Evelyn Lillemoe

Feminism and the rise of use

November 29, 2020

“Used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary,” “used to refer to a nonbinary or gender-nonconforming person,” and “used to refer to a person whose gender or sexual identity does not correspond to the traditional binary opposition of male and female” are all definitions recently added to Merriam Webster, Dictionary.com and Oxford dictionaries definitions for the word “they.”

Define “they”

In 2019, the same year this definition was added to the Miriam Webster dictionary, “they” was announced as the word of the year.

This announcement signaled the word’s substantial rise in usage as a singular pronoun for gender non-conforming or non-binary people.

In their announcement, Merriam Webster noted “lookups for ‘they’ increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.”

This increase in people aiming to understand the word beyond its usage as a plural pronoun has risen parallel to the number of people using they/them pronouns.

Although there’s limited research on the number of people that use they/them pronouns, a 2014 study in the United Kingdom revealed that 0.4% or 1 in 250 of respondents self identified as nonbinary, a number that has undoubtedly risen since.

As usage of they/them pronouns has surged, people have become more familiar with the terms, especially in younger generations.

Pew Research Center has assembled data indicating that Generation Z is most familiar with gender neutral pronouns, followed by millennials and Generation X.

Because language tends to evolve relatively quickly, Time Magazine predicted that along with other linguistic changes that are now widely accepted, they/them pronouns will be almost second nature to future generations.

Exclusionary feminism

As the acknowledgment of non binary gender identity and usage of gender neutral pronouns have become somewhat mainstream, it has urged feminists to rethink some aspects of their movement for gender equality.

There are three main ways the feminist movement tries and sometimes fails to include nonbinary people.

— Zoey Burkhardt

Junior Zoey Burkhardt explains the different ways in which the feminist movement has been exclusionary to transgender and nonbinary individuals: “There are three main ways the feminist movement tries and sometimes fails to include nonbinary people. One is by not including nonbinary people and being transphobic, another is by trying to include nonbinary people and not really getting it, and then there are feminist movements that understand how to include nonbinary people,” they said.

Through criticism specifically of the Women’s March movement, feminist organizers have come to realize that trademarking pink pussy hats or the phrase “the future is female” may not be inclusive to the transgender and non-binary communities that are habitually excluded from aspects of the feminist movement.The pink pussy hat has been labeled as offensive as it reinforces the idea that vaginas and vulvas are synonymous with womanhood, and the color pink could be exclusionary towards BIWOC whose vaginas don’t resemble a pink color. Feminists have begun to reject these previous trademarks, and embrace the notion that their movement stands for equality regardless of gender.


Junior Maggie Baxter explained how the feminist movement needs to adjust in relation to non-binary individuals who deal with similar forms of oppression.

“Non-binary individuals have been left out of the feminist movement because there are still many women who consider the feminist movement exclusively for women and women’s progress. I think there needs to be a realization among many feminists that the movement is really about reaching gender equality for everyone, including non-binary individuals,” they said.

Gendered terms

Language is also an important aspect of how many see the feminist movement as being exclusive to non-binary and transgender people. Beyond pink pussy hats and the phrase “the future is female,” the topic of abortion access also tends to be spoken about in gendered language.

“Topics such as reproductive rights and menstruation equity, which are central in the feminist movement, need to be de-gendered as not everyone with a uterus who is affected by these issues is a woman,” Baxter added.

Burkhardt echoed this need and explained why feminists shouldn’t speak in gendered terms when discussing issues that impact a range of people beyond women.

“When talking about reproductive rights. The phrase “It’s a woman’s right to chose” is great, but it excludes all the nonbinary and trans people who can get pregnant and may need access to abortion. Feminist movements need to remember that access to birth control, abortion, and period products affects transmen and some nonbinary people,” they said.

What’s next?

As the feminist movement has begun to refocus its message to include non-binary and transgender individuals, and as non-gender binary pronouns have become recognized in dictionaries and normalized in communities, the understanding of gender has evolved. What was once previously seen as a strict binary by many is now being recognized as a more fluid spectrum that encompasses a range of gender identities.

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