Inclusion beyond English

Last month, somewhat unusually, the English-language media acknowledged that debates on inclusive language are not confined to the English-speaking world. What caught their attention was a story from Germany, where the Interior Ministry had rejected a Bill drafted by the Ministry of Justice. The Bill dealt with insolvency, and made reference to various categories of people including employees, landlords, consumers and debtors. But instead of using masculine forms like ‘Verbraucher’ (consumer) and ‘Schuldner’ (debtor), the draft used the feminine forms ‘Verbraucherin’ and ‘Schuldnerin’. As the New York Times helpfully explained, it was as if the author of an English legal document had used ‘actresses’ to mean ‘actors and actresses’.

The proverbial Martian visitor might wonder why that was a problem. ‘Verbraucherin’ does literally include ‘Verbraucher’, whereas the reverse is not the case (the same is true of many English feminine forms—for instance, ‘shepherdess’ includes ‘shepherd’ and ‘hostess’ includes ‘host’). But humans know the rule is the opposite. In German as in English, ‘actors’ can be used to mean thespians in general, but ‘actresses’ refers exclusively to female members of the profession.

That asymmetry was what bothered the Interior minister Horst Seehofer. He was concerned that the law as drafted might only apply to women, making it unworkable and potentially unconstitutional. Eventually the Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht capitulated, and the Bill was rewritten using the conventional, masculine forms. A spokesperson explained that this had been done to solve a linguistic problem, and was not intended to make a political statement:

The generic feminine for use for male and female people has not yet been linguistically recognized. This applies completely independently of whether a certain social state is desired.

Yet disagreements about the wording of the law were rather obviously political. Support for the use of feminine forms came from left-of-centre politicians like Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat, and the Green Party, while opposition came from those on the right, like Horst Seehofen of the Christian Social Union and the extreme right AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland). This is not and never has been a purely linguistic debate, either in Germany or anywhere else.

In Britain, the principle that masculine terms should be interpreted inclusively for legal purposes was formalised in 1850, when Parliament passed an Act of Interpretation stating that ‘Words importing the Masculine Gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females…unless the contrary is expressly provided’. But in practice, as Dennis Baron recounts in his book What’s Your Pronoun? this provision was not applied consistently.

In 1868 the Representation of the People Act superseded an earlier statute which had specified that only a ‘male person’ could register to vote. The new law replaced ‘male person’ with ‘man’, prompting questions about whether it might be ‘taken to include Females’. But when some women put that to the test, the judge unhesitatingly ruled against them, saying

There is no doubt that in many statutes “men” may properly be held to include women, whilst in others it would be ridiculous to suppose that the word was used in any other sense than as designating the male sex.

To the judge it was obvious that ‘man’, in a statute dealing with voting rights, could only have the sex-specific meaning ‘male person’. Yet if ‘man’ appeared in a statute dealing with taxation or crime, it would be just as obvious that the law applied to women too. This difference had nothing to do with grammar, and everything to do with ‘whether a certain social state was desired’.

But in any case, declaring the masculine inclusive by fiat does not, for most language-users, make it so. I once taught a student who recalled that as a child she had been puzzled by the saying ‘a dog is man’s best friend’. Did ‘man’ mean a human, or did it mean, well, a man? Eventually she asked her teacher, who said it meant a human. But she remained unconvinced: even after this conversation, what came into her mind whenever she thought of the saying was an image of a male person with a dog. Numerous experiments have shown that this is typical: supposedly generic or inclusive masculine forms are commonly interpreted as sex-specific.

By the time the student told this story (the late 1980s), many mainstream linguistic authorities—teachers, editors, handbook and style guide writers—had accepted that this was a problem. For English, the solution most of them advocated was a shift to ‘gender neutral’ language. Writers were advised to avoid ‘man’ words by substituting genderless terms (e.g. ‘chair(person)’ for ‘chairman’ and ‘humanity’ for ‘mankind’), and to get around the generic ‘he’ problem by recasting sentences in the plural (e.g. ‘readers must judge for themselves’ rather than ‘the reader must judge for himself’).

I have pointed out before that merely using formally neutral terms does not guarantee that women will be included. But in English, a language whose modern form makes very little use of gender-marking, it is not difficult to produce at least the surface appearance of inclusiveness. In German, by contrast, and many other languages (e.g. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew, Hindi) the same strategies will not work. When all nouns have a gender, and when gender must also be marked on the adjectives and articles (and in some languages, verbs) that go with them, you can’t easily avoid the issue.

In these languages, the approach feminists have mostly favoured is not gender neutralisation, as in English, but gender specification (also sometimes called ‘feminisation’ or ‘the visibility strategy’)—using feminine forms alongside masculine ones so that women are explicitly included. One way of doing this is by ‘doubling’, conjoining the two forms with ‘and’, as in the German phrase ‘Studenten und Studentinnen’ (‘students (masc.) and students (fem.)’). In writing an alternative strategy is ‘splitting’, using typographical devices like slashes (‘Student/Innen’) and parentheses (‘Student(inn)en’) to avoid repeating whole words.

Different devices have been favoured in different languages. In Spanish, for instance, doubled forms like ‘amigos y amigas’ (‘friends (masc.) and friends (fem.)’) have sometimes been replaced with the split form ‘amig@s’, since the @ looks like a combination of -o and -a. More recently, as the concept of gender inclusivity has broadened to encompass people who identify as neither men nor women, some writers have adopted the form ‘amigxs’, where X signifies ‘all genders and none’.

In French there are numerous options. One currently much-discussed splitting device is the ‘point médian’, a centrally-positioned dot, as in ‘les étudiant·e·s’ (‘students’), which is sometimes treated as the defining feature of ‘écriture inclusive’ (‘inclusive writing’). But in fact it’s only the latest in a series of conventions which have been used for the same purpose over the years, and which in many cases are still being used: they include parentheses (‘étudiant(e)s’), hyphens (‘étudiant-e-s’), and the ‘point’ (full stop, period) in its normal position (‘étudiant.e.s’). Doubled forms are also possible (‘étudiantes et étudiants’)—some writers order the forms alphabetically while others make a habit of putting the feminine first.

Neighbourhood bar: notice addressing customers (‘client(es)’)

These inclusive writing strategies are more ‘in your face’ than the neutral terms favoured in English, but they’re intended to address the same concerns about male bias. You may have heard that grammatical gender languages are different, and that the gender of a noun in French or German is just an arbitrary formal feature; but if the noun denotes a person or group of people that argument does not stand up. Experiments with speakers of grammatical gender languages have demonstrated the same effect as in English: masculine forms of nouns which refer to people tend to evoke mental images of males.

There’s also evidence that inclusive writing makes a difference. For instance, studies done with children and adolescents have found that if you present them with a grammatically masculine occupational term they will say that men are more likely to succeed in that occupation, but if you present them with paired masculine and feminine terms the male bias is significantly reduced. It isn’t always reduced to zero, because judgments in this area are also influenced by cultural stereotypes. But research suggests that linguistic gender marking can strengthen or weaken our preconceptions.

Facebook post using inclusive split form with full stops: ‘premier.e arrivé.e premier.e servi.e’ (‘first come, first served’ ).

Nevertheless, inclusive writing provokes resistance. If you follow these matters you may be aware that the Académie Française opposes any deviation from the traditional rules. The same is true of its Spanish counterpart, and of most language academies which have had occasion to consider the question. But you may not know that opposing écriture inclusive has become a pet cause of the French political right.

I found this out a few weeks ago, when I was asked to sign a letter responding to a group of language scholars who had denounced inclusive writing. When I asked a friend to explain the context—who were these scholars, and why had they chosen this moment to attack?—she told me they were aligned with the right, and pointed me to the text of a proposed law which some right-wing deputies (including the Front National leader Marine Le Pen) had put before the French National Assembly. This proposal seeks to prohibit the use of écriture inclusive by anyone in receipt of public funds–which would include, among others, academics and school teachers, since they are public employees.

France is not the only place where far right politicians have taken up this cause. In Brazil, following the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the new right-wing government took action to outlaw any future use of the title she had used while in office—she had styled herself ‘Presidenta’ (fem.) rather than ‘Presidente’ (which in traditional standard Portuguese has no feminine form). And in 2015 a high school teacher’s use of the inclusive form ‘alunxs’ (‘pupils’) sparked a media firestorm in which X-forms were said to promote a ‘gay marxist agenda’.

It’s true, of course, that conservatives have always resisted progressive efforts to change language. But the people I’ve just been talking about are not really conservatives: rather they belong to the radical right, which is populist, nationalist, racist and in some cases outright fascist. On the face of things it isn’t obvious why they would care so much about the arcane details of inclusive language. But in fact it’s an excellent target for their purposes—something they can use to whip up outrage about a whole range of ‘culture war’ issues.

In some places (Brazil is an example) hostility to inclusive language is linked to the recent obsession of both the Catholic Church and right-wing evangelical protestant groups with what they call ‘gender ideology’ or ‘gender theory’, meaning both feminism of a fairly traditional sort (the sort that demands equality and reproductive rights for women) and the newer politics of gender identity. Inclusive language makes a convenient target because it directly symbolises what the religious right objects to: feminised titles like ‘Presidenta’ symbolically reject the supposedly God-given precedence of the male/masculine over the female/feminine, while ‘alunxs’ rejects binary gender distinctions entirely.

In other places the targeting of inclusive language has more to do with nationalism and populism. The preamble to the proposed French law, for instance, declares that ‘the French language is a fundamental element of the character and heritage of France’, and reminds readers that in 1539 François I decreed that French should be the language of law and administration. The relevance of this detail is obscure, since there is no reason why French should not continue to fulfil its historic functions while also being written more inclusively. It’s just a nationalist dogwhistle, framing écriture inclusive as a threat to the status of French and therefore France.

Attacking inclusive language also allows you to take pot-shots at one of the new populists’ favourite targets, ‘the elite’. By which they mean not themselves and their wealthy supporters, but rather the left-leaning intellectual and cultural elite made up of academics, media folk, literary writers and other luminaries of the arts. Associating inclusive language with these high-profile users allows populists to argue that it’s elitist and exclusionary, at best offputting and at worst incomprehensible to people outside the charmed circle.

The elitism issue is one I take seriously. You can’t build a socially diverse mass movement if your language is so abstruse people need a degree in gender studies to decode it. But I don’t think it follows that you should just stick to the language most people are familiar and therefore comfortable with. If that language is male biased, there’s a good feminist argument that you should try to change it for everyone. If that’s your aim, however, a degree of elitism, or ‘vanguardism’, may be unavoidable. The kinds of changes feminists advocate tend to be adopted first by people with a strong ideological commitment to them—a group in which highly educated people are probably overrepresented. But where they lead, others will eventually follow.

I am old enough to remember when English gender-neutral terms like ‘chair’ (for ‘chairman’), ‘police officer’ (not ‘policeman’) and even ‘head teacher’ (rather than ‘headmaster/mistress’) were derided as clumsy, unnatural and ‘politically correct’; today they are unremarkable. Similarly, the photos in this post show French écriture inclusive being used by ordinary people in everyday informal contexts. The fact that an innovation initially encounters resistance does not mean it will never be accepted, and the fact that it started in an elite group does not mean it is inherently ‘elitist’.

The conclusion I draw from the evidence we have is that the benefits of inclusive writing in languages like French and German outweigh the disadvantages. The main disadvantage is aesthetic: doubling and splitting are obtrusive strategies which some find ugly or cumbersome (though so far, research has not supported the claim that they make reading slower and more effortful: it has found that people adjust to them very quickly). It’s also true that they don’t all transfer to the spoken language; but inclusive language norms have always been primarily designed for writing, and particularly for writing institutional documents (like job ads) where inclusiveness may be a legal requirement.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence that in practice the so-called generic masculine is understood as simply masculine. If inclusive writing can counteract that bias (and there’s some evidence it can), that’s surely a strong argument in its favour. And as an added bonus, by embracing inclusive language you can annoy pedants, conservatives, religious fundamentalists, populists, nationalists and fascists.

Many thanks to Heather Burnett, who contributed not only information and insights from her research, but also the photographs reproduced in this post. Merci! For information on Brazil I’m indebted to Rodrigo Borba. Obrigada! As ever, the opinions are mine and so are any errors.

The kids are alright

When I was a kid, I sometimes encountered adults who disapproved of the way I’ve just used the word ‘kid’. ‘A kid’, they would say, repressively, ‘is a baby goat’. They weren’t really objecting to the substitution of animal for human vocabulary. They just thought ‘kid’ was vulgar, a sign that the person who uttered it was uneducated and unwashed. They were using a spurious argument about language to proclaim their superiority to the common herd. They were also asserting their power, as adults, to hold young people to their standards of acceptable speech.

I was reminded of this last week when I read an article in Teen Vogue about the importance of using gender-neutral language. Clearly, I am not in the target audience for this publication, being neither a teen nor in any way voguish, and I can’t say I’ve ever looked at it before. But my interest in this particular piece was piqued after a number of people shared it on Twitter and commented on the absurdity of some of the terms it suggested—like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’ as gender-neutral substitutes for ‘uncle/aunt’ and ‘nephew/niece’.

I thought this was a bit unfair. I’d never come across ‘pibling’ or ‘nibling’ before, but it’s not hard to discern the logic behind them: they’re obviously modelled on ‘sibling’, a long-established word meaning ‘brother/sister’. Your ‘pibling’ is your parental sibling. I don’t know if it’ll catch on, but I don’t find it self-evidently ridiculous.

Anyway, I decided to read the Teen Vogue article for myself. And it got me thinking, not only about the perennially fraught relationship between activists of different generations, but also about the history of this type of verbal hygiene. Advice on using gender-neutral language has been around for over 40 years: the earliest English examples date back to the 1970s when I was still a teenager. So, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, and what does it all mean?

What surprised me most was how much of the article could have been lifted from something written 40 years ago. Both the selection of ‘problematic’ forms and the suggested gender-neutral alternatives reminded me of classic second-wave feminist texts like Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s 1976 book Words and Women and their later Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, which was first published in 1980 (there’s a fuller account of the two women’s work in this 1990s interview). Teen Vogue suggests a number of substitutions which I’m sure English-speaking feminists of my vintage will recognise:

• Humankind instead of mankind
• People instead of man/men
• First-year student instead of freshman
• Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
• Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
• Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
• Server instead of waiter/waitress
• Firefighter instead of fireman

This list echoes the preoccupations of the earliest nonsexist language guidelines, which put particular emphasis on avoiding (a) terms like ‘fireman’ and ‘mankind’, which  incorporated ‘-man’ (thus excluding women or implying that men were the norm); and (b) terms like ‘waitress’ that were formed by adding a feminine suffix to the generic/masculine form (this explicit gender-marking was considered both gratuitous and demeaning). Many of these terms were occupational labels, and that reflected one of the key feminist concerns of the time: combatting discrimination in employment. In Britain, where sex-discrimination became illegal in the mid-1970s, the new law required employers to use nonsexist terms in job ads. You couldn’t just advertise for a ‘salesman’ on the basis that ‘man’ included everyone, you had to spell out that women were welcome to apply by using either paired terms (‘salesman/woman’) or a neutral alternative (like ‘salesperson’). But it’s odd to see some of the old advice on job-titles being recycled in 2018. When did anyone last call a member of the cabin crew on an aeroplane a ‘stewardess’? Who still thinks of ‘firefighter’ as one of those newfangled PC terms?

On the other hand, this recycled list is a reminder that the old project of replacing male-centred with neutral terms was only partially successful. Four decades of complaints haven’t made ‘freshman’ obsolete, for instance, or ‘man/mankind’.  The list also made me think of the failed experiments which are always part of the history of any kind of verbal hygiene–all the proposed replacements for traditional sexist terms which didn’t make it into the mainstream, and are now largely forgotten. ‘Genkind’, anyone? How about ‘waitron’?

But while a lot of the actual terms on Teen Vogue‘s list are the same ones feminists discussed 40 years ago, the article’s framing of the issue is very different. Gender-neutral language is not presented as a specifically feminist concern, and the problem it’s meant to solve is not defined primarily as one of sexism. Instead, the main reason given for adopting neutral terms is, in the words of gender therapist Dara Hoffman-Fox, that

Using gendered terms […] is highly presumptuous, especially in today’s society, in which many persons are aware that they don’t identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language.

In the past, feminists who advocated neutral terms weren’t trying to avoid making unwarranted assumptions about the gender of individuals.  Their aim was to challenge the more general presumption of maleness as the human default. That presumption has not yet withered away, but for readers of the Teen Vogue generation concern about it has been at least partially displaced by newer concerns about respecting individuals’ identities and making those outside the conventional male/female binary feel ‘more included and safe among us’.

This explains the presence in the article of some less familiar terms, like ‘pibling’ and ‘nibling’. Kinship terms in general didn’t feature prominently in old-style nonsexist language guidelines, since although they are gender-differentiated, they do not invite the objection feminists had to pairings like ‘waiter/waitress’, that the masculine term is unmarked and the feminine by implication a deviation from the norm. The only difference between ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, or ‘niece’ and ‘nephew’, is that one denotes a female relative and the other a male one. But if your main concern is to include people who identify with neither of those possibilities, it becomes a problem that there is no term you can use that doesn’t specify the relative’s sex. What do you call your mother’s nonbinary sibling or your brother’s agender child?

This is the gap neologisms like ‘pibling’ are meant to fill. At the moment the inventory of gender-neutral kinship terms is still a work in progress, a matter of people independently constructing wordlists and putting them online. Their proposals are many and varied, and some of them are clearly destined to join the list of failed experiments I mentioned earlier (if you find yourself adding a note like ‘also the name of a musical instrument’ or ‘cute term for penis in French’ you probably haven’t got a viable candidate). But if enough people have a use for terms that do this job, a consensus will begin to emerge on which forms are best suited to the task.

For me, though, the most interesting question the Teen Vogue piece raised about continuity and change in gender-related verbal hygiene was not about the words themselves, nor even about the arguments for using or not using neutral terms. It was more about attitudes to linguistic authority—about who can prescribe to whom, and how they should go about it.

Casey Miller and Kate Swift were initially very reluctant to embark on what became the Handbook of Nonsexist Writing. They didn’t want to be seen as the ‘word police’, telling people ‘Do This or Don’t Do That!’ This attitude was not unusual: the authors of non-sexist language guidelines often disclaimed any intention to be prescriptive. Their aim, they said, was not to impose new standards, but only to help writers achieve in practice the kind of accurate and unbiased writing they already believed to be desirable in theory. What could be more inaccurate and biased than the erasure of half the population? Drawing attention to the problem and giving advice on how to avoid it was just removing an obstacle in the path of good writing. I always found this rhetoric disingenuous–of course writing guidelines are prescriptive, what would be the use of them otherwise? But it needs to be understood in the context of the time.

Before the digital revolution, it was not possible to experiment with new conventions or terminology in the ways people routinely do now. Today you can (literally) spread the word via tumblr or Urban Dictionary, but in the print era, if you wanted innovations to acquire mainstream currency, you needed the support of gatekeepers like publishers, newspaper editors, and the producers of educational materials like school textbooks or college writing handbooks. These gatekeepers were predominantly men, many were linguistically conservative, and at a time (the 1970s) when second-wave feminist militancy was at its peak, they were inclined (though there were exceptions) to view demands for nonsexist language as threatening and ‘extreme’. In those circumstances it was politic for feminists to tread lightly. And of course, there is always a reason for women to be cautious about claiming authority. When they don’t downplay their expertise, as we saw in the #immodestwomen row earlier this year, they are liable to provoke hostility and resentment.

Teen Vogue, however, does not tread lightly. Channelling the spirit of our contemporary online call-out culture, it actively encourages word-policing:

Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language… Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message.

You could see this as a positive development–young women being exhorted to exercise authority directly and unapologetically–but in this context I don’t think it’s good advice. There may be cases where something does need to be challenged on the spot (if it was not only highly offensive but also clearly deliberate and malicious), but in most situations I think you should resist the urge to ‘correct those around you’. Not only is this interpersonally risky, it’s also very often counterproductive. Nothing is less likely to make a speaker change their attitudes than being scolded or publicly shamed for using ‘forbidden’ words. I learned that long before I was a linguist, from every adult who ever told me that ‘a kid is a baby goat’.

Teen Vogue, of course, is imagining the opposite scenario, in which an adult takes instruction from a teenager. I think this speaks to a more general cultural shift since my own teenage years. The authority to set linguistic standards is no longer seen to lie exclusively with parents, teachers and other adults: on some questions, including questions about what terms are politically acceptable or progressive in relation to subjects like gender, it’s now widely assumed that the old should defer to the young.

It’s also widely assumed that since the young will outlive their elders, their standards will eventually prevail. But one thing this glosses over is that you can’t generalise about what young people think, about language or gender or anything else. There are political differences and disagreements within as well as between generations. An example is the ongoing conflict about whether it’s exclusionary to use the term ‘women’ in discussions of abortion, pregnancy or menstruation. It wouldn’t be true to say that gender-neutral alternatives like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘menstruators’ are uniformly favoured by younger feminists and uniformly opposed by older ones: the issue divides opinion across generations. That was also true for some of the reforms feminists proposed in the past. I said before that the history of verbal hygiene is full of failed experiments; it’s also full of  unfinished arguments and unresolved conflicts.

Teen Vogue’s brand of verbal hygiene isn’t identical to what preceded it, but nor is it so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I may not love everything about it, I do think this article is doing something worthwhile: introducing a new generation to the idea that thinking critically about language is part of the larger project of creating ‘a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms’. The route may have changed, but the destination is the same.

To gender or not to gender? (Thoughts prompted by the death of Zaha Hadid)

Last week, after Zaha Hadid’s death was announced, someone I know posted on Facebook: ‘It’s annoying that the coverage keeps referring to her as “the world’s most prominent female architect”. Why not “one of the world’s most prominent architects?”’

Most people who responded agreed that it was sexist to put Hadid into a subcategory of ‘female architects’ rather than acknowledging her status as one of the leading figures in contemporary architecture, period. But one person dissented, arguing that since it’s still harder for women to succeed in most professions, drawing attention to Hadid’s sex underlined rather than detracting from her achievements. This commenter also felt that highlighting women’s successes explicitly was important, because it helped to inspire other women and girls.

‘To gender or not to gender’ is a question that has also divided feminist linguists. Robin Lakoff, author of the influential early text Language and Woman’s Place, is among those who have argued that using gender-marked language has a profoundly negative effect. In 2007 she explained to William Safire (who wrote the New York Times’s language column until his death in 2009),

The use of either woman or female with terms such as ‘president, speaker, doctor, professor’ suggests that a woman holding that position is marked — in some way unnatural, and that it is natural for men to hold it (so we never say ‘male doctor,’ still less ‘man doctor’).

She went on:

Every time we say ‘woman president’, we reinforce the view that only a man can be commander in chief, symbolize the U.S. (which is metonymically Uncle Sam and not Aunt Samantha, after all), and make it harder to conceive of, and hence vote for, a woman in that role.

What Safire had actually asked her about was an old grammatical shibboleth. Pedants insist that referring to someone as a ‘woman architect/ doctor/professor’ is ungrammatical, because a noun can only be premodified by an adjective, not another noun. In their view, therefore, it should be ‘female architect/doctor/professor’. This, incidentally, is bullshit. Countless everyday English expressions are constructed on the ‘noun + noun’ model: for instance, ‘apple tree’, ‘dog collar’, ‘garden shed’ and ‘wedding ring’. Adjectives can fill the same slot, but there’s no law reserving it for their exclusive use. In any case, Lakoff derailed the ‘woman v female’ debate by declaring that the right answer was ‘neither’. Women should just be called by the same word we use for men.

But the pedants obviously didn’t get that memo: last year, when Hillary Clinton announced the start of her campaign, there was a new outbreak of handwringing about whether she should be referred to (in the event she’s elected) as a ‘woman president’ or a ‘female president’. On one side we had the usual objection that ‘woman’ is ungrammatical, while on the other we had people saying that ‘female’ was disrespectful—more appropriate for describing livestock than the leader of the free world.

What no one seemed to be asking was Lakoff’s question, why the president’s sex needs to be specified at all. True, if Clinton wins in November there will be a ton of ‘America elects its first ____ president’ stories, and someone will have to decide what to fill the blank with. But after that, we can surely just refer to her as ‘the President’. It’s not as if people are going to confuse her with all the other serving presidents of the US. Or even with her husband, a former US president. We’re talking about a nation that elected two presidents named George Bush: they ought to be able to manage without constant reminders that Hillary is the female President Clinton.

But what about the idea that there is value in drawing attention to the achievements of women as women? Some feminist linguists do favour using gender-marked language to make women’s presence in the world more visible. Even if you accept Lakoff’s argument that  referring to ‘a woman X’ rather than just ‘an X’ reinforces the perception that ‘Xs’ are prototypically men, there are reasons to doubt whether using unmarked terms does much to shift that perception. Research suggests that gender- neutral occupational labels are still typically interpreted as referring to men where the role they denote is culturally stereotyped as male (e.g. ‘lorry driver’ or ‘firefighter’). Replacing gender-specific terms with generic/inclusive ones seems not to override people’s real-world understanding of the relationship between gender and occupational status.

My own view (as usual) is that there isn’t a single, simple linguistic solution to this problem. It’s a decision I think you have to make case by case, because so much depends on the specifics of the context. And the effect will also depend on how any gender-marking is done, using what specific label.For instance, there are contexts in which I would refer to someone as ‘a woman writer’ (as well as contexts where I would simply call them ‘a writer’). But there are no contexts in which I would use the term ‘authoress’, because that word does not just convey that the writer is a woman, it also implies that her work is trivial and inferior.

The baggage that has become attached to certain words in the course of their history of being used is relevant to the great ‘woman v. female’ debate. In his column on the subject, William Safire expressed surprise and disappointment that feminists now seemed to prefer ‘woman’ to ‘female’ and ‘gender’ to ‘sex’. He put this down to a growing cultural squeamishness, describing those who have ‘turned against’ biological terms as ‘faint-hearted sociological euphemists’. Readers who know more about feminist theory than Safire did will be aware that the ‘sex/gender’ question is complicated. But in the case of ‘woman/female’ there are more straightforward reasons for preferring ‘woman’ to ‘female’–and they have little to do with squeamishness about biology.

‘Female’ is not just interchangeable with ‘woman’, as you immediately realize when you look at a corpus (a large collection of authentic examples). My own quick-and-dirty search of the 100 million-word British National Corpus turned up a crop of ‘female’ examples like these:

1. My poor Clemence was as helpless a female as you’d find in a long day’s march
2. ‘Stupid, crazy female’, was all he said as he set about bandaging it.
3. A call yesterday involved giving the chatty female at the other end one’s address.

These are typical examples of the use of ‘female’ as a noun, and they all involve a male speaker making a disparaging judgment on the individual he’s referring to. The judgments would remain disparaging if you substituted ‘woman’ for ‘female’, but to my mind they would be less unequivocally contemptuous. Whereas ‘woman’ can feature in positive as well as negative judgments, it’s hard to think of any context in which the noun ‘female’ is used to praise its referent: no one would say, for instance, ‘my late grandmother was an absolutely marvellous female’.

Does the contempt conveyed by the noun ‘female’ have anything to do with its being, as Safire suggests, more biological than sociological? In the examples I’ve just quoted there isn’t any explicit reference to biology, but in some cases the term does seem to have been chosen to foreground the issue of biological sex difference, and the motive for this may be overtly anti-feminist.

Here, for instance, is what a Texas businesswoman named Cheryl Rios posted on Facebook after Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president:

A female shouldn’t be president. …with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the president, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.

When challenged she stood by her comment, saying: ‘The president of the United States, to me, should be a man, and not a female’.

What’s striking here is the way Rios uses the non-parallel terms ‘a female’ and ‘a man’ (rather than contrasting ‘a female’ with ‘a male’ or ‘a woman’ with ‘a man’). The consistency with which she does it suggests it isn’t just a random accident. It may not be a fully conscious choice, but she has evidently chosen her words to mirror her general proposition that women, unlike men, are in thrall to their biology, and are consequently unfit to hold the highest office.

There’s nothing ‘faint-hearted’ about objecting to the label ‘female’ when it’s used in this way and for this purpose. But that doesn’t mean we have to object to all uses of it for all purposes: as always with language, it’s horses for courses. For instance, it doesn’t bother me when I read in a scientific paper that the researchers ‘recruited a balanced sample of male and female subjects’. In a discussion of sex I’d be more likely to refer to ‘the female orgasm’ than ‘the woman’s orgasm’. Conversely I’d be more likely to say ‘women’s underwear’ than ‘female underwear’ (and don’t even get me started on ‘Female Toilet’: when it comes to that phrase I am, unashamedly, a pedant. Sex is a characteristic of toilet users, not toilets themselves.)

But this discussion of the merits of competing terms does not resolve the larger question of whether it’s desirable to use any kind of gender-marking in references to women like Hillary Clinton and Zaha Hadid. Hadid herself had a view on this (one which, interestingly, seems to have changed over time). She’s been quoted as saying:

I used to not like being called a ‘woman architect’: I’m an architect, not just a woman architect. Guys used to tap me on the head and say, ‘You are okay for a girl.’ But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.

It’s not hard to understand why successful women in heavily male-dominated fields so often say, ‘I don’t want to be judged as a woman, I want to be judged on my merits as an astronaut/conductor/ mathematician’. But the reality is that women can’t avoid being judged as women; whatever we say or do, we can’t make the world treat our sex as an irrelevance or a minor detail. And maybe we shouldn’t want it to be treated in that way. Another thing Zaha Hadid said on this subject was:

People ask, ‘what’s it like to be a woman architect?’ I say ‘I don’t know, I’ve not been a man’.

As this answer implies, sex and gender shape every individual’s life-experience: the difference between men and women isn’t that men aren’t affected by their maleness, it’s only that they are rarely asked to ponder its effects. Women, by contrast, are endlessly required to explain how their femaleness influences everything they do.

If Hadid herself declined to play this game, others were happy to play it for her, both during her life and after her death. Here, for instance, is what Bust (an online magazine that bills itself as ‘a cheeky celebration of all things female’) had to say last week:

The world became a little less whimsical today with the loss of Zaha Hadid. The Queen of Curve, who was widely regarded as the most famous living female architect in the world, passed away today at the age of 65.

It’s hard to imagine that future obituaries of male ‘starchitects’ like Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano will use words like ‘whimsical’. I chose to mention these two because they designed (among other things) the somewhat whimsical Pompidou Centre in Paris–while Hadid designed (among other things) the not-so-whimsical Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Kircaldy. As you’ll see from the illustration, this example of her work demonstrates her skill with straight lines and sharp angles. Nevertheless, she’s ‘The Queen of Curve’. Oddly enough, when men design curved structures, like Norman Foster’s dome over the Reichstag in Berlin, that isn’t seized on as their unique signature, nor do people routinely compare the buildings to female body parts.

‘To gender or not to gender’ remains a tricky question. In language as in life, what we need is a middle way. Women should not be defined entirely by their sex; but nor should we have to disclaim it entirely to be given whatever credit our contributions to the world deserve.