Female or Woman?

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There’s a good chance that many of us men belittle women everyday—without even knowing it.

Sure, we would never call a woman horseface or describe her as a dog or say she has a fat, ugly face.

However . . . do you know what the words female and woman actually mean?  Most of us—men and women both—don’t know the difference and have never thought about it.

We should, though, because when we use “female” as a noun, the real person we're referring to evaporates into thin air.

Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton of BuzzFeed explain:

When you refer to a woman as a female, you're ignoring the fact that she is a female human. It reduces a woman to her reproductive parts and abilities. The focus shifts away from the personal and onto her qualities as an object—qualities that have, historically, not been used in the best interest of women.

My friend, Deborah Tannen, is university professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. She is best known as the author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which was on the New York Times best seller list for nearly four years, including eight months at number one.

She writes: "‘Female’ connotes a biological category. I avoid female in my own writing because it feels as if I'm treating the people I'm referring to as mammals but not humans."

That leads her to make a further point: "Since we feel so strongly (still) that a president is necessarily male, every time we say 'woman president,' we reinforce that view, that only a man can be commander in chief, and make it harder to conceive of, and hence vote for, a woman in that role."

That’s a demonstration of language leveraging power.

It’s not merely a “matter of semantics.” It’s important.

Because the control of language is a basis for all power, and, therefore, “worth fighting for,” says Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Language guru William Safire gives an example:

The use of either woman or female with terms such as 'president, speaker, doctor, professor,' the linguist says, suggests that a woman holding that position is in some way unnatural, and that it is natural for men to hold it (so we never say 'male doctor,' still less 'man doctor').

George Orwell, who as far back as his 1946 classic, Politics and the English Language, wrote, “The words we use shape the way we think." And he added that, “language can corrupt thought.”

No one did more to open eyes to the personhood of women than French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her classic 1949 book, The Second Sex.

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Simone de Beauvoir

She recognized that representation of the world has been the handiwork of men. Men propogate their own worldview, which they equate with absolute truth.

The upshot?

"Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female,” says de Beauvoir. “Whenever she behaves as a human being, she is said to imitate the male."

So let’s set things straight. The earliest root of the word “human” is not "man" but humus. Ground. Soil. Dirt. The ancient Romans called a man vir. A woman was femina

Do you want to level the playing field further? Consider the origin—and the end—of all of us: “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

(Image: The new Medusa, holding Perseus' head. The woman punished for being raped this time slays her attacker. Thanks to my friend, Tom Mattia, for bringing this work by a contemporary Brazilian artist to my attention.)


Evil exists only if you let it. If you enjoyed reading this, you will like my new novel, Billy of the Tulips, a sensitive boy’s grim engagement with innocence and iniquity, now available in both print and Kindle from Amazon.


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