Portuguese is a language that has grammatical gender. In linguistics, the word gender just means "different categories of nouns that provoke agreement with other words." Read that again. In language, the word "gender" just means "different categories of nouns." Lots and lots of languages have gender. It's no big deal.
Most of you either study Portuguese or have studied some other, non-English language in your lives, so this concept is probably not strange to you.
A mesa está limpa. = The table is clean.
O ventilador está limpo. = The fan is clean.
The English sentences don't reflect it, but, as you can see in the changes to the Portuguese, the words mesa (table) and ventilador (fan) are in different noun categories. They have different genders (grammatical genders!). In Portuguese, a mesa (the table) is a feminine noun, while o ventilador (the fan) is a masculine noun.
The problem comes when we start talking about people in Portuguese.
A garçonete = the waitress
O garçom = the waiter
As garçonetes = the waitresses
Os garçons = the waiters OR a group of waiters and waitresses
As you can see above, when you talk about plural groups of people that include both human genders, you choose the masculine grammatical gender. So for example, the word for "parents" and the word for "fathers" are the same word (pais, literally "fathers") in Portuguese. The word for "Brazilians" and "Brazilian men" is the same (brasileiros).
It's just so unfortunate that someone in the history of linguistics decided to use the words "gender," "masculine," and "feminine" for this phenomenon, because people are getting things all mixed up. Some Portuguese speakers have decided that grammatical gender is sexist! President Dilma (a woman) refuses to use the masculine grammatical gender to refer to women, so she says things like "brasileiros e brasileiras" "senadores e senadoras" and "professores e professoras." It was witty the first, ya know, 4 times. Now it's just cumbersome (and ungrammatical!). And now, it's all the rage in the blog world to write words like this: brasileir@s; sendaor@s; professor@s and the word tod@s for "everyone".
As you can see in the title of this blog entry, GENDER IS NOT GENDER. The fact that the masculine gender is used for groups of people has nothing to do with human gender or sexism or oppressing women or anything. It's a coincidence!
It's not like some proto-Indo-European-speaking cavemen sat around their fire and said "let's talk about people in the plural as men! It'll be a great way to subconsciously convince women that they should quietly fade into the background if men are present!" I mean, really. I want people who buy into this whole idea to really think it through. The word for "person" (a pessoa) is grammatically feminine. Does that mean we insult a man's masculinity by calling him a person? A group of children (as crianças) is also grammatically feminine. How do we fairly account for the boys in the group?
Oh wait. we already do. Because the word is plural, and it means "a group of kids that may be all boys or all girls or a mixture of the two human genders and we know from context because that's how our language works".
And what about our good old friends, the table and the fan? Should we stop saying a mesa because men eat at tables, too? Should we stop saying o ventilador because women use fans?
Grammatical gender is arbitrary. As my friend Bianca has so kindly informed me, German and Italian default to feminine nouns when they're plural. Does that mean Germany and Italy have got all of their women's rights issues covered? Is Italy less misogynistic than Brazil? Or is the US less so because English grammar doesn't have this issue at all? Plus, German has 3 grammatical genders! What are you gonna do about that? As you can see, this notion of gender neutrality in a language with grammatical gender really is ridiculous if you think about it for more than five seconds.
So, to the @ people: I'm with you on the feminist movement, but this is not the right way to go about it. You're just making communication more difficult. If you want to get back on track with helping fight the good fight as a feminist, read this book. You're welcome.