Mighty Red Pen

December 21, 2009

The female of the species: Female vs. woman

Filed under: Word wars,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 5:21 pm
Tags: ,

Prompted by the possible election of a woman as U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, Jan Freeman muses in “The Female Question” on the correctness of woman and female as modifiers, asking: “If she wins the special election in January, will Martha Coakley be Massachusetts’s first female senator or its first woman senator?”

Freeman writes:

First, the defense of woman, the modifier: There’s nothing wrong with drafting woman for adjective duty, even if your dictionary calls it a noun. In English, nouns are allowed (and widely used) as attributives, modifying other nouns: cat food, bubble wrap, grammar mistake, goldfish bowl, child prodigy.

Some ‘woman’-haters argue that such adjectival use should be parallel with that of man: If we don’t say “man judges,” we can’t say “women judges.” But where is it written that words (any more than women) automatically get equal treatment?

But even if “woman senator” is fine, you might think female – indisputably an adjective – would be the safer choice. But female has its own PR problems. “Female connotes a biological category,” the linguist Deborah Tannen told columnist William Safire in 2007. “I avoid female [as an adjective] in my own writing because it feels disrespectful, as if I’m treating the people I’m referring to as mammals but not humans.”

Naturally, I’d like to see a world in which we didn’t have to point out anyone’s gender, but sometimes the fact of gender is the story, as in the case of this possibly historic election.

So in thinking this over, I realized that I tend to use woman as a modifier instead of female, probably for some reason related to the one given by Tannen. By saying female anything for me reduces women to a the female-of-the-species kind of status, as though there might be a Mutual of Omaha special on female senators, female secretaries of state, and rarest of all, female presidents.

Or, perhaps my aversion to female might be because I’ve been reading Twilight, in which the evil woman vampire is consistently referred to as the female. Creepy.

Which do you think is correct … or which do you simply prefer?



  1. Hi MRP!
    Could you do me a huge favor and style “woman-haters” the way it appears in the print edition, with the “woman” in italix? Or with single quotes — ‘woman’-haters? Unfortunately the itals don’t carry over to the Web edition, and so my little joke was utterly lost on some rather unfriendly commenters. Thanks!

    Comment by Jan Freeman — December 21, 2009 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

  2. I prefer “woman,” because gender and sex don’t always match up perfectly (one can be born a female but identify as a man, and vice versa). I prefer to identify people based on the gender they present as.

    Comment by Erin — December 21, 2009 @ 8:29 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Jan — You got it! MRP

    Comment by mighty red pen — December 21, 2009 @ 8:58 pm | Reply

  4. I have always felt uncomfortable with ‘woman’ as a modifier because in it I hear a ring of sexism. Perhaps this is the result of hearing a certain sort of person use phrases like “woman-doctor” or “woman-preacher” with the sort of intonation with which one might speak of a “poison-pie” or “hair-sandwich.”

    On the other hand, having now read the reasoning against the use of ‘female’, I now find myself sympathetic to that point of view.

    My solution? I shall simply refer to Martha Coakley as the junior senator from Massachusetts and leave the morass of gender politics in language to braver souls.

    Comment by David — December 22, 2009 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  5. Hi, you’ve spelt ‘realise’ wrong! Thank you that is all.

    Comment by bobbie — July 27, 2012 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  6. Is not the human brain neuter?

    Comment by Fisher — January 31, 2014 @ 11:58 pm | Reply

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