An Appropriate Job for a Woman

I wrote a long time ago about the debate in France about feminine job titles. At the time, French people who wanted to use feminine forms of many common job titles didn’t have much luck, as the male-dominated Academie française refused to acknowledge such “aberrations.”

Recently though, they’ve softened their stance, stating that the academy considers that all developments aiming at recognising in language the place of women in today’s society can be foreseen, as long as they do not contravene the elementary and fundamental rules of language.

Hardly radical, basically the equivalent of saying, Well if you’re going to insist on using these words, fine!, but it’s a start.

Naturally, a lot of people are happy about this liberalisation. And that was my initial reaction. But then I imagined if that were happening in English. Can you imagine people fighting to be able to use words like manageress and waitress, doctoress and teacheress? Having specifically female forms of job titles is generally considered sexist in the English-speaking world: why specify that it’s a woman doing the job? Is that supposed to be surprising?

But the French context is quite different. With French being a gendered language, male and female forms are common. And even though linguistic gender doesn’t have to correspond to our senses of male and female, French gender uses the same pronouns to refer to “male” and “female” words as it does to men and women. The idea of gender is therefore very much part of the French language. Not having female forms of job titles therefore can feel like a deliberate omission.

Plus the fact that French is gendered also means that words like docteur and professeur can feel more like specifically male words, as there are obvious ways to feminise them based on existing conventions. It’d be like if we said teacherman or doctorman in English regardless of whether a man or woman held the position. But of course in English we don’t commonly gender nouns or specifically job titles, so we use just teacher and doctor, and they don’t feel male (even if they strictly are).

It all goes to show how context is so important. What might feel regressive for one language can be a big step forward for another. Personally, I’m glad that French people now have the option to use different forms, and hope people choose whatever they feel like using (and if a man wants to be a docteure, why not?)

Another interesting aspect of this story is that it really only affects France. All the other countries where French is common such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Canada had been using their own gendered words for many years. In Canada, for example, a female chef is une cheffe! Just as there are many forms of English, every other language has its own forms too, with their own little idiosyncracies.