Here's a case where English has it relatively easy. There's been plenty of fuss over whether to retain actress or to use actor for females as well as males, whether to adopt new gender-neutral terms like chair and craft in place of chairman and craftsman, and so on. But most English words for social roles and titles are already linguistically gender-neutral: president, senator, minister, dean, secretary, teacher, boss, judge, lawyer, …
In languages like Italian and Spanish, in contrast, nearly all such words are specified for grammatical gender, and their grammatical gender is usually interpreted sexually. Furthermore, the option to create gender-neutral replacements is linguistically unavailable — the only practical alternatives are to use one gender (usually masculine) as the default for both sexes, or to coin a new word for the marked sexual category (as in English chairwoman or househusband).
This issue is discussed at length in Miren Gutierrez and Oriana Boselli, "Rejecting the Derogatory 'Feminine'", IPS, 12/26/2009. And what I learned from this article is that Italian and Spanish have dealt with the issue in strikingly different ways.
When it comes to titles of importance, in Italian, you find yourself reading about "il ministro Mara Carfagna" – even if Carfagna, the minister of equality, is a woman. In contrast, in Spanish there is no option but 'ministra', ending in the feminine 'a'.
Both options seem to make a lot of people unhappy. The article says that "In Italian, most women prefer the masculine titles, because the feminine version (when it exists) is considered ludicrous, even derogatory". But
Politician Luisa Capelli, from L'Italia dei valori party (The Italy of Values), thinks that "leaving behind the supposed universal neutrality of the masculine form is an essential passage so that the feminine experience gets respect."
"It is not true that these feminine forms (for positions of power) do not exist in Italian: there are plenty of examples from feminists, linguists and semiologists who have made a number of proposals," says Capelli. "You can say 'avvocata' (lawyer) and 'ministra', but nobody does. Although many of us use those words, we are ignored. To change the symbolic order is hard work that requires a consensus based on the profound convictions of people."
The Spanish, in contrast, have freely coined many feminine forms of terms for titles and roles, though some people think there need to be more of them:
This apparently dull issue of feminine titles jumped to the front pages recently, when Bibiana Aido, Spain's Minister of Equality, used the word 'miembra' (member) in public.
What’s the big deal? The word doesn’t exist. Yet.
"In most personal nouns," says [José Luis] Aliaga Jiménez [professor of Linguistics of the Universidad de Zaragoza], there is a correlation between grammatical gender and the referential meaning of 'sex'. It is a culturally significant correlation… All nouns referred to a person end up with a gender variation, sooner or later. And it is in that context that the words 'miembra', 'testiga' (witness) emerge, since, following the common rule in Spanish, the final 'a' is interpreted as belonging to the feminine."
'Testigo' and 'miembro' are so far exceptions to the common rule and have no official feminine variation.
And apparently there is resistence in Spanish to the use of masculine forms for traditionally female jobs like azafato ("male flight attendant"), amo de casa ("househusband") or niñero ("male nanny").
In contrast to both Italian and Spanish, the trend in English-speaking countries seems to be to avoid pairs of gendered terms (e.g. chairman/chairwoman or actor/actress) in favor of a single neutral term, whether it's a neologism (chair) or a term that previously had gendered associations (actor). This apparently reflects the attitude attributed to Italians in the article's opening sentence:
In Italian, most women prefer the masculine titles, because the feminine version (when it exists) is considered ludicrous, even derogatory.
But English ends up with a solution that's largely gender-neutral, and this is not an option in languages like Italian and Spanish, because grammatical gender is too firmly established in noun morphology and in syntactic agreement phenomena.
The article's way of explaining this involves an amusing misunderstanding (or malapropism):
Modern English lacks grammatical gender, whereas Indo-European languages, including Italian and Spanish, can distinguish between masculine and feminine.
Perhaps the state of linguistic education in Italy and Spain is just as bad as in the U.S.
[Hat tip: Randy McDonald]