Almost 50 years after the publication of The Female Eunuch, the ground-breaking book on female emancipation by Germaine Greer, the guardians of the French language have taken the unusual step of allowing the feminisation of job titles.
At a meeting at the end of February, the notoriously conservative Académie Française passed a resolution by a large majority stating that there were no longer any obstacles to this revolutionary move. Although other parts of the French-speaking world have easily tackled the issue, the Académie has been looking at a report since 2016 and many critics have pointed to the predominantly male make-up of the organisation as having been a stumbling block. Even so, the timing is surprising given that many English-speaking countries are moving towards gender-neutral job titles.
The decision could mean that female doctors will be known as docteures and teachers as professeures, with the titles included in the country’s official Académie Française dictionary. An example of how dramatic the change could be is illustrated by the fact that the publication lists presidente as the wife of the head of state rather than a female political leader. The Académie said that the use of the new word endings did not threaten the structure of the language provided the extra vowel was not pronounced.
Most positions are defined as masculine, with a few exceptions such as nurse or childminder illustrating the problem. Previously, the Académie has defended the rules, claiming that any changes would have been an aberration and place the French language in mortal danger. Conservatives have suggested that the masculine form is itself neutral and should be used to describe employment roles that could include female workers.
Perhaps significantly, the report that has finally been approved was co-authored by three of the four active women within the organisation. The Académie announced that the development of the language recognised the place of women in society, and implicitly the workforce, in the modern world.
Debate on the proposals had been expected to last for some weeks; however, it was waved through in a matter of hours at a specially convened meeting.
Some linguists had said that professional titles could be problematic given the potential to cause confusion, as they conflict with the root of the word. One example would be using une medicin in French to describe a female doctor without it being confused with medicine, which is the science of medicine. Others point out that French-speaking areas in Canada have been using the term since 1979.
The situation is complicated by the variation of adjectives and articles used alongside nouns in job titles and descriptions. Some linguists believe that France should end its prescriptive approach to changes in the language and allow it to develop organically, as happens in other French-speaking countries.
Although feminised job titles have been used informally in France for some time, encouraged by the Council for Equality, the ending of the official restriction on the use of the terms will be welcomed. The government has been using inclusive writing in state proclamations for a while in an attempt to encourage gender neutrality.
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