#FeministCorner – Avoiding sexist language

The first time someone pointed out to me how sexist portuguese language was I didn’t really pay attention.

My Philosophy high school teacher was that kind of teacher that, whether we realised it or not, would leave a profound mark in all her students. The student opinion about her was an extreme binomial – some loved her and deeply admired her conduct and some felt sorry for her, a crazy old lady fighting a pointless battle for equality in every single class she gave. She had a very singular way of teaching and was particularly insistent about the use of inclusive language.

After each class, students were responsible for producing minutes that summed up, in a very formal way, what had been discussed in class. This method proved to be quite efficient in making sure we were paying full undivided attention to all topics presented, and in forcing us to even take notes during the whole class (can you imagine?!). After submitting our minutes, they would come back to us 90% of the time with huge red handwritten remarks, pointing out how sexist our text was.

Confused? Let me explain. Portuguese plural words for a room full of people (both male AND FEMALE) are, by default, masculine. The word “students” is masculine, as if there were no female students in the classroom! And this was something she would never in her life stand for. Our minutes were only accepted if they started as “All female and male students were present…”.

At the time, this was considered an extravagancy. We did it just to please her and… well… because she would grade us and there was actually not much we could do about it. But as time went by and my brain matured, I realised she was so damn right! She was educating us for equality. Much more than Stuart Mill or Kant, she was making us better human beings. She was forcing us to identify subtle injustices in our everyday lives (that if it wasn’t for her, would probably go unnoticed) and to not cope with them.

Sexist language is language that either excludes or diminishes one gender or the other. In formal speaking or writing, there are some pretty easy changes we can adopt to make sure not to offend anyone:

  1. S(he), He/She, Him/Her or His/Her to refer to both genders at the same time
  2. The suffixes –man, -woman and –ess should be replaced by neutral alternatives
    • Fireman (m) -> fire-fighter (n)
    • Policeman (m)/ Policewoman (f) -> police officer (n)
    • Waiter (m)/ waitress (f) -> server (n)
  3. Nouns and adjectives with man should also be replaced by neutral alternatives
    • Manpower (noun) -> workforce
    • Manmade (adjective) -> artificial, synthetic

In an informal setting, there are several expressions that may seem harmless to most of us, but have sexist roots or imply stereotyped gender-roles. Last week, I made an effort to come up with some of the most currently used ones to write on my kitchen chalkboard every morning, forcing myself to give it a judicious thought and to abolish them from my vocabulary for good.

Reducing life, gender and relations of power to genitals is just primitive. Expressions like these reinforce the belief that having a certain sexual organ makes one superior to another. Sweet reminder: we are in the 21st Century, please update yourself!

In case it was still not clear who is more powerful and should by default be in charge of everything….

Strict gender behaviour stereotypes need to disappear. Boys are human beings with emotions, they cry and that is more than ok. Girls should be taught to have sex if, when and with whoever they want. If you support a person’s right to have autonomy over their body then stop shaming them for exercising that right!

How do you call a “male CEO”?! That’s right, a CEO. Terms like these support the ideia of surprise and awe that a woman reached a high professional position.

“Sissy” is a pejorative way to describe a boy who doesn’t fit into the traditional view of masculinity (that implies “courage”, “strength” and “testosterone”), that is weak or gay. This term is not only sexist, but also homophobic and transphobic.

We still have a long way to go. To truly achieve inclusive language (in which everyone feels represented and equal) we need to upgrade nouns, pronouns , and adjectives to reach literally everyone in the gender spectrum, from the normative binomial male-female, to transgender, agender and gender-fluid people out there. I will soon write another post on inclusive language, but for now let’s start with baby steps: think twice before potentially offensive words pop out of your mouth.

Hoping this reaches at least the feminist in the next corner,


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