en-es  French is getting tied up in knots over gender and power
French is getting tied up in knots over gender and power.

Many feel that titles such as le ministre and le président should be feminized.

The Economist, April 15, 2017.
LANGUAGES often force awkward choices. In English, you can say “someone left his umbrella” and risk annoying some women, or “someone left their umbrella” and risk alienating some grammar sticklers. In French, son parapluie can mean either “his” or “her” umbrella.

But this hardly means there are no problems with gender, sex and politics in France. The French language requires a gender for every single noun and adjective: not only men and women, bulls and cows, but also tables and chairs, rocks and bricks. (The French for “gender” is genre, which also means “class” or “type”, as it does in English.) A noun’s gender rarely has anything to do with its real-world qualities: there’s not much feminine about la table, or anything macho about le chapeau (hat).

But it happens that titles of powerful people, unlike the genders of hats and tables, are not random: it’s le ministre, le général, le chef d’état (head of state), le sénateur, le magistrat. A pattern emerges: whereas a few “generic” words are feminine (like la personne), all these powerful titles are masculine. A generic president is le président, masculine, perhaps subtly nudging French-speakers to think of presidents as men. Only if a woman becomes the actual president—as Marine Le Pen, of the National Front hopes to do in the French elections which begin on April 23rd—does the title become la présidente.
The traditional use of the masculine as generic has rubbed various French people the wrong way. In 1984, the government called upon the French Academy to look into the question of feminising certain titles. The academy, the official guardian of the language since 1635, replied with, in effect, a refusal. 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.)

Various bodies pressed on, ignoring the academy, which has no powers of enforcement. In 1998 the National Assembly ruled that titles relevant to its various officers and functions should be feminised, such as la deputée and la présidente. In 2014, a deputy from the centre-right, Julien Aubert, sided with the academy against the chamber’s rules, and repeatedly referred to the presiding officer, Sandrine Mazetier from the opposing Socialist Party, as madame le président, mixing the feminine personal title and the masculine job title. Ms Mazetier, as she had the right to do under the chamber’s rules, fined him a quarter of his monthly salary, and a debate ensued under headlines like “When ridicule kills feminism” and “Should the French Academy be dissolved?” The problem cannot be entirely avoided. The academy rightly notes that in the plural, the masculine has always covered the feminine too, and writing for example tous ceux (all those who), using masculine forms, has rarely attracted much attention; the masculine is “unmarked”, meaning it carries no special meaning, whereas the feminine is “marked”, or specifically female. Writing toutes celles et tous ceux over and over would fill French with even more lumbering awkwardness than repeated “he or she” does in English, given the number of words it would affect in French. Words like “voters” and “members” could become the shorter, but typographically ugly and unpronounceable électeurs/trices or adhérent(e)s. For now, mainstream French opinion is converging on a compromise between practical solutions on one hand and the French Academy’s traditionalism on the other. The masculine is generic, especially for plurals: no need for électeurs/trices. But titles may be feminised when doing so is grammatically simple and logical, as it usually is. And those who want to be known by them deserve that courtesy.

Ms Le Pen would hardly be a perfect tribune for feminism as France’s head of state. She has posed as a defender of women’s rights, but largely in opposition to the presumed antifeminist attitudes of the Muslims she would like to keep out of France. Many French voters, according to polls, would like to see her keep her current job title—présidente indeed, but only of her own party.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "Gender bender"
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French is getting tied up in knots over gender and power.
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The Economist, April 15, 2017.
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LANGUAGES often force awkward choices.
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They seemed to think they had the impeccably feminist position.
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A woman is just as capable as a man of being le président.
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And those who want to be known by them deserve that courtesy.
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French is getting tied up in knots over gender and power.

Many feel that titles such as le ministre and le président should be feminized.

The Economist, April 15, 2017.
LANGUAGES often force awkward choices. In English, you can say “someone left his umbrella” and risk annoying some women, or “someone left their umbrella” and risk alienating some grammar sticklers. In French, son parapluie can mean either “his” or “her” umbrella.

But this hardly means there are no problems with gender, sex and politics in France. The French language requires a gender for every single noun and adjective: not only men and women, bulls and cows, but also tables and chairs, rocks and bricks. (The French for “gender” is genre, which also means “class” or “type”, as it does in English.) A noun’s gender rarely has anything to do with its real-world qualities: there’s not much feminine about la table, or anything macho about le chapeau (hat).

But it happens that titles of powerful people, unlike the genders of hats and tables, are not random: it’s le ministre, le général, le chef d’état (head of state), le sénateur, le magistrat. A pattern emerges: whereas a few “generic” words are feminine (like la personne), all these powerful titles are masculine. A generic president is le président, masculine, perhaps subtly nudging French-speakers to think of presidents as men. Only if a woman becomes the actual president—as Marine Le Pen, of the National Front hopes to do in the French elections which begin on April 23rd—does the title become la présidente.
The traditional use of the masculine as generic has rubbed various French people the wrong way. In 1984, the government called upon the French Academy to look into the question of feminising certain titles. The academy, the official guardian of the language since 1635, replied with, in effect, a refusal. 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.)

Various bodies pressed on, ignoring the academy, which has no powers of enforcement. In 1998 the National Assembly ruled that titles relevant to its various officers and functions should be feminised, such as la deputée and la présidente. In 2014, a deputy from the centre-right, Julien Aubert, sided with the academy against the chamber’s rules, and repeatedly referred to the presiding officer, Sandrine Mazetier from the opposing Socialist Party, as madame le président, mixing the feminine personal title and the masculine job title. Ms Mazetier, as she had the right to do under the chamber’s rules, fined him a quarter of his monthly salary, and a debate ensued under headlines like “When ridicule kills feminism” and “Should the French Academy be dissolved?”

The problem cannot be entirely avoided. The academy rightly notes that in the plural, the masculine has always covered the feminine too, and writing for example tous ceux (all those who), using masculine forms, has rarely attracted much attention; the masculine is “unmarked”, meaning it carries no special meaning, whereas the feminine is “marked”, or specifically female. Writing toutes celles et tous ceux over and over would fill French with even more lumbering awkwardness than repeated “he or she” does in English, given the number of words it would affect in French. Words like “voters” and “members” could become the shorter, but typographically ugly and unpronounceable électeurs/trices or adhérent(e)s.

For now, mainstream French opinion is converging on a compromise between practical solutions on one hand and the French Academy’s traditionalism on the other. The masculine is generic, especially for plurals: no need for électeurs/trices. But titles may be feminised when doing so is grammatically simple and logical, as it usually is. And those who want to be known by them deserve that courtesy.

Ms Le Pen would hardly be a perfect tribune for feminism as France’s head of state. She has posed as a defender of women’s rights, but largely in opposition to the presumed antifeminist attitudes of the Muslims she would like to keep out of France. Many French voters, according to polls, would like to see her keep her current job title—présidente indeed, but only of her own party.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "Gender bender"