Presentism En Masse: Sex and Gender, Diction, and Historical Narratives

Earlier today while reading and reviewing an in-progress chapter for a friend, it occurred to me that we are all vastly guilty of a very specific kind of presentism. We’re so blind to this presentism that it goes almost completely unnoticed, and it happens without cognizance. I’m guilty, too.

We much more readily reserve categories of “White” or “Asian,” of “cisgender” or “transgender,” of “senior citizen,” or of “citizen” or “illegal,” for example, to appropriate times and places, places and times with such concepts. But when it comes to labeling people “men” and the corresponding English pronouns of he, his, him or labeling people “women” and the corresponding English pronouns of she or her, we problematically apply present-day understandings of these identities to people reaching back thousands of years.

There is no universal correlation between any given body or bodies and any of the available sexes or genders. In other words, regardless of someone’s name (and its cultural associations), regardless of what someone looks like (and the related cultural associations), and regardless of what body chemistry a person has or does not have (and the related cultural measurements and values), you don’t know to what degree someone is male, female, neither, or something else until you ask (if we’re talking about gender) or until you do dozens of detailed biological measurements (if we’re talking about sex).

Identities are always and only social constructions, as this is what gives them meaning. Any use or rejection of any identity is always laced with cultural implications. 

Additionally–given institutional sexism and its many implications–“male” and “female” cue all sorts of unconscious attitudes, assumptions, behaviors, and stereotypes for people today that are, at least partially, much more unique to contemporaries.

When using “male” and “female” to apply to all humanity (and all other forms of life!), we unfairly and inaccurately think all of humanity has followed the same inaccurate medicalized conceptualizations of “men” and “women.” This harms analytical possibilities.

Issues of linguistics and semiotics aside–Pre-Biblical Humans, Ancient Egyptians, and Medieval Monks and Nuns would find 2018’s concepts of “White,” “United Statesian,” “man,” and “woman” equally unfamiliar and inappropriate to their worlds. 

The best solution is probably further adopting a gender neutral pronoun–“they” or “ze,” for example–across the board. (Gender neutral pronouns would ease so many burdens.)

However, at the same time, we cannot, should not erase the long trajectory of patriarchy. Sexism erased and silenced Christine de Pizan for centuries. We must keep Shakespeare’s Sisters alive (see Virginia Woolf), while also recognizing the implications when labeling them “she.”

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda