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

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #486

Is ‘Latina’ OK?

Moving on to the next part of the question, Latina doesn’t seem to carry the same stigma as other gendered words. Style guides support the Latino-Latina distinction and note that it is sometimes preferred over Hispanic. Since the Spanish language uses gendered nouns, having masculine and feminine forms may seem like less of a call-out―it follows a normal pattern instead of hinting at bias. Alternatively, David Morrow, a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press (the publisher of the Chicago Manual of Style), speculates that people may view Latina differently because the word isn’t formed by adding a diminutive suffix such as -ess to a noun that describes a man and therefore isn’t loaded with gender bias in the same way as words such as authoress.

In her book Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, Maya Angelou reiterates this sentiment, writing, “The woman who survives intact and happy must be at once tender and tough. … She must resist considering herself a lesser version of her male counterpart. She is not a sculptress, poetess, authoress, Jewess, Negress, or even (now rare) in university parlance a rectoress.… A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but a woman called by a devaluing name will only be weakened by the misnomer.”

Male-Female Noun Pairs

Linguist Neal Whitman also notes that using gendered nouns in English is usually fine when we have male-female pairs such as duke and duchess or abbot and abbess because "the male-specific term never refers to both males and females," so the sexes are treated equally. For example, if an organization describes itself as "a club for dukes," we know it allows only men, but if a talent agency says it represents actors, we know it represents both men and women. The inclusive nature of actor makes it different from duke, which, in turn, makes actress different from duchess.

Gendered Nouns of the Past

In the past, English gendered nouns were more common than they are today. A dive into the Oxford English Dictionary surfaces many feminine nouns that sank under the weight of history. The Wycliffe Bible, an important Middle English document written in the late 1300s, introduced the terms neighboress, singeress, servantess, dwelleress, sinneress, friendess, and spousess. Around the same time, Chaucer coined herdess, charmeress, constabless, and guideress. Later, Shakespeare's "Two Noble Kinsmen" included a soldieress. Early Modern English speakers could also discuss a farmeress, monarchess, flatteress, and saintess.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.