Interview with Eliane Viennot – Contributing to the Advancement of Equality through Language

27 February 2024

Eliane Viennot is a distinguished professor of Renaissance literature. She has taught French language and literature at the universities of Washington (Seattle, USA), Nantes, Corsica, and Saint-Étienne. She was a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France from 2003 to 2013. Specializing in Marguerite de Valois and other Renaissance female stateswomen, she is broadly interested in power relations between the sexes and their historiographical treatment over the long term. A feminist activist since the 1970s, she has been involved in campaigns for abortion rights, gender parity, and the institutionalization of feminist (or "gender") studies. She also works on reintegrating the French language with the use of the feminine gender.


  1. In your book “En finir avec l’homme, Chronique d’une imposture” (iXe Editions, 2021), you revisit the etymology of the word “homme” (man) and its evolution to become what refers to the entire human race. In the French language, even today, the masculine form automatically takes precedence over the feminine. What lies beneath this supposedly “neutral” rule?

— Indeed, there is a connection between the semantic expansion of the word “homme” (man) and the agreement mode summarized by the formula we are familiar with. This connection lies in the notion that the masculine is a more noble gender than the feminine, a stance that some grammarians began to advocate in the 15th century. There’s also a third aspect affected by this ideology: the evocation of mixed groups, when it’s done in the masculine form – now referred to as “generic.” In fact, nothing is neutral in this matter. Everything is political, and everything is linked to the objective of reinforcing male domination.

On the first point, we know that the term “homo,” from which the word “homme” originates, evolved from Latin (where it meant “any person“) to the 13th century (where it only meant “adult human male“). One of the early humanists explains this: in Latin, one could say “mulier est homo” (“woman is a human”), but in French, one cannot say “woman is a man.” The earliest attempts to suggest otherwise are found in translations of the first chapter of Genesis from the Renaissance period: the terms “homo” (in Latin Bibles) and “anthropos” (in Greek Bibles) were translated as “homme,” “man,” “hombre,” etc., as if the translators had read “vir” or “andros” (the words meaning “male” in those languages). Obviously, nothing changed in usage until the first edition of the Académie’s Dictionary (1694) sanctioned the deception: the entry for “Homme” asserts that the word “comprehends all of humankind, and is used for both sexes.” Some women wanted to believe this, but no one else did, since men’s rights differed from women’s rights. In 1793, when feminists proposed formulations such as “All men have an equal right to freedom, regardless of their age, sex, and color” for the new Constitution, they were brushed aside. It took explicit statements, first in 1944 (in the April Ordinance), then in 1946 (in the Preamble to the Constitution), to affirm that the new provisions concerned women as well as men, using both terms. However, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, the French authorities wanted to retain “rights of man,” despite the translation error. Hence, efforts have been made since then – obviously doomed to fail – to make us believe that “woman is a man” constitutes something other than a laughable statement.

Regarding agreement, the idea of the absolute domination of the “most noble gender” in sentences where several nouns of different genders govern a common adjective dates back to the 17th century. It’s not that this possibility was unknown before; it was quite common, as languages reflect the power relations of the societies where they are used. But other ways of resolving this “conflict” were known, and they haven’t been forgotten even if they’re no longer taught in schools. These include proximity agreement (“les droits et libertés fondamentales”) and optional agreement, whether based on the relative value of the terms to be agreed upon, personal preference, or quantity. Of course, the notion of nobility was abandoned by the Republic, but it merely modified the formula, leaving the essential idea intact.

As for the “generic masculine,” it too was theorized only after 1944: speeches remain in the noble gender, but it’s said that it concerns women too, that there’s no problem. Previously, on the contrary – for example, to the first woman who wanted to run for President of the Republic, Marie Denizard, in 1912 – it was explained that if regulatory texts are written in the masculine, it’s because only men are concerned. However, here, to sugarcoat the pill, a less blunt formula was chosen than for agreements: the term “generic” sounds scholarly…


  1. On October 30, 2023, the Senate adopted a bill aiming to prohibit the practice of inclusive writing in “all cases where the legislator requires a document in French.” Can you decipher this decision?

This bill is the twelfth since 2020, most of which have emerged from the National Assembly and all coming from the right and far-right. The lawmakers who have produced them have no idea what egalitarian language is, nor the total ineffectiveness of the measures put forward on the demasculinization of French currently underway in French society. These individuals are obsessed with the midpoint. However, it is simply a symbol to express an abbreviation, replacing the parentheses with “e” which have invaded administrative forms and written discourse for about forty years. It is a fairer and more discreet sign, but it is by no means necessary (abbreviations never are). If a law prohibited writing “les commerçant·es,” it would suffice to write “les commerçantes et commerçants.” Who could stop us? Who could prevent us from talking about “human rights”? Who could prevent us from agreeing with the term closest or which we consider most important? The school itself does not prohibit it: it simply does not teach these processes, which are found in the writings of the greatest authors.

As for arguing that documents must be written in French, it is utterly ridiculous. If “commerçant·e” is not French, then “commerçant(e)” is not either. Why have we tolerated this “deadly peril” until now? In fact, these lawmakers do not know what the issue is about, but they know the subject is divisive: to please people who do not want us to challenge male domination – and there are many of them – we must be “against inclusive writing.”


  1. You advocate for the French language to reunite with the use of the feminine gender. To what extent would this help develop gender equality?

— The feminine gender, in languages where gender variation exists, primarily serves to refer to women (it also applies to objects and abstract beings, but this is irrelevant to our discussion).

Consequently, not to use words designating women, as in “generic masculine” speeches, or to label women with masculine terms, such as director or advocate, is to make them disappear altogether, both from the minds that produce the speeches, and from those who receive them.

It also signifies that they count for nothing. It’s a bit like when it was explained, before 1944, that they didn’t need to vote or be elected because their husbands or fathers did that for them. As for giving priority to the masculine over the feminine in the agreement system, it signifies that women are of lesser value. It’s as if, in assemblies, they have half a vote, or a quarter, or a tenth, while men have a whole one.

On the contrary, when we become aware of these purely sexist practices, we begin to reflect on the extent of male domination (“how far does it go!”). And if we decide to stop reinforcing it, if we decide, for example, to systematically say “les collégiennes et les collégiens” (female and male middle school students), “celles et ceux” (those), “hello to everyone” (you’ll notice that I prioritize alphabetical order), we change our worldview. And we change that of the people who listen to us or read us. We allow new practices to gradually take hold, and the level of tolerability of the subjection of women to rise. I cannot emphasize this aspect enough: we are responsible for our words, our texts. We can contribute to the advancement of equality – without costing us a penny. Or we can allow ourselves to be dominated, and perpetuate male domination, and reinforce it. It’s our choice.


  1. What concrete measures should be implemented to neutralize/feminize language?

— Firstly, we need to dispel some misunderstandings. The French language does not need to be feminized, but demasculinized. This is even easier because, to do so, we don’t need to invent anything: we just need to understand the importance of this cultural revolution and get on board. No one is obliged to talk about “les Français” (French people), “les collégiens” (middle school students), “les commerçants” (shopkeepers). Everyone knows the corresponding feminine words; we just need to be willing to use them. When there’s a will, there’s a way. Of course, it would be helpful if schools taught us the resources available to us, instead of hiding them – and we’ll need to win that battle too. But today, there are books, guides: anyone who wants to get started can do so. In a few hours, you’ll learn the right techniques, and in a few weeks, they’ll become automatic.

The other confusion is about neutrality. This gender died around the 12th century in French. We won’t recreate it, and besides, it would be pointless because neutrality isn’t meant for talking about humans. French only has two genders, and we have to deal with them, but we’re lucky: it’s possible! We can rebalance the powers of the two genders. We can also loosen the gender constraint, which means promoting designations of function rather than the person who holds it, or genuine usages rather than stereotypes. The status known as “auto-entrepreneur” could be called “auto-entreprise” (self-enterprise). “Écoles maternelles” (kindergartens) could be called “jardins d’enfants” (child gardens). It’s up to us, the equality-minded public, to impose these changes.


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