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Growing up in France, it was impossible not to know that language is sexist. One of the first grammar rules I learnt was that "le masculin l'emporte": no matter how many feminine nouns there is in an enumeration, as long as there is at least one masculine one, adjectives, past participles and the lot take the masculine.
English grammar doesn't have this kind of rule, yet it counts many words that are only used to describe women. "Nagging" has been bothering me lately. Only women seem to be nagging. I just Googled "nagging man" - the third suggestion was "man kills nagging wife". The fourth, "man shoots nagging wife". This is sexist language used to justify violence against women. The words we choose are an integral part of ingrained sexism, as I was reminded reading Marina Keegan's The Opposite of Loneliness. In one of her short stories, she writes about how the female character's boyfriend had started to resent "her nagging habit", in order to show how the couple is falling out of love.
In her March interview with men's magazine Esquire, Emma Watson talked about how, even though she is engaged with feminism every day, she keeps tripping up on language. "I say "guys" to a room of girls all the time", she explained, which is when I realised that I do that too.
Working in luxury fashion, the majority of my co-workers are women. There are three men in my team of 17. For too long, that didn't stop me from opening emails with "Hi guys", or saying it in meetings. I'm paying attention to it now, though I still fall short of stopping myself every time. I've also started calling people out on it. I always get told that "guys" is a generic term, not a gendered one. Except it is doing much the same as French grammar: assuming that it is acceptable to choose a noun describing men to define women. Calling a group of women "guys" is acceptable, but many groups of men would take umbrage to being called "girls".
Earlier this year, criminal defense lawyer Nancy Hollander recounted a great anecdote about how she convinced a judge, early in her career, to stop referring to all counsel as "gentlemen". It inspires me every time I encounter sexist language at work. Read it here and send me your stories of how you deal with sexist language.
And here are some of the best replies:
Ashley of The Broad Experience pointed out that considering 'guys' to be neutral but 'gals' or 'girls' not to be is similar to considering the colour blue to be neutral but pink to be girly.
- Emily of the Women's Foundation says "words are everything" and reminded me of how, when actresses complain about being called 'actresses', we make them all 'actors' which is similar to calling all people 'guys'.
- Joyce at Facilitating Peace had an excellent point about how in French, women and girls are defined by their relationship to men. There are only two words covering woman, wife, girl and daughter (femme and fille) whereas there are four to refer to men at similar stages of their lives (homme, mari, garcon and fils).