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

[Original publication date: Oct. 21, 2011]

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:


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.

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

Use of “female” as a stand-alone noun to describe human women has been 100 percent accurate as a predictor of misogyny in my experience. It’s as reliable as when people say “folks” because they are trying to dismiss a group’s concerns entirely.

I started twitching violently when one of the writers I edit on my freelance job used “females” as a noun the other day, but I’m also not entirely certain she’s a native speaker, so I just fixed it instead of yelling at her. But I may have angrily messaged PoM about it.

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