of gender and generalities

There’s a general strike planned in Spain for this coming Wednesday and this advert appears in El Público today:

  IU general strike advert

The call to action comes from the Izquierda Unida, the main left wing party in Spain (as opposed to the PSOE – the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – currently in power and not half as left wing as the name might lead you to expect).

Whatever my sympathies might be for the left, and for those who intend to strike, I object to the phrase nosotras y nosotros.

I know that a left wing political party must be seen to be politically correct, but “nosotros” is an inclusive pronoun; it means “we” – masculine, feminine and the no sabe o no contesta indeterminates. A few years ago, it became popular to use the @ symbol in such cases, as, visually, it seems to combine the ‘o’ and the ‘a’, but I suppose nosotr@s would be too modern and risk alienating those who are not at one with modern technology.

Spanish is a wonderful language in many ways. The gender specific endings of certain words can be tremendously helpful (although sometimes confusing for a foreigner who’s learned the language as an adult), although there are times when it’s not clear what’s meant: if someone says “tengo tres hijos”, they need to clarify if those are in fact hijos varones, a mix of boys and girls, or even just girls.

The inclusive masculine form is not limited to Spanish of course. As Michael Valentine Smith says in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land according to “Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, published in Springfield, Massachusetts, […] the masculine gender includes the feminine gender in speaking.” And now even with words that have two forms in English – such as actor/actress and waiter/waitress – there is a tendency to use the masculine form or a non-gender specific alternative.

It’s a problem, though, that we don’t seem to be clear whether we want to have a single inclusive masculine form – calling a female film star an ‘actor’ seems to imply they are more professional than Hollywood starlets (starlettes?) who get the part on looks alone – or whether we want to create new, separate words – like ‘chairwoman’ – to make it clear when a female is running the show.

The big problem is that once you start on this slippery slope of political correctness you get into all sorts of ugly phrasing. The advert text starts:

Izquierda Unida llama a todos los trabajadores y trabajadoras, a toda la ciudadanía…

Why are the adjective todos and the article los acceptable to qualify trabajadores and trabajadoras? Surely we should have: todos los trabajadores y todas las trabajadoras. As for toda la ciudadanía, how can a feminine word include all the citizens?

The other problem with the phrase nosotras y nosotros is, of course, the order. If it started nosotros and then clarified with – y nosotras – it would sound more spontaneous and genuine. As it stands, it sounds pompous and patronising. Not only does the writer think women deserve special mention, but they must be put first. Whether that’s a throwback to a gentleman letting a lady walk through a door ahead of him, I don’t know, but it certainly bugs me.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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