Today, women and men all over the world will be marking International Women’s Day to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future as well as considering those areas where inequalities persist. Women have come a long way since the first International Women’s Day more than one hundred years ago in 1911. However, the United Nation’s theme for this year is domestic violence against women and girls, an issue that is unfortunately still relevant today.
Traditionally men were seen as the dominant human beings and language reflects this. Some writers still use the word ‘Man’ to mean any human; feminists might argue that whether capitalised or not, the word ‘man’ invokes a male person and a sentence such as the following would seem strange: ‘Man breast feeds his young’. Thankfully the old habit of using ‘he’ to also mean ‘she’ is becoming less common, although a good substitute has not been found. Despite the introduction of a new gender-neutral pronoun in Swedish, English is still saddled with either the awkward he/she and him/her or the grammatically incorrect ‘they’.
Job titles are another thorny issue – to some ears a woman being called ‘chairman’ sounds odd while others hate the shortened form ‘chair’. Should workmen be called work people, even if women are rarely seen repairing the roads? How about a male nurse, is it necessary to point out that the nurse is male while we do not do so for women, and how do the titles of midwife, sister and matron suit men? The ‘wife’ in midwife actually refers to the woman giving birth and not to the practitioner, but this has not stopped some preferring ‘birth attendant’ for male midwives.
Languages whose nouns have genders cause even more problems for those of us interested in the equality of the sexes. As a child learning Welsh I simply had to accept that, while two boys or two masculine objects are dau (masculine form of the word ‘two’) and two girls are dwy, a girl and a boy together are dau. Similarly, in French le masculin l’emporte sur le féminin – any mixed group will be considered masculine in grammatical terms. Women’s rights activists have attempted to challenge this, insisting for example on the longer chers et chères collègues rather than simply chers collègues for ‘dear colleagues’. Furthermore, the French government delighted feminists last year by banning the use of mademoiselle on official forms, insisting that all women be called madame whatever their marital status. In Spanish, father is padre, mother is madre but parents is padres, the same word as for ‘fathers’. A few years ago the Spanish minister for equality used the word miembra for a female member causing quite a scandal with critics pointing out that miembra is not correct and that miembro serves for men and women, even if it is grammatically masculine. Whatever your opinion, what is clear is that discussion over gender equality in language will continue to rage as long as the debate on the equality of the sexes persists.