Academic journal article Women and Language

Liberte, Egalite, Sororite: A New Linguistic Order in France?

Academic journal article Women and Language

Liberte, Egalite, Sororite: A New Linguistic Order in France?

Article excerpt

Abstract: The paper places the question of Women and Language in France in its historical context. This demonstrates how it is manifested in a top-down intervention in keeping with national policies of linguistic interventionism. The paper focuses on the reasons for the opposition to the feminisation of the French language and the role of the Ministry for Women's rights in the 80's. It also touches on the problems of eradicating sexism from a romance language like French. A corpus of contemporary written French from the national press forms the basis of the analysis. The following issues are addressed." whether the officially recommended forms have entered usage, whether women in France are still being discriminated linguistically and to what extent the language is in the process of being modified.


Background to the Position of Women in France

152 years ago, in 1848, at Seneca Falls, an important meeting was held to demand universal suffrage for all Americans. Although French women had become citoyennes (women citizens) during the 1789 French Revolution, their achievements remained minimal. During the 1848 Revolution, French women voiced their claims more stringently in papers like "La voix des femmes," thus acting as precursors of the suffragettes, and the MLF (Mouvement de liberation des femmes) in the 20th century. Some men also championed a new social order and argued for women's rights, i.e. Victor Hugo, in 1849, at the French National Assembly and, later John Stuart Mill, in a seminal speech to the House of Commons, suggested replacing "man" by "person" in all official documents. (1)

It is common knowledge that the post-war (post second world war) period in France is associated with women's emancipation. French women lagged behind in all walks of life, due to social edicts that prevented them from voting, having access to education, employment, public office and also from exerting control over their own body. After years of fighting for their electoral freedom, they were given the vote by De Gaulle in August 1944. In the wake of this unexpected victory, women continued to focus their struggle on a number of issues: the right to paid work outside the home, equal work for equal pay, access to all areas of education, and acquiring financial independence. In the sixties, legislation was passed which affected women's personal life (new marriage laws in 1968, the legalisation of contraception in 1967). Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan's influence permeated the thinking of the new generation of post' 68 feminists who gathered under the banner of the MLF, created in 1970. French philosophers like Lacan, for whom women merely exist in the patriarchal discourse, and Derrida, for whom reality does not exist outside of discourse or language, were also influential on the MLF. The movement was characterised by intellectual preoccupations of this kind. Although it immersed itself in ideological thought, it played a strong part in bringing about the 1974 Loi Veil, legalising abortions. In the same year, for the first time a Secretary for Women's Affairs was created. This government post was to become a Ministerial one when President Mitterrand instituted a Ministry for Women's Rights in 1981.

The question of women and language usage only came to public attention, in France, in the early 80's, following the appointment of Yvette Roudy, the first Minister for Women's Rights. Two decades later, it seems relevant to examine whether the French language has changed and whether the official language 'recommendations ', made in the eighties as a result of her action, have entered common usage. Have newspapers taken on board these language proposals or do they still display an aversion to change? Are they in a state of flux with no editorial policy in this issue? The evidence suggests that they still rely on a mixture of both new and old forms for feminine professional designations. …

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