Sexism and Spanish

cuatro mujeres de Dios

As I promised – though I´m now heart-sorry I did, since I´m not qualified for the  subject – here are some further thoughts on Spanish as a sexist language.

Keeping in mind Kaley´s accurate contention that languages aren´t sexist, people are, I do want to argue that Spanish encapsulates sexist elements that should be changed.


Some linguists make very clear statements to this effect:

 “Spanish leads the Romanc e languages in using derivatives of male kinship terms for female relatives” Source

So we have tío, tía, abuelo, abuela, hermano, hermana, and so on, when in French and Italian there are different words to designate the female, such as frère and soeur and fratello and sorella.

Since most nouns that were neuter in Latin came into Spanish as masculine nouns, these outnumber the feminine ones. The Roman Empire was a patriarchy (like most societies) in which women were, if not chattels, second-class citizens. This bias is, of course, reflected in language.

Scott Thornberry notes:

“That the masculine is the default form in Spanish accounts for all sorts of oddities, such as the fact that a parents’ association in Spain is una asociación de padres, even though the only people who attend are las madres.  Or that, when you walk up to a crowded stall in the market, you ask ¿Quién es el último? (Who’s the [masculine] last?), even if the bulk of those in line are women.”

Yet, given that language is, if nothing else, economical, doubling up won´t do. As I said in my last post, it´s redundant and long-winded to keep repeating ciudadanos y ciudadanasdelegados y delegadasniños y niñas, not to mention downright feo!

Something else to consider is the kind of substructure over which Latin was placed.   What influence did the Iberian languages have on how Latin was assimilated? I´d be interested to hear from linguists on this point (en casa del herrero ….).

A further point to consider is that language doesn´t exist in a vacuum but embedded into a complex  interplay of socio-cultural factors.  See, for example this quotation from grammarian of Spanish, M. Montrose Ramsay. His choice of nouns with which to illustrate his point betrays his own sexist bias:

“Names and designations of men, and the males of many animals, are masculine irrespective of termination:  el monarca, el cardenal, el cura, el centinela, el caballo, el león.  Similarly, designation of females are feminine:  la reina, la ninfa, la hurí, la lavandera, la vaca, la gallina”.

So men are monarchs, powerful clergy and strong, lion-hearted beasts and  women are (with the exception of the Queen, subjugated to the King) nymphs, houris, (sensual alluring women), scrubbers and cowardly, scatter-brained cows and hens!

This “lexical sexism”  is also reflected in many terms in Spanish that are positive when referring to males and negative when referring to females.

For example, and we know them already: un cualquiera is a guy, but una cualquiera is a prostitute (or woman regarded by men as not complying with her socio-sexual functions of virgin, wife and mother).

Un perro is “man´s” best friend (can´t a woman have a dog?) but una perra is, you guessed it, a whore.


Check out the fantastic book at the top of this post for other derogatory terms applied to women, apart from “Whore”. Written by Guy Bechtel and entitled, Las cuatro mujeres de Dios, it´s one of the best books on gender-bias that I ever read, discussing, as it does, the four kinds of woman contemplated by the Vatican – la puta, la bruja, la santa, and la tonta.  I´d add two more from personal experience, la loca (self-explanatory) and la guarra – the woman who doesn´t keep her house clean (read be a skivvy to a house full of men).

Perhaps the Real Academic Española is increasingly aware nowadays of the many sexist pitfalls in Spanish but their worries about the incorporation of “unnatural” elements to correct the sexist imbalance seems not to extend to anglicisms such as “overbooking,” – much less natural to Spaniards, never mind the thousands of Arab and French loan words throughout its history.

It is interesting, then, that Spaniards have felt the need to elaborate the non-sexist style guides to which Ignacio Bosque referred.  Yet, as I said in my last post, the recommendations are too extreme to be workable.

Here are some parodic examples written by Spaniards unhappy with extreme approaches.  Gorka Larrabeiti, writing at Rebelión offers this:

Lxs signxs ortográficxs libertarixs y la arroba de “ querid@s compañer@s” son subversivos sólo ortográficamente pero no afectan al sistema morfológico.

And Teresa de Santos has this proposal:

“Mi pripiisti

Il itri dii, primití ini pripiisti piri tirminir quin il priblimi dil sixismi in li linguii: Quiindi yi iri piquiñi, in mi piibli, jiguíbimis i isti jiigui: hiblir sili quin ini viquil. Iri mii divirtidi.”

Is this what we want?  Clearly not.   Not only do these examples impair intelligibility, but since language is made by speakers, not by decree, grammarians or idealogues, they wouldn´t work.

I think we have to remember that languages change slowly – over centuries – in symbiosis with society and that this debate is a healthy facet of the changing social roles of women in Spain since the Transición.

“Spain has already had one government half made up of women, the female sex is highly visible in most top professions, and the country is one of the most active in the world in campaigning against domestic violence”. Source

So, as with most things, sexism has to be challenged on all fronts, not just the linguistic one, and it can be done incrementally. My plan is to choose a few simple strategies to start wiping my Spanish clean of gender bias.

Here´s how.

  • If I hear something that seems feasible, I´ll use it. Years ago a vet described my cat as dominanta. I liked this a lot and used it but I was told that it didn´t exist in the feminine. Not yet, is the answer to that one!
  • If there´s a non-biased, collective noun that can avoid doubling up, I´ll use it.  So instead of ciudadanos y ciudadanas, I´ll use ciudadanía.
  • If there are more women in any gathering than men I´ll ditch the masculine default and use the feminine. So no more nosotros in a group of five women and one man. It´ll be nosotras from now on.  My hubby informs me he already uses  vosotras when addressing a group of people mainly comprised of women.
To conclude, if we want language – Spanish or any other one – to uphold the dignity of women we should all start to make some small changes today and maybe, just maybe, our daughters´ grand-daughters will speak, and be spoken about, in a language that respects them.






  1. At least Spanish only has the two sexes to contend with, and doesn’t have the ‘neutral’ to contend with.
    Oh, how I miss my 8 mis-spent years studying German literature !

    • I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies!I don´t see why your 8 years were misspent – you just need to go to Germany once in a while! Or befriend my German-Scottish cousin Gerald on Facebook (I can give you the details if you want, he´s a scream, a ranter, a rabblerouser and a cousinly genius, though he´s forgotten much of his German in the wilds of Perthshire, even if he can still deal with Afrikaans, anyway). So you see, you didn´t waste a minute!

  2. Nice one, Mo! I’ve always been a bit dubious about referring to my wife as ‘mi mujer’.

    • Glad you like it. You could always called your wife “mi esposa” but it might sound a bit pedantic … or feminist!

    • I’ve always thought it weird that — in English — it’s “man and wife,” where as in Spanish it’s “marido y mujer.” Opposites, kind of.

      I could formulate an argument, but I should probably spend more time on it. 🙂

      • Interesting point Kaley, I´ve never thought of that. However, the female does come after in both (not realistic to expect anything else). I´d love to see your argument – you are of course right when you say it´s people who are sexist, not language. So which language has the most sexism infused in it? Spanish, English or some other one?

  3. Why thank you very kindly young Will!


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