“Females” or “Women?” Why your choice matters.

I admit it: I’m a lurker in more than one online group. In some, I occasionally step from the shadows to comment, while in others I know better than to open my (figurative) mouth: I don’t engage, I simply observe.

This observational approach — in groups I wouldn’t ordinarily have an association with — sometimes pays off when the people in that group use language in an unusual way, or make interesting arguments for or against the way someone else is using it. I’ve watched a couple of these mini-debates unfold recently, one of which was particularly well argued: a discussion of whether it’s ever appropriate to refer to women as “females” and why (or why not).

Personally, I’ve long felt uneasy when a writer (or more often a speaker) refers to women as “females.” I could never quite put my finger on why — it always seemed awkward and inarticulate, but I’d chalk it up to poor choice of words and not think much further on it. Usually when I’ve witnessed someone use females in this way it’s been a relatively young person (a college student, for example) trying too hard to sound authoritative. Or someone in a sports context (a coach or reporter) out of their element and searching for inoffensive language. These uses always come across as strained if not inappropriate.

However, in this recent discussion one party to the exchange got rather heated (rightly so) and pointed out that use of the term “females” to refer to women is at best ignorant and at worst deliberately demeaning. “Female,” the poster pointed out, is an adjective, not a noun. To use it to label a woman is shorthand for “female of the species” or “female human,” both of which are on the slippery slope to denying individual personhood to that woman. In addition, you’d never hear someone earnestly use “males” to describe a group of men, so by using females you’ve automatically — by your choice of words — given a separate (and unequal) status to women.

A few interesting outside links were provided. Both of these are short. The piece by Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu on Buzzfeed is succinct and to the point, but Kara Brown’s follow-up on Jezebel (still fairly short) is also worth the read. Brown expands the point that any time an adjective is used as a noun in this way (“blacks” as shorthand for “black people” for example) it depersonalizes the group or individual: a person is reduced from a complex human being to a single two-dimensional attribute. I would no longer be a comprehensive and interesting individual, for example; instead I would be “a white.” (Coincidentally, I heard someone use “Caucasian” in this awkward way several times during a radio interview this morning. It wasn’t pretty.)

On the whole this was a very good explanation. There are only a few quibbles that one could have with it. For example, female is not just an adjective (as asserted in the online discussion, not the links) but also a noun. That use goes back to the dawn of modern English (OED lists examples from the mid to late 14th century). The argument can also be made that use of female isn’t always pejorative, especially when the use is either technical (scientific or clinical) or when it’s balanced by an equivalent use of male or males (instead of man or men). As for instance in this OED example from 1975: “Although males traditionally take on the mantle of leadership in our society, it is the female who more often finds success in our educational system.”

(That example undermines the argument that male is never used in the same way as female. But while the sentence makes a good example of actual use, it’s not elegant: using “men” and “women” instead would improve it. Which supports another point…)

Despite the fact that “females” (and “males“) and “female” (and “male“) are perfectly good words, when you’re writing or talking about human femaleswomen — you should avoid using these words unless you have a valid technical reason to do so. If you’re drafting a paper in sociology or biology, for instance, female might be the right word; in most other situations, it probably isn’t.

In fact, even OED, which carefully documents that female is both noun and adjective, and that both have been with us for three quarters of a millennia, notes that standalone use of the noun (as opposed to the paired and balanced use of male and female) is frowned upon outside of technical contexts.

This is noteworthy, because OED doesn’t often make this kind of editorial judgement. They’ll note that a usage is obsolete or archaic, but not much more. In this case they’ve gone further, noting for female that:

Sometimes (esp. in later use) depreciative, as a generic descriptor implying low class or a lack of traditional feminine qualities.
N.E.D. (1895) notes: ‘now commonly avoided by good writers, exc. with contemptuous implication’.

Did you catch that? Even 120 years ago use of the word often carried a “contemptuous implication.” It doesn’t seem that the situation has changed or that use of the word has become any less demeaning since.

OED is also thorough enough to label one of the adjective senses of female as outright derogatory. Which is definitely a word to the wise these days: like other terms, “female” is often used as an insult, but it’s delivered in such a way that the derogatory nature slithers right past a lot of readers (or listeners).

You should knock this word from your vocabulary, except when specific technical situations call for it. If using “females” instead of “women” was already unmasked as derogatory in 1895, why would you continue doing it in 2015?

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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One Response to “Females” or “Women?” Why your choice matters.

  1. Lisa Farnam says:

    I would think that “female” is also usually used in a more biological sense than “woman.” While I might refer to Ms. Jenner as a woman, I’m not sure I would refer to her as a female.

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