Sweden, hen and preserving gender distinction

In many ways, gender-inclusive language saved my faith. During my freshman year of college - just months after making a public profession of faith at church - I had been prepared to walk away. Not from God, really, just from church, which for too long had made me feel “less than” for bearing God’s girlish image.

But on the first day of Religion 1-0-something, our professor told she required her students to use the NRSV translation of the Bible because it of its gender-inclusive language. After all, she said, “God’s Word was written for women too.” And with that, my running from the faith came to screeching halt.

So because I believe that God cares about the pronouns and language we use - so much so that at least a time or two He used them as mighty faith-strengthening tools - you might imagine how delighted I was to read that Sweden was adopting a new word: hen. Hen is essentially it for people. Were we to use hen in English, we could do away with cumbersome “he or she” or with the incorrect “they” when referring to a singular person of either or any gender. For example: “If anyone disagrees with this post, hen should leave a comment.”

Handy, huh?

Except, as it goes on this broken planet, even good things take icky turns. In the case of Sweden - the land of my forhens and current coushens - the idea of gender inclusivity when it comes to language has turned into an idea of gender eradication when it comes to life.

According to Slate, along with the hen movement comes an increasingly politicized movement to remove any sort of preconceived notions of gender at all. So, the Swedish Bowling League apparently is going co-ed. Books are being written for children without mentioning the character’s gender. Some Swedish stores are removing “boys” and “girls” sections. One toy catalog features a boy (presumably) in a Spider-Man costume pushing a pink pram and a girl riding a yellow tractor.

I confess: I dig Spidey pushing the pram and the girl on tractor. I really do. The mom in me is sick to death of girl-icized toys and boy-icized toys.

And I get the co-ed bowling. I make no bones about my belief that most areas of life is better when we include one another. I believe God meant business when he said it wasn’t good for man to be alone.

But of course, God didn’t create a neutral counterpart for Adam. He didn’t create a neutral Adam. God made man, and God made women. Both bearers of his image. I believe God meant business when he did that too.

So while Christians ought to care about using language that includes one another as a means of loving our neighbors - and I applaud the Swedes for doing this (even if Jesus-style neighbor love isn’t the driving force) - we must also care about preserving gender distinction. Not in a way that limits or excludes or demeans or stereotypes either gender - after all, men and women, boys and girls can all do all things through Him who gives us strength - but in a way that allows us to live freely and fully as the gendered people God made us to be. But more that that, in a way that allows the world to see images of God through our gendered selves. In a way that allows us to know our Abba Father, our Mother Hen (the bird, not Swedish, kind) and even try to wrap our heads around our masculine-pronoun-ed God who knows what it is to have breasts and a womb.

What Do You Think?

  • Do you agree with the use of the term hen?
  • How should gender distinctions be preserved?
  • How should Christians in particular think of gender distinctions?


Comments (7)

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I think that a gender-neutral term has a place in language.

We get stuck using “he or she” or “s/he” or things like that, which can be cumbersome, or else pretending that “he” can be neutral.

I don’t think that gender distinctions need to be preserved. They’ll take care of themselves. No matter what we do, more boys will play football and more girls will play with dolls. I don’t think that a lot of deliberate effort is necessary.

Christians need to be aware that “separate but equal” standards of gender roles inherently aren’t equal.

For the record, I’m a stay-at-home dad and my mother is a high school math teacher, covering algebra and calculus. My 4-year-old daughter loves horses and Spider Man.

People really need to let go of the idea that the singular “they” is incorrect. English is an evolving language that changes as it’s speakers needs change. They is a pronoun that many people find comfortable and useful for themselves.

And while creating spaces for people who identify beyond the gender binaries can be difficult and even uncomfortable for those of us that identify within the binary of man/woman, but with practice and exposure feels much more comfortable. I highly, highly doubt that the inclusion of the pronoun of “hen” is also including the movement to erase binary gender identities and expressions completely.

Also, in the first creation story.. in some translations it says, “male and female, God created them.” I think it’s interesting to read it in a way of thinking that God created us all with some maleness and some femaleness (and of course other gender identities, etc.) It’s kind of neat to look at the assumptions we put on that phrase.

As Christians, our job is to love and include all however they come. And, we don’t necessarily need to understand where someone is coming from to do that. God totally has that covered. We just need to make the room for them and allow our minds and hearts to be expanded.

Love that a Christian site is talking about this! Great job!

Thanks for this. This is always such an interesting, frustrating, fascinating, confusing, enlightening topic.

This is first an English language issue. “Gender” has originally belonged to words and “sex” to people and animals.

I remember first learning about “gender” in High School Spanish with the introduction that there are masculine and feminine words. That struck me as strange, because I never knew words had gender (because English doesn’t) much less tables, chairs, the heavens, and everything else. When I learned Greek I was introduced to neuter and it all got stranger. Right away categories of sex and gender were getting confused in interesting ways. “mesa” has gender, not sex.

The World Health Organization has their own definitions to offer and somehow “gender” relationship to language is missing. http://www.who.int/gender/whatisgender/en/

We can’t ignore either the history of the definition of gender (language) nor its present assumed meaning (attributes, either assumedly bequeathed or constructed). If you are a communicator who wisely cares about language BOTH realities must be engaged.

Part of my fallen condition gets expressed in telling people shocking and disturbing things. I sometimes inform people that “the Ten Commandments originally only addressed men”. There is no “coveting your neighbor’s husband”.

One response by some is horror at so many levels. Another might be delight, only men got the Sinai talking to. Perhaps it doesn’t apply to women. Perhaps they didn’t need it anyway. :) The mental exercise is intended to promote some reflection on language, history, revelation and culture. Language and layers are important.

The current struggle over gender inclusive language is do difficult because of culture. There are two dominant English languages in conflict and we’ve infused other conflicts into that one.

I don’t know if “hen” will catch on. Whether or not it does I do hope we as a group of English language users can resolve our tool’s (language is a tool, every language has deficiencies) problems. Translating is a notoriously difficult thing to do. what exactly are we translating? language? meaning? how can meaning be conveyed between vastly different cultural worlds?

Great topic. Hope we can make progress. pvk

Re: the singular “they” - if it was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me!


I for one would be happy to have a word like “hen” to substitute for the awkward “he/she” or “he or she.” But “hen” is not that word. Because it means a female chicken in English, thus subverting the whole point. But as a die-hard complementarian, I’m not threatened by the idea of “hen” at all.

Neither am I terrified that Target is de-gendering the toy aisle. If boys want to buy Barbies, they shouldn’t be shamed in the process. When it comes time for Target to neuter the clothing department (all clothes for “kids,” without distinction), then I will have to object. I don’t think toys are the slippery slope that leads to this, but I could be wrong.

I think you are miss representing this scripture from what Paul was writing about.
(after all, men and women, boys and girls can all )“do all things through Him who gives us strength”

In Reply to CalebPaul (comment #27444)
How am I misreading it?

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