Spanish language academy in row over eradicating gender bias from constitution

The Real Academia Española, the official arbiter of the Spanish language, has become embroiled in a dispute over gender equality after the government asked it to examine whether Spain’s Constitution could become more gender nuetral.

Spain’s deputy prime minister and equality minister, Carmen Calvo, said earlier this week she would ask the RAE to study updating the 1978 constitution with “inclusive” language.

“We have a constitution in the masculine,” she said – noting that it referred to “ministers and deputies” with the male form of the noun – “which dates back to 40 years ago”.

The heart of the issue lies in the traditional Spanish use of male pronouns and noun forms to refer to both genders collectively. Some critics say that effectively makes women invisible, while defenders of the current linguistic format say the inclusion of women is implied and accuse feminists of whipping up fury over non-existent sexism.

When the new government’s majority female cabinet was sworn in in Juen, most members referred not to the “Consejo de Ministros” (Council of Ministers) but to the “Consejo de Ministras y Ministros”, a move that was largely applauded.

But the proposal to update the constitution has opened up divisions in the RAE and unleashed a backlash from some leading academics.

One RAE member, the writer and academic Arturo Pérez-Reverte, has already threatened to resign over the issue. When a user on Twitter suggested he should storm out in protest if the proposal went ahead, he replied “You have my word”, later confirming his position to Spanish media.

Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, an academic and novelist who also holds an RAE seat, told El Pais the Academy should not "force the language" under political pressure. Fernando García de Cortázar, an award-winning historian, went further, describing it as an “absurd” idea resulting from a feminism that “crosses all red lines”. 

Others within the Academy have defended the idea, however. The philosopher Inés Fernández-Ordóñez said the RAE should be "open to the demands of society", saying that if it was possible to open a meeting with "señores y señoras" (ladies and gentlemen), ways could be found to "mark the female presence".

It is not the first time the RAE has been at the centre of a row over linguistic sexism. In March it was forced to remove the definition of an "easy woman" after months of public protest. And in June, when a Spanish factory refused delayed wages to three female workers on the grounds their contract used the masculine noun for workers, the RAE appeared to blame feminists, tweeting that “perhaps the insistence that the male noun makes women invisible has brought this lamentable confusion”. 

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