Through some miracle of the Fates, I had not one but two male teachers in high school who happened to discuss women’s issues on the same day. One of them, an aging hippie who had us read Hemingway but who gently nudged us to consider Hemingway’s treatment of his leading ladies, referred to the characters as women. The other—who, in a semi-unrelated matter, had tried (and failed) to have me serve detention for not standing up during the Pledge of Allegiance**—kept talking about females when discussing the “women’s lib” movement in our American history class. I kept sensing a mild contempt on the second teacher’s part—but he was discussing feminism, after all, so I brushed it aside, just glad to be learning this stuff at all.
But the ensuing years have shown me that I wasn’t imagining his ever-so-slightly-curled lip. Inevitably, when I hear the word female repeatedly used as a noun in speech, it’s either from someone who isn’t used to talking about sex and gender issues (in which case I try to look past it, assuming the person is in good faith)—or, more frequently, from a card-carrying misogynist who, intentionally or not, manages to make every utterance of female sound like he’s spitting directly onto our collective ovaries.
Common wisdom and cultural and etymological research shows that the prevalent objection to female as a noun is because it’s a term used to generically describe the egg-producing party of any species, not just our giganto-cranium intelligent species that includes, you know, women. Hell, it’s used to describe plants. There’s something about dwindling our womanness down to our biology that explains both why it’s used by misogynists (many of whom have a hard time seeing beyond biology) and those who are simply uncomfortable discussing gender (in an effort to distance themselves from talking about the people they actually know when delving into topics they see as hot-button, they can talk about females). It’s where Grammar Girl takes us, along with the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s English Usage Guide, and William Safire (who also couldn’t resist a quick laugh about how feminists were rejecting female, so ha ha we’re all going to be womanists soon!).
Grammar Girl wasn’t the first to bring this up publicly, of course: “Why should a woman be degraded from her position as a rational being, and be expressed by a word which might belong to any animal tribe?” wrote critic Henry Alford in 1866. The Oxford English Dictionary is more succinct on the matter: “Now commonly avoided by good writers, exc. with contemptuous implication.”
And, you know, it makes sense. But in poking into the etymology of female, I was surprised to find two things: 1) female applied first to humans, and then worked its way to other animals, and 2) female is not derived from male. Female originally sprang from the Latin femella and later the Old French femelle; contrast that with masculus from the same period, and it’s clear that unlike woman (which was indeed a compound), female has its own birth. The word only began to seem a counterpart to male in 1375, when the spelling was altered to seem a better rhyme for male.
Certainly I’m not about to start arguing that because those badass Carolingian femelles didn’t have a problem with it that any of us should shrug off the chill that might come with hearing ourselves called females. But female has its uses: For one, it covers both women and girls, thus functioning as a word of solidarity. There are also cases in which a clinical allusion is helpful: Discussing biology, for one (though of course this also comes in handy for evolutionary psych types, who are frequently misogynist, to put it mildly), or trying to paint a picture free of gender bias by using the word woman, which does imply humanness and therefore carries more personal weight and connotation. There’s something equalizing about female that woman in some situations can’t quite have—the very distance that makes female troublesome may also hold some liberation.
Besides any logical argument therein, there’s a part of me that’s tempted to respond to the idea of using language to reduce me to my reproductive system with a sort of oh yeah, buddy? approach. Like, is your pathetic and probably subconscious (but maybe not really?) linguistic method of attempting to cut me down to size really helping you out in this conversation, dude?
I’m guessing that most Feministe readers aren’t terrifically keen on female as a noun. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s an argument there for reclaiming it. Hell, if we’re reclaiming slut, let’s go hog-wild! (Sow-wild?) Like many (ahem!) say about hello, it’s an ostensibly harmless word whose meaning varies wildly upon who’s uttering it and in what fashion—yet unlike hello, unless my experience has been atypical, it’s not a word that’s often used by women’s well-wishers. Is female beyond redemption?
*Shock shock horror horror shock shock horror!
**Is it true that other countries don’t really have a Pledge of Allegiance, i.e. a group recitation in front of a flag done at public assemblies? We had to do this every day in school when I was growing up—is that still the case? Now that I’m really thinking about it, it’s sort of weird, right?