The Generic "He" or the singular "They"

When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and "governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" he was not using men as a general term to include women. His use of the word men was precise at the time that women women could not vote. In the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, masculine pronouns were not used as the generic terms; the various form of he were used when referring to males, and of she when referring to females. The pronoun they was used to refer to people of either sex even if the referent was a singular noun, as shown by Lord Chesterfield's statement in 1759: "If a person is born of a gloomy temper . . . they cannot help it."

By the eighteenth century, grammarians (males to be sure) created the rule designating the male pronouns as the general term, and it wasn't until the nineteenth century that the rule was applied widely, after an act of Parliament in Britain in 1850 sanctioned its use. But this generic use of he was ignored. In 1879, women doctors were barred from membership in the all-male Massachusetts Medical Society on the basis that the bylaws of the organization referred to members by the pronoun he.

Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman. "An Introduction to Language" Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993, pp. 309-310.

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