As we continue moving towards a more inclusive society, discourse intensifies as to the use and understanding of gender-specific language.
At the forefront of such discourse is the sex-gender delineation, which specifies that your sex is determined superficially by your reproductive assignment, while your gender is determined artificially by sociocultural standards and personal identity. Gender expression, then, would be that component of gender articulation exemplified by aspects like appearance, mannerisms, and pronouns. Rephrased: sex is what you’re born with, gender is what you’re born into (culturally speaking), gender expression is what you choose.
By this definition, not all females are women and not all women are female. This distinction is designed to promote inclusion of transgender, intersex, and gender non-conforming individuals whose identities are muted by linguistic binaries.
The subject is widely-debated, and has been polarizing in more communities than one. The New Yorker's Mary Norris points to the political frenzy that ensued after 2020 Presidential candidate, Cory Booker announced his intentions to select “a woman running mate”:
Champions of old-school grammar insist that “woman” is a noun and that it is wrong to use a noun as an adjective when the language already has a perfectly good adjective in the word “female.” What Booker should have said, the traditionalists argue, was “a female running mate.” …the feminist point of view, is that “female” has biological overtones and focusses too narrowly on the reproductive system.
This idea underscores the question of what should be expected of single-sex educational institutions, Greek-letter organizations, Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts, and similar social clubs whose traditions rest upon the inherency of cisgender dominance.
I am of the belief that words matter, and as such, our willingness to challenge unconscious bias with intentional language does, too. However, let's further the conversation by acknowledging the fact that the use of the word "female" - in addition to its aforementioned charge - has a unique colloquial embodiment that can't be lumped into discussions of politics, literature, or sophisticate propriety.
I find that men (let's assume I'm not saying all men 🙄) feel super comfortable using the terms "female" and "woman" interchangeably. They'll say "I was talking to this female and..." or "females always xyz," and it's cringeeeworrthyyy.
Normally I have a hard time explaining the problem with this - particularly because, in my case, it's not untrue that I am female. But I recently saw a tweet that summed it up in a way I only wish I came up with myself:
There's a lively exchange in this thread between people who agree and disagree (click to read). I think fair points are made about the fact that "female" in itself is neither an explicitly offensive term nor one to get up-in-arms about as soon as it is used. My response overall, though, is context, context, context. The tone and circumstance in which any word is used can change its meaning entirely, and it's erroneously negligent to expect your audience not to interpret your language in accordance with the ways it has been inherently understood. In a quote featured by Time Magazine, slang lexicographer, Jonathan Green explains: “Female, it appears, must now be assumed to reference female dog and thus the slang pejorative for women, used since the 15th century, of bitch.”
If the lexical lineage doesn't convince you, other points might:
1. Humanity (or Lack Thereof)
The term, yes, can be used for human beings, but it can also be used in reference to just about anything else. From animals to electrical cables, "female" is a term that is strictly meant to describe anatomical structure. Using it to replace identity-affirming language can be deemed reductive because it neglects the distinction between body and being. The identities of a woman are not exclusive to her being a female, especially considering that she may not be female at all.
Dominant rhetoric often debases women to reproductive machines or sex objects despite the fact that many throughout history have fought for their rights to be recognized otherwise: to reclaim body autonomy, resist abuse, and garner respect or acceptance non-contingent upon their relationships to men. Use of the term "female" propagates notions of subordination and dispensability, and is misplaced when there exists an alternative.
Let's be real enough to admit that people rarely even say the word "female” in colloquial terms unless they mean "bitch" or "broad" or something derogatory.
When talking amongst friends, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone say the word "female" and follow it up with something positive. “Females are so smart" or "females are so loyal,” said absolutely no one. When someone says "you're on some female shit" they mean you're being hysterical or weak. The term is most commonly used just like that: to make inappropriate generalizations or disparaging remarks, and it's certainly uncomfortable to hear. There's someone on an Alpha-male podcast right now saying, "this is why you can't let females..." or "females stay doing xyz."
Even used neutrally, it would be jarring. You wouldn’t say “females like cookies” or “there are lots of females at my school.” You would just say women. In reference to a romantic partner, too, for example, how would you refer to her? My lady, maybe. My woman. My girlfriend. You wouldn’t say something like “my female.” It’s bizarre and it's creepy, and that same tone comes across when you use the term cavalierly in conversation.
We don't treat the word "female" the same way we treat the word "male." It's almost unheard of for someone to talk about groups of males when they're talking about men. And before you say, "I wouldn't be offended if someone called me a male," remember not to oversimplify. It's not an individual question - the same way it's not a question about taking offense. It's about acknowledgment. Pattern analysis. In a world without sexism, this might be different. Regardless, the truth remains that women and men have never been on a level playing field in modern society, and the language we use is largely indicative of the patriarchy. Someone who benefits from social hierarchies will not have the same sensitivities or considerations as someone who is stifled by them. We use masculine language in a positive way, while feminine language tends to have negative associations, therefore the reason behind the term "female" taking on pejorative form is worth exploration.
The term “female” has taken its own form in the Black community, and it’s one that crystallizes the gender divide (cultural divides as well). I’m sure it’s true that the word is used in different ways and in different spaces, but my experience has shown me that Black men explicitly use the term “female” to refer to Black women, and not to those of other ethnic backgrounds. Large subsets of Black men use descriptors for non-Black women that are often more socially favorable. You have your “bunnies” your “mamis” and your “foreigns” - and those terms, while problematic in their own ways, emphasize desirability in a way that contrasts to the sterility of a term like “female.”
To some people, this will sound dramatic or unimportant. I offer that, as with any opinion, we’re all within our rights to draw the conclusion we see fit. For me, though, the line has to be drawn at respect. We wouldn’t use words if they had no meaning, and the ways in which we use them inform the entire basis of interpersonal communication. Hiding misogyny behind euphemism is a weakly subversive attempt to create plausible deniability for the implications of our language. Deflecting responsibility for negative impact on the basis of good intent brings no honor, and still none when you know the ramifications of what you do and choose to continue anyway.
Phew, okay, that’s off my chest...
I'll leave you with a more light-hearted touch courtesy of some funny folks on TikTok -