Women or Female? This Woman says Women
Abram K-J and Kurk got into a bit of a discussion last week about how to describe scholars who are women. Abram wrote:
I know it’s becoming more accepted to speak of “women authors,” “women this,” and “women that,” but what we really want to say is “female scholars.” Just like we wouldn’t say “man scholar” but would say “male scholar.”
I generally use “woman,” not “female,” and I do so for two reasons.
First, the two words have different connotations. Take a look at the semantic field of each word as rendered by the Visual Thesaurus:
A woman is an adult human being (a certain fondly-remembered Doonesbury strip notwithstanding). A female may be neither adult nor human. Little girls are female. Mares, hens, cows, vixens, and bitches are all female.
Given that sexism and misogyny are frequently expressed by infantilizing or dehumanizing women, I believe it is generally preferable to use the word that can only refer to adult humans — pedantry notwithstanding. A descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach to language might observe that the adjectival shift of this word is already well under way.
Another reason to use woman rather than female has to do with inclusive language and the distinction between sex and gender. Typically, female is understood to refer to sex, usually anatomical sex because we can’t actually determine a person’s chromosomal sex by looking at them. Non-op or pre-op trans women, who were assigned male at birth, don’t have female anatomy, but they still identify as women.
I agree that the corresponding forms “man scholar” or “men authors” sound awkward (the former more than the latter, for some reason) and are rarely used; but “male scholar” and “male author” are almost as rarely used, because of the andronormative assumption that scholars and authors (and doctors and lawyers and butchers and bakers and candlestick makers) are men unless stated otherwise.
New language forms frequently sound awkward at first, but sometimes it’s worth the awkwardness in support of a good cause. Although I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I consider this to be such a case.