First Published: The Forge, Vol. 7, No. 24, June 18, 1982
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
It is true that in the past we didn’t attach enough importance to the struggle against sexism in language. We ignored the initial criticisms we received on this issue, and we weren’t quick to respond to more recent ones. We apologize for this chauvinist and sectarian attitude.
Over the past few months however, we have begun a rectification on this issue. With your help we intend to continue it and deepen our understanding of the problem.
Language is a complex social phenomenon. It is a result of social activity and enables people to communicate and society to function. Language is not independent of the society in which it originates, nor of the classes that make up that society. To this very day the Queen of England uses the “Royal We” when talking of herself (“We were very pleased with your gift”), although grammatically, of course, this is an error. But the class question is determinant.
Language is permeated with male chauvinism. The English language is no exception. For example, when speaking in general, the possessive pronoun used most often is “his” (to each according to his work”, for example), although the statement applies to both men and women. The word “spokesman” has been used regardless of whether one is referring to a man or a woman.
In French the masculine form always takes precedence over the feminine form; if one has a group of only one man and 100 women, the adjective describing it takes the masculine form. (In French, adjectives are not neutral, they take the form of the noun they describe. All nouns in French have different masculine and feminine forms, rather than one neutral one as in English.)
Professional terms in English are generally neutral and can refer to either a woman or a man (doctor, lawyer, etc.). In French, however, all nouns have a gender, and professional terms are all masculine (“le medecin” – the doctor). No feminine form exists, implying that these jobs are male only.
As socialists we want relations of equality between men and women, we want to eliminate women’s oppression. So it is only logical that we adopt a policy of eliminating sexual bias in the language we use in our publications.
In English we can always use the neutral form. Instead of “his” or “hers” we can use “their” (“to each according to their work”). Rather than “spokesman” or “spokeswoman” it has become common to use “spokesperson.” “Humanity” or “humankind” can replace “mankind”.
In French, where there is no neutral form, we can use both the feminine and the masculine as much as possible (rather than just “les travailleurs”(workers), use “les travailleurs et travaillenses” (workers – masculine form, and workers – feminine form).
An important task is to use more examples putting forward women. Obviously we cannot change the language entirely. Problems will remain, especially given the lack of neutral form in French. But the main goal is to reflect reality, to draw attention to the fact that women are also active in society and deserve mention, and should not be obliterated in a sea of masculine nouns and pronouns.
We can achieve this goal, but within certain very real limits. Without controlling the educational system, communications, and so on, how can we revolutionize a language? Especially since in our society women are in reality kept in an inferior position.
In a socialist system, a new state power could encourage more rapid linguistic changes. The Russian Revolution, for example, abolished the titles of the old ruling class and attempted to affirm the equality of social relations in language.
Nonetheless, changes are possible right now. Already criticisms from the women’s movement have brought about many. In French, feminine forms have been created and are recognized by officialinstitutions (“une auteure,” a female author, for example).
In English, particularly in the U.S., the use of “they” as a neutral pronoun is growing. The 1976 reedition of Doctor Spock’s famous Baby and Child Care, had to take account of women’s criticisms and stop talking about babies and children in purely masculine terms.
Given our late start on this question, along with the difficulties that remain, especially in French, we will surely need your suggestions and advice.