Terminology 101: ‘females’ vs ‘women’

Here is a photo-montage of a bunch of females. They belong to many species.

Photomontage of females of many species

Here is a photo-montage of a bunch of women, laughing.  They belong to only one species. 

Photomontage of women of many races and ages, laughing
I choose to think that they are laughing at the argument that the term ‘females’ is supposedly a scientifically more accurate way to describe them than the term ‘women’.

Of course, ‘female humans’ would also be an accurate description of the above people, but it is two words rather than one. The accurate terminology to use is not that difficult to remember for those who are intellectually honest.

This post has been brought to you courtesy of disingenuous arguments taking place elsewhere.

Pre-emptive rebuttal of the inevitable “bbbbbut the military uses these terms” argument: indeed they do. The military also uses the term “collateral damage” to refer to the deaths of people not belonging to enemy forces (the enemy gets called ‘gook’, ‘towelhead’, etc). In each instance the terminology is pointedly dehumanising, and used quite deliberately as part of the military mindset programming that takes normal members of society and creates within them the capacity to kill other human beings who are strangers to them. This is arguably necessary to create effective fighters. That doesn’t make the military way an ideal model for normal social interactions.

Categories: education, gender & feminism, language

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32 replies

  1. Thank you! Particularly frustrating for me are the folks who bristle at at someone pointing out the problem…when they’ve repeatedly used “females” as a counterpart to “men/blokes”.
    ‘What do you mean I should perhaps consider writing about women in a way that recognises their humanity?’

  2. You have explained beautifully one of my pet hates. It just sounds so demeaning when they refer to women as females like they are looking at them under a microscope. I find it worse than ‘girls’ even.
    Sorry that you are having to wade through disingenuous arguments elsewhere. I hope you are in fine form.

  3. A related pet peeve – malapropisms like “the female species”. Women as a sex are so radically different and presumably unfathomable that we constitute an entirely different species?

  4. And in singular form: woman = noun, female = adjective. With a special shout out to most undergrad essay writers.

  5. orlando, sadly the noun vs adjective argument never seems to get anywhere with the malfeasants, no matter how obvious it might be to you and me.

  6. I had to illustrate this problem earlier today on Twitter, when the CBS affiliate out of Sacramento, CA tweeted that two females were being held hostage somewhere in the city. I asked what species they were referring to, or did they mean two women? They declined to clarify. I know that they were repeating the police radio report, but that’s not really an excuse.
    It’s especially demoralizing to see this language seeping into the media, though.

    • Amadi, it really disturbs me that the emergency services generally appear to have adopted the military males/females terminology for describing incidents involving the citizens they are supposed to ‘protect and serve’. I do see the point of why the military adopted dehumanising language, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea that our emergency services have done the same (like ambos here, FFS).

  7. Wait, wait, wait… Please excuse the male privilege for a sec, but I really have never encountered this before.
    There are men out there who think that sounding like the Ferengi from Star Trek is a good thing? That it doesn’t make them sound extremely creepy? I mean, I thought the Ferengi were an extremely obvious and overplayed parody, and there are people who think that they sound emulatable?
    The hell is wrong with these idiots?

  8. You will hear it all the time now Medivh. Usually at least once on the news each night, anything involving women’s sports.

  9. Mindy, with the sports commentary FWIW I understand that many times it might be a largely unconscious elision (female athletes => females etc) but that is still
    (a) inaccurate and lazy
    (b) not official Olympics or other sporting bodies terminology – they at least say Men’s X event and Women’s X event.
    (c) insidiously reinforcing dehumanising vocabulary (see my point about “collateral damage” above)

  10. Oh good…it’s not just me. This has been driving me batshit insane lately. I’ve noticed that the female+man or male+woman conflation as dehumanising language gets especially egregious with transphobic rants as well…that’s my own particular personal focus so I suppose I notice it more but once it smacks you in the face a few times you see and hear it *everywhere*.

    • It does seem to be gaining in popularity, sadly.
      I also note that one of the reasons that it’s used in the emergency services so much is that forms have to be filled in where there’s checkboxes for M or F, so radio communications using male(s) and female(s) make a certain amount of sexsense. I just don’t understand why they can’t make the switch away from inside jargon to a more general vocabulary when they’re doing their press conferences or speaking with a member of the public – when I worked in hospitals we always used the M and F (and many other) abbreviations & jargon terms when making our notes, but during ward meetings and medical rounds we spoke to each other about “Mary Jones, an 81 year old woman presenting with chest pain”, and in fact each new intake of medical interns seemed to include somebody who got a dressing-down from the attending specialist for trying to speak to other human beings in the medical equivalent of l33t-speak.

  11. In the Channel Nine Olympics commentary I’m being driven to distraction by the constant repetition of “girls girls girls”. To the point that the commentators are so oblivious that they’ll even refer in the same breath to the “men’s cycling” and the “girls’ cycling”. *smashes crockery*
    ETA: And I’ve just realised that I don’t think they’re using “girls” much or at all when they talk about the women’s basketball and boxing. Interesting.

  12. Lauredhel@13: I wonder if it’s because boxing (in particular) and basketball are still seen as so-called “men’s sports”, so if women are boxing or playing basketball, they must be lesbians, therefore not available to men, hence not girls. Because to me, “girl” implies sexual availability. Also, women just got non-sexualized uniforms for basketball, and I believe for boxing as well, so they’re not wearing clothing that “girl-ifies” them. I’m just thinking out loud and trying to get into the head of sexist men, I guess.

  13. GallingGalla: I haven’t done any sort of quantitative study on it, so my impression may be false, too. However, hockey is often seen as a “lesbian” sport, but that is rife with “girls” language. However, they wear little skirts.
    My initial hypothesis was that women who play basketball or box are perhaps perceived as more physically “threatening” – very tall, or powerful punchers. It’s perhaps harder to infantilise someone who is a foot taller than you. I don’t know.

  14. Lauredhel – I also hat with a fiery passion the use of ‘girls’ to describe adult women.

  15. Lauredhel: Good points about size/strength. True, it’s kinda hard to infantilize a boxer! Though I’m sure that there’s men who do it anyway, which makes those men kind of suck.

  16. which makes those men kind of suck.

    No wonder people don’t bother with respectful language when they aren’t the sort of respectable straight men who don’t suck. Or lesbians who don’t suck. Maybe it’s the boxing, or the hockey sticks, or maybe it’s the sucking, who can tell?

  17. Our local station has a woman presenter covering the athletics. She referred to 28 year old woman competing as a “young girl”. I spat the dummy.

  18. I hate when they get it wrong the other way round, too, “women doctors” or “women politicians”. Grrr.

  19. I actually wrote on this subject yeaaaaaaaaaars ago (before I stopped blogging) as part of a mini series: Sexist Language [Red-blooded American Sexist, Part 3]. I think the best argument against using “female” as a noun is the way that people use it, especially contrasted to the (much more rare) way people use “male” as a noun.

  20. Tekanji, I miss your blog!
    Yes thank you, thank you TT. Count me in as another person who is regularly driven out of my tree by the use of “female” as a noun – in the workplace or in the media. And I agree, it seems to be on the increase.

  21. orlando, sadly the noun vs adjective argument never seems to get anywhere with the malfeasants, no matter how obvious it might be to you and me.

    A lot of online dictionaries seem to list female (and male) as both adjective and noun. Perhaps because its now common usage and they are accepting that the language has changed?

    I do see the point of why the military adopted dehumanising language, but I really don’t think it’s a good idea that our emergency services have done the same (like ambos here, FFS).

    The police do this a lot too to the point where it makes it harder to understand what they are saying. Do they do it for legal reasons?

  22. Chris, I’m pretty sure it’s always been a noun and an adjective – at least since scientific (e.g. zoological / biology) parlance has been normalised. Maybe it’s just from the C19th? Must investigate this!

  23. Helen – oh I should have been clearer – noun and meaning woman or girl. Like from dictionary.com (though I have no idea how reliable the site really is) for example the first definition is:

    a person bearing two X chromosomes in the cell nuclei and normally having a vagina, a uterus and ovaries, and developing at puberty a relatively rounded body and enlarged breasts, and retaining a beardless face; a girl or woman.

    However, it also does list some history about the word:

    early 14c., from O.Fr. femelle, from M.L. femella “a female,” from L. femella “young female, girl,” dim. of femina “woman” (see feminine). Sense extended in V.L. from humans to female of other animals. Spelling altered late 14c. on mistaken parallel of male. Reference to
    sockets, etc., is from 1660s.

    I don’t know what V.L. refers to (some time period maybe?).

  24. Vernacular? Those vulgar Vernacs again!

  25. Chris #25, meant to comment earlier on this but I want to point out that the way that various definitions of “female” focus on XX chromosomes is also intensely problematic in terms of Othering transwomen (some transbigots no doubt see this as a handy dog-whistling feature rather than a bug).
    It also ignores that other species don’t necessarily utilise X and Y chromosomes to sort out which individuals carry which gametes, but we still classify ovum-or-equivalent-bearers in other species as female and sperm-or-equivalent-bearers in other species as male.

  26. YetAnotherMatt – ah, thanks!
    tigtog – agreed. A case of less is better than more for dictionaries perhaps. But there’s always going to be a conflict for dictionaries between what a large section of the population understand a word to mean (which may change significantly over time) and a more precise scientific meaning (which scientists would prefer to remain static).

  27. VL = Vulgar Latin – the later forms of Latin from which the Romance languages evolved.

  28. Yes, biologically, “female” and “male” are primarily descriptors of whether an organism produces eggs/ova or sperm. (An organism may produce neither, which biologically makes it* “neuter”*, or both, which makes it* “hemaphroditic”* or “bisexual” (plants). *Trying to define these words biologically without coming across potentially really offensive to human beings is hard.)
    You can spot my genetics background when I say that what really bothers me about people who use “XX” and “XY” as synonyms for “female” and “male” (or “woman” and “man” or whatever) is that most people don’t know their chromosomal status. They smugly assume they know they’re XX or XY, when most people with XXX or XYY chromosomal configurations never know that, and there are all kinds of other possibilities (like SRY, the primary gene that switches on the male developmental route in the embryo, being on an X chromosome rather than a Y chromosome).
    And most people only learn about all these complexities because they are having trouble conceiving, for example, and suddenly discover that their personal chromosomal, genetic, and developmental characteristics are (as they should be) confidential medical information.

  29. Tim Chevalier, making the same point as Aqua of the Questioners in #30, amusingly has coined this Synecdouchebaggery.
    I know Joan Roughgarden was mentioned already in the Ben Barres thread, her Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People is a great overview of how, in various species, these axes play out in different ways:
    – big gamete and small gamete (she describes the tendency for sexual organisms to have two parents, one providing a big gamete and one a small gamete, as one of the few near-universals of the whole thing)
    – chromosome sex systems
    – investment in offspring
    – sex differences in phenotype, including the many many species that have more than one phenotype for a single gamete type
    – stability or change in which phenotype is exhibited and which gamete is produced over a lifetime
    It’s a great read!

  30. Mary – thanks for the shout-out on #31! Actually, though, I didn’t coin the term “synecdouchebaggery”; the first use of it I saw was from Willamette Week writer Aaron Mesh in a movie review.

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