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Hillary pour PrésidentE ?? Feminizing Job Titles in French Posted by on Apr 16, 2015 in Culture, History, People, Vocabulary

This post has no political agenda, but Hillary’s announcement got me thinking. You may have learned that certain job titles are always masculine in French, regardless of whether a woman holds the position. The example I always think of is le professeur (professor/teacher). Women certainly have a history in education instruction, so why is there no feminine equivalent of this word? In informal speech, this can be remedied with prof, which can be either masculine or feminine.

You’ll find some people who have stated that the French language is sexist. If you have 9 million women and 1 man at a conference, you would still use the masculine plural form to denote them as the subject of a sentence.  The masculine form is also used in statements such as il faut que (it’s necessary that…) and il pleut (it’s raining). Remember: le français n’a que 2 genres (French only has 2 genders), so when you have to describe both genders in one setting or speak of something in general, you’ll need to use the masculine form and not a gender-neutral third pronoun (this isn’t Swedish!). Why masculine? That would be thanks to Latin, bien sûr (of course). Others contest this idea of sexism by stating that the masculine/feminine paradigm could just as easily be referred to as Group A and Group B – thus, sexism is avoided because there is no gender to be grouped under.

So, how did all of this start, and where is it headed in the future?

A long time ago, a woman’s title was the feminine form of her husband’s job (although in some cases, the woman actually performed the same duties). Time has passed and the language has evolved, but feminine forms of les métiers (jobs) haven’t always come with these changes. In 1984, the French government mandated a commission whose duty was to create feminine equivalents for job titles that only had masculine forms. Its undertaking lasted 2 years, from 1984-1986, under the direction of the Ministre des Droits de la Femme (Minister of Women’s Rights) Yvette Roudy.

The Roudy Comission created what they considered to be acceptable changes, but they also included versions they didn’t approve of. One form they didn’t approve of was simply adding femme  to the already-existing masculine title: femme-écrivain (writer) and femme-médecin (doctor), for example. I’m not a big fan of this, either. It sounds like it could be insulting: Oh, she’s one of those lady cops you hear about. Another form they didn’t approve of, but that is still pretty common today, is to tag Madame in front of the job. Madame le Premier ministre (prime minister) and Madame le Capitaine (captain) are examples.

The commission stated that the changes they preferred were derivational (quoi? a new word is formed from another word or stem: friend and friendship, for example). They suggested the methods of adding a feminine article in front of the masculine noun (la professeur — finally!) or adding an -e to a masculine noun (avocate – lawyer).

Well, it’s 30 years later, and you don’t see la professeur. What happened?  Some people, even women themselves, are reluctant to adopt these new terms. It can be argued that those who don’t use these new terms are focusing on society as a whole rather than being worried about their own private interests. I think that’s kind of a shame.

Have you heard of l’Academie française, the group founded in 1635 that is essentially the keepers of the French language? They’re the ones who decide what is correct usage (but whether people choose to adhere to that is another story…). Certainly they have something to say on the matter. Once the Roudy Comission was released, the Academy strongly rejected it by saying gender in French is arbitrary and has nothing to do with a person’s actual gender or sex. The masculine forms used are merely an all-encompassing word. In 1990, the Academy said they would see the words « soumettre à l’épreuve du temps » (put to the test of time) before deciding on an official status (official for them, anyway. The Academy has no legal standpoint in the language, and many feel that they’re very disconnected from how the language is actually spoken.). In their 9th edition of Dictionnaire, freer usage of some of the words could be found. Some rejected forms by the Academy include professeure, recteure (school superintendent), ingénieure (engineer), auteure (author), and procureure (prosecutor).

Since the Academy doesn’t exactly hold power, I decided to see what French journalists in known news sources were using for Hillary Clinton’s announcement. Some articles from Le Figaro and Le Monde didn’t mention the job title of president at all, choosing rather to say that she was running for presidency. Other articles stuck with the traditional masculine form of le président, and others went for the feminine form of la présidente (although with femme attached to it). Marge Simpson even wrote a letter to Hillary and called her la présidente.

There was even a translation of Obama’s statement that she would be an excellent president, which was translated as « une excellente présidente ». This, of course, brings up another interesting question: had the translation said Madame le président instead, would excellent need to be left masculine or changed to feminine?

Check out the screenshot below from Le Figaro. It’s a short list of related articles, and in the titles, we can see both président and présidente.


Where do you stand on this issue? Are you a proud user of auteure? Do you think French should stick to the traditional titles?

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About the Author: Josh Dougherty

Just your typical francophile. If you have any topics you'd like me to discuss, feel free to let me know!