Earlier this week, The News & Observer reprinted this editorial from The Charlotte Observer. The topic was judicial elections in North Carolina. It included this paragraph:
Imagine a voter getting toward the bottom of a long ballot and seeing 19 unfamiliar names for Martin’s seat, along with four Supreme Court races, two other contested appeals court races and a slew of district and superior court races. A rational person might just skip over them all and move on with her life, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.
The last sentence caught the eye of a reader, who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the use of “her.” The letter writer found it insulting to female voters.
I don’t think the editorial board of the Observer intended to use “her” as a slight. The writer likely intended the opposite: rather than use “him” as the default pronoun for a hypothetical voter, use “her” for balance. A quick edit to “pluralize” the sentence could avoid that issue, of course:
Rational people might just skip over them all and move on with their lives, leaving the courts’ fates in the hands of an even smaller percentage of voters.
That would have been my choice if I had been writing or editing that editorial. At the same time, I am increasingly open to the singular they in these situations. Most of us use it in conversation, and I have no objection to it in informal writing such as email.
Then again, I also like the royal we.