Is Mankind Sexist?


While visiting another blog, I read a comment about the use of the term mankind. The blogger defended the use of mankind. However, the commenter thinks the term mankind is sexist and should be avoided in politically correct writing. My first reaction to the comment was “Oh, please!” (The blogger is a woman, and she later defended her use of it.) This got me thinking about the term mankind and unintentional sexism in writing. 

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Why I Use Mankind 

Will I use mankind or some other term, such as humankind? As an editor and writer, I have to think about three things: 1) What I want to communicate (purpose), 2) What the reader will understand (clarity), and 3) How the reader will respond (effect). When I apply these three concerns to my use of mankind, here’s what I get. 

  1. Purpose: I intend to communicate something about all people. Mankind has this meaning, so it is acceptable.
  2. Clarity: Readers will understand that mankind means all people. I doubt that readers will think I am only referring to male members of our species. Whether or not the reader thinks mankind is a sexist term, the reader will likely understand what I mean to communicate. Based on this concept, mankind is acceptable.
  3. Effect: This is where it gets tricky. Will the reader be upset by my use of mankind? Will the word mankind be so distracting that the reader will be unable to focus on the ideas being presented? (This is the reason I don’t use curse words in my writing.) Will the reader throw away the document in disgust at my “obvious” chauvinism? Probably not.  

So, yes, I will continue to use mankind. Some readers may consider this term sexist, and may think my writing reflects a sexist perspective, but from an editorial standpoint, it passes the test. (My dog just told me that this entire discussion demonstrates my specism and that he refuses to have anything more to do with me–until dinner.) 

Anti-Sexist Grammar Problems 

Although I try to avoid sexist language in my writing, I do not tolerate he/she or s/he. I also do not tolerate the use of plural pronouns (e.g., they) to refer to singular subjects. For example, I will always correct sentences such as

            At recess, EACH child enjoys taking THEIR turn on the swings.

Instead, I prefer to make the subjects plural, which avoids gender problems and allows me to use gender-neutral, plural pronouns without making grammar errors. I would correct this sample sentence as follows:

            At recess, CHILDREN enjoy taking THEIR turn on the swings.

(For more on this strategy, see “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar”: http://preciseedit.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/sexist-language-and-bad-grammar/). 

Avoiding Categorical Sexism 

Also, I try to avoid using he or she when referring to categories of people if the category contains both males and females. For example, if I am writing about doctors, I might simply write the doctors, which avoids gender problems and allows me to use gender-neutral, plural pronouns (e.g., they, their). I don’t want to give the impression that some professions are for men and others are for women. 

On the other hand, sometimes I provide anecdotes and need to refer to a single individual. For some anecdotes I will use he, and for others I will use she. What I won’t do is go through the trouble to make sure they are equally represented or that I am alternating between them. Doing so distracts both the writer and the reader. 

Some writers may use he/she to refer to an individual, but that doesn’t make sense. A person can’t be both male and female anatomically (extremely rare cases notwithstanding). 

Avoiding Sexist Grammar Problems 

Politically correct writers can run into grammar problems when attempting to avoid sexist language. Let’s say I want to write the following sentence:

            I try not to judge A PERSON by the shape of HIS skin.

This is grammatically correct but may be misunderstood. Perhaps I am only writing about judging men (clarity problem). This seems sexist, right? To prevent the use of his, I could write the sentence this way:

            I try not to judge A PERSON by the shape of THEIR skin.

This sentence uses a plural pronoun to refer to a single person (grammar problem) and gives me a fingernails-on-the-blackboard feeling. As a third option, I could write the sentence like this:

            I try not to judge PEOPLE by the shape of THEIR skin. 

I would choose the third option. It fits my intention (purpose), communicates what I intend (clarity), and is unlikely to upset those who seek opportunities to accuse others of sexism (effect).


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17 Comments

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17 responses to “Is Mankind Sexist?

  1. Deborah

    Hello – I read this post with enormous interest – thank you.

    I hope you don’t mind if I express some disagreement. It seems to be a common belief that people will understand terms such as ‘mankind’ to mean both women and men. In fact, in the 1970s many academic studies were carried out which show that this is not the case. And as the American cartoonist,Steig, wrote:’When I speak of mankind, one thing I don’t mean is womankind.’ (ho, ho)

    More seriously, as the writers Casey Miller and Kate Swift wrote: “Except for words that refer to females by definition (mother, actress, Congresswoman), and words for occupations traditionally held by females (nurse, secretary, prostitute), the English language defines everyone as male. The hypothetical person (if a man can walk 10 miles in two hours . . . ), the average person (the man in the street) and the active person (the man on the move) are male. The assumption is that unless otherwise identified, people in general – including doctors and beggars – are men. It is a semantic mechanism that operates to keep women invisible; man and mankind represent everyone; he in generalized use refers to either sex; the ‘land where our fathers died’ is also the land of our mothers – although they go unsung.”

    I avoid the term ‘mankind’ because I think it excludes women. And there are other more accurate alternatives such as ‘humanity’, ‘humankind’, ‘the human race’, ‘people’, etc etc.

    With reference to the problematical he/she – ‘they’ and ‘their’ are grammatically correct as gender neutral pronouns; the Oxford English Dictionary states this quite clearly.

    I hope that this alternative view might be of interest to your readers.

  2. Michael Farrell

    I favor the blogger’s approach. I too find the various alternatives to sexist language, such as “their” for third-person singular (though used historically), unacceptable. As much as I like and respect Deborah, and know her to be utterly principled, I think it’s a stutter-step from “humankind” to “humanhole” and similar horrors. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to make his/her/their/whatevs own writing choices, since the issue is far closer to personal or house style than any rule of grammar.

  3. Deborah

    Hello Michael – of all the gin joints in all the world who would have thought I’d find you here (mine’s a double).

    As your fave grammar lady, you won’t mind me pointing out that your final sentence above would have been far more mellifluous (and naturally inclusive) had it read(gets red pen out):

    “Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to make their own writing choices, since the issue is far closer to personal or house style than any rule of grammar.”

    You are just trying to frighten people who want to write inclusively by making the suggestion that ugly words such as’humanhole’ would then become a requirement. That’s just a red herring. Do you really object to terms such as ‘humans’, ‘humanity’, ‘people’, ‘humankind’, ‘the human race’?

    And, writers are often keen enough to exclude we women from the generic ‘mankind’ when it suits them:

    “He seldom errs who thinks the worst he can of womankind” (John Home, 18th century clergyman and dramatist). Note the male pronouns – I guess women didn’t think in the 1800s…or Johnny boy knew that women wouldn’t think such a thing?? Who knows? Confusion is one of the pitfalls of women-exclusive language.

    ‘Manhole’ doesn’t bother me – but there are perfectly acceptable alternatives for the careful writer such as ‘access cover’.

  4. Michael Farrell

    Nope, not mellifluous: the pronouns disagree. Does it matter? Not much.

    I’d agree with everything on your “human-” list except possibly “humankind,” though it can sometimes have its place depending on what the writer intends.

    I somehow can’t picture a brawny NY City workman (see what I did there?) saying, “Yo, Lou, pop off dat access cover.” Not out of innate sexism; it’s just more awkward and unfamiliar.

    I think Home said exactly what he wanted to say: Men should think the worst of women. He accomplished his message, however misguided it may be. (The fact that women might also think ill of other women wasn’t in his sights.)

  5. I also hate “their” for a single person, but I don’t mind the use of s/he to create a unisex term.

  6. Amanda Paige

    As a woman I am not offended by mankind. I mean is human sexist? It has MAN in it.

  7. Michael

    If we start loooking at every word with “man” in it as sexist, where will we stop? We already have “chairperson” and cameraperson.” Do we really want to replace “mankind” with “personkind?” And “woman” with “woperson?” How about “human” with “huperson?” Mandible with persondible? We have gone too far. Please stop.

  8. joy-mari

    why not use humankind instead of a word that might offend some people?

  9. Dazed and Confused

    It really could not be more clear. The very word is MAN kind. I do not understand. I am called Megan, or her, or she, or woman. I am never called he, or him, or man (at least to my face…). Do you suddenly believe words have no import, no implications? This is frankly astounding, because it practically punches you in the face.

    I was just reading “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr. I quote, “‘The combination of the reduction of reality and the construct of an analogical space is an attainment in abstract thinking of a very high order indeed,’ writes Arthur Robinson….(this is a quote about the affect of computers on the human mind. It is obvious he is talking about men and women, because they both have minds.)…(Then Carr extrapolates.) The technology of the map gave to man a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape his surroundings and his existence.”
    I thought, why? Why do you continue to write as though there are no women? I find it difficult to respect someone who neglects to consider my existence, or what my feelings might be on the matter. Let’s try the sentence with “she”, because they’re so interchangeable?

    “The technology of the map have to women a new and more comprehending mind, better able to understand the unseen forces that shape her surroundings and her existence.”

    Is that inclusive? Do you feel as though I am talking about you when I use “she”? That might cause an eyebrow raise or two.

    The idea that we should not alter language to suit changing needs is…interesting, but not something I think holds upon close inspection.

  10. Derek

    I would argue that no word is intrinsically sexist. It can only become so by content (the message is sexist) or by assignment (someone calls it sexist). Man is not sexist. It isn’t even gender specific. In English, we do not assign a gender to words; while he can specify a man, it is also used as a neutral pronoun when the gender is unknown or mixed. She on the other hand is gender specific, so of course no one calls a woman he or him (to her face or otherwise). Some may disagree that words like “mankind” are the results of a gender bias created by the patriarchal shapers of the language, but this argument treats language as if it were a static entity that still retains sexist ideology. This is not representative of the nature of language that changes with the ideas and concepts of the people (so secretary, nurse, and prostitute also represent men as more men fill these jobs) . And while we could endlessly debate the role of language in the formation of these ideas, it seems improbable that language can hold some sinister sexist code that is understood by everyone. Therefore if someone becomes offended by the use of “man”, they are responsible for the word’s sexist denotation (this includes those who feel neglected or unrepresented). The denotation is also subjective because not everyone using the language makes the same assumptions or assignation. Does that mean we shouldn’t be aware of the word’s effect on audience? As the author points out, we should make sure the words we use have the effect we want, and perhaps that means avoiding the semblance of sexism; however, we should not eliminate these words from the language. On of the beauties of English is the abundant and diverse word choices we have. Let businesses worry about preventing their own liability when using sexist language; leave creative nonfiction, journalism, and fiction out of the witch/sorcerer hunt.

  11. “Man” is the common denominator between man and woman. We are both man, it’s just that women are men with wombs. We are the same species. If people would stop being manipulated into accentuating the differences between us and embrace the commonality we could get along far better. I ask to please try not to be so chauvinist that you deny who you are in an attempt to separate yourself from the rest of your species based on gender. We are more than our genders.

  12. Sexist? Yes. Please no need to point out whether this commenter is a male or a female, well i hope no man would like to fall under “womankind”, so better we all use human kind because the two letters “h” and “u” prefixed are not so tedious to be added?

  13. did i see someone say women are men with wombs? dare i say men are women with ____ ? fill in the blanks with whatever you like :D

  14. someone’s hillarious comment- If we start loooking at every word with “man” in it as sexist, where will we stop? We already have “chairperson” and cameraperson.” Do we really want to replace “mankind” with “personkind?” And “woman” with “woperson?” How about “human” with “huperson?” Mandible with persondible? We have gone too far. Please stop.
    why would this person comment if she/he doesnt know if person or human are already including both men and women and are not at all sexist. Funny post and comments :D I will post relevant on my blog NOW!!!!!!!

  15. The word “mankind” was first used when women could not vote and considered to have no soul. Only men had power and relevance. Today, In a time were women are considered equal (by some) although women still work 2/3 of the world’s working hours, and yet earn only 10% of the world’s pay.. If mankind is not exclusive, then womankind should not be considered exclusive either? Or is one okay and the other not? So if we start referring to all of humankind as “womankind” from now on, would men then feel somehow excluded or less relevant? Why not use humankind instead of man or mankind, as we are two versions of the human species, not just one. Some say the use of humankind is “political correctness” gone mad, but the labels we attach to ourselves and each other, determine how we view and treat one another. A term that includes everyone, is not politically correct, it is courtesy, respect and equality. Why hold on to terms that were developed when men considered women of less value than cattle?.

  16. John Smeeton

    I Jusat would like to point out that pat of the sentence in the passage about grammar “plural pronouns without making grammar errors. I would correct this sample sentence as follows: ” Is grammatically incorrect, it “grammar” should read “grammatical” :-)

  17. John Smeeton

    Ok, I can’t type and made some typo’s before any one points that out!

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