“Female” is an Adjective: You Got Your Grammar in My Feminism!

[E] RachelFeminism8 Comments

olivemylove

First things first. Yes, I know “female” is also a noun. It’s not necessary to bust out the Merriam-Webster to prove me wrong. I have a few editions of my own. But all technicalities aside, language is a living, ever-changing entity, and how we choose to use words is important. They have meaning beyond what the dictionary tells us, and they have power. Using “female” as an adjective is rarely problematic: female scientist, female track star, female student. It’s a way of differentiating a particular gender when identifying an individual within a larger group. But “female” as a noun, for example, “They just hired a female for the sales position,” gives me pause.

We use “female” as a noun all the time. We use it to describe animals, or parts of plants, hell, even computer components have “male” and “female” parts. But what these things all have in common is that they are not human beings. Referring to a female human being as a “female” is reducing women to their most biological component and, in part, erasing their humanity just a little.

You see “female” as a noun tossed around a lot in certain places. Statisticians, for example, use it a lot when referring to women. Politicians use it a lot. Doctors use it all the time (although in a more clinical sense, not generally when talking to patients). You know who else uses it? Sexists. For some reason, “female” is the word of choice when people are talking about women in a disparaging or demeaning way. For example, this gem was kicking around Tumblr a while back:

Charming.

Abhorrent “message” aside, this pithy little picture manages to accomplish quite a lot: reducing men and women to their biological classification, implying that positive behavior on the part of one gender is dependent on approved behavior from another, and offending me so much, from both a literary and feminist perspective, that I have to walk away for a minute.

Here’s the thing: “woman” implies both biology and humanity. To take it a little further, “lady” implies biology, humanity, and, to an extent, behavior or social standing. “Girl” implies biology, humanity, and age. “Female” reduces down to purely biology, removing the linguistic shorthand that clarifies that we’re talking about a human being here. And while it seems like a nitpicky little thing to focus on in the larger arena of feminism, we all know that words are important. When someone chooses to refer to women as “females,” they’re making a choice, consciously or not, to dehumanize and demean, and it’s such a specific verbal tic that I wonder if it’s ever truly coincidental.

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[E] Rachel

I punctuate sentences with Oxford commas, and I punctuate disagreements with changesocks. Proud curmudgeon. Get off my lawn.
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[E] Rachel“Female” is an Adjective: You Got Your Grammar in My Feminism!

8 Comments on ““Female” is an Adjective: You Got Your Grammar in My Feminism!”

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  1. Profile photo of Urbanforager
    Urbanforager

    I couldn’t agree more that the use of “female” as a noun implicitly dehumanizes women, even if it does, strictly speaking, pass grammatical muster. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that “female”  is, as your headline notes, a perfectly acceptable adjective, whereas “woman” is not. “Woman scientist” — what’s that? A gynecologist? The use of “woman” as an adjective is practically standard English now, and it irritates the hell out of me every time I see it, because “man” is never used this way. Have you ever heard of a “man astronaut” or a “man lawyer?”

    This is partly the result of the fact that maleness is generally the implicit norm, but “man” isn’t used as an adjective even in reference to male practitioners of professions that are perceived as  the traditional preserves of women: I’ve never heard the phrase “man nurse” or “man model,” for example. As a copy editor, I’ll continue to replace “woman”  with “female” in the adjectival position until “man driver” becomes common usage.

    1. Profile photo of [E] Rachel
      [E] Rachel

      Excellent point. “Astronaut” if gender is not being discussed, “female (or male) astronaut” if gender is relevant, and “woman astronaut” under penalty of death.

  2. Profile photo of bricorama
    bricorama

    Here’s the thing: “woman” implies both biology and humanity. To take it a little further, “lady” implies biology, humanity, and, to an extent, behavior or social standing. “Girl” implies biology, humanity, and age. “Female” reduces down to purely biology, removing the linguistic shorthand that clarifies that we’re talking about a human being here. And while it seems like a nitpicky little thing to focus on in the larger arena of feminism, we all know that words are important. When someone chooses to refer to women as “females,” they’re making a choice, consciously or not, to dehumanize and demean, and it’s such a specific verbal tic that I wonder if it’s ever truly coincidental.

    Yes! This is so well worded. Thank you for writing this article.

    Female as an adjective is annoying, but female as a noun is down right infuriating (in most cases).

  3. Profile photo of Annie
    Annie

    Oh, how interesting that “females” are supposed to “sit down,” while “males” are supposed to “stand up.”  Yay, patriarchy. Blech.

  4. Profile photo of Mary Anne Limoncelli
    Mary Anne Limoncelli

    I’ve always disliked the concept of “female” and “male” computer parts or electrical parts or whatever – like, really, the female part is the hole, and the male part is what gets put in the hole, and that’s not reductive and immature? Couldn’t we have come up with other words?

  5. Profile photo of [E]SaraB
    [E]SaraB

    I don’t think it is ever unconscious.  Typically when I see “female” used to refer to women, the subtext is that the speaker is too polite to use the words he or she is really thinking.  I’ve used “males” in the same way, and I meant for it to be an insult.  I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to dehumanize or demean someone, but it is certainly a way of expressing contempt.  (I’ll also use male or female if I want to refer to a group which in gender, but not age, specific.

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