Addressing the Gender Bias in French

French speakers have long been engaged in a debate over the language’s gender inclusivity—or rather its lack thereof. While some progress has been made toward feminizing the language (such as the 2012 move to remove the word mademoiselle from all official government communications, instead opting for the more neutral madame), other measures have been met with hostility from those who adhere to a more prescriptive philosophy about the language.

The most recent development in the feminist efforts to address the language’s gender biases falls into the latter category: on May 8, French news outlet France 24 reported that the country’s Education Ministry had banned the use of certain forms of gender-inclusive language in schools, describing it as an “existential threat” to the language. This move echoes the sentiment held by the Académie Française, which in 2017 stated that the French language was in “mortal danger” as feminist language advocates attempted to instill more gender-inclusive practices in written forms of the language.

The feminine suffix e has been described as “the most contested and politicized letter in the French language,” as feminist speakers of the language often append it to words in contexts where it would not normally be used. For example, les soldats (“the soldiers”) is a masculine plural noun used as a generic or default term to describe a mixed-gender group of soldiers, regardless of the actual man-to-woman ratio of the group. Recently, many feminists have been adding the feminine ending e to the word (and other words that are masculine by default) to create a more inclusive form of the word: les soldat·es. According to France 24, the dot preceding the suffix (also referred to as the middot) is key to the inclusive nature of such language, as it indicates that soldiers can be members of either sex.

In 2018, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe banned this use of feminized language in official government documentation, stating that “the masculine [form] is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women.” Now, schoolteachers can no longer teach this form of the language either, as the Education Ministry has banned the middot formula from educational contexts. However, the Education Ministry has allowed for other forms of inclusive language, such as a systematic suffixation for feminizing job titles (i.e., now French teachers may teach the feminine word la présidente, to refer to a female president, instead of the generic masculine word le président). Andrew Warner

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