Today I’d like to tell you the story of how I became a feminist. Like most women I experienced some form of street harassment, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, humiliation and unfair pay at different stages of my life, but the first time I identified as a feminist was not after suffering one such act of personal abuse. In fact, I had my first moment of feminist revelation at school during a particular class that I still remember vividly. I was 7. And the year was 1985.
Our teacher was called Mademoiselle Marconet. At the time female teachers in their forties or fifties who weren’t married were still referred to as “spinsters”, and some of these women wanted to be called Mademoiselle rather than Madame. I found it strange at the time. Why would you want to tell everyone “I’m not married” as if this was a piece of information that was essential about you? But now I understand it was some kind of feminist message.
If you were Madame, everyone assumed you were married, and therefore in their eyes, you existed mostly as somebody’s wife, i.e. being a wife defined you. So being Mademoiselle meant you were your own woman. Now I understand that maybe it was some kind of rebellion.
Mademoiselle Marconet may have been some kind of feminist, but she was also a stickler for French grammar. And the reason I became a feminist is inextricably linked to language. I became a feminist because of French grammar. Perhaps it’s also why I developed an interest in linguistics and languages later in life. Perhaps it explains why I love the English language so much (it’s so much more flexible, and yes, less sexist). Here’s how it happened 👇
The momentous day I became a feminist because of French grammar
For you to understand what happened during this particular grammar class, you should know that French, unlike the English language, but together with Spanish, Italian or Hindi, has grammatical genders: each noun is either masculine or feminine. For example, the sun is masculine and the moon is feminine (funnily, it’s the other way around in German). And when you have feminine and masculine nouns together, the total (plural) is always masculine. If you have 99 girls and 1 boy in a group, the plural is masculine.
And during one grammar class, Mademoiselle Marconet, who was a stickler for grammar and wanted us to understand that plurals with a mix of feminine and masculine were always masculine had us repeat 10 times out loud, “MASCULINE ALWAYS WINS OVER FEMININE”, “MASCULINE ALWAYS WINS OVER FEMININE”, “MASCULINE ALWAYS WINS OVER FEMININE” (“le masculin l’emporte toujours sur le féminin”)… again and again and again.
Rote learning and reciting in unison were the things back then. You were expected to stay put and recite together with the rest of the group, with the teacher “conducting” the whole group like an orchestra. It’s hard to describe the way I felt during this class. I was boiling with rage and frustration. I felt powerless, sad and disgusted at the same time. I wanted to scream and I wanted to cry. I felt all the more frustrated as no one but me seemed in any way shocked by that sentence we had to repeat over and over again.
The rage I felt was intense. It was also a moment of accelerated learning. Somehow I understood it wasn’t just language. And that’s why it hurt so much. I could see my mother. I could see all the other women in my life. And I already knew at age 7 that it was true that “masculine always wins over feminine”. It was no coincidence. Language was a good reflection of life. But the fact that we had to repeat it and learn it also meant there was nothing natural about it. Something natural doesn’t have to be learnt by reciting in unison.
Ain’t Covid a “bitch”?
So now you know how I became a feminist. Interestingly I feel a lot less lonely today than I did 35 years ago. Many people today understand the role played by language in perpetuating sexism. They know language is a construct (a moving one) that reflects power structures. They know it’s more than a symbol. Fighting for and through language is important. It’s not anecdotal.
In France there’s an intense fight going on on the linguistic battlefield. Young French feminists are increasingly challenging the “masculine always wins” rule. And it really is an intense fight. France even has an old institution filled with elderly white men with theatrical costumes whose sole job is to protect and defend the old linguistic power structure. It’s called the Académie française. And the Académiciens call themselves “the immortals”. No kidding! Like vampires.
Few people actually heed what they say because language lives (and is not “immortal”). Any linguist knows there’s no “right” and “wrong” when it comes to language. There’s life. There’s creativity. And there is an inevitable reflection of social and gender power structures. And by the way, this “masculine always wins” rule is fairly recent in the history of the French language. It wasn’t always so. One of the two most common rules were proximity (last noun listed determines the gender of the plural) and number (more feminine than masculine, then feminine wins). The rules were different as recently as 250 years ago.
Much can be said about the gender of nouns. How does the fact that the sun is “masculine” or “feminine” affect your cognition? Linguists and all sorts of researchers have studied the subject. It turns out that it does affect the way you think about things. That’s why I believe it was not a coincidence that the old Académie française vampires chose to get out of their coffins for a remarkable covenant dance this week. Behold the immortals. They had something to say.
And what did they have to say? Well, that “Covid” must be feminine, not masculine. French people ought to say “la” Covid, not “le” Covid, the way they have up until now. They even had a grammar rule to justify that. But the truth is they want to be able to say that Covid is a bitch (une salope), and that works so much better if the noun is female. Can you really insult “le” Covid the way you can insult “la” Covid? No, you can’t. QED.
I wrote earlier that English is a less sexist language than French. I’m really convinced of it and I could explain why I think so in 10,000 words. But the English language, like every other language, does reflect power structures too. So it is sexist too. And I’ve recently read a remarkable book that was recommended to me by fellow Substack writer Toni Cowan-Brown (I recommend her newsletter Idée Fixe) on that subject. (Thank you, Toni, I loved the book ❤️). The book is titled Wordslut: a feminist guide to taking back the English language. And it’s a gem. It’s funny, witty, and very clever.
A reporter and feminist linguist, Amanda Montell, the author, undertook to deconstruct the English language. She has a whole (delicious) chapter devoted to insults and cursing:
A survey of gendered insults conducted at UCLA found that approximately 90 percent of all recorded slang words for women were negative, compared to only 46 percent of recorded words for men. That means there were simply more insults for females in people’s everyday lexicon than there were for males. (…) Why, exactly, are there so many outrageous insults for women in the English language?
In that chapter you can also read that:
Linguists have actually determined that the majority of insults for men sprout from references to femininity, either from allusions to women themselves or to stereotypically feminine men: wimp, candy-ass, motherfucker. Even the word woman itself is often used as a term of ridicule. I can hear it now: “Dude, don’t be such a woman.”
Another chapter is devoted to grammar and titled “how to embarrass the shit out of people who try to correct your grammar”:
In languages all over the world, there is some undeniable “leakage” going on between grammatical gender and how we perceive human gender in real life. (…) it is highly possible —and sometimes inevitable—for the gender of a word to bleed into speakers’ perceptions of what that word means. (…) Grammar is a feminist concern, and there’s reason why suffixes and noun agreement have been at the center of the French feminist movement in a way that they haven’t in the United States.
Montell moves between history and popular culture to explore the relationship between language and society. It is knowledgeable and also hilarious at times. You should read it 📚 (especially you, Jérôme Q.!)
🌳 I’m in Normandy all month this month 😏
Nicolas Colin and I have published a lot of new content on our media Nouveau départ (in French). There’s an interview with a yoga historian about yoga during the pandemic, there’s an analysis of the impact of lockdown on management, an interview with an urbanist about the office and the city of the future, and much much more. Only our paying subscribers have access to that content. So if you’re interested, you know what you have to do 😘
I have new publications this week. For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote a piece titled “Manager: how well do you master the art of remote work, on a scale of 0 to 4?” (in English), “Comment réussir au travail ? Les « règles du jeu » selon Clara Moley” (in French), and “Culture et collaboration à distance : connaissez-vous le système des « 3 buddies » de Buffer ?” (in French).
I was also interviewed for Marie Claire: “Les femmes ne sortent pas toujours perdantes d'une crise”. And I wrote an op-ed for L’Express/L’Expansion: “Travail d'hier, économie d'aujourd'hui, quand le télétravail révèle les failles du management”.
💪 “How Labor Leader Mary Kay Henry Is Fighting for Frontline Workers in a New World”, Alana Semuels, Time, April 2020: “the crisis has given a push to workers who were already frustrated about stagnant wages, a limited safety net and income inequality in America. “We’re going to see mass organizing the likes of which last occurred in the ’30s in the Great Depression,” she predicts (…) “It’s like there was a haystack and a match was thrown in by COVID-19.”
🇨🇳 “A Lost ‘Little Africa’: How China, Too, Blames Foreigners for the Virus”, April Zhu, The New York Review of Books, May 2020: “China is projecting broad messages of co-operation, especially in service of the Belt and Road Initiative. But these paradoxical forces—one outward-facing and positive, the other inward-facing and negative—will surely work against each other.”
🧘 “Yoga With Adriene: how the YouTube star won lockdown”, Marisa Meltzer, The Guardian, April 2020: “With gyms and studios worldwide off limits, online exercise classes are booming – and one Texan teacher has become the ‘patron saint of quarantine’.”
That’s all for this week. I wish you all a great week! I’m considering turning this newsletter into a bi-monthly newsletter, which may give you more time to read it. Let me know what you think of the change 💌
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