“Female” or “Woman”?
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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