Sweden Goes Gender-Neutral

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 11 2012 5:43 PM

Sweden’s New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen

A country tries to banish gender.

Leklust catalog, Sweden
Leklust catalog, Sweden

By most people’s standards, Sweden is a paradise for liberated women. It has the highest proportion of working women in the world, and women earn about two-thirds of all degrees. Standard parental leave runs at 480 days, and 60 of those days are reserved exclusively for dads, causing some to credit the country with forging the way for a new kind of nurturing masculinity. In 2010, the World Economic Forum designated Sweden as the most gender-equal country in the world.

But for many Swedes, gender equality is not enough. Many are pushing for the Nordic nation to be not simply gender-equal but gender-neutral. The idea is that the government and society should tolerate no distinctions at all between the sexes. This means on the narrow level that society should show sensitivity to people who don't identify themselves as either male or female, including allowing any type of couple to marry. But that’s the least radical part of the project. What many gender-neutral activists are after is a society that entirely erases traditional gender roles and stereotypes at even the most mundane levels.

Activists are lobbying for parents to be able to choose any name for their children (there are currently just 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden). The idea is that names should not be at all tied to gender, so it would be acceptable for parents to, say, name a girl Jack or a boy Lisa. A Swedish children's clothes company has removed the "boys" and "girls" sections in its stores, and the idea of dressing children in a gender-neutral manner has been widely discussed on parenting blogs. This Swedish toy catalog recently decided to switch things around, showing a boy in a Spider-Man costume pushing a pink pram, while a girl in denim rides a yellow tractor.

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The Swedish Bowling Association has announced plans to merge male and female bowling tournaments in order to make the sport gender-neutral. Social Democrat politicians have proposed installing gender-neutral restrooms so that members of the public will not be compelled to categorize themselves as either ladies or gents. Several preschools have banished references to pupils' genders, instead referring to children by their first names or as "buddies." So, a teacher would say "good morning, buddies" or "good morning, Lisa, Tom, and Jack" rather than, "good morning, boys and girls." They believe this fulfills the national curriculum's guideline that preschools should "counteract traditional gender patterns and gender roles" and give girls and boys "the same opportunities to test and develop abilities and interests without being limited by stereotypical gender roles."

Earlier this month, the movement for gender neutrality reached a milestone: Just days after International Women's Day a new pronoun, hen (pronounced like the bird in English), was added to the online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia. The entry defines hen as a "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]."The National Encyclopedia announcement came amid a heated debate about gender neutrality that has been raging in Swedish newspaper columns and TV studios and on parenting blogs and feminist websites. It was sparked by the publication of Sweden's first ever gender-neutral children's book, Kivi och Monsterhund (Kivi and Monsterdog). It tells the story of Kivi, who wants a dog for "hen's" birthday. The male author, Jesper Lundqvist, introduces several gender-neutral words in the book. For instance the words mammor and pappor (moms and dads) are replaced with mappor and pammor.

The free lifestyle magazine, Nöjesguiden, which is distributed in major Swedish cities and is similar to the Village Voice, recently released an issue using hen throughout. In his column, writer Kawa Zolfagari says, "It can be hard to handle the male ego sometimes. I myself tend to get a stinging feeling when a female friend has had it with sexism or has got hurt because of some guy and desperately blurts out some generalisation about men. Sometimes I think 'Hen knows me, hen knows I am not an idiot, why does hen speak that way of all men?' Nöjesguiden's editor, Margret Atladottir, said hen ought to be included in the dictionary of the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize in literature.

Hen was first mentioned by Swedish linguists in the mid-1960s, and then in 1994 the late linguist Hans Karlgren suggested adding hen as a new personal pronoun, mostly for practical reasons. Karlgren was trying to avoid the awkward he/she that gums up writing, and invent a single word "that enables us to speak of a person without specifying their gender. He argued that it could improve the Swedish language and make it more nuanced.

Today's hen champions, however, have a distinctly political agenda. For instance, Lundqvist's book is published by a house named Olika, which means “different or diverse.” Olika only publishes books that "challenge stereotypes and obsolete norms and traditions in the world of literature." Its titles include 100 möjligheter Istället för 2! (“100 possibilities instead of 2!”), a book for adults who "want to give children more opportunities in gender-stereotyped everyday life"; and Det var en gång … en ritbok! (“Once upon a time there was … a drawing book!”), the first "gender-scrutinizing" drawing book for children that "challenges traditional and diminishing conceptions of girls and boys, men and women."

But not everyone is keen on this political meddling with the Swedish language. In a recent interview for Vice magazine, Jan Guillou, one of Sweden's most well-known authors, referred to proponents of hen as "feminist activists who want to destroy our language." Other critics believe it can be psychologically and socially damaging, especially for children. Elise Claeson, a columnist and a former equality expert at the Swedish Confederation of Professions, has said that young children can become confused by the suggestion that there is a third, "in-between" gender at a time when their brains and bodies are developing. Adults should not interrupt children's discovery of their gender and sexuality, argues Claeson. She told the Swedish daily, Dagens Nyheter, that "gender ideologues" have managed to change the curriculum to establish that schools should actively counter gender roles.

Claeson might have a point. The Swedish school system has wholeheartedly, and probably too quickly and eagerly, embraced this new agenda. Last fall, 200 teachers attended a major government-sponsored conference discussing how to avoid "traditional gender patterns" in schools. At Egalia, one model Stockholm preschool, everything from the decoration to the books and toys are carefully selected to promote a gender-equal perspective and to avoid traditional presentations of gender and parenting roles. The teachers try to expose the pupils to as few "gendered expressions" as possible. At Christmastime, the Egalia staff rewrote a traditional song as "hen bakes cakes all day long." When pupils play house, they are encouraged to include "mommy, daddy, child" in their imaginary families, as well as "daddy, daddy, child"; "mommy, mommy, child"; "daddy, daddy, sister, aunty, child"; or any other modern combination.

To those who feel gender equality or gender neutrality ought to be intrinsic to a modern society, it probably makes sense to argue for instilling such values at an early age. The Green Party has even suggested placing "gender pedagogues" in every preschool in Stockholm, the Swedish capital, who can act as watchdogs. But of course toddlers cannot weigh arguments for and against linguistic interventions and they do not conceive of or analyze gender roles in the way that adults do.

Ironically, in the effort to free Swedish children from so-called normative behavior, gender-neutral proponents are also subjecting them to a whole set of new rules and new norms as certain forms of play become taboo, language becomes regulated, and children's interactions and attitudes are closely observed by teachers. One Swedish school got rid of its toy cars because boys "gender-coded" them and ascribed the cars higher status than other toys. Another preschool removed "free playtime" from its schedule because, as a pedagogue at the school put it, when children play freely "stereotypical gender patterns are born and cemented. In free play there is hierarchy, exclusion, and the seed to bullying." And so every detail of children's interactions gets micromanaged by concerned adults, who end up problematizing minute aspects of children's lives, from how they form friendships to what games they play and what songs they sing.

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