Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 250 | Mayo 2002


Latin America

Sexism in the Spanish Language

In Spanish, masculine and feminine genders provide an extra dimension to the sexism inherent in language Having steadily identified this sexism, however, feminism has now found more creative ways to transform language, which in turn helps transform reality.

Teresa Meana Suárez

It is so vivid it seems like yesterday, and yet it was almost 30 years ago, around 1973, that we were in that philosophy department assembly in Oviedo. A lot of people were there and there was a great racket, when someone—a man—shouted, "Is this an assembly or what the bloody hell is it?" Another man—a fascist, of course—warned, "Mind your language, young ladies are present!"
Of course the fascist’s warning was greeted with general mirth. As was normal for those times of hard struggle against Franco’s dictatorship, an interminable number of people stood up to speak and the interventions took up a great deal of time. In the end, a feminist friend called Begoña stood up and said, "I just want to say one thing: bloody hell!" Now, I’ve been a feminist as long as I can remember and that delighted me. I felt that Begoña had just handed us all back a voice, an existence. We were people again—like them, rather than "young ladies"—and we had the right to speak, the right to use all the words available. In the struggle to exist, if we wanted to be recognized and named in "their" world, we had to use "their" language. But Begoña had just said it out loud: language was ours as well.

I’m telling this anecdote in an attempt to explain the thrilling process, the road we have traveled down over 25 years of feminist activity on the issue of sexism in language. During this journey we found out that only taking the part of the language allotted to us was the equivalent of accepting silence. We also learned, as Christiane Olivier points out, that if we use the language considered "universal," we end up effectively talking against ourselves.

Particular problems with this are far more prevalent in Spanish than in English because of the differing structure of the two languages. English is based much more on neutral nouns, while all nouns in Spanish have designated genders, and their adjectives must agree. For purposes of illustration, examples can be found in English to at least illustrate two of the major problems this produces in Spanish. In English, the neutral "doctor," for example, is the rule, while congressman is the exception, whereas the traditional default designation for professions and other designations in Spanish is masculine in virtually all cases, no matter the sex of the designee, except for a few jobs traditionally considered "women’s work." The default is also masculine in Spanish when both genders are included in the plural form, in which one of the few English equivalents would be mankind. (A British NGO was visited with the brilliance to resolve this problem by calling itself Womankind. It explains, not unaware that it is helping men feel the problem by putting the shoe on the other foot, that this term truly contains the other gender within it.)

Silenced and scorned

We have passed through different stages in the struggle for a language that represents women and challenges linguistic sexism. At the beginning, we only tried to detect the sexism, having never even noticed it before and being completely unaware of how language discriminated against us. Studies and work on the issue began to emerge.

We categorized sexism according to two fundamental effects: silence and scorn. On the one hand was the concealment of women, our silence, our non-existence. We were hidden behind false generics, the masculine forms that, as we learned at school, "cover both genders," and we were concealed behind a semantic gap. We are indebted to Álvaro García Meseguer for the definition of this latter kind of linguistic error resulting from sexism, expressed in phrases such as, "Everyone went down to the river to meet them, with only women and children remaining in the village." So, who was everyone then?
On the other hand was the scorn, the hatred of women. This is expressed in apparent pairs in which the feminine form has certain negative connotations (fox/vixen, dog/bitch, master/mistress, etc.). It is also expressed in lexical vacuums, often value charged, where there is either no male or no female equivalent (harpy, witch, gentlemanly, womanizer, etc.), as well as in various adjectives, adverbs, sayings, idioms, etc., etc.

A thousand and one solutions

Once the sexism in the Spanish language was detected and categorized, different recommendations began to appear for its non-sexist use. In the mid-1980s, feminism started advancing toward the creation of strategies for combating both the silencing and the scorn as solutions were improved and new instructions drawn up. Around 1994, the book Nombra appeared in Spain. (Meaning name, the word is normally masculine: nombre). Produced by the Institute of Women’s Language Advisory Commission, the book proved to be truly illuminating and useful. The following is just a selection of the varied, creative and diverse possibilities that it offers.

As explained above, the use of gendered nouns and adjectives that must agree with them in gender presents certain challenges to the elimination of sexism in Spanish that differentiate it from English. Since the masculine form of both nouns and adjectives often ends in o and the feminine in a, many attempts at producing non-sexist language use doublets (o/a, o(a), o-a and more recently @) to reflect a reference to both masculine and feminine elements where previously only the male or male plural form was used as a so-called "generic" form. But the use of these doublets is difficult and, because it is continuous, can be quite unaesthetic. Nombra suggests certain already existing terms that do not have different masculine and feminine forms, such as vecindario (the neighborhood) rather than los vecinos or pueblo valenciano (Valencian people) rather than los valencianos. It also suggests resorting to abstracts to avoid the problem: la redacción (editorial staff) instead of los redactors. Furthermore, it suggests changes in the personal forms of verbs and pronouns. Thus, instead of En la Prehistoria el hombre vivía… (In prehistoric times man lived...), we can replace man with los seres humanos (human beings), las personas or la gente (people) and las mujeres y los hombres (women and men). We can even say En la Prehistoria se vivía... (In prehistoric times one lived...) or …vivíamos... (we lived...).

In other cases we can replace the generic assumption involved in "man" or "men" by using the pronouns nos (us or we) or nuestro, nuestra, nuestros or nuestras (the different forms of "our" which, while gender specific, modify the object in the following example, not the subject). Thus, Es bueno para el bienestar del hombre… (It’s good for the welfare of man…) becomes Es bueno para nuestro bienestar… (It’s good for our welfare...).

At other times we can change the verb from its he/she form to its you or we form without mentioning the subject. For example, Se recomienda a los usuarios (male plural generic form) que utilicen correctamente la tarjeta… (It is recommended that the users use their cards correctly) becomes Recomendamos que utilice su tarjeta correctamente… (We recommend that you use your card correctly). The verb can also be put in the passive. The same sentence would then become Se recomienda un uso correcto de la tarjeta (Correct use of the card is recommended).

Changes can also be made to the impersonal pronoun, so that Cuando uno (masculine singular generic) se levanta… (When one gets up) becomes Cuando alguien se levanta (literally "When someone gets up") or Al levantarnos… (Upon getting up…). We can also change El que tenga pasaporte… (He who has a passport) or Aquellos que quieran… (Those who want...—in the Spanish "those" is in the masculine plural form) for Quien tenga pasaporte… (Whoever has a passport) or Quienes quieran… (Whoever wants…). Several of these suggestions, obviously, are equally valid for sidestepping similar problems in English.

Finally, the book offers recommendations for correcting the androcentric use of language and avoiding naming women as the dependents, complements, subordinates or property of men. Numerous and varied solutions are thus offered for such phrases as "The nomads moved their goods, cattle and women," "Cultural activities were organized for the congressmen’s wives" or "Women were conceded the vote after the First World War."

Neuter but not neutral

There are now two different positions on such matters within the feminist movement. The first comes from those who feel that women should appropriate the generic form and specify only in the case of men. For example, in a learning center we teachers, both male and female, would be profesores, but while Juan would be referred to as a profesor varón ("male teacher," specifying his masculine gender), it might be said of Ana that ella es el mejor profesor del instituto (She is the best teacher in the institute," associating the traditional masculine form profesor with Ana with no specification). The other proposal comes from those of us who feel that the generic form is not universal. In line with the above example, ellos (they, the males) and nosotras (we, the females) could be collectively referred to using the abstract form el profesorado (the teaching staff) or as las profesoras y profesores (literally "the female teachers and male teachers").

This first position is expressed as follows: the generic, the neutral, the universal belongs to us all. False universality must be denounced, but women’s participation in the universal must also be vindicated. Those of us who believe in the other position, however, do not think it is true that the generic is a common patrimony. Masculine words are not universal just because they supposedly encompass women. The fact is that they exclude us. It is said that they are universal because the masculine has been established throughout history as the measure of what is human. Thus generic terms are confused with the masculine ones. As Fanny Rubio put it, "Language may be neuter but it’s not neutral."

We want to name the difference

We also think this way because we want to name the feminine, name the difference. Saying niños y niñas (boys and girls) to denote children rather than just niños, which has traditionally been used, or madres y padres (mothers and fathers) to denote parents instead of just padres, also traditionally used, is not repetition; it is not duplicating the language. Duplicating means making an exact copy of the other and that is not the case here. The sexual difference already exists; the language does not create it. Given that it exists, language’s job is to name it—simply name it. Not naming this difference means not respecting the right to exist or to representation of that existence in the language.

According to García Meseguer, the two positions could be simplistically summarized around the recommendations of Nombra and the inconveniences involved in following them. One tendency—the one in which I include myself—sees women as more important than the language, while the other sees the language as more important than women.

For all that, incredible advances have been achieved as a result of all the efforts made. It is to these efforts that we owe the common ground and agreements that have been reached over the detection of sexism, women’s place in the language, our invisibility in generic terms, the denunciation of male monopolization of the concepts of humanity and universality, the critique of the invasion of androcentric thought and patriarchal culture as reference points and so many other discoveries. All of these efforts have also produced extensive analyses of dictionaries, the media, literary texts, colloquial language, theses, dissertations, articles, books, conferences, round table discussions, and exciting and passionate talks on the problem, both in Spanish and in other languages.

Women writers:
Memorable and hidden heroines

More penalized than the spoken language, use of the written language by women has been seen as the usurpation of a right that does not belong to them and a useless practice because it supposedly does not correspond to them. Virginia Woolf believed that it would take a long time before a woman could sit down to write a book without a ghost emerging that has to be killed or a rock appearing to crash against.

Yadira Calvo’s book A la mujer por la palabra (To Women for Their Words) has provided me with stories such as Fanny Burney burning all of the original copies of her works and doing needlework in penitence for having written; Charlotte Brönte setting aside the manuscript of Jane Eyre to peel potatoes; Jane Austen hiding her papers every time someone entered due to the shame of someone seeing her writing. Katherine Anne Porter declared that she took 20 years to write a novel, calculating that she had only been able to dedicate ten percent of her energies to writing, with the other ninety dedicated to keeping her head above water.

I recall that photo of María Moliner darning socks with a wooden egg, while her enormous work Diccionario del uso del castellano was taking form among pans and washing. I have read Katherine Mansfield’s complaints to her husband—"I’m writing, but you still shout, It’s five o’clock, where’s my tea?"—and the sweet lament of an anonymous Cuban woman who wrote at the end of the 19th century: "How many times slowly/With placid inspiration/I formed an octave in my mind/My intelligent needle/Darning a pair of pants!" This is what led Virginia Woolf to say that the Duchess of Newcastle knew how to write in her youth, but that her fairies, if they survived, turned into hippopotamuses.

Another very serious matter is the attribution of women’s works to other people, particularly their husbands. This must have been a very frequent phenomenon because there are so many references to it. There are historically proven cases, such as the famous one of María Lejarraga, who authored the works signed by her husband Gregorio Martínez Sierra, or the fact that Zelda Fitzgerald’s husband prohibited her from publishing her Diary because he needed it for his own work. Meanwhile, Colette’s first works appeared signed by her husband, who also received the money from their sales. Some will tell me that I’m behind the times and that humanity has changed over the last 20 centuries. But if that’s so, why were only ten percent of the books published in Spain during 2000 written by women?

Changing language, changing reality

Some women, however, are capable of scaling the slopes of the prohibited, of wresting from their lives that ten percent of the energy needed to keep their heads above water. They manage to do so, they write and they are published. The rest of us are here following, fighting and celebrating new successes, extending the network so all women on the planet can have the right to a voice, to words, in the knowledge that we see the world through the canvas of language and motivated by the certainty that sexist language, the one we have learned, contributes to the perpetration of the patriarchy. We also know that when we have a language that represents us, it will change reality. That’s why we keep forging ahead. We no longer put girls to sleep with fairy stories. We tell them that good girls go to heaven and bad girls get to go everywhere… and that this particular story is far from over.

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