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On the Semantics of Women in Office

Aurelie Basha - 4th March 2011

Next week Tuesday will mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. It seems an opportune time to talk about women. But the focus of this blog is not on the “big” issues for women: the right to vote (still denied in Saudi Arabia), human trafficking, equality of pay, or underrepresentation in boardrooms. Instead, it’s on those women who have “made it” – women in high office - and specifically, on the labels we use for them. George Orwell wrote about “Politics and the English Language” in 1946. In his article, he offered lessons about the power of words that inform this discussion.

A name of own’s own

The same resolution that created International Women’s Day in 1910 also noted that: “even the title given to women depends on their relation to the man.” The implication of this is that with a title and name of one’s own, comes power. It’s interesting therefore that there is still some confusion about what title a woman in high office should have. Is it Mrs. President? Madam President? And what do you call a man who’s married to the woman President?

This is further complicated in France with the masculine/feminine distinction in its language. There is an ongoing and vibrant debate in France about whether women ministers should be called Madame “la Ministre” or “le Ministre”. The Academie Francaise (the designated guardians of the French language) have insisted that it’s “le Ministre” but in practice, usage varies. But what of the President? No word on that yet - Madame la Presidente is technically the designation for the First Lady.

Stale metaphors

Orwell warns of “stale metaphors” – they lack meaning and “save much mental effort” (i.e. they’re a form of analytic laziness). He suggests writers should “never use a metaphor […] which you are used to seeing in print.” Here’s one –the Iron Lady. How many iron ladies (or “dame de fer” for Michele Alliot-Marie and “iron frau” for Angela Merkel) can there be?

On being labeled an “iron lady”, Mrs. Vike-Freiberga, the former President of Latvia and one-time candidate for the European Presidency, said: “The minute journalists encounter a woman who actually seems to have her own opinions and is ready to voice them without being twittery or coy about it — anyone of my personality is given such a nickname.” Given the number of women in office that have received this label, she may have a point.

Setting precedents

As Orwell noted, the words we use are arguably just a reflection of the society we live in but the problem is “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” He adds: “Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority.”

What is a “conscious action”? It can come in many permutations: Mrs. Vike-Freiberga statement is one. It’s about creating precedents. Not knowing what to call a woman in a given office and falling back on easy stereotypes is one indication that - thank you Madeleine Albright for clarifying that one - Madam Secretary Clinton’s glass ceiling is still around.

Incidentally, Michele Alliot-Marie created many precedents for women in France: she was the country’s first woman Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as Minister of Defence. What she left unsettled was what the official name for a woman in that position may be. One thing is certain – she’s been replaced by an “homme fort” (a “strong man” as her successor Alain Juppé has been described) because it would be laughable to call him an “iron man”.