The Word

The ‘female’ question

Or should it be ‘woman’?

By Jan Freeman
December 20, 2009

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IF SHE WINS the special election in January, will Martha Coakley be Massachusetts’s first female senator or its first woman senator?

Either description works for most people, judging by print usage and the millions of Web hits, and the American Heritage Dictionary is prochoice on the issue: “Both woman and female are acceptable: the first woman vice-president; the female candidates.”

But not everybody thinks “women senators” and “female senators” are equal, as I learned recently when Christa Kelleher, research director at at UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy, e-mailed to ask about the linguistic status of women. Was it grammatically proper, she wondered, to use it adjectivally, as in “women mayors”? Or is “female mayors” the better choice?

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? Lord and lady have evolved quite differently; girl was not originally the counterpart of boy but a child of either sex. And of course we have used man as a modifier, from man servant (1409) to man child (1611) to man bag (1968) to man date (c. 2005). There would no doubt be more if man wasn’t the default assumption for so many job descriptions (or already part of the name, as in layman, journeyman, milkman).

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.”

How did female acquire (for some people, anyway) this taint? We can blame the Victorian usage mavens - or maybe the Victorian journalists. When female, noun and adjective, was first borrowed from the French, it may have sounded fancy, but it wasn’t pejorative. And it remained a respectable noun for centuries, the Oxford English Dictionary’s examples show: “Just putting on my hat, to attend the females to church” (1713); “dancing … an essential part of a young female’s education” (1801). Jane Austen used the noun female without pride or prejudice: “About a week after Bingley’s engagement … he and the females of the family were sitting together in the dining room” (1813).

But by the mid-19th century the noun female was beginning to sound indelicate to some usage writers. Henry Alford, in “The Queen’s English” (1856), denounced the popular use of “females” in the newspapers: “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?” Later usagists followed his lead, and when the F volume of the OED appeared, in 1900, editor Henry Bradley declared that the use of female for woman was “now commonly avoided by good writers, exc[ept] with contemptuous implication.”

Was this chivalry run amok? In fact, says Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the usage mavens probably despised female not because it demeaned women but because the noun was a journalistic affectation. (The newspapers, in turn, may have been using female to avoid choosing between woman and lady, terms whose status was also in flux. In 1869, William Blackley complained about the difficulty of describing two people he had assisted in a crowd: “I was going to say ladies, but ladies are grateful … nor can I say women, for that is considered a slight; or females, for such persons are no longer supposed to exist.”)

None of the hostility was directed at female, the adjective; “the female sex,” “female attire,” and “female scholars” were quite correct. But the noun’s sinking reputation, perhaps inevitably, dragged down the adjective’s. In “Modern English Usage” (1926), H.W. Fowler urged readers to get it straight: the noun female “is reasonably resented,” he said, but the “mistaken extension” of resentment to the adjective use leads to awkwardnesses like “woman suffrage” for the more natural “female suffrage.” Forcing woman into adjective use when female is already handy, he said, “is mere perversity.”

To modern readers - and especially to journalists, always in need of convenient synonyms - Fowler’s judgment seems harsh. Both “female senator” and “woman senator” are good English, and we’re free to use whichever we like on the (increasingly rare?) occasions when specifying a lawmaker’s sex is actually appropriate.

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