Reader S poses this challenging question:
A colleague and I are finishing up on a paper that deals with issues related to parenthood and procreation. We spent some time debating what gender pronouns to use throughout the paper to refer to “the parent” and “the child” in our discussion. Because the paper will make heavy-handed use of these pronouns in the abstract third person throughout the entire length of the paper (i.e. “The parent is situated such that s/he …” or “The child deserves to have given to him/her by the parent…”), we would like to be able to consistently assign one gender pronoun to the parent and one to the child. We think this is the best way to avoid confusing the reader (i.e., “Wait, who does this pronoun refer to again?”). But, given the context, we are worried about how gender norms will be read into the paper as a result of what we assign.
Our first thought was that we wanted to use masculine pronouns for the parent. This is at least partially because we want to avoid creating the assumption that parenthood is equivalent to motherhood, and that male parent figures are included in the scope of our argument. We also want to create a space that challenges the idea that philosophical issues of parenthood are of exclusive interest to those philosophers who happen also to be women. That is to say, philosophers who happen to be men do and should also have a stake in philosophical discussions about parenthood and children.
If we do so, then we would use feminine prounouns for the child. However, given that the paper heavily discusses the vulnerability of children before those who parent them, and their status as requiring extensive care and nurturing, we were concerned about invoking a sense of paternalism with respect to women in the reading. We don’t want the reader to get the impression that the feminine-gendered child is cared for, nurtured by, protected by, etc. the masculine gendered parent figure.”
If we reverse the assignment (feminine pronouns for parent, masculine pronouns for child) we run in the problem, again, of parenthood seeming to just mean motherhood.
We talked about other options: mixing it up or switching around the gendered pronouns, using masculine and feminine (and culturally diverse) names for example cases, etc. But those other options — the ones that save us from the aforementioned problems — would really, really obfuscate our core argument and add significant length (and word count) to the argument.
So, my question to the community here is this: is there a way to avoid both of these problematic implications (philosophical discussions of parenthood as just about motherhood and including only women, and men take care of girls/women) AND preserving the sense of organization and clarity in our paper? We would really appreciate your thoughts as we decide what to do while editing this paper.