Words like poetess and Jewess (particularly abhorrent to me) do have a negative, demeaning connotation; the reason is that the masculine forms of these words are generic in meaning and they are not generally used in their feminine form.
On the other hand, the word actress has existed as a commonly acceptable word as long as actor has. There is no insidious connotation associated with it.
Perhaps readers who are nervous about sexist language (sexiphobics?) should be reminded of how words get into the dictionary, which is when enough people use a word for a long enough period of time and its meaning becomes commonly understood.
Propagandists, demagogues, fanatics and other proselytizers always misuse language. I certainly don't approve of that. (However, there is a line between careful, accurate use of language and deliberate sexist use of language. My vote is for actress as the former, not the latter.)
SANDRA L. SCHULMAN
Professor of Reading and
Learning Assistance Center