“Female” or “Woman”?

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Kathy Stroupe wrote:

Here’s my pet peeve…people using “women” as an adjective. Just this morning I heard NPR say, “women senators took to the floor…”
Shouldn’t this have been “female senators”? Since when has the word “female” been taboo?!

No wonder people get so hot about language. Different words set us off.

Unlike Kathy, I see nothing wrong with saying “women senators” as long as the fact of their being women is relevant in the context. For example, they’re acting as women to promote legislation that does not interest the senators who are men. I would object to hearing someone refer to Michael Enzi as a “senator,” but to Jeanne Shaheen as a “woman senator.” In that context both are senators without need of qualification.

On the other hand, the use of “female” in certain contexts irritates me.

As a noun, female has no place in ordinary conversation unless one is speaking of an animal species.

Ex. Can you tell if that lizard is a female?

Using “female” in place of “woman” in other than a clinical setting smacks of depersonalization and contempt.

Ex. At Thanksgiving the females watched a chick flick in the living room while the men watched the game in the den.

Substituting the word “male” for “men” in this context would not improve matters. In Western culture the words “male” and “female” are not merely designations of reproductive roles. They are terms frequently used to imply superiority or inferiority.

Among the many definitions given for the word female in the OED, we find:

female: n. Applied to various material and immaterial things, denoting simplicity, inferiority, weakness or the like.

I’m not objecting to the use of female as an adjective, as in “female reproductive organs.” My objection is to its careless use as a noun substituting for “woman” in ordinary conversation.

NOTE: When woman or female is used in “woman senator” or “female senator,” the word is not an adjective, but a noun in apposition. It stands as “an explanatory equivalent” of the other noun. (Someone may argue that the “female” in “female senator” is an adjective, but consider: wouldn’t that imply that senators are breeding pairs?)

A note in the OED about the use of female as a mere synonym for “woman,” gives some support to what otherwise might be seen as an isolated idiosyncrasy:

The simple use [of “female”] is now commonly avoided by good writers, exc. with contemptuous implication.

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30 thoughts on ““Female” or “Woman”?”

  1. I think it would perfectly fine to refer to a “woman senator” in any situation in which it would also sound proper to say “man senator.” Off hand I can’t think of such a situation though.

  2. I had this come up in a headline: “Fire department names first female firefighter of the year.”

    I went with “female” over “woman,” because, in comparison, I could not imagine someone saying “man firefighter,” only “male firefighter.”

  3. I am also somewhat hyper-aware of this issue too, because in the medical field every patient is a “[whatever]-year-old [male] [female].” Being a healthcare provider (usually) but also a patient (sometimes), I am aware of how impersonal and dehumanizing doctors and other caregivers can be. It is really glaring when I open the chart of a patient who comes in in labor, and her history begins as, “This is a 30-year-old gravida 1, para 0…”, as if this lady is simply a baby-making machine and not actually a person.
    When I dictate a chart, I avoid using male/female and instead use gentleman/lady, as in, “This is a 25-year-old gentleman [or lady] who came into the emergency room complaining of…” I think this at least infuses some dignity into an encounter that might otherwise be (or have been) quite devoid of it.

  4. Thanks for covering this topic!

    Although, I agree with you that woman nor female should be used in this context, my point is that no one would ever say “man senator” — if necessary, they would say “male senator.” I think the example, “At Thanksgiving the females watched a chick flick in the living room while the men watched the game in the den” is misleading because no one would say this except to be degratory. In normal conversation, this would be “At Thanksgiving the women watched a chick flick in the living room while the men watched the game in the den.”

    I’d be interested to know if you can find any example of someone using “man” as a descriptor for a noun, e.g., “man senator” in the same way we frequently see the usage of “woman” as in “woman senator.”

    My two cents.

  5. I think a lot of it has to do with gender assumptions; that is, when people see “senator,” “doctor,” “astronaut,” etc, they assume the person in question is a man. If they see “secretary,” “nurse,” “librarian,” etc, they assume the person is a woman. So when you tell someone you spoke to the secretary, their first response might be, “Oh, what did SHE say?” but if you tell someone you went to the doctor, they would ask, “What did HE tell you?” I am “middle-aged” (51) and still tend to have that knee-jerk thought response, much as I try to get rid of it. Since I think others often have that same knee-jerk thought response, I sometimes find myself qualifying my words with the standard “male secretary” or “female doctor,” which are phrases I find repulsive, really, smacking somehow of judgment, as if there is something wrong or unusual about a man being a secretary or a woman being a doctor. I hope this issue resolves with younger generations, as people diversify and gender barriers are neutralized.

  6. I think one other usage of Female (rather than Women) and Male (rather than Men) would be when discussing an area that covers children as well as adults. Obvious examples are toilets, changing rooms etc. (“That’s the toilet for females; the one for males is over there.”).

    Apologies if the T word is unacceptable in the States- it’s OK in the UK and I’m not sure of the acceptable US equivalent word.

  7. Kathy,
    The Thanksgiving illustration is based on a vaguely-remembered comment I once heard from a young man. He tended to call all men “males” and all women “females.”

    Here’s something I came across in a blog. The topic was a family gathering:

    “. . . the females gather their belongings grab their particular man and drag them home . . .”

  8. people refer to male nurses, not man nurses. a man nurse would be someone who nurses men. hence i say female senator & female police officer, just as i say male senator and male police officer.

  9. Using “woman” to describe another noun doesn’t seem to be correct. Male and female denote gender. The word woman describes a human female. We don’t use the word woman to describe a female of any other species. In this case, it seems to be redundant to say woman senator since we assume that all senators are human.

    To me, this sounds of being overly sensitive to the word female and has the foul smell of political correctness. The comment at the end certainly seems to imply that ….

    The simple use [of “female”] is NOW commonly avoided by good writers

    I cannot think of a single case where man to qualify another noun is used in common language. You never hear of a man senator, man teacher, man secretary, or man libraian.

  10. Listen: Cut through the grammatical correctness and understand that the media often misplace words and phrases. There are no female “Barbara Walters” or male around anymore. Speech has become like sex. Society has taken out the propriety, the “verbal foreplay”, the art of speaking and writing and have replaced it with things such as UM, and uh-huh, and soforth. Our new president and his wife are eloquent, classy, stylish, and well rehearsed in how to speak and what to say, but they are not snobs… they grasp the idealogy behind speaking properly. I could care less about women versus female. I care about people who are educated that sound ignorant versus people who may be rich, athletic, or famous that open their mouths to speak and are ignorant as they attempt to sound educated. Put the sexy back in speech. Think about not only WHAT you are going to say, but how to express it in a meaninful way. If it bothers some of you, well, people are always offended in one way or another by someone else. Universally, though, look at the bigger issue here. If someone called me a female, I would likely ask them to step outside and fight. I am a woman and would prefer to be referred to such. A woman psychologist or a female psychologist who cares as long as I do my job?

  11. FYI, a lot of African-Americans use ‘female’ to mean ‘woman’ in speech. Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned. I agree with you that the distinction should be preserved in writing.

  12. The term woman can also carry a class connotation. Lady typically refers to a woman of the upper class, or in today’s culture, one who is dressed as a lady rather than dressed as (or with assets common to) a working person or one functioning primarily as parent and wife.

    Woman may also refer to a stage of life, as being more mature than a girl or child or infant.

    I find usage rules of when to use woman or female to be incomplete without drawing in the other cultural and social nuances governing labels of gender roles, including maturity and class distinctions.

    The medical use of female as opposed to girl, lady, or woman is likely meant to be more inclusive and less culturally defined. That way the reader would not have to untangle someone else’s description of madame, mistress, girl, crone, or other possible description meaningful to the writer at the moment. Also, I contend that a scientific or medical context the terms male and female are technical jargon, and have distinct meanings and usage different from the same words exchanged in polite conversation.

    I would refer to a woman Senator as a woman Senator when she makes her womanhood a significant aspect of how she performs her duty as Senator. That is, most of the time she would be a Senator, but at other times she may deliberately choose to emphasize her womanhood in her actions. I would compare using woman Senator to using obstructive Senator, right-to-life Senator, or gun-championing Senator – not as a basic label of who the Senator is, but a focus on the significance of some aspect of their identity.

  13. Duh! A woman Senator is no more pejorative than referring to a Republican Senator or a sitting Senator or retired Senator. I, myself, would prefer not to be called a Democratic Senator, though being a Senator might be some slight consolation.

  14. Since I think others often have that same knee-jerk thought response, I sometimes find myself qualifying my words with the standard “male secretary” or “female doctor,” which are phrases I find repulsive, really, smacking somehow of judgment, as if there is something wrong or unusual about a man being a secretary or a woman being a doctor.

    Well, a lot of people say “they”. I hate that. But I also dislike people misusing the word “gender” to mean “sex”. The word “doctor” has gender (in languages that make the distinction), not the person who is a doctor. And the word “doctor” is (in Latin) masculine, so “he” ought to be the right pronoun to use, regardless of the sex of the doctor 🙂

    (FWIW, the Anglo-Saxon word “woman” (wifmann) is also masculine…if you told an English speaker from the 10th century that you talked to a woman, the grammatically correct reply would be “what did he say?”! It’s only silly moderns who confuse grammatical gender with the completely unrelated issue of the sex of the referent that think there’s anything wrong with that – or, where there is a sex distinction, suppress the feminine variants of the word (actress, aviatrix, etc))

  15. Peter: I don’t know where you’re from, but in English language/grammar, unlike most other languages, nouns are not GENDERized. Computers, books, pens and doctors are neither masculine nor feminine, no matter from what language they were derived. We have neutral “it,” “one,” and “they” (etc). “Doctor” in English is not masculine; it matters not what the derivation of the word is when one is speaking of a physician. The origin of the word or the assignment of gender in Latin (or any other language) have nothing to do with anything, when we are speaking English. A doctor can be a man or a woman, never mind masculine/feminine (not applicable) or male/female (topic of discussion). There are some professions that do distinguish (waiter/waitress, singer/songstress, actor/actress etc) but the trend seems to be to either substitute “-person” at the end (as in “waitperson”) or just call both the same thing (singer, cashier, etc). Also, with language and everything else changing so quickly, what went on in the 10th century is, IMHO, only of academic and historical interest, and would seem (to me) to be totally irrelevant to the practical use of language today. So if I tell you I went to see my orthopedist and you ask me what HE said, I will tell you that SHE said you should not presume every doctor is HE!

  16. Kathy, thank you so much for putting a voice to this pet peeve of mine as well. (In fact, I just read your query to my husband, who has had to listen to me complain about this quite a bit, and exclaimed, “Finally!”) Every time I hear this voiced on television, my ear catches it and my brain rejects it. I would never say “man senator” or “man news anchor” or anything of the sort, so “woman senator” or “woman news anchor” sound similarly ridiculous. I just can’t get my ear to accept this phrasing: it simply sounds wrong to me.

    As for the Thanksgiving example, I’ve heard similar sentences voiced, but they’ve always used “women” and “men” (or “womenfolk” and “menfolk”) and never a form of “female” or “male.”

  17. I have nothing against using “male” and “female” to qualify “senator.”

    However, I saw a personals ad in the paper over the weekend where (if I remember correctly), a “gentleman of distinction” specified that he was searching for a “Toronto female.” After reading it, I thought of this blog entry and it was all I could do to stop myself from sending him a reply allegedly from a female alley cat or raccoon.

  18. Dee, Perhaps a Toronto alley cat is what the “gentleman of distinction” is actually looking for…I would think that anybody who would call himself that but then state he was looking for a “female,” would probably know the difference…if he wanted a “lady of distinction” I’m sure he’d have written that! Go on and answer him with a resounding MEOW LOL

  19. @Dee, I shudder at the thought, but I imagine the choice of “female” was deliberate – so he wouldn’t lose the girls and children he is hoping for. A 16 year old girl might not write back to someone looking for a “lady” or “woman”.

    Gag me with a spoon.

  20. My two cents…in this specific case I wonder whether the emphasis was on ‘Senator’ or ‘Women’. If the emphasis was on the word ‘women’ (implying that it was only the women amongst the Senators who took the floor), then would it be right to say that “all women amongst the senators took to the floor”?

    On another note, what if we had to make the same comment for the ‘men’ amongst the senators? How would that be phrased?

  21. I completely agree with Cindy. It is never correct to say “men senators.” How could it be proper to say “women senators” other than to distinguish them from the male Senators? If we look at this phrase more carefully we would see that women is the noun and senators is the adjective. This implies that they are inherently women first and senators second. Even though male Senators are still just men in their personal lives. The honor of the office would demand the formality to view these men as representatives of their state first; especially when taking the floor. It could be argued in some alternate reality that this was a female issue so they took to the floor not as female Senators but as women. All kidding aside this was not the reality for these women senators.

    The writer also makes a point that when inversing male/woman and man/female in the same thought that reduces the other gender importance to their reproductive roles. Which is obviously the purpose and why its so commonly understood without a jolt to the brains logic centers.

  22. I agree… I cannot image someone saying “man senator” they would say “male senator”. In this circumstance, one is talking about the sex of the person, so I don’t see “female senator” as offensive, but “woman senator” sounds grammatically incorrect. And the phrase “the senator was a woman” sounds more derogatory because that is a complete sentence. By dedicating a complete sentence to the senator’s sex it indicates that her sex is more important that her job, this is sexist.

  23. For those of us who give a damn, “women” or “woman” should never be used as an adjective. It makes my skin crawl when I hear or see it.
    People need to stop bastardizing our language. The more it happens, the more people believe that it actually is an adjective.
    Now, I don’t want to hear from all those politically correct people when I also tell you I have a big problem with Ebonics. If two people came in to interview for a job, who do you think would get the job? The person who speaks correctly or the person using Ebonics as their chosen way of communication? We know the obvious choice. Would you want someone at your business saying “Yo, dis job is phat! I ain’t never ad a job like dis! .Whas good whitchu? You fill me?Arigh den”.
    You need a translator to understand Ebonics. It is just another way of bastardizing our language…just like using “woman” as an adjective.
    Whatever happened to having respect for ourselves?

  24. The “females watched a chick flick” analogy is nonsense Very few people would use female as a stand alone noun in such a context.

    The real issue is not the use of the word female as a noun (rarely happens for humans), but the use of the word woman as an adjective. This fact appears to have escaped some of the duller commenters. Female can be used as noun or adjective, so it is a non-argument.

    The solution to the problem always involves the proper use of ‘female’ as an adjective, and since an adjective goes with another word, you never have it as a stand alone word, like a noun.

    It is not correct to use the woman as an adjective and it is irritating to hear. Just substitute for the word man and you get all sorts of absurdities such as man president and man bus driver, kind of the way a 2 year old might talk.

    I mean come on, it is far more insulting and patronising to women to abuse language like this just to be politically correct than it is to use the word female in a correct and appropriate context. Sometimes the feminists are the female gender’s worst enemy. Let it drop.

  25. I am annoyed by the use of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as nouns when speaking of people, rather than livestock or subjects in a scientific study. My local newspaper usually reports arrests and accidents as involving males and females. I expect they pick up that language from the police blotter. Using man and woman would be most appropriate. In a related issue, I have noticed a curious use of the word gentleman. “A guy named Joe came to see you while you were out.” vs “A gentleman named Joe came to see you while you were out.” The difference: Joe the guy is white, Joe the gentleman is black. The speaker, who is white, seems to be carefully demonstrating his/her lack of racial prejudice.

  26. I agree with many of the cogent arguments that support the case of using female appropriately as an adjective vs. woman. It frustrates me greatly that the use of woman as an adjective has even gained some minor traction in recent years. As a doctor, the use of female and male is an important, neutral term used in documentation only. Patients are not referred to as males or females even in conversation between professionals. For me, the real problem is a combination of residual misogyny in society and the continued prominence of race and gender politics. The more people place others into categories and assign labels, the more sensitized we all become. The fact that people want to use a noun as an adjective (e.g. woman) to make a political statement or to transcend sexism is missing the bigger issue completely. Let’s keep our language intact. Let’s not transpose word meanings outside of appropriate contexts to mean something different. There was a similar push in recent years to change the use of subject to participant in research literature. That one I can understand. Still relatively pointless in my opinion, but I can respect the spirit of the change. Using woman president, woman manager, etc. just smacks of poor English and trying too hard to inject political correctness into language. In the end, language is used to simply express what you feel and mean. One of the great aspects of the English language is its specificity and exactness. There is nothing worse than sensitizing the use of language. Taking race for an example, I guarantee there is a moment of indecision with many people when trying to refer to someone who is black…or is it African American, etc.? Negro and colored are considered prejudiced terms despite their continued presence (e.g. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, United Negro College Fund). For the love of God, please don’t promulgate further the use of woman/women as an adjective! I should be able to use the English language correctly without worrying about future generations thinking I’m some backward, misogynist that never got the latest memo on how things are supposed to be.

  27. What is wrong with just saying Political Party + Senator + Name
    eg: Democratic Senator Kamala Harris
    Who cares what gender, as long as the senator does the job that they were elected for.
    But I digress, why categorize the gender or nationality or race or religion in normal conversation. Save that for the official government forms. Does anyone categorize their friends in polite conversation?
    eg: My female Buddhist Chinese friend, I am fond of….sounds kind of ridiculous, doesn’t it?

  28. Kathy –

    Hello from the future, where we still haven’t solved gender, but at least we realize it is wonderfully more complicated than we had realized.

    Grammatically, though, It is a little more straightforward. Female is an adjective. Woman is a noun. Using female as a noun in place of women when we talk about humans is misogynistic and demeaning. Using women as an adjective in place of female, however well-intended, is a hypercorrection.

    There’s not much more to it than that.

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