Feature

Aux Armes, Citoyen·nes!

Gender-neutral terms have sparked an explosive battle over the future of the French language.

By , a journalist currently living in New York.
A Femen protester holds a placard reading "The Future is Feminist" at a demonstration in Paris on March 7.
A Femen protester holds a placard reading "The Future is Feminist" at a demonstration in Paris on March 7. THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

In early May, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on the use in schools of an increasingly common—and contested—writing method designed to make the French language more gender-inclusive.

Specifically, Blanquer’s decree focuses on the final letter “e,” which is used to feminize words in French—étudiant, for example, becomes étudiante when referring to a female student. Like many other languages, French is gendered: Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object or person they refer to; there is no gender-neutral term like “they.” Most critically, say the proponents of the inclusive method, the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine—if there’s a group of 10 women and one man, a French speaker would still refer to the group in the masculine plural, ils.

Feminist activists argue this linguistic bias has real-life consequences and have crafted what they call more inclusive forms of writing, incorporating both the feminine and masculine into words that would otherwise be gendered. An example of how this looks: A group of male and female high school students would appear as lycéen·nes—adding an extra “ne,” preceded by a “middle dot,” rather than defaulting to the standard—and masculine—plural of lycéens. In the absence of a nongendered pronoun, the method’s proponents have adopted a hybrid version of he, or il, and she, or elle, resulting in the gender-neutral iel.

In early May, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on the use in schools of an increasingly common—and contested—writing method designed to make the French language more gender-inclusive.

Specifically, Blanquer’s decree focuses on the final letter “e,” which is used to feminize words in French—étudiant, for example, becomes étudiante when referring to a female student. Like many other languages, French is gendered: Pronouns, nouns, verbs, and adjectives reflect the gender of the object or person they refer to; there is no gender-neutral term like “they.” Most critically, say the proponents of the inclusive method, the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine—if there’s a group of 10 women and one man, a French speaker would still refer to the group in the masculine plural, ils.

Feminist activists argue this linguistic bias has real-life consequences and have crafted what they call more inclusive forms of writing, incorporating both the feminine and masculine into words that would otherwise be gendered. An example of how this looks: A group of male and female high school students would appear as lycéen·nes—adding an extra “ne,” preceded by a “middle dot,” rather than defaulting to the standard—and masculine—plural of lycéens. In the absence of a nongendered pronoun, the method’s proponents have adopted a hybrid version of he, or il, and she, or elle, resulting in the gender-neutral iel.

While some gender-neutral terms will survive, like salesperson and firefighter, others—like waitperson—will, after briefly entering the conversation, ultimately see little use.

The writing style, known as écriture inclusive, or “inclusive writing,” has gained attention in recent years, particularly among feminist activists who argue it’s an essential element in the fight for a more equitable future. Some media companies have adopted the method, such as Netflix France and Canal+, and in 2016, Microsoft Word started including an inclusive writing option in French.

Prominent podcasters—such as Lauren Bastide, host of the popular show La Poudre—even use it while speaking. But it has also angered pundits and legislators alike, who contend that the method is not only clunky and grammatically incorrect but—in classrooms especially—confusing and could alienate children with special needs.

Blanquer’s ban on the style’s use in public schools is just the latest attempt to relegate écriture inclusive to the margins. Since 2017, legislators have introduced a series of bills, most recently in March, to ban the form altogether; the education minister’s decree followed a 25,000-strong petition calling for the style to be banned.


It’s easy to lump recent tensions over écriture inclusive into France’s seemingly endless and all-encompassing culture wars—about religion, race, how girls should dress, and what kids should eat at school cafeterias. But the push to strip languages of masculine bias is hardly a French phenomenon. From Brazil to Germany, feminist activists have sought to rewrite national laws, change school curricula, and draw awareness to what they consider the straight line between language and gaps in wealth, opportunity, and representation between men and women. In many cases, these efforts have met fierce resistance—from government officials, linguistic traditionalists, and citizens who bristle at what they consider an abstract and ideologically driven attack on language.

In Germany, activists’ attempts to promote gender neutrality—in part by using an asterisk, or “gender star,” to include both the feminine and masculine forms—prompted the popular Duden dictionary to alter its 12,000 website entries for nouns to include feminine versions and explicitly state that masculine versions refer to men—rather than everyone. The move sparked outcry among prominent politicians and the German Language Society, whose chairman went so far as to liken efforts to de-gender language to a “modern Hitler salute” used by “left-wing ideologues.”

In Brazil, right-wing politicians moved to ban the term presidenta—which former President Dilma Rousseff had opted for over the standard presidente, the Portuguese word for president, which lacks an explicitly feminine form.

Gender-neutral language saw less resistance in Sweden, which in 2015 added a gender-neutral pronounhen—to its official dictionary, following advocacy not only from LGBTQ groups but nurseries and preschools, which argued that the term would help children evolve without strict gender binaries.

Young activists have made headway in their push for a gender-neutral Spanish in Argentina, where universities across the country have adopted inclusive writing, publishers have reprinted books using the method, and even prominent government officials have adopted gender-neutral terms; President Alberto Fernández regularly employs the style in speeches addressing “Argentines,” using a nongendered term that doesn’t exist in traditional Spanish. But the Madrid-based Royal Spanish Academy—the arbiter on the language spoken by nearly 600 million people worldwide—has dismissed gender-neutral writing as “unnecessary and artificial”—a position it maintains amid a similar debate in Spain, where Socialist leaders have called for the constitution to be rewritten in inclusive language.


Language has long been a fixture of feminist activism, driving changes we now take for granted, such as 1970s efforts to rid job titles of their gendered connotation—salesman and fireman, on the one hand, and waitress and stewardess, on the other. These changes “provoked considerable resistance,” according to Deborah Cameron, a professor of language and communication at Worcester College, who focuses on gender and language. But even if certain terms— “salesperson” and “firefighter,” for example—initially drew ridicule, they sparked a conversation about more inclusive terms that people could agree on. “People generally dislike linguistic innovation. Most are conservative-with-a-small-c when it comes to language, but eventually changes bed down—or are tweaked to make them more acceptable,” Cameron said. “We’re in a very acrimonious phase currently, but that will change.” And while some gender-neutral terms will survive, like salesperson and firefighter, others—like waitperson—will, after briefly entering the conversation, ultimately see little use.

Today, these ongoing tensions have been grafted onto broader discontents over identity and representation. “In the current culture war between the ‘woke’ and conservatives [and] some liberals, gendered language/inclusive writing has become a more prominent point of resistance,” Cameron said. That dynamic is on full display in France, where a deputy education minister—a member of the centrist Mouvement Démocratique party—called inclusive writing a “danger for our country” that will “sound the death knell for the use of French in the world.”

In countries where religious, far-right voices hold sway, the fight for inclusive language has met “opposition to old-style feminism as well as to the newer politics of sexuality in gender identity,” Cameron said. In Brazil, for example, critics framed efforts to adopt gender-neutral Portuguese as part of a “gay Marxist agenda.”

In France, opposition to écriture inclusive has consistently peaked in the context of other laws advancing women’s rights

Still, Cameron notes that resistance tends to fade over time, intensifying with new forms of inclusive language, even as previous versions gain subtle acceptance. “The thing people resist most at any point in time is usually the newest thing and the thing associated with the most radical political stance,” she said. In France, past iterations of écriture inclusive that were once considered controversial—such as “doubling” the masculine and feminine, by referring to clients and clientes in French or he/she in English—are now widely used. There’s hostility toward the middle dot, she explained, “partly because it’s new(ish), but also because it symbolizes a more radical (‘woke’) political stance than either doubled forms or earlier ‘split’ forms, like ‘client(e)s.’”

Indeed, the long history of disputes over gendered language shows that these tensions are not, exactly, about language itself, explains Gwenaëlle Perrier, a researcher at the Université Sorbonne Paris Nord who in 2020 oversaw a special issue of an academic journal devoted to gender and language in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Brazil, and Sweden. “It’s not only about conservatism, or a preoccupation over language, but a strong statement against feminism, even if it’s rarely framed in those terms,” she said.

Disputes over efforts to “de-gender” or “neutralize” language tend to escalate amid other gains for gender equity. “What stands out is that, in every case, these debates take place at a time of gains for women and growing contestation to that progress,” Perrier said.

In France, opposition to écriture inclusive has consistently peaked in the context of other laws advancing women’s rights; recent tension and Blanquer’s decree, for example, came the same week as new legislation to establish gender quotas on major company boards.

“Opponents to écriture inclusive tend to oppose changes that go far beyond language in advancing women’s rights” in France and elsewhere, Perrier added. She points to François Jolivet, a legislator from Macron’s party, who drafted legislation in February banning gender-neutral language in public service—and, one month later, backed an anti-trans bill.

Not all critics frame their pushback in ideological terms. Instead, they contend that adding a middle dot makes texts confusing and illegible. But often, those not-unreasonable grammatical gripes accompany more ideologically charged reasoning. In claiming that écriture inclusive promotes a “disunited language … creating a confusion that borders on illegibility,” the Académie Française—the elite, conservative guardian of the French language—also warned that gender-neutral writing will compromise the International Organization of La Francophonie—the group of 88 states and governments for which French is an official language and a particularly enduring aspect of France’s colonial legacy.

A 2012 study found evidence that countries with gendered grammar systems had smaller female labor-force representation than those without.

Perrier and others say critics’ focus on the middle dot misrepresents the debate and have warned against reducing the conversation to that tool alone. Even as Blanquer sought to ban its use, they note, he acknowledged—and even encouraged—other inclusive linguistic tweaks, notably by feminizing job titles.

That marks progress from previous efforts to legislate against inclusive language, Perrier says. In 2017, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe banned the method in all official documents, reiterating the grammatical rule that equates masculine with neutral. With that in mind, Blanquer’s recent decree “is a form of victory for proponents of écriture inclusive and the product of previous battles,” Perrier said.

In a recent op-ed for Le Monde, Raphaël Haddad, founder of the Mots-Clés communications agency, and the literary scholar Eliane Viennot called the recent controversies “formidable moments of public deliberation” around language. The middle dot’s usage, they write, can be refined and limited depending on context, improving readability without undermining “our attention to gender equity.”


Beneath these semantic disputes lies a more practical question—one that, amid a pandemic that reversed decades of progress for women, seems more urgent than ever. With a spike in domestic violence and an exodus of women from the labor force, some critics question whether focusing on language distracts from more tangible goals. But rarely do proponents of inclusive writing argue that language is the only avenue for progress. Instead, they point to research that highlights a correlation between gender-inclusive language and attitudes toward gender equity.

“Language structures the way we can express ourselves, and the language we speak draws our attention to certain things and away from other things,” said Margit Tavits, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and the co-author of a 2019 study assessing gendered language and public opinion on women’s equality and LGBTQ rights. “If a language has a grammatical gender, as a speaker you pay attention to that, and so the gender difference becomes more salient for you. Whereas if a language doesn’t have gendered terms, then you won’t be forced to notice the difference as you speak.”

In another study, conducted as a partnership between Mots-Clés and Harris Media, respondents were asked to list well-known French TV personalities off the top of their head, with questions phrased using gendered and gender-inclusive language. And while respondents listed more men than women in both cases, they identified a higher number of female TV personalities when questioned in gender-neutral language. And a 2012 study found evidence that countries with gendered grammar systems had smaller female labor-force representation than those without.

Critics of inclusive writing call this research inconclusive. But its proponents contend that, even absent a direct correlation between linguistic changes and more equitable societies, less gendered language is worth fighting for.

Cameron, for example, doesn’t consider herself a “linguistic determinist”; she doesn’t believe grammar and usage “predict the way a society treats women.” But she does point to some evidence that when the masculine is no longer the default, perceptions shift. “French-speaking kids are more likely to report that a girl could become a successful pilot or a mathematician if they read a description of what pilots/mathematicians do in écriture inclusive than if they read one that uses the traditional generic masculine,” she said.

Backlash from the top, she adds, doesn’t necessarily mean the push for gender-neutral language has stalled. “Language reforms that fail, or only partially succeed, may still have a consciousness-raising effect,” she argued.

Nor are the politics of language zero-sum: Where activists and critics alike might contend that changing language changes everything—and others might see it as a “trivial side-issue and not ‘real’ politics”—Cameron opts for a middle ground. “Changing language isn’t going to change the world on its own,” she said, “but both actual linguistic changes and conversations about linguistic changes are part of the process through which norms and attitudes change.”

Karina Piser is a journalist currently living in New York. Until 2019, she was based in Paris, reporting on religion, national identity, and immigration. Twitter: @karinadanielle6

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