Going against the grain, by Elena Damaschin, Ludovica Casarino and Mariia Bilyk

One of the most important features of human society is the ability to evolve. Many wonders and discoveries have allowed humankind to go beyond the imaginable, but maybe it was difficult to imagine that one day women would take part in politics and have state roles that were once the prerogative of men.

This has led to confusion in languages that have words for masculine and feminine gender. For example, the Italian for teacher is maestro (m.) and maestra (f.), according to gender. This example is hardly controversial, but the problem regards the use of masculine terms for positions where women have new important roles, more precisely, authoritative roles.

In Italy till recently most political professions were occupied by men and as a result only the masculine forms were used. However, the Italian language itself is not to blame for this situation. The language is known to be flexible, adaptable and easy to innovate, but the problem appears when people are not willing to use updated terms for new positions covered by women.

Things are likely to change because the number of women in power is increasing. It would therefore be appropriate to specify their role by using the feminine equivalent, legitimising the names of positions for women, although this is not as easy as it might seem. For instance, as reported in the Italian press, in Italy the former President Giorgio Napolitano harshly criticised the feminine equivalents for mayor and minister (sindaca and ministra) during a recent public ceremony, calling the term ‘abominable.’ Napolitano probably failed to understand what the issue is.

Let us take Russian as another example. Most political professions have a masculine version. The feminine equivalents for ‘mayor’ and ‘minister’ do not exist yet. In most cases the feminine version is only used in colloquial speech. The position of secretary is one of the most interesting cases: officially it has a masculine form – секретарь – while the feminine form – секретарша – is used in colloquial speech and sometimes with an ironic connotation. Very recently, however, some online dictionaries such as bab.la have started to introduce feminine equivalents for the position of secretary, while the Cambridge online dictionary mentions only the masculine version.

We live in a democratic society with equal rights. At least so we are told. “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name” said Confucius. The Italian lexicon is rich enough to use the feminine equivalents when political roles are covered by women, so why do some people in Italy today find it difficult to use these feminine equivalents for sindaco or ministro (mayor and minister)? After all, it seems unlikely that any men would want to be called ministra instead of ministro: it goes against the grain.


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