'Suffragette,' 'Editrix,' 'Actress,' and Other Gender-Specific Nouns

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #486


A while ago, I wrote a piece for the Washington Post blog answering this question they got from a reader:

 “My mom just criticized me for describing Anna Kendrick as a comedienne. We’ve done away with stewardess and editrix, but what about actress? And should we stop referring to Hispanic women as Latina? When are gender-specific titles appropriate, if ever?”  

And then, more recently, Michael L. from Palm Springs wrote in and said, “I just watched the new trailer for the coming Meryl Streep movie Suffragette. I’m very curious to know how that word came to be.” So it seemed like a good time to address the topic again.

These days, gender-specific nouns are often considered inappropriate. Our stewards and stewardesses are now flight attendants, and our policemen and policewomen are now just officers. All the major style guides recommend avoiding gender-biased language.

There are exceptions—for example, the AP Stylebook does still recommend waiter and waitress instead of server—but today, those exceptions seem surprising, and they are becoming more rare

‘Actor’ or ‘Actress’?

To directly answer one of the reader’s questions, comedienne sounds old-fashioned to me, and casting director Bonnie Gillespie says that these days, people in the industry tend to use standup or comic to avoid the gender issue altogether.

Actress seems less antiquated because the industry still separates men and women for awards, choosing a "best actor"and "best actress," for example. Still, award shows are the exception and, according to Gillespie, people in the industry typically refer to men and women as simply actors. (In this case, the AP Stylebook says that both actress and actor are fine for a woman.)

“When I get emails or calls from talent agents pitching a new client for something I'm casting, they'll almost always say, 'I just signed this great new actor. She's a redhead,' and so on,” Gillespie says. “There is a negative connotation behind the word actress almost generationally. People in the industry who are 70 plus will still say 'actress' more than those of us who were raised during a different era, as feminism goes, and they mean nothing derogatory in using the word actress, whereas someone who is in her 30s may be trying to make a dig [if she uses the word].”


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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