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Female Troubles: “Female” vs. “Woman”

Female. It’s a word that can be both a noun and an adjective. But unless you’re referring to farm animals or giving a lecture on the diversity of nature, someone is sure to be offended if you refer to a woman as a female—as in Carole is a female who knows what she wants. While it’s true that, historically, many renowned authors have used female as a noun, it’s also true that the practice is less accepted in modern usage. 

George and Scott met some good-looking females at the nightclub on Saturday.

In this context, female smacks of depersonalization and disrespect. Most women will agree that being referred to as a female is somehow offensive, even if they’re not exactly sure why. More and more we find that female and male are used to imply inferiority, whether in noun or adjective form, as in That’s just the female side talking, or Typical of a female. Note that the same objections can be raised when referring to men, as in If it weren’t for the male mentality, we wouldn’t have any wars, or I am determined to get to know that male.

When used in this context, male seems more mammal than human, and the man in question has been effectively depersonalized. But as an adjective, male is appropriate: 

The choir is composed of young male voices. 

In the following sentence, female and male are acceptable as nouns: 

The females lay their eggs in spring, while the males provide constant watch over the nest.

As adjectives, male and female are also perfectly acceptable: 

The newcomers were divided into two groups, female recruits to the left, male recruits to the right.

And while we’re on the subject of sensitivity, perhaps a word about girls

There are four girls and three men working at the office.

The (hopefully) unintentional result of this sentence is the trivialization of the contributions of the girls in the office, some of whom have probably not been called a girl for years. The sentence would be less insulting to women—or at least equally insulting to both sexes—if it read There are four girls and three boys working at the office, but this conjures up an image of seven kids running around the office—safer to change girls to women. 

Technically, this whole female vs woman issue is up for discussion. Dictionary definitions of female and male categorize the words as both noun and adjective, with female (n) = woman or girl and male (n) = man or boy. It’s more an issue of context and the importance of word choice when making an impression on the reader, whether intentional or not. For more on gender and prose, read Using Sensitive Language.

If you want to avoid alienating your readers, opt for writing with sensitivity and avoid using biased language. Use female and woman the proper way. What may be mere words to one reader may be construed as patronizing or insensitive to another, which may leave him or her less receptive to the content of your writing overall. And doesn’t that defeat the whole point of writing?

6 Responses to Female Troubles: “Female” vs. “Woman”

  1. As a proofreader, I recently encountered woman being used to distinguish between female professionals and their male counterparts. For example, a headline read ‘Woman journalists speak up about harassment from sportsmen’. I found this to be grammatically incorrect as female is an adjective and, therefore, more descriptive than woman.

  2. One thing I like about “male” and “female” is that it can refer to both children and adults at the same time (as opposed to just girls or just women). I think it really depends on the context.

  3. Anthony, Great points!

    Some of the sentences in this article are intentionally awkward, with the “war” example that you noted perhaps being the most glaring.

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. While I get, and generally agree with, your point, your example sentences leave something to be desired.

    Those sentences would be negative no matter what noun you have. “We wouldn’t have war if not for a man’s mentality” is 1) awkward and 2) just as condemning of men for what is going on. The same with “Typical of a woman”. Basically, the tone of those sentences isn’t set by the noun, but by the entirety of the sentence.

    The objectification is still there, but isn’t necessarily bad or good depending on the sentence. Male/Female represents sex, what a person is biologically. When you use that, you have reduced them to their biological “thing”ness. Man/Woman represents gender, the social construction that represents how the person identifies as an individual, or at least chooses to represent themselves to society.

  5. Re "they" as singular: sorry, this has nothing to do with avoiding sexism today but rather has a long history. I wish I’d kept the source of this, but here’s what’s in my files:

    "Well, taking my own advice, I consulted a good dictionary and learned, to my surprise and I assume to yours that _they_ is a borrowing, c. 1200, from Old Norse into Middle English.

    AHD has this to say:

    Word History: Incredible as it may seem, the English pronoun they is not really an English pronoun. They comes from Old Norse and is a classic example of the profound impact of that language on English: because pronouns are among the most basic elements of a language, it is rare for them to be replaced by borrowings from foreign sources. The Old Norse pronouns their, theira, theim worked their way south from the Danelaw, the region governed by the Old Norse-speaking invaders of England, and first appeared in English about 1200, gradually replacing
    the Old English words he, him, hora. The nominative or subject case (modern English they) seems to have spread first. William Caxton, who brought the printing press to England, uses they, hir, hem in his earlier printed works (after 1475) and thei, their, theim in his later ones. This is clear evidence of the spread of these Norse forms southward, since Caxton did not speak northern English natively (he was born in Westminster). The native English objective case of the third plural, him or hem, may well survive, at least colloquially, in modern
    English ’em, as in "Give ’em back!"

    As it has been used in the singular at least since 1300 (and maybe since its original borrowing), that usage seems to be well established. Borrowed words often bend the rules of their host languages." [end of quoted material]

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