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Women or Female? This Woman says Women

August 11, 2013

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:

woman

woman


female

female

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.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 11, 2013 10:06 pm

    Hi Victoria,

    Sorry I posted on top of you! It’s a party! Thanks for this. I am not at all sure what I say, sometimes “woman” and sometimes “female.”

  2. August 11, 2013 10:39 pm

    No problem, Suzanne! It’s great to see you posting again. 🙂

  3. August 12, 2013 1:28 am

    Interesting perspective–now you have me thinking about it. From a grammatical perspective, “woman” is simply wrong in this usage. “Female” is an adjective while “woman” is a noun. So if you are trying to describe a noun like “author” or “scholar,” you’d need an adjective. I think the reason why the word relationships pictured above are more favorable to the term “woman” is that it’s always used with regard to a human being, while “female” is more generic and can be applied to any gendered species.

    You touched on what I think is the much bigger issue here, though. And that is, why are we only referring to female professionals by gender? I’ve tried to become much more conscious about this, only mentioning gender when the discussion is *about* gender. Barbara Kingsolver is not a fantastic female writer. She’s not a fantastic woman writer. She’s a fantastic writer, period.

  4. August 12, 2013 7:55 am

    Great post, Victoria! I love the visual thesaurus illustrations of how you mean what you mean!

    As a man, marked or unmarked as my nominal adjectives may be, I did write “Man Grammar: A Poem.” 🙂

  5. August 12, 2013 9:20 pm

    @Catherine, you wrote:

    From a grammatical perspective, “woman” is simply wrong in this usage. “Female” is an adjective while “woman” is a noun. So if you are trying to describe a noun like “author” or “scholar,” you’d need an adjective.

    …unless you are persuaded, as my post hopes to persuade, that the feminist issue is more important than strict compliance with prescriptivist grammar.

    It was actually a discussion of the singular they that first motivated me to fling prescriptivism to the winds in favor of feminist language. I’m a bit of a grammar junkie, and the number mismatch really bothered me…. till someone, somewhere, pointed out that the use of “he” as a generic pronoun for a person of unspecified gender was also incorrect. So the choice was not between correct and incorrect, but between two flavors of incorrect.

    And that is, why are we only referring to female professionals by gender? I’ve tried to become much more conscious about this, only mentioning gender when the discussion is *about* gender.

    Indeed!

  6. August 12, 2013 9:25 pm

    @Kurk: Thanks! The visual thesaurus often gets on my nerves because of their floating graphics, but for this application it was just the thing.

    I did look at your poem, & noticed the statement that “woman” has been used as an adjective since 1300. Seems like my mention of singular they above was a more apt comparison than I realized! 🙂

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 15, 2013 9:48 pm

    Good, I can keep talking about woman writers.

  8. August 19, 2013 12:26 pm

    The way I hear the terms, “female” author simply suggests an author who is biologically female, while “woman” author suggests an author who is not only identified as female but who sees belonging to that gender category as significant to her writing. For that reason, I find “female author” a more respectful term for authors who have not made it clear that they see their writing as gender defined.

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