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Can We Feminize The Language Of Power?

Speaking of the French language, an interesting debate is unfolding related to gendered language as it relates to positions of power.

Languages with grammatical gender like French, Spanish, German, and more have mundane nouns tied to a gender. In Spanish, “el perro” means “the dog.” The “el” though is masculine. In French, “le monde” means “the world.” The “le” is masculine. These items that do and don’t have gender are gendered regardless of if they need to be male or female. That’s just inherent in the language.

In French, some words are troubling gendered. Government related words like “le général” (general), “le sénateur” (senator), and even “le président” (president) are male. This may seem innocuous but is quite troubling: why are these positions of power associated with maleness? That’s a problem.

An ongoing debate against the French Academy—who regulate language—has been formally ongoing since the eighties as people are pushing to get these languages of power stripped of their maleness. This debate was recently the subject of a great sweeping story in The Economist. It certainly reflects a society in France and beyond that is questioning the subtle and not-so-subtle hand patriarchy has on life.

Titles that were originally grammatically masculine should not be given feminine versions; “unintended consequences” could result. Grammatical gender only occasionally corresponds with biological sex, the academicians argued. They seemed to think they had the impeccably feminist position. A woman is just as capable as a man of being le président. (La présidente, say some traditionalists going further, is the wife of the president. This was certainly the case a century ago, but today’s first lady in France is known as the première dame.)

“Unintended consequences”? OK. Sure. Right.

The one bummer about this conversation is that a lot of the questioning of gender is coming at the hands of Marine Le Pen’s potentially successful presidential bid. Why is this a bad thing? Despite her potential presidency being the first for a female, she is also a raging facist xenophobe. She would be terrible for France’s future and is a possibility given Trump.

One thing though: it is terrifically ironic that her last name is “le pen.” Why? It’s French masculine grammar for “the pen.”

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