Is It Offensive to Address a Woman as Female?

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Aug. 14 2014 8:12 AM

Is It Offensive to Address a Woman as Female?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Carrie Cutler, engineering student:


I wouldn't go so far as "offensive," but I do find it annoying.

First, and most annoyingly, female is an adjective. (I'm using the Oxford English Dictionary, not random dictionaries online.) I've spent way too much time around the written word not to twitch when I hear or see bad grammar. The word female describes the presence of ovaries and a uterus in some object that experiences sexual differentiation (human, mammal, lizard, dolphin, etc.). It's especially bad grammar when men and females are matched, because female is defined as a description of sexual differentiation that applies to any sexually differentiated species, and man is human-specific.

Second, the word female is used primarily to note the gender of someone, as paired with a noun that would not otherwise be assumed to include women or girls. We assume the word people or human includes men and women, but other nouns aren't assumed inclusive.

The phrase female scientist is an example. Because scientists are assumed to be male, this can have the effect of reminding everyone that this scientist is an exception to expectations, which can be annoying after enough repetition. And sometimes, depending on the person using it, being reminded that you are female and something starts to sound like a reminder that you're only there provisionally or that you're a deviation to the rule. If every time you see someone he reminds you that you're female, it starts to make you wonder why it's so important to keep repeating the word female. Why not just scientist? Why is gender important to one's occupation outside a discussion of occupational demographics?

Third, and most importantly for the discussion about the use of female as a noun, it's often used in a derogatory or insulting fashion. It doesn't have to be, of course, but it's so frequently used in a derogatory fashion that it starts to take on certain connotations.

The man-female pairing I discussed earlier is an example. Nonspecific species descriptions paired with specific species descriptions have the effect of attaching a connotation to women, since native English speakers tend to know that man-woman is supposed to be paired, of being less than men. This comes by way of the assumption that humans are better than animals (instead of being another animal).

It also comes paired with other things to remind everyone of that association. Examples include the following phrases, from song lyrics:

Lil' Jon: "Till all these females crawl"

NOA: "None of them females got nothing on me"

Red Foley: "I'm tipping you off/ Your goose is cooked/ When one of them females get you hooked"

Neil Diamond: "And you're nothing like them females from Dover City"

The word female, used in place of woman or women, is used to distinguish the singer or the object of the singer's affection from a faceless crowd. Due to connotations with the word crawl (like subservience, a common use to describe slowness or animal locomotion, or a description of the way children move), female takes similar connotations as the noun paired to that verb.

The second quote is used to distinguish the speaker from other women, who are less than the speaker. It reinforces the idea that anyone labeled female is less than anyone who can label them that.

The third quote reinforces the idea that there's a battle or competition between men and females for power ("get you hooked").

The fourth quote distinguishes the object of the singer's affections from a faceless, less worthy crowd. While it's relatively normal to think that the object of one's affection is better than other people, paired with the animal connotations of the word female, it becomes more about saying anyone who isn't the object of one's affection is not quite human.

Finally, we may treat gender as dimorphic and fixed as a convenience to discussion and analysis, but it is not by any meaningful measure dimorphic, since genitalia do not dictate behavior. Pointing out dichotomy endlessly (as in the common use of female as a noun) has the effect of reinforcing the idea that there are two rigid categories for gender.

Can you use the word female? Sure, where it is necessary to describe something. An example would be the following phrase: "The survey respondents were 51 percent male and 49 percent female." There's a reason to use the word female, and it is an adjective to the noun survey respondents in a context where discussing demographics is a part of understanding something.

Do I think it's a major battle? No, I'd rather focus on policy issues myself. But is there something there? Yes.

I suppose, after reading this, you could conclude that I'm just looking for things to get offended about. You could assume that anyone who would be bothered by this abuse of grammar is just looking for things to be upset about. Of course, considering the crimes against grammar I just discussed, I could point out that the use of female as a noun is the equivalent of arguing that two plus two is anything you want it to be.

You could argue that anything means anything you want. But you would be wrong.

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