Gender-specific nouns, especially titles in professional spheres, have been losing favor in the past few decades. While the effort to be inclusive and gender-neutral is an honorable one, it’s a linguistic one-way street in many cases, a compromise in others, and nearly impossible when moving from originally feminine to masculine-inclusive nouns. With nouns like widow/widower, there appears to be no path to neutrality at all!
Feminine terms like actress, usherette, and comedienne are marked, or divergent, in relation to their masculine forms. Only the masculine forms can serve as gender-neutral terms. For example, ushers can be inclusive of males and females, whereas usherette is exclusively female.
Similar to widow and widower, policeman and policewoman are categorically separate with neither being able to serve as gender-neutral terms. In such cases, proponents of neutralism have opted for officers to reduce and replace the terms to a manageable and inclusive definition.
With the loss of feminine nouns of agency, understood by their suffixes -tress, -trix, -ette, and -enne, it might seem we’re losing lingual diversity; opting for language that does its best to embrace inclusiveness and discard difference for the sake of economy.
On the binary flip side, an interesting thing happens when men move into occupations that have been traditionally female. Solutions for gender neutrality are not so easy, in part, because of the entrenched notions of their feminine exclusivity. Consider the professions of nursing, sewing, childbirth, childcare, housekeeping, or even the role of a lover taken outside of marriage.
Historically, a nurse and seamstress are occupations held by women that excluded men. Though nurse is becoming widely recognized as a gender-neutral title, and the awful murse didn’t stick, it’s still quite common to hear “male nurse” as a distinction. To most people’s way of thinking, a female nurse is redundant. In the clothing industry, seamstress has already been replaced with stitcher or sewer, whereas the masculine tailor is the gender-neutral term for a man or the feminine tailoress.
Consider the word housewife. A male housewife sounds as ridiculous as the 1980s comedy, Mr. Mom. Though “stay-at-home dad” is commonly used, what if he’s not a dad but just a “stay-at-home guy?” Housedude? By definition, “stay-at-home husband” is an oxymoron. Homemaker still has a feminine ring and caregiver, though inclusive, only sits in relation to a dependent. The culture can be quite critical of a male relying on his female partner or parent for support. Bum, lazy, and mooch are some of the colorful words that come to mind for a husband or son who opts not to work outside the home — or work at all. The culture has yet to define a term to address men in such partnerships and points to the idea that traditional marriage brings a man’s labor to the fore (husband) and keeps a woman in her place (housewife).
Husband – from hús ‘house’ + bóndi ‘occupier and tiller of the soil’. The original sense of the verb was ‘till, cultivate’.
What about the male equivalent of a mistress? Is he a kept man? A mister? “He is her mister” sounds like they’re married. A kept man seems too restricting for a dashing gentleman moving among the shadows. Neither of these terms has that mysterious and provocative air of extra-marital naughtiness. While the French paramour is inclusive and neutral, should I find myself in such circumstances, I fancy the Italian term cavalier servente.
Now let’s look at the word midwife. On its surface, the occupation seems to indicate the feminine and it’s a cultural given that the person performing the task will be a woman. The Old English word simply means “with the woman (wife).” Today, a man can be defined as a midwife, though “man midwife” has been used in centuries past. In ancient Greece, any person who had not given birth themselves was restricted from becoming a midwife. In the U.K., the Royal College of Midwives barred men from the profession until 1983. Because of the social and sometimes legal barriers to men, pediatrics emerged in the 1930s as a “modern” medical field and women’s traditional role and knowledge as midwives increasingly came under attack.
Finally, to bring this back to the beginning, because widower is divergent from the feminine, it’s unlikely that widow will become the gender-neutral term for both men and women who have lost a partner. In legal terms, “surviving spouse” seems to be the closest we have to neutrality. Interestingly, whether a heterosexual or homosexual coupling, the gender-specific terms maintain their lingual integrity. For those who object to binary terms, there is the simple and inclusive phrase, “I am widowed.”
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