Making women visible: why I’m changing my language
I was born in 1974 – three years after voting rights for women were introduced in Switzerland. Not what I’d call a particularly progressive era. As a true child of my time, I belittled feminist linguistics until a few years ago. In the meantime, I’ve realised how arrogant that was. It really doesn’t take much to form new language habits.
«Liebe Leser!» is how I used to address my German-speaking audience – using just the masculine «Leser» (male readers) and foregoing the feminine «Leserinnen» (female readers). After all, the women surely knew I was including them too.
That’s what the presenter of Germany’s number one news show seemed to think as well. Throughout his career, his opening line «Guten Abend, verehrte Zuschauer» said good evening to male viewers only. I was always convinced that the German generic masculine, the generalising masculine form, was sufficient. I branded complaints from women who said they didn’t feel included as oversensitive and unfounded at that. After all, couldn’t they see I was including them?
The mistake I was making and unwilling to confront was deciding two fundamental things on behalf of others. Firstly, how they should be addressed, or rather, not addressed. Secondly, how they should feel or not feel about it. That was very arrogant of me, indeed.
And it’s not like I haven’t experienced a fair share of discrimination myself. My mother’s Jewish, which makes me Jewish. For decades, I’ve been subjected to the same moronic remarks. About my supposedly prominent nose (it's actually narrow and small), about my natural sense of business (which I have yet to acquire), about being a «bad Jew» (whenever I paid for lunch with somebody – something Jews apparently don't do).
If I stood up to the comments, I was put in my place and accused of being oversensitive, lacking a sense of humour or intense. Or all of the above. No one ever accepted my view, no one ever apologised. So I should’ve known what it feels like to be confronted with degrading language. However, this wasn’t enough to change my own discriminating choice of words.
Rules are rules, or so I thought
Working as a copywriter and then as an author only made matters worse. I was and still am a stickler for grammar. I can just about put up with missing commas. But a native speaker of English spelling «wierd», well, weirdly, or using their they’re and there interchangeably? Frankly, that just annoys me. It feels careless and lacking love. This was my attitude when I was first confronted with the idea of using inclusive language about 20 years ago. Postperson instead of postman, really? Surely everyone was aware of the fact that their mail was delivered by both men and women? Not to mention craftsmanship vs. craftship or even craftspersonship. Ridiculous! You can’t just go around removing or adding bits to long-standing words! Was nothing sacred anymore?
None of the attempts to include women convinced me on a linguistic level. And to be really honest, neither did the underlying idea. Rules are rules, or so I thought. And those rules say that a group consisting of ninety-nine female postal workers and one male postal worker justify referring to that group as «one hundred postmen». The ninety-nine ladies would just have to put up with it. It’s just the way things have always been.
Of course, that’s easy to say. If you’re a man.
Then came Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and #metoo, as well as an intense discussion about why our society doesn't give women enough respect. The debate wasn’t new, but it was being held with such fervour that I had to ask myself: was I part sexist? Was there a tiny Trump living deep inside me?
It didn’t take me long to find out. If you’ve been denying women their wish to be made visibile in language for years and merely laugh off their suggestions to implement changes, that is sexist.
So I thought about what I could do to revamp my antiquated, discriminating language. Not in a million years, I swore, would my books ever contain the gender star – a typographic element occasionally used in the German language to address men, women and non-binary people. This is what it looks like when applied to the word readers: «Leser*innen». My books should remain havens of perfect German. Even though it wasn’t quite in line with the rules, couldn't I apply gender-neutral German everywhere else? In e-mails, articles or texts such as this one, for example? An acceptable compromise. And when it came to my books, I’d simply explain myself in the preamble. After all, my books are also bought by women.
I soon realised that it’s not in the least bit incorrect to write «Schweizer*innen», meaning all Swiss people. Or to speak about «firefighters and police officers». Admittedly, it occasionally takes a little extra effort. But what requires a bit of effort from me when I’m thinking, talking and writing, means I’m seeing, hearing and respecting half of mankind humankind. At best, it will inspire others to do the same. Especially when you’re a professional writer.
But above all, I realised that it’s not me who should be determining how other people should be addressed, but they themselves. If a group of people want me to call them LGBTIQA, I will call them LGBTIQA, even if I only just got into the habit of saying LGBT. Just as I want people to refrain from making anti-Semitic jokes in my presence, even if they find them hilarious – I don't. Just as women don't find it funny when you call them «Feminazis» because they don't want to be called salesmen or chairmen.
My language has also changed in other ways. Or rather, the way I deal with other people’s language. If someone says «faggot» or «tranny», I call them out. If I hear somebody use «gay» as an adjective meaning «unmanly» or even «stupid», I also ask them to reflect on what they’ve just said. The same goes for somebody using the word «schizophrenic» to mean «inconsistent or conflicting». Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder which should not be trivialised.
I think it’s time to improve the way we treat each other linguistically. Let’s be more mindful. More compassionate. Even if we get nothing out of it or have to put in the extra work. Others will gain from it. Namely respect. That’s why I don’t find it bothersome if Galaxus addresses its German-speaking customer base inclusively as «Kund*innen». After all, half of the people who shop here aren’t male.
freier Autor, Zürich
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