Spain’s controversial battle over whether to make its constitution gender-neutral

Hombre y mujer, Sánchez y Calvo.
Hombre y mujer, Sánchez y Calvo.
Image: Reuters/Juan Medina
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Spain’s constitution promises to ensure quality of life for todos los españoles—for all Spaniards. There’s just one problem: Some women feel left out by the language of their country’s law. Now Spain’s new deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, has embarked on a controversial mission to make the constitution more gender-inclusive.

Her issue with the constitution stems from a fact of the Spanish language. Generally, the masculine form is used to refer to groups of both men and women. To refer to male workers, you would use the word trabajadores. For female workers, you’d use trabajadoras. But for a mixed group, the word would be the same as the masculine one. The same goes for todos los españoles—both todos and españoles use the masculine form.

Increasingly, leftist politicians like Calvo have considered this to be a convention that renders women invisible. After all, if you use trabajadoras, you know there are no men involved. But with trabajadores, women may or may not be part of the group. So it has now become a general rule (link in Spanish) among left-leaning Spanish politicians to use both, referring for example to trabajadores y trabajadoras.

“We have a constitution in the masculine,” Calvo told the country’s Committee of Equality last week (link in Spanish). “It is necessary to begin to have a text that includes women.”

The issue reflects the new leftist influence in Spain under Calvo—a former culture minister—along with her boss, prime minister Pedro Sánchez. Just over a month ago, their Socialist Workers’ Party wrested control from the conservative clutches of Mariano Rajoy and his People’s Party. And last week, their government asked the Real Academia Española—the institution tasked with ensuring the stability of the Spanish language—to investigate what it would take to make gender-inclusive changes to the constitution.

The idea has not gone over well. The RAE has long been opposed to such change. Its 2012 report (pdf, in Spanish) said that suggested gender-inclusive changes were inconsistent and would “not be speakable.” That is true for some options, such as using a combined word like trabajadores/as.

More recently, the RAE’s director, Darío Villanueva, dismissed Calvo’s idea, saying in an interview with El País, Spain’s biggest newspaper, that the problem is “confusing grammar with machismo.” Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a prominent Spanish novelist and RAE member, has said he would step down from the organization if it agreed to make any changes on the basis of gender-neutrality. It’s worth noting that El País has declared (link in Spanish) that the RAE is “one of the institutions that most irritates feminists.” You can see why.

Only eight of the RAE’s 44 members are women. A few of those have expressed sympathy with the idea of updating the constitution. “In administrative texts it is possible to make clear the presence of the female population, in a sensible way,” said Inés Fernández-Ordóñez, a philologist and member.

The problem of collective nouns

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the gender-inclusiveness movement is that language changes declared from the top-down tend not to take. It is best when everyday speakers start adopting some new convention that is then solidified by a dictionary or an organization like the RAE.

That’s what happened with one of the most prominent recent gender-inclusive debates in the English language. Activists had long campaigned for gender-neutral pronouns, like “ze” and “per.” None of those caught on in the mainstream. But over time, a singular form of the word “they” emerged to provide a solution. Now “they” is here to stay.

Some of the solutions proposed by the likes of Calvo should not be that controversial. For one, advocates propose that the constitution use la población española (“the Spanish population”) instead of todos los españoles (“all Spaniards,” but using the masculine form).

But the proposed general solution for collective nouns—to use both the male and female forms—is an unfortunate one, because it offends the ears of the conservative literati who head up the RAE. Villanueva derided using duplicate terms like trabajadores y trabajadores because it “destroys the essence of economy” that “governs languages.” That sounds a bit like an excuse. Language may be economical, but it’s also supposed to be expressive. It’s simpler to respond to a question like “are you upset?” with a simple “no” as opposed to a phrase like “not at all,” but the answers convey something different.

Calvo’s push to change the constitution may fail this time. There is the resistance from the RAE, and the fact that her new government has to deal with more pressing problems, like appeasing both Catalan nationalists and the far-left Podemos party, all of whom helped her party to power.

Yet there is support for gender-neutrality in the Spanish language. So it’s likely that, more inclusive ways of talking will emerge from the bottom-up. Already, the use of the @ symbol (tod@s instead of “todos”) and an “x” (todxs) are common online and in texting. It’s true that those are difficult to pronounce out loud, which suggests that these are probably temporary solutions—the “ze” to some future, more natural “they.”