Tuesday, November 28, 2017
- 1. Because the words "female" and "woman" mean different things.
- 2. Because reducing a woman to her reproductive abilities is dehumanizing and exclusionary.
- 3. Because nobody casually refers to men as "males."
- 4. Because it is most often used to imply inferiority or contempt.
- 5. Because it's grammatically weird.
- 6. And most importantly, because the word you're looking for already exists.
For many who use the word, I'm sure it seems innocuous. If you listen closely to the howling winds of patriarchy, you can make out their cries: Why are women making such a big deal about one word? Aren't there more important issues, like rape? I don't mean anything negative by it. It's just a different way of saying "women."No one is suggesting that calling women "females" is directly behind rape on college campuses and affordable access to birth control on Womanhood's List of Very Important Priorities. It is a simple and relatively contained issue—and the staunch resistance to such a simple issue is extremely telling.
Using "female" in this way is contrary to how we generally communicate. As noted above, "female" as a noun erases the subject—making "female" the subject of the sentence. In the most technical sense, it's correct, but by employing this word that is usually an adjective as a noun, you're reducing her whole personhood to the confines of that adjective. It's calling someone "a white" instead of a white person, "a black" instead of a black person, and so on.
"When you refer to a woman as a female, you're ignoring the fact that she is a female human," write Nigatu and Clayton, pointing out the connotation that follows: "It reduces a woman to her reproductive parts and abilities." The focus shifts away from the personal and onto onto her qualities as an object—qualities that have, historically, not been used in the best interest of women.
Green and other linguists have long documented the innate misogyny of slang, where thousands of disparaging terms for women have proliferated over the years, with scant male equivalents. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists “female” as a disparaging term for men.
The OED goes on to note that since 1400, female has occasionally been used to describe one’s mistress, which could be seen as pejorative — as a sex object. As Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, points out the term femalehas had depreciative connotations for longer than one might expect. She cites the OED’s original entry for female in 1895, in which the editors described its usage as “now commonly avoided by good writers, exc. with contemptuous implication.”
The simple solution seems to be to turn woman/women into an adjective: women Senators, women executives, a woman President. But I would argue that by allowing virtually every word that can be applied to women, except women, as negative we are helping men box us in with their “male gaze” of the English language, as Green puts it.