Linguistik online1, 1/98


Feminist Language Planning: Has it been worthwhile?

Anne Pauwels
 University of  Wollongong

1 Feminism and language

There is no doubt that feminism has been and continues to be one of the main social movements of this century.  Its impact is felt in many societies around the world and in many spheres of life. The women's or feminist movement  strives, amongst other things, for the elimination of gender discrimination and for the greater recognition of women's contributions to society  as well as aims to change many cultural and social practices  which  perpetuate patriarchal value systems. Language was  and is seen by many feminists as a powerful instrument of patriarchy: for example, the feminist Dale Spender, spoke of  the English language as being 'manmade' and as being an important contributor to women's oppression (Spender 1980).  It is therefore not surprising that language and discourse practices were  and are subjected to feminist scrutiny,  often leading to elaborate and detailed descriptions of sexist practices affecting language use.

2  Feminism and linguistic reform

Feminists, at least in western societies, also expressed a desire to change the patriarchal and sexist 'nature' of language and therefore engaged in various types of linguistic reform or language planning. Although many feminists shared the belief that changing linguistic and discourse practices is an important element in women's liberation, this did not result in a uniform approach to linguistic reform (see e.g. Pauwels 1998). The social, cultural, political and philosophical diversity which characterizes members of the feminist movement is also reflected in the approaches to and aims for feminist language reform.  For example, not all forms of feminism, interpret women's liberation as a question of achieving mere equality of the sexes. Similarly, not all linguistic reform proposals have as their main aim the achievement of linguistic equality of the sexes.

 Some reform initiatives primarily aim at exposing the sexist nature of 'patriarchal' language by causing linguistic disruptions. The strategies used to achieve linguistic disruption frequently involve experimentation and creativity with all parts of speech. The word 'herstory' to refer to history which is not only about men, is an example of linguistic disruption:  a morphological boundary  <history> has been reconstituted to <his> + <story> on semantic grounds.

 Creating a women-centred language capable of expressing reality from a female perspective is another prominent objective of some forms of feminist language planning.  Proposed changes range from the creation of new women-centred meanings for words like 'witch', 'hag' and neologisms such as  'malestream', 'femocrat', graphemic innovations including 'womyn' or 'wimmin' and 'LehrerIn' (German), to developing women-focussed discourses and even creating an entirely new language. An example of the latter is the Láadan language created by the science-fiction writer and linguist, Suzette Haden Elgin 'for the specific purpose of expressing the perceptions of women' (Elgin 1988:1).

 Despite this diversity in reform initiatives and objectives for feminist language planning, it is  the 'linguistic equality of the sexes' approach which has become synonymous with feminist language planning in the eyes of the wider community.  This is in part due to the prominence of liberal feminist approaches in the public arena which focus on achieving sex/gender equality. Linguistic discrimination is seen as a form of sex discrimination which can be addressed in ways similar to other forms of sex discrimination (e.g. in employment). In fact the question of gender bias in occupational nomenclature is directly linked to gender discrimination in the employment arena. The prominence of the linguistic equality approach is also due to the media's attention to non-sexist language guidelines, the main instrument of promoting this type of feminist language reform.  Advocates of the linguistic equality approach use the strategies of gender-neutralisation (sometimes gender abstraction) and/or  gender-specification (feminisation) to attain their goal of creating a language system which allows for a balanced representation of the sexes. Gender-neutralisation involves minimising or eliminating gender-specific expressions and constructions. It entails 'that any morphosyntactic and lexical features marking human agent nouns and pronouns (or other parts of speech) as masculine or feminine are 'neutralised' for gender, especially in generic contexts' (Pauwels 1998: 109). Examples for English include the elimination of gender-suffixes of  -ess, -ette, -(tr)ix in relation to human agent nouns (e.g. hostess, aviatrix, usherette), the creation of  compound nouns involving -person (e.g. chairperson, tradesperson), and the avoidance of generic 'he'.  Gender-specification (also known as feminisation) is a strategy used to achieve linguistic equality by making the 'invisible sex' (in most cases, women) visible in language through systematic and symmetrical marking of gender. Although English does not use this strategy much (it is found more often in languages with grammatical gender), the use of  'he or she', and of phrases such as 'police women and men', 'actors and actresses' in generic contexts exemplifies the gender-specification strategy. Underlying the linguistic equality approach to reform is a belief that making changes to linguistic forms will contribute significantly to the promotion of non-sexist meanings.

3  Evaluating  feminist linguistic reform

In the previous section I indicated that there are several approaches to feminist language reform and that the linguistic equality approach is the most prominent and possibly, the most widespread one. In this paper my focus is on the evaluation of the linguistic equality approach.

 Evaluating the outcome is a crucial aspect of any form of language planning.  Language planners together with the interest groups,  agencies or institutions which encouraged, demanded or sanctioned the reforms are usually keen to assess the impact of planning on the linguistic behaviour of the individuals, groups or communities targeted by the reforms. Whereas  advocates and/or opponents of linguistic reform are primarily interested in the extent to which the linguistic reform proposals have been adopted or rejected, for language planners the evaluation exercise also provides valuable information on the process of language planning, the factors which facilitate and/or obstruct change.  A further interest for language planners who are also linguistic scholars is the possibility of comparing the process of the spread of so-called 'planned' vs 'unplanned' linguistic change thus contributing to a better understanding of linguistic change.

Here I wish to explore two major aspects of the evaluation of feminist language planning:
(1) Evidence of the (successful) adoption of  feminist linguistic proposals;
(2) Insights into the ways feminist language changes spread throughout the community.

The adoption and spread of feminist linguistic reform are examined in relation to a prominent feature of feminist linguistic reform of the 'linguistic equality' type: the use of gender-neutral and/or gender-inclusive occupational nouns and titles. Data for this discussion come mainly from English, although reference is also made to Dutch, French and German studies. The discussion of linguistic spread is very preliminary as most data have not yet been subjected to a thorough analysis: i.e.  only trends will be noted.

4  Adopting feminist linguistic reform: success or failure?

4.1  Occupational nomenclature

In many western societies feminist concerns about gender bias in occupational nouns, professional titles and terms attracted attention primarily through its link with Sex Discrimination Acts and other legislation aimed at eliminating gender-based discrimination in employment. Feminists and women activists in a range of professional bodies highlighted the fact that occupational and professional nomenclature used in employment-related contexts displayed bias in favour of men leading to women's invisibility in this area of language use. For example, linguistic practices found in many job classifieds assumed applicants to be male. Male-stereotyped language was used to describe applicants (e.g. aggressive, dynamic, virile). The use of 'masculine' generic nouns and pronouns (e.g. the applicant - he; storeman, tradesman, cameraman - he) further reinforced the 'maleness' of the desired applicant.  Research in the 1970s and 1980s (e.g. Bem & Bem 1973, Hamilton 1988, Kidd 1971,  Mackay & Fulkerson 1979, Martyna 1978, Pincus & Pincus 1980, Schneider and Hacker 1973, Wilson & Ng 1988) found evidence that masculine generic nouns and pronouns were seldom interpreted in a generic, gender-neutral sense. Instead they were associated with male-specific images in many language users.

 Two major strategies emerged to eliminate this gender bias  in occupational nomenclature: gender-neutralisation and gender-specification (feminisation). Selecting one strategy over another seems partly linked to linguistic typology. Gender-specification as a main strategy is more likely to occur in the case of grammatical gender languages (e.g. German, French, Italian, Spanish) which still have productive gender suffixes (e.g. German). Gender-neutralisation is more likely to be applied to languages with a natural gender system (e.g. English) or languages in which gender suffixes are less or no longer productive (e.g. Danish, Swedish and Dutch).

However, the choice of the main strategy is also influenced by extra-linguistic or social arguments. Gender-neutralisation is clearly aimed at 'taking gender out of the occupational arena'. In other words, the aim is to have a society in which a person's sex has no relevance or significance for their occupational status. Proponents of the feminisation strategy, on the other hand, argue that it is socially more effective to achieve linguistic equality by showing that there are an increasing number of women in all areas of the paid work force, i.e. women's participation in the work force needs to be made more visible through the strategy of gender-specification or feminisation.

 In order to demonstrate successful adoption of feminist linguistic reform in this area of language use, evidence needs to be found that the  feminist alternatives are used increasingly in preference to the gender biased forms and that the actual use of the feminist alternatives is in line with their promoted use.  In language planning terms , successful feminist linguistic reform entails evidence that the feminist alternatives move from a status of 'discouraged' or even 'disapproved' use to that of 'tolerated', and eventually 'preferred' or 'promoted' use (Kloss 1968).

 Findings from Dutch, English, French (see especially Burr in this volume) and German research into the adoption of non-sexist occupational nomenclature confirm that feminist linguistic alternatives are (increasingly) used, although adoption rates vary substantially from language to language and vary according to linguistic context/genre. For the purposes of this paper I will confine the presentation of  evidence to that found in relation to the print media (mainly newspapers).

 English speech communities seem to lead the way in the adoption of feminist linguistic alternatives for occupational terms.  Cooper (1984) studied the impact of feminist language planning on the use of masculine generic  pronouns and nouns (including occupational nouns) on a corpus of 500000 words taken from American newspapers, current affairs and women's magazines covering the period 1971 - 1979. He found a dramatic decline in the use of masculine generics, especially of generic 'man'  and generic 'he': their use fell from 12.3% per 5000 words in 1971 to 4.3% in 1979.  In New Zealand Meyerhoff (1984) analyzed changes in the use of masculine generics in a corpus of 150000 words taken from five newspapers with a different audience (i.e. a national and a regional daily, a student newspaper, a TV magazine and a women's magazine as well as a monthly publication of the New Zealand's journalists' union).  Her study found evidence of a significant reduction in the use of masculine generic nouns and pronouns with the decrease being most pronounced for the student newspaper and the journalists' union publication. The only publication to support '- person' compounds was the student newspaper. Holmes' analysis of the occurrence of ‘-person’ vs ‘-man’ and ‘-woman’ compound forms in the Wellington Corpus of Written New Zealand English covering the period 1986 - 1989 found that most such forms occurred very seldom (1 per 1 million words) with the exception 'spokesperson' and 'chairperson' (Holmes in press). The use of these two forms, however, was considerably lower than that of their masculine generic alternatives: 'spokesman' and 'chairman'. The corpus revealed 6 instances of 'chairperson(s)' vs 109 for 'chairman/men' and 2 for 'chairwoman/women'. 'Spokesperson(s)' occurred 4 times in the corpus, 'spokespeople' once, 'spokeswoman/women' twice and 'spokesman/men' 36 times. Holmes (in press) did note that the 'overwhelming majority of the instances of chairman were identifiable as male, a sad reflection of the social reality that it was men who held this position most often, even in 1986'. She found only 4 instances of 'chairman' being used to refer to a woman. My own study  which comprised a corpus of 200000 words taken from two national Australian newspapers in 1992 and in 1996 similarly found an overall low incidence of -person, -man and -woman compound forms. The number of occurrences of ‘chairman/chairwoman/ chairperson’ revealed the continued predominant use of ‘chairman’, although a breakdown of the numbers according to referents showed that ‘chairman’ was predominantly used to refer to male referents. The few occurrences of ‘chairperson’ and ‘chair’ (see Table 1) do not allow for an interpretation of emerging trends. In the case of ‘chairman’ I would have to agree with Holmes’ comment that its continuing, frequent use reflects the fact that far more men than women continue to occupy this position. It should also be said that newspaper articles are not an ideal source to establish generic uses of this term, as most references to this position specify the incumbent. In the case of  ‘spokesman/spokeswoman/spokesperson’ a more substantial change can be noticed: although 38 instances of ‘spokesman’ were recorded, ‘spokesperson’ appeared 32 times. A breakdown in terms of referents showed that 47% of ‘spokesman’ uses referred to a male and that ‘spokesman’ was never used to refer specifically to a female. Most uses of ‘spokesperson’ had no specific referent. There is also some indication that ‘spokesperson’ is being used in connection with male as well as female referents, hence avoiding the trend that the '-person' compound is used as a mere substitution for the '-woman' compound form.

Table 1:  Chairman/spokesman and their non-sexist alternatives 

Term Frequency Referent unknown Male referent Female referent
chairman 33 4 28 1
chairwoman 4 0 0 4
chairperson 1 0 0 1
chair 3 1 1 1
spokesman 38 20 18 0
spokeswoman 8 0 0 8
spokesperson 32 21 8 3

This Australian investigation further showed a low incidence of  asymmetrical gender constructions of the sort ‘driver' vs 'woman driver’ or 'nurse' vs 'male nurse'. A total of 7 instances of asymmetrical use were found: they included ‘female judge’ (1), ‘ woman engineer'(2), ‘woman politician’(2), ‘woman publican’ (1) and ‘a lady taxi driver’ (1).

 Ehrlich & King (1992) reported on a class project investigating feminist linguistic reform in Canadian newspapers. Although they found evidence of the adoption of non-sexist alternatives, including  '-person' compounds, there were also many instances of  the misuse of the '-person' compound: its use was primarily reserved to identify female incumbents, with men continuing to be referred to by means of '-man' compounds.  This observation was also made by Dubois & Crouch (1987) who quoted from the Chronicle  of Higher Education  to show that women were referred to as ‘chairpersons’ whereas men continued to be called ‘chairmen’.

 The impression gained from these admittedly limited and small-scale studies of media language is that change is occurring but that there is still a long way to go in terms of moving from the status of ‘tolerated’ use to that of ‘preferred’ or ‘promoted’ use. There is certainly some evidence that masculine compound nouns containing '-man' no longer function (if they ever did) generically. Terms like ‘spokesman’ and ‘chairman’ are almost exclusively used, explicitly or implicitly, to male referents; they are rarely used to indicate a specific female referent. Women tend to be referred to by means of female-specific terms (spokeswoman, chairwoman, businesswoman) or by means of the '-person' compound form. It is unclear at this stage whether the new '-person' compound form is successful in challenging the '-man' compound in its generic function. There is certainly some evidence that words like 'chairperson' are almost exclusively used in reference to women and not to men confirming the comment by Cameron (1985: 90) ‘in the mouth of sexists, language can always be sexist’. However, with some other '-person' compounds (e.g. 'spokesperson) there is no such clear trend: the Australian study showed that the use of 'spokesperson' rivalled that of 'spokesman' in contexts where the referent is unknown.

 A more positive picture of change in progress is revealed in the analysis of job classifieds in newspapers, at least for English. Fleischhauer (1983) compared 5000 job advertisements in English and German newspapers between 1967 and 1983 finding that in 1967 15% to 25% of English job advertisements could be judged non-sexist. This had increased to nearly 45% by 1983. The outcome of my own study of 2000 job advertisements in 10 Australian newspapers in 1996 (Pauwels 1997) was even more optimistic: only 5.4% of the sampled occupational titles and nouns were gender-specific and were used as such. The sample had yielded 128 different occupational terms and titles most of which could be considered gender-neutral in form (e.g. accountant, physiotherapist, secretary, welder). Only 11% of the terms (mainly '- man' compound forms) could lend themselves to gender-specific use including 'chairman', 'draftsman', 'foreman', 'handyman', 'salesman', 'storeman', 'groundsman', tradesman', 'cleaning lady' and 'waitress'. With the exception of the terms ‘chairman’ and ‘handyman’, the '-man' compounds were used substantially less  than the '-person' compounds. For example, the term ‘foreperson’ was used in 81% of cases and the gender-neutral alternative to ‘tradesman’, i.e. 'tradesperson' was used in 90% of all cases.  Female-exclusive terms were also extremely rare: there was one instance of the phrase ‘cleaning lady’ and  two occurrences of '-ess' words: ‘manageress’ and ‘waitress’. Interestingly, there were no mentions of ‘barman’, ‘ barmaid’, ‘salesman’, ‘salesgirl’,  or ‘storeman’, only ‘bartender’, ‘salesperson’ or ‘salespeople’ and ‘storeperson(s)’.  Furthermore, reference to the desirable applicant in the body of the text was done primarily by means of the use of a gender-neutral noun (e.g. the successful applicant, the person, the individual) rather than via pronouns thus avoiding the ‘pronoun question’.   In the context of this investigation it could be said that non-sexist alternative job titles have moved beyond the status of tolerated to that of preferred use.

 The findings of Dutch, French and German investigations of job classifieds confirm the fact that change is taking place but at variable rates of pace. The use of non-sexist terminology and strategies in job classifieds in the Netherlands seems quite well advanced. In 1991 and 1993 I analyzed  a total of 2000 job classifieds from two national newspapers De Volkskrant and NRC Handelsblad. I found that a majority of ads could be considered non-sexist. In 1991 approximately 80% of  the classifieds were directed at both women and men and did not contain gender-specific descriptions.  In 1993 this figure had risen to just under 90%. Although such figures seem indicative of a high degree of success, they should nevertheless be treated with caution. In many cases, the gender bias had been removed from the advertisements by adding the descriptors 'm/v' which is an abbreviation of ‘mannelijk/vrouwelijk’ [male/female], or 'man/vrouw' [man/woman] to a masculine occupational noun. For example, 'direkteur m/v' [director m/f], 'assistent-geoloog m/v' [assistant-geologist m/f], 'groepsleider m/v' [team leader m/f]. In one instance a feminine occupational noun 'sekretaresse' [secretary] had been given the descriptor 'm/v'. The strategies used in the Dutch job advertisements reflected to some extent the competition between the strategies of gender-neutralisation and gender-specification (feminisation). Although there was a clear leaning towards gender-neutral occupational nouns, partly because Dutch has borrowed heavily from English with regard to occupational nouns in the areas management and computer expertise, there were some instances of the technique of 'gender-splitting', e.g. ‘docent/e’ [university lecturer], ‘redakteur/redaktrice’ [editor]. The use of non-sexist occupational nouns has also been the topic of several German investigations. Fleischhauer’s (1983) contrastive analysis of 5000 job advertisements in English and German revealed a rather pessimistic picture for German in the 1980s: in 1967 job advertisements in one of the German newspapers were structured according to the required sex of the applicant, i.e. there were separate columns of male and female advertisements. In the other newspaper, the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine' 77% of all advertisements were cast in the generic masculine.  Fleischhauer commented that this situation had not changed much by 1983: the majority of job advertisements were still cast in masculine generic terms although there were a few instances of gender-neutral terms and of the practice of gender-splitting. Brockhoff's (1987) examination of 6000 job advertisements in German newspapers revealed that despite the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation covering employment, there were no major changes in the language used in job advertisements. She found that more than 50% of ads were directed at men, 25% were directed at women and about 21% were cast in gender-neutral terms. In a more recent examination of 1963 job advertisements in a regional and a national German newspaper Oldenburg (1998) demonstrated a marked improvement since the 1980s: 44.8% of job ads could be described as non-sexist, compared to Brockhoff's 21%. She also noted that 33% of all non-sexist ads used the practice of splitting (e.g. 'Assistent/innen’ [assistant/s]) and 11.8% opted for gender abstraction (e.g. 'Bürohilfe' - [office assistant] -, 'Vertretung' [representation]). Oldenburg (1998) also observed that the adherence to non-sexist job descriptions was highest among public service jobs (i.e. 89.7%) and lowest among advertisements for trades and manual occupations (15.5%).  In France an investigation of 700 job advertisements in the current affairs weekly L’Express  in 1992  involved 181 different occupational titles and revealed that only 12.5% of the advertisements could be said to be non-sexist. A breakdown of the findings showed that 3.3%  employ the feminisation  strategy, - 'un(e) assistant(e) d’ingénieur', 7.7% attach the descriptors ‘HF’ (Homme/Femme = Man/Woman) to a masculine generic occupational noun, - 'ingénieurs HF technico-commerciaux', 1.1% provide gender-inclusive visual images and 1.1% use gender-neutral language, for instance 'Responsable de zone export ' (Schafroth 1993). Schafroth (1993) also examined the use of the feminisation strategy when referring to female authors and writers. In ‘traditional’ French auteur and écrivain do not have a feminine equivalent. However, Canadian French and some French French proposals for non-sexist occupational titles have included the formations 'auteure' and 'écrivaine'. Upon examining the literature sections of two French national dailies, Libération and Le Monde in September 1991, Schafroth (1993) nevertheless found no sign of their adoption. Burr (this volume) also  observes that the French media have been rather reluctant in embracing feminist linguistic change.

 The response to the question whether there is evidence of the (successful) adoption of  feminist alternatives to occupational nomenclature, can be cast in positive, yet cautious terms. It is clear that feminist linguistic proposals are having some impact on language use: they have not only caused instability in ‘traditional’ usage patterns but also have reached the status of tolerated use in some countries. Further the variability of use observed in relation to non-sexist/feminist alternatives seems indicative of change. In other words, there is evidence of adoption. It remains to be seen to what extent this adoption can be considered successful. There are some indications that non-sexist or feminist alternatives are being used in a sexist or gender biased way. Unfortunately this is a major problem associated with the linguistic equality approach which largely relies heavily on the form replacement strategy to effect change: changing 'forms' is not a guarantee for effecting a change in meaning and in usage patterns.

5  Spread of feminist linguistic change

 I indicated in the introductory section that I have not yet advanced to the stage of analysis which could establish trends with regard to the issue of spread of feminist linguistic change. However, from the analysis and the discussion of the data presented above it is nevertheless possible to  make some preliminary observations. First, change seems to spread from more formalised written contexts to less formalistic ones: gender-balanced (especially through gender-neutralisation) alternative occupational nouns, titles and terms are more likely to be found in the genre of job advertisements and classifieds than in other genres found in the print media. This may in part be due to the more regulated nature of the former genre: i.e. in principle, advertisers can be fined for using gender-biased language in job classifieds. Although other sections and genres found in the print media (especially newspapers and magazines) are also subject to some style guidance (including non-sexist language guidance), this guidance may be considered less regulatory. A second observation which can be made on the basis of this project is that there seems to be a 'semantic' dimension to the spread of change. By this I mean that the adoption of the feminist linguistic alternative form moves gradually and differentially through a  noun class depending on the social meaning of the noun. For example, it seems that there is a greater acceptance of  'spokesperson' as feminist alternative to 'spokesman' than there is of 'chairperson' as alternative to 'chairman'. The social status and power wielded by a person designated as 'chairman' are much higher than that of a 'spokesman', possibly leading to a greater resistance to change. The differentiation may also be due to the difference in social gender associated with the two nouns: even in today's world the business of being a chair of a company or a meeting is still much more associated with men than with women. The noun 'spokesman' possibly does not call up such a strong association in social gender terms, thus facilitating change to 'spokesperson'.

 Finally I would like to reiterate that my observations regarding the mechanisms of spread are just that: observations.

6  Summary

In this paper I examined the issue of the evaluation of feminist language planning. Specifically I addressed  two questions. The first question investigated to what extent there is evidence for the successful adoption of feminist linguistic alternatives to gender-biased occupational nouns. It was shown that there is substantial evidence, especially in English language communities of the adoption and use of non-sexist occupational nouns, titles and terms. The second question concerned the way in which such feminist linguistic alternatives spread. The information gathered on this aspect was only scant. However, it was noted that the spread of linguistic alternatives may be context-dependent and that it may have a semantic dimension.


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