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GENDER/LANGUAGE: Rejecting the Derogatory ‘Feminine’

Miren Gutierrez and Oriana Boselli

ROME, Dec 26 2009 (IPS) - What happens to language and the way women are addressed when they start to occupy positions of responsibility? Well, it depends on the language.

Is Spanish discriminatory?

"My conclusion is that it is so," says José Luis Aliaga Jiménez, professor in Linguistics of the Universidad de Zaragoza. "It is so in the conservative resistance for the formation of feminine nouns; in the rejection of masculine forms when men start doing jobs that were traditionally feminine, such as ‘azafato’ (hostess), ‘amo de casa’ (househusband) or ‘niñero’ (baby minder); and particularly, in the use of the masculine form as a generic."

On the masculine form as a generic, Aliaga Jiménez coincides with politician Luisa Capelli, but from a linguistic point of view. "My research has led me to believe that the supposedly generic character of the masculine when applied to mixed groups isn’t a linguistic quality at all, but a pragmatic interpretation that ends up in a discursive suppression of women and their achievements," he says.

"In the feminist theory and sociology," he adds, "it is notorious the attitude of women who, having reached an important public job, try to blend in the dominant group (of men), and deny the discrimination that goes on, including the linguist discrimination… It is usually accompanied by statements such as: ‘I have never felt discriminated against’, which are the toll some women believe have to be paid to be accepted in a masculinised public realm."

Spanish philosopher Amelia Valcarcel has described this as the "dynamic of the exception".

"It is in that context in which you can understand the preference for the masculine professional titles, which is found in the Spanish-speaking world, although to a lesser extent than in Italian or French," he concludes.

In Italian, most women prefer the masculine titles, because the feminine version (when it exists) is considered ludicrous, even derogatory.

In Spanish, a related language, this is different. So, is this a grammatical issue or a social one?

“The problem is not only Italian machoism, but the lack of awareness and directives as to how to address women correctly,” says Angelica Mucchi-Faina, psychology professor at the Perugia University.

“A language is the mirror of its society. Until a few decades, all positions of power or public responsibility were occupied exclusively by men. So those roles were defined ‘in masculine’,” says Mucchi-Faina.

Modern English lacks grammatical gender, whereas Indo-European languages, including Italian and Spanish, can distinguish between masculine and feminine.

“The linguistic discrimination against women is realised through multiple conduits,” says José Luis Aliaga Jiménez, professor in Linguistics of the Universidad de Zaragoza. “The configuration and functioning of grammatical gender in languages like Spanish and Italian is not the most important, but it is the one with deepest symbolic reach.”

When it comes to titles of importance, in Italian, you find yourself reading about “il ministro Mara Carfagna” – even if Carfagna, the minister of equality, is a woman. In contrast, in Spanish there is no option but ‘ministra’, ending in the feminine ‘a’.

Says Mucchi-Faina, “Most countries issued recommendations to avoid sexism when addressing women. Also in Italy, in 1986, the Presidency issued similar recommendations. But instead of being taken seriously and implemented, they were an object of jokes, and eventually forgotten.”

“Contrary to what has happened in other countries, in Italy there is no general rule and everyone can pick and choose whether to use neologisms like ‘ministra’ or the traditional ‘ministro’ for women,” says Mucchi-Faina.

Politician Luisa Capelli, from L’Italia dei valori party (The Italy of Values), thinks that “leaving behind the supposed universal neutrality of the masculine form is an essential passage so that the feminine experience gets respect.”

“It is not true that these feminine forms (for positions of power) do not exist in Italian: there are plenty of examples from feminists, linguists and semiologists who have made a number of proposals,” says Capelli. “You can say ‘avvocata’ (lawyer) and ‘ministra’, but nobody does. Although many of us use those words, we are ignored. To change the symbolic order is hard work that requires a consensus based on the profound convictions of people.”

Sexism in language was identified as a global problem during the first world conference on the status of women, celebrated in Mexico in 1975. Many proposals and directives followed. In 1989, UNESCO issued the booklet Guidelines on Non-Sexist Language, aiming at helping “authors and editors avoid writing in a manner that reinforces questionable attitudes and assumptions about people and sex roles.”

Since the ’80s, Spain and Italy have gone in different directions.

The 2002 ‘Non-Sexist Administrative Manual’, published by The Association of Women’s Historical Studies of the University of Malaga, Spain, summarises the common sentiment: “Languages evolve to respond to the necessities of the communities that use them. In a society like ours, where there is a demand for equality, language, as a social product, not only has to reflect equality, but it also has to promote it.”

However, while having popularised the feminine for titles of importance, Spanish has not eliminated discrimination in the language …

While in Italy ...

Actually, they are still debating whether the gender of titles is strictly a grammatical issue. But some disagree.

"Language is never neutral. A language represents the society that uses it. That means that a society that represents women in a discriminatory way is a society that justifies and shares such discrimination," says Irene Giacobbe of the association, Power Gender.

Like professor Angelica Mucchi-Faina of Perugia University, Giacobbe thinks that the issue of how to address women in positions of responsibility has already been settled in Italy, although only in theory.

However, "many women say that their titles sound badly in the feminine, they don't want to be an ‘avvocata’, although it is the correct form," she says. "What happens is that even observant media make mistakes calling them ‘avvocato’ or use the pejorative ‘avvocatessa’ and ‘presidentessa’ deliberately, because they cannot be so ignorant as to using a pejorative ending without realising it. And you end up in ‘humorous’ situations where you read ‘il ministro indossava una gonna vaporosa’ (the {male} minister wore a vaporous skirt)."

As in Spanish, in Italian the feminine ending ‘essa’ has pejorative connotations indicating a position of a lesser category or the wife of the real person in power.

"In the Italian Switzerland," she says, "there is a tragicomic difference in the use of news agencies. Even if ANSA (the state Italian agency) has guidelines to avoid sexism, most of its stories from Italy use the masculine form for women’s titles, while when it reports from Switzerland and Germany they use correctly ‘cancelliera’ (chancellor), ‘ministra’ and ‘avvocata’."

This apparently dull issue of feminine titles jumped to the front pages recently, when Bibiana Aido, Spain’s Minister of Equality, used the word ‘miembra’ (member) in public.

What’s the big deal? The word doesn’t exist. Yet.

“In most personal nouns,” says Aliaga Jiménez, there is a correlation between grammatical gender and the referential meaning of ‘sex’. It is a culturally significant correlation… All nouns referred to a person end up with a gender variation, sooner or later. And it is in that context that the words ‘miembra’, ‘testiga’ (witness) emerge, since, following the common rule in Spanish, the final ‘a’ is interpreted as belonging to the feminine.”

‘Testigo’ and ‘miembro’ are so far exceptions to the common rule and have no official feminine variation.

“The people who don’t know the history of language are the ones who get outraged by neologisms while accepting other words that caused scandal in the past,” says Aliaga Jiménez. “The idea that language only changes for the worse has no linguistic basis.”

According to Irene Giacobbe of the association, Power Gender, the difference with Spain is that “there has been a clear position and a positive reaction from (José Luis Rodríguez) Zapatero’s government.”

“But we are late in everything,” she says. “Italy modified family laws in the ’70s. The fascist law that considered rape a moral violation, and not a crime against a person, was changed only in 1996. This is a country in which the historic phobia against women has been masked with a great deal of care for the mother, and a lot is needed to dismantle it.”

What is needed, then?

“The problem is the scarcity of women in positions of power,” she adds. “This is the country with one of the lowest numbers of women managing companies and in Parliament… Girls and boys think they are equal while they remain in the school. They discover the difference when they enter the world of labour; girls find out that even when they graduated with the best scores in less time than their male colleagues, the system doesn’t reward them … All this has been studied and analysed. It remains to be part of the public debate.”

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