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How Do French Feminists Feel About Everything Being Gendered?

To promote gender equality in English, we have shifted from using gendered nouns like policewoman and poetess to police officer and poet (for all poets). I'm really curious to know whether and how French feminists have sought to bring about similar changes, especially in a language where everything is gendered.

Is there any negative connotation to a noun being feminine?

Are the terms feminine and masculine disliked by any?

Are gendered nouns seen as less "charged" when the gender is based merely on the spelling?

Is there any current proposal to eliminate all gender division?

Are there multiple positions on this?

I'd even be curious to know if this is an issue in any of the languages with nouns assigned gender.

Links to further information and thought are welcome!

June 11, 2020


[deactivated user]

    The use of the term "gender" does not relate to biological gender. A different term could just as easily have been chosen, but the terminology of linguistic gender is so well established, it isn't going to change.

    In fact, if you search the French websites you will find many reports of fights to increase the number of gendered forms of professions - so that women don't feel they are treated as "inferior" by having to adopt a masculine term for their job!

    You could just as easily have asked how English speaking women feel about plumbing fixtures being termed male or female junctions - and no-one is up in arms about that even though the gender aspect is more directly related to the functionality of the pieces.


    It does relate when you speak about people. That's why woman and girl (aunt, mother and so on) are feminine words while man and boy are masculine. And not the other (or just some random) way around.


    Interesting topic.

    Wouldn't it be like in English, where we refer to "Mother Earth" and we call ships "she"?
    It's just an object, it doesn't have anything to do with human genders or equal rights or feminism.
    Does it?


    One of the reasons I love languages is that a single word sometimes takes the most far-flung etymological journey...sometimes changes happen for the reasons we think and sometimes our ideas are sort of like false cognates. Sometimes there's a searing political reason...and sometimes it's a mishearing or something fanciful. I'm not here to debate whether it matters that the heart is a masculine noun...I'm just curious whether some women whose first language is French have suggested alterations.


    we call ships "she"

    I've never understood why. Could somebody explain?

    [deactivated user]

      I think the whole neutral gender thing is ridiculous!


      I don't think gender neutrality is meaningless. It arose when it became obvious that women were being paid less than men for doing the same work, harassed on the job, and demeaned. You may be too young to remember when classified ads in newspapers (remember them LOL?) had Help Wanted - Men and Help Wanted - Female.

      Some say language forms culture, others say culture forms language. It has mattered a lot and for some, it still does.


      Honestly, I think that even on the darkest twitter accounts, you won't find someone spending a lot of time fighting gender based nouns. French feminists don't consider it as a major issue (compared to jobs for example).

      It's quite hard to find a rule for gendered nouns, "ouragan" is masculine and "tempête" is feminine, "earth" is feminine but "world" is masculine. I dont think it is possible to find a strong sexist substrate there (even if it is probably present for some particular cases like "hystérie")


      I would think that the discussion might emerge more from academic sources...hard to foster linguistic philosophy on Twitter, even with an extra scoop of characters these days.

      [deactivated user]

        From what I've read, the gendered language doesn't mean that French women are less interested in equality, but rather that they see inequalities in a different set of paradigms.

        Whilst we were pushing for chairperson, the demise of terms such as "actress", and the neutering in general of gendered words, French women were fighting equally hard for the introduction of gender-specific terms in place of the masculine-only words -which they felt acted as a barrier to them being taken seriously in many professions.

        It shows that the perceptions we have of what cultural barriers support discrimination cannot be generalised - both groups of women wanted the chance to break the glass ceiling, but needed the opposite changes because of the gender / non-gendered basis of their native tongues.

        However, there is a newer movement for non-binary words in gendered languages - in English, "they" has long been used in place of "he" or "she", and whilst not seen as ideal by many non-binary individuals, at least it is an option, or a starting point - whereas French, Spanish, Italian and the like have no obvious pathway to avoid differentiation.


        Yes, that makes a lot of sense. But I wonder if there's been discussion beyond those occupational terms too.


        I was joking about Twitter, it's just the place where those fights can rage between "normal" people.

        In real life, outside of sociology master courses that deal a lot about gender, people don't care about gender. Engineer women - I work with them - don't care about being called "ingénieur" or "ingénieure", they care about having a good job with a minimal effort, exactly like us - and I have to say they meet success easier than us for various reasons. Their main problem is their access to the highest positions, made difficult by the often asymmetric relationship they have with men.

        In other words, it's harder to work 55h per week to show you're "special" when you also take care of the baby and do most of the housework.

        Things were harder for our mothers and many of them being still working, they make statistics look quite bad.


        You know, I thought about the same thing


        I'm not taking a stance here, friends; I'm just wondering if the linguistic gendering in French has been questioned, since it impacts far more of the language. I find it bizarre that my original question was downvoted -- what's wrong with asking a question about how some people view aspects of their language?

        [deactivated user]

          Good questions often get downvoted and poor posts can become popular - there is no logic to the responses.


          As you know, all French nouns have a grammatical "gender", but some people prefer to think of this is a quirk of linguistic history, as many languages evolved from Proto-Indo-European, which had many more "cases" (assigned roles to words, given their function in a particular sentence) with different "inflections" required, not just according to case, but by other categories that we would distinguish as singular versus plural noun, or "gender" today: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

          French occupation patterns:

          • un agriculteur versus une agricultrice (two different forms of the noun: a masculine one plus a feminine one to choose from),

          • un journaliste versus une journaliste (same noun, but different gendered articles to describe the nature of the person), or

          • un plombier, un ingénieur = a plumber, an engineer: only one form, always in the masculine form, whatever the biological nature of the person in that role.

          But none of these words is "neuter" in French -- sometimes the language is simply defaulting to a masculine word to include females working in that occupation, instead of giving them their own word that they probably fought to have, years ago, to show that women were lawyers, too (avocat versus avocate), etc.

          To fully erase grammatical gender from French would require inventing new words for "the" and "a" and other determiners that are masculine or feminine, and many more changes involving adjective spellings and "agreement" rules.

          German still retains three grammatical genders for singular nouns:

          • der Mann, der Hund: the man, the dog (masculine noun)
          • die Frau, die Katze: the woman, the cat (feminine noun)
          • das Mädchen, das Pferd: the girl, the horse (neuter noun)
          • plus a fourth category of plural nouns (m., f, or neuter).

          It sounds odd to us in English to refer to a person as a neuter "it" because we use "he", "she", or "they", as requested by each person as a "personal pronoun."

          I have read that Danish divides its nouns into common (man, woman, boy, farmer, certain things) and neuter (child, certain other things).

          But they still have some gendered "personal pronouns" among the fuller list of personal pronouns and impersonal pronouns: he, him, his versus she, her, hers.

          You might like to study this language for a different perspective!


          Thanks for the clarification -- and I am sure non-Western languages have various structures related to linguistic gender. My curiosity is whether in the 21st century there are those who have proposed changes to the current form of the language and/or there are alterations that have already taken place. Language evolves, both organically and by design, eg, the French spelling reforms of 1990, and sometimes those changes signal or inspire a change in society. As an editor and writer, I've sometimes envied my German colleagues who had the benefit of a neutral pronoun...if you don't know someone's gender, "his or her" is really awkward, and "their," although now accepted as singular, is plural.


          I am just glad that English uses "you" for everyone, and we don't have to consider when to switch from "informal" you to "formal" you, as so many other people must do in their languages. We English speakers seem to be the fortunate ones in this respect.


          I lived in Japan and...whoa, in Japanese, you use different terms for yourself and someone who is even a day younger than yourself (senpai and cohei)...and use different forms of common verbs to speak more formally...and it's not just formal vs informal, but multiple levels based on position, on up to the Emperor LOL. I've been told by some Americans that their beginning Japanese was highly praised but once they began to master the language, people were critical of their inability to use these levels correctly.


          yes i live in korea at the moment and the multiple levels of hierarchy seem built into the language. there is a different structure, for example, for speaking to someone that is younger than you but higher up the food chain versus someone who is younger than you but lower down the food chain

          i'll often say to koreans that, to a westerner, this seems like it must have some subconscious effects on the usual kowtowing to elites that goes on here (almost as bad as england!) but no koreans seem to think about it.

          as to the french language genders, i don't think anyone thinks of them as actual genders. it could just as easily been 'left' and 'right' nouns or whatever. there are some v. counterintuitive cases if you think about it like that, e.g., "la verge" and "le minou" for cis-men's and cis-women's respective... thingies


          Good to know, thank you!


          In general, the use of the masculine or feminine does not affect the appreciation which is made of the words. But I have two examples in mind, two subjects on which feminists tend to impose their point of view, or at least to debate (haha) :

          • Profession names: the current movement is the opposite of that which can be observed in the anglo-saxon world. As French is a gendered langage, retaining only a male or a female name but not both has the effect of obscuring the role played by the other gender. That is what happened for instance for the words "écrivain" or "auteur" which used to exist few centuries ago but have fallen into disuse before coming back recently.

          Nowadays, the trend is to create new feminine terms for professions instead of choosing a global one because at the end, whether you want it or not, you'll have to choose: feminine or masculine.

          • Gender-neutral language (écriture inclusive): in French, there is a basic rule which says "le masculin l'emporte sur le féminin" (the masculine prevails over the feminine). In other words, if a group is composed of a man and of a lot of women, you have to choose the masculine construction, eg. "vous avez l'air motivÉS aujourd'hui !" Well, in daily use, if the proportion of women is very very much higher than the number of men, or even if there is only one man, we will tend to use the female form and point out that this also applies to the man (and vice versa).

          There are different ways to get around this rule. First, you consider the masculin form as beign both the masculine (of course) and neuter form.

          Or, you can use what we call an "épicène" word, a word that is the same in masculine and feminine forms (un élève, une élève). But it doesn't work in all cases.

          Or, use the two forms when adressing to a group (eg. "Mesdames et Messieurs" , note that what comes first can be controversal ; women come first because they are more considered ? A mark of gallantry ? Or simply because the most important comes last ? haha but that's not the point).

          Or, the use of the controversal "point médian" (midpoint) which recently resurfaced. It allows to use all genders in the same sentence, for instance les agriculteur·rice·s" or "Un·e directeur·trice". I will not give my opinion about that, I don't want to appear unpleasant...

          There are other points, but these are what I think the most debated.


          Really interesting reply!! If the masculine prevails, it means fewer letters to type, so it’s OK with me. I’d never heard that the proportions in a mixed group may influence which gender is used!


          well i dont think anyone would have issues with these terms as they exist in all languages. as @yellowhammer5050 said its linguistic gender. I've always wondered which terms to use when speaking with or about a non binary person but I've learned that the gendered terminology Is paired with the object and not the person.


          Interesting thought -- as someone with a transgender family member with a non-binary partner, I've had to navigate around some sentences that were very difficult! Not that I objected to using correct terms for them...it was just tricky to get the wording right esp. talking about the past (eg, “when he was a Daisy Girl Scout...")

          In asking my original question, I didn't want to assume that no Francophone had issues with these terms -- some people find the politics of language very powerful. I'm a songwriter and even in my own native language I think a lot about the connotations of each word I use as well as its definition. Thanks for chiming in to the discussion!


          Interesting, It would certainly make french easier to learn without gender language divisions. I am all for gender neutral terms. I guess the spoken language needs to change before gender spellings get changed. Whether that will happen? I don't know.

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