex of the animal I’d use it, such as with the sharks and the rays, but for the rockfish and other creatures where the sex is indeterminate, I’d use she.
    I think it also had the effect of making the fish a little more accessible and personable. People in general have a hard time relating to fish (I actually had one person ask if fish were animals), and I think the small act of calling a fish “she” helped to highlight that these are feeling creatures, not just swimming automatons. (You would not believe the number of people who will walk through an aquarium, look at the beautiful fish swimming past, and say, “Mmm, this is making me hungry!” It’s coarse and rude – people don’t say that at zoos, but it’s the first thing that comes out of their mouths at an aquarium.)
    It gets fun with the sequentially hermaphroditic species, which change sex during their lifespans. Often you can tell which phase they’re in because there are physical signs. The California sheephead, for instance, starts as a mostly pink female fish, and as she ages, she develops a black head and tail and her head becomes square. By then, she’s a he.

  • kirakira

    I’m all for the neutral “they” unless the animal’s sex is apparent, as in the case of sex-specific markings/coloration or what have you. It especially chaps me when people refer to hive insects like ants, bees and termites as “he” when we should all know darn well that they’re hardworking females! I’ve assumed in the past that it was self-referential- I used to use “she” or “it” but find myself using “he” when speaking to my son.