Linguistic Debate Brings Different Meaning to International Women’s Day in France

Celebrated every year on March 8, International Women’s Day commemorates the movement for women’s rights. While this day is observed in a great number of countries worldwide, its meaning has been subject to interpretation in France, where a linguistic debate over its official name has sparked controversy over the last few years.

International Women’s Day is translated both as “Journée internationale de la femme” and « Journée internationale des femmes” on official UN websites. While both are grammatically correct, the first version is often associated with the celebration of the feminine beauty ideal “la femme” while the latter with a plural noun “des femmes” connotates a day in defense of women’s rights.

Originally created as a day for women’s rights and equality by socialist movements in the United States and Europe, March 8 has increasingly become an advertising opportunity for retailers in a similar fashion as Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. This trend has led prominent political figures and activists to offer different versions of the name to bring the attention back to its original intent. For example, in 2013, the former French Minister for Women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem called for the celebration of ‘la journée internationale des droits des femmes, associating this version with the French left.

Similarly, a French Slate article quotes the political communication expert Simone Bonnafous, who believes the lack of consensus regarding the official name of March 8 “allows NGOs and political parties to use the meaning they prefer to advance their political agenda”. The article lists different names and their political connotation with humor: “’ ‘la journée de la femme’ is the sexist version while ‘la journée des femmes’ sounds feminist and ‘la journée des droits de la femme’ is for someone who just cannot make up his mind” explains the author while listing all the names used.

While this debate might seem frivolous to an English speaker, it does highlight the importance of translation when dealing with a politically sensitive subject. In this case, the use of a different article changes the meaning completely and can cause strong disapproval from your target audience.

On a lighter note, if you encounter a woman who is a French speaker today, you might want to use a partial translation and say “Joyeux international women’s day” just to keep it safe!