Your fork is female, your spoon is male: Gender is a big issue in German language and culture


When the news broke that Germany now officially recognizes a third gender in official documents, many people were surprised to see this kind of breakthrough in a country as focused on the status quo. It soon turned out that this decision didn’t do much for transgender people, as it simply recognized the fact that there are medical reasons that sometimes make it impossible to establish gender in a person. This is a very German approach: Establishing facts that have to be proven by a professional is the first step to change.

Knowing this, it is hard to believe that Germany was a pioneer when it came to gender equality again and again throughout history. Soon the nation will celebrate 100 years of women’s voting rights – on January 19th, 1919 women and men went to elect the “Deutsche Nationalversammlung”, a historical step in many ways, because this was the convention that created the German republic – not the first, but the first to be recognized internationally and remain relatively successful until going down in the flames of Hitler’s rise to power.

Women’s voting rights were a huge topic all over Europe, also in England, where the suffragette movement fought a passionate battle over many years to finally succeed in 1928. 1918, at the end of World War I, England also made a huge step towards more democracy by allowing at least a part of their female population the right to vote. To my surprise, researching the topic I found Finland to be the first European nation installing full voting rights to women already in 1907; this was limited by the fact that democracy in general wasn’t very well developed in Europe at the time, and especially not in Finland, which was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.

The gendered society: Conscience grows from language

In German society, gender equality is as difficult a topic as in any other place around the globe, but it’s being additionally complicated by highly gendered language. Unlike in English, every noun has a gender, which is also a challenge to language learners. Why on Earth is a fork female (“die Gabel”), a spoon on the other hand is male (“der Löffel”), and who would have thought that a cup can be male or female (“die Tasse” vs. “der Becher”)?

While this could be just a quirk, it becomes a problem when describing people and – for example – their job position. The predominant form is male, making teachers, doctors, police officers, students and pretty much everybody else male in everyday language. In English, if you say “I talked to my doctor”, there’s no indication of gender. In Germany, you would have to distinguish explicitly between “mein Arzt” or “meine Ärztin”. Angela Merkel still lives in the “Kanzleramt”, the office of the male chancellor, although she should be in the “Kanzlerinnenamt”, given that she is female.

Addressing students, you could not just write “Dear students”, you would have to say “liebe Studentinnen und Studenten”, making language clumsy and confusing. Artificial constructs like shortening both male and female versions of the word with a capitalized “I” in the middle are difficult to read and many find them annoying: “Liebe StudentInnen”.

There still is no simple solution for this dilemma, but many argue that the fact that there is an issue already created awareness, unlike in English language, where the topic can be ignored. In this context I always remember the argument I had with a very feminist friend of mine who told me that English is just as patriarchal, given that for example the word “history” hails from “his story”. I have seen people writing “herstory” instead, but that seems weird – the word history refers to Historia, an ancient Roman goddess (!).

Meanwhile, the matter of gender equality in workplace and leisure time is being addressed in a very professional manner all over Germany. The official role of an equal opportunity commissioner is now commonplace (and even legally required in organisations larger than 100 people). Interestingly, there are still places where this position is filled by a man, although federal authorities require it to be a female officer, elected by the female employees only. Introduced already in 2001, this law is surprisingly old, although still seen as something brand new by many.

The ongoing reduction of the Gender Pay Gap in Germany (to now 5.5 per cent) might be a result of this focus on gender equality. The correlation is hard to prove, while on the other side every change to more equality attracts criticism, especially when it comes as bureaucratic “red tape”, creating extra costs and efforts. The UK reports a Gender Pay Gap of 9.9 per cent as of 2018.

Both countries, the UK as well as Germany, have female leaders, by the way. At least for now, because both of them seem to be on the way out – although on different speeds.

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