Posted by: janecronin | October 23, 2016

Non-sexist Spanish

The concept of challenging sexism in language is well established in English.  The historical linguistic assumption in words like “fireman” “policeman” and “chairman” is that these jobs are exclusively performed by men so when a woman fulfilled one of these roles, she was either obliged to maintain the male-biased title or the job name was altered to “firewoman”, “policewoman” and “chairwoman”.   The feminist argument was that there was no need to specify the gender of the person fulfilling an occupation, so the words “fire fighter”, “police officer” and “chairperson” are now in common use, along with many other similar changes.

Another area where gender assumptions are challenged is in the use of the personal pronoun “he” when the gender is unknown.   Here is a typical example:  “If your child is upset at school, he may need to be encouraged …”   Some writers have chosen to replace “he” with “she” to redress the balance: “If your child is upset at school, she may need to be encouraged ….”  However, nowadays the singular use of “they” has become increasingly accepted: “If you child is upset at school, they may need to be encouraged …”

Challenges to male linguistic domination are very significant in the Spanish language as well.  In many cases the reasons are even more justified since women were excluded from so many areas of social and professional life during Franco’s dictatorship.  However, the Spanish solution has been to create equivalent female job titles, rather than to eliminate gender references.  This is the case with “abogada”, “fontanera”, “directora” etc. where the linguistic form easily lends itself to  gender change.  More awkward are solutions like “concejal” “concejala” (local councillor); “jefe” “jefa” (boss); “juez” “jueza” (judge) and so on.  Some people reject these forms on linguistic grounds whilst the feminist movement in general strongly defends them.

As students of Spanish you will have learnt that the masculine form is the “default” form when there is a gender mix.  For example “we” is “nosotros” when male or mixed company is referred to and “nosotras” is only used when those included in “we” are all female.  However, this too is being challenged strongly.  Nowadays most public speeches are addressed to: “compañeras y compañeros”; “amigas y amigos”; “madres y padres”; “vosotras y vosotros” and so on, with the feminine form often preceding the masculine.  In written or typed form a rather neat formula has been found which consists of using the @ (arroba) symbol to represent the “o” and “a” like this:  Estimad@s amig@s.  Also used sometimes is the letter x – “Estimadxs amigxs”.  Unfortunately, however, both forms are obviously unpronounceable.

If you have children at school you will be aware of the AMPA (Parents’ Association).  This stands for Asociación de Madres, Padres y Apoderados (Association of Mothers, Fathers and Guardians).  However, when my children started school these were called “APA” – Asociación de Padres y Apoderados (Association of Parents and Guardians).  This was changed to specifically include mothers, which was more than justified, especially since they were the only ones who ever actually got involved!


  1. Great post Jane. I’ve noticed the use of the arroba recently in threads I follow and wasn’t aware of the significance. As a relative new comer to your articles I have to say that you always enlighten and clarify the language with both simplicity and humour. Soy hincha.

    • ¡¡ Muchas gracias !!

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