Thursday, January 23, 2020

Finally! Feminization of French Profession Work Titles

by Ash Carter

Ash Carter is a graduate student in French sociolinguistics at the University of Illinois.  She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities' in Spring 2019.

In late February of this year, France became the last country in the French-speaking Western world to add feminine working-titles to their language repertoire after centuries of masculine-dominated professional titles. The French Academy, which serves as the executive body of French language policy and planning in France, decided to accept feminine work titles as ‘correct’ and suitable for ‘standard’ French. And this is news because…? Well, this is news because Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada all adopted feminization as early as 1979. The reluctance of the French to follow in the footsteps of francophonie in this matter in earlier years is explained by the Academy’s belief that the proposed changes to the language were ‘barbaric’. While former French president Jacques Chirac encouraged the move towards gender inclusion in the French professional vocabulary in 1997, feminization did not take hold right away. This original rejection and disbelief in feminization lie in the structure of the language that reveals a deeply sexist past.

Académie Française et pont des Artes
Image Credit: Nitot, via Wikimedia Commons
License available here
French, like many Romance languages, observes a binary grammatical gender system that all nominals (nouns, adjectives, articles, verb agreement, etc.) must follow: they are either masculine or feminine. For example, une pomme, an apple, has the article une which tags the word as feminine, while un verre, a glass, indicates masculine through the use of the masculine article un. People themselves must follow the gendered system as well. I, as a woman, would say je suis heureuse, (I'm happy) while a man would say je suis heureux. The -eux ending marks that the noun, referring to a man, is masculine, and the -euse ending marks that – grammatically speaking - I am a woman. For most adjectives and nouns, marking gender overtly – which means ‘expressed in a visible way in the grammar’ – does not change the meaning or function of the adjective: heureux and heureuse mean happy, regardless of the gender. However, some professional titles and adjectives change both in gender and meaning.

For example, the masculine form of the adjective professionnel means someone who works in a particular field, or a skilled worker, while the feminine adjective professionnelle has a pejorative or negative connotation: it refers to a prostitute. Another example is the noun le/un président; the masculine form of the noun means the president, while the feminine version la présidente means first lady. Fortunately, now that the official feminization has been accepted by the Academy, there is a recognized term for a female president that does not infer the president’s wife, and professional titles that simply had no “standard” male equivalent are indeed being recognized.

Some would say that the most jarring aspect of the acceptance of the feminization of professional titles is the amount of time it took to be passed. On the other hand, it’s essential to consider the reality of its newfound recognition, given that the societal shift towards equality for men and women is a recent phenomenon in and of itself.

Throughout most of post-Medieval French history up until  last February, the quote “the superiority of the male over the female” (I-ENS), coined by French Academy member and grammarian Nicolas Beauzee, resonated strongly within the language, but has not been prevalent socially after the second wave of feminism in the late 1960’s. Only then, did France, like most of the Western world, begin to adopt the concept of ‘parity’ or parité. Parity, as defined by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), signifies that “each sex is equal and represented in institutions. [Parity] is an instrument to the service of equality, that serves to assure the access of men and women to the same opportunities, rights, opportunities to choose, and material conditions while respecting their specificities” (INSEE2018). To ensure parity, multiple laws and legislation have been enacted to preserve rights for both sexes, and to promote more women in public work spaces. In 1907, married women gained the right to control their own salaries, in 1944, it was legal for them to vote, and in 1972, equal pay amongst men and women was legally upheld (INSEE 2018). However, despite a social shift in equality for men and women in public domains and institutions, the language itself stayed quite stagnant. This is mostly due in part to the conservative and prescriptivist nature of the Académie Française.

The French Academy, or l'Académie Française, is a language governing body whose “primary function is to work, with all possible care and diligence, to give certain rules to our language and render it pure, eloquent, and capable of treating the arts and sciences” (2018). Officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, the Academy is made up of 40 elected members/specialists (les Immortels, mostly men) that contribute their own works to the Academy, but also vote on official neology and terminology that appears in their official dictionaries. Being an extremely conservative institution, the Academy tends to hold tightly to their mission to “defend the spirit of the language and rules that preside over the enrichment of vocabulary” (2014). In doing so, the Academy has outwardly rejected unrecognized feminine professional titles by calling them “barbarisms” and “impositions” on the purity of the French language (2014). Other countries, such as Canada for example, already accepted official feminization of working titles, such as professeure for a female teacher and auteure for a female author, and now France has accepted them, too. The ways in which titles become feminine is a task left open to the speaker due to the difficulties in “dictating [all] the rules by which titles should be feminized”, however, feminine forms of all professions are no longer deemed incorrect or ungrammatical.

Such a profound addition to the lexicon of the French language demonstrates how languages evolve - and has to be allowed to evolve - naturally over time. Words are not altogether neutral: they serve as stepping stones towards a more equal society where language is meant to reflect that reality. No speaker of a language should wait for thirty years to see its profession officially recognized in its mother tongue.


Bureau de la traduction. (2015, September 23). 9.2 La féminisation des titres de fonction - 9 La féminisation - Le guide du rédacteur - TERMIUM Plus® - Bureau de la traduction. Retrieved April 16, 2019, from

Genre : Accord ou désaccord ? (n.d.). Retrieved April 9, 2019, from

L’Académie Française. (2014). La féminisation des noms de métiers, fonctions, grades ou titres - Mise au point de l'Académie française. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from

L’Académie Française. (2018). Les missions. Retrieved April 11, 2019, from

Parité et égalité entre femmes et hommes. (2018, March 16). Retrieved April 11, 2019, from

Planté, C., & Chevalier, Y. (2016, November 02). What Gender Owes to Grammar. Retrieved April 15, 2019, from


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