Hillary Clinton and the Gender-Language Debate

Electing a U.S. female president seems to be the next big glass ceiling a lot of us are eager to break. At the same time, as a country we still struggle to come to terms with the idea of a “woman president.” This isn’t Hillary Clinton’s first dog and pony show, and she’s admittedly a very qualified candidate, so why do we still have a certain aversion to the idea of a “female” or “woman” president? Gender and language have a closer relationship than you might think! To sum it up in one word: semantics.

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Why do we even say “female/woman president?”

We’ll get to why these terms irk people in a minute, but first, let’s look at why we even use them in the first place. After all, we would never think to refer to Barack Obama as a “man president,” would we? Well, the answer is quite simple and hearkens back to the idea that in many ways our world is still a man’s world. In the over two-hundred years since the U.S. became its own independent nation we have never (rather astonishingly) elected a female president. We’ve become so used to seeing men occupy this position of power, that it’s never been necessary to specify the gender. Hopefully someday soon we won’t need to stipulate the gender of our president, whether man or woman, because it just won’t matter!

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Why does the word “female” drive people crazy?

Our vernacular and language history being what it is, most of us find the term “female” annoying, which in turn makes “female president” annoying, and inevitably leads us to associate these irked feelings with a dislike for candidates like Hillary Clinton. But what do we have against words like ”female” or “woman?” It’s reported that most women specifically loathe being referred to as “a female.” In the American vernacular, calling someone “a female” or referring to them shortly as “woman” has long had negative connotations. It’s considered derogatory or condescending to speak to a woman in this way, especially because it places the focus on her sex as opposed to on her as a human being. Therefore most women tend to develop a natural dislike for these terms (which may be one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders polls higher with young women than Hillary Clinton).

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Why does gender influence language?

Language and gender will probably always go hand in hand and affect the ways in which we view the world. Why? Because gender has been built into the very foundations of the languages we speak. In languages like Spanish and French, everything bears a gender, whether it’s a table, a book, or a refrigerator. Even so, male gender tends to be the default in these languages, making female terms markedly more obvious when they’re used (for example, using the word ellos in Spanish to refer to an entirely male or mixed-sex group, but ellas to refer to an only female group). English isn’t so innocent when it comes to these differences either; we can use the word “actor” to refer to both females and males in this profession, but “actress” alerts the listener to the fact that the person is female. And these are just a few examples of how language influences our perception of gender!

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Without a doubt, Hillary Clinton will face a lot more scrutiny as a woman than her male counterparts. And whether for good or bad, her gender will be a prominent part of the American rhetoric for some time. There’s no denying that gender is a core part of the languages we speak and it’s always fascinating to uncover more layers to this gender-language discussion.

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