On Ignorance --William Safire "On Language"
The New York Times
Woman vs. Female
By WILLIAM SAFIRE
Published: March 18, 2007
Battle of the apposites.
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“I do not understand why,” e-mails an irate Beathan Regan of New Hampshire, “Nancy Pelosi is referred to as the first woman speaker of the House or Hillary Clinton is potentially the first woman president. Is there some inherent power or stigma to female that spawns timidity in the writers of the media?”
This column does not fear to rush in where angels fear to tread. Only 27 years ago in this space, when fainthearted sociological euphemists were pushing the gentle grammatical category gender, I stood up for the plain old Anglo-Saxon word sex.
I lost that battle. Today, the smooth-sounding gender — as in gender gap, the political disparity between male and female voters — has to do with modern social and cultural differences and tensions, while sex is a low-life word disdained as rooted in biological rutting about.
Is female doomed to a similar lexical fate at the hands of woman? Put another way, are traditionalists going to lose this one too? Let us first examine the state of play:
“Four out of the eight Ivy League schools now have female presidents,” USA Today reports. “Clinton is to date the most successful female presidential contender,” The Boston Globe wrote. Contrariwise, “Harvard Chooses Woman President,” The Christian Science Monitor headlined, and The Washington Times reported Clinton as saying, “To all those who say we’ll never elect a woman president, we’ll never know unless we try.” CNN’s Larry King, scrupulously fair, had it both ways: “Having the first woman speaker of the House made us wonder if American is ready for its first female president.”
Both words can function as nouns, but female, unlike woman, can also be an adjective. In an Oscar Hammerstein II lyric from “Flower Drum Song,” written 50 years ago, a young woman glad to be a girl sings, “I’m strictly a female female” — the first use an adjective; the second, a noun. Adjectives are by their nature stretchable, happily taking “more” or “less”: you can say “more female,” but you cannot say “more woman”; you would have to say “more womanly.” In modifying another noun, woman is what the O.E.D. labels an apposite noun — explaining, even identifying, the noun it “stands next to” — but syntactically stronger than an adjective. Both words can be used as modifiers of nouns, but the noun woman has more weight.
There’s nothing new about this: The use of woman as a modifier dates to 1300, with the poet John Dryden, translating Juvenal in 1697, noticing “a woman grammarian who corrects her husband for speaking false Latin.” Today, usage is neck and neck, with woman as a modifier appearing to my ear as pulling ahead of female by a nose.
Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of “You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation,” gets that sense, too: “We’re hearing woman as an adjective more often now. Female connotes a biological category. I think many feminists avoid it for the same reason they prefer gender to sex. . . . I avoid female in my own writing because it feels disrespectful, as if I’m treating the people I’m referring to as mammals but not humans.”
Now we’re getting somewhere: as a modifier, female can be applied to all animals. (My beloved bitch, Geneva, for example, is a female Bernese mountain dog. She would probably take offense if I called her a woman canine, which as a native speaker I would never do.) To develop this female-woman distinction further, turn to Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and author of a linguistic classic, “The Language War.”
First, Lakoff notes that a “woman doctor is closer to a ‘doctor who is a woman,’ while a female doctor is closer to a ‘doctor who is female’ — the last an adjective with no indefinite article. A very small distinction in meaning, but I think it works to focus more attention on woman than is focused on female in analogous cases.” That’s because an adjective adds color to a noun, while apposite nouns are part of the basis of meaning of a noun phrase.
“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 marked — in some way unnatural, and that it is natural for men to hold it (so we never say ‘male doctor,’ still less ‘man doctor’). When I first began in my job, people like me were often referred to as ‘woman’ or ‘female’ professors, but thankfully no more, as we have become a more normal (unmarked) part of the academic landscape. In time I trust that women presidents and female speakers will vanish in the same way.”
That leads her to make an unexpected point that goes beyond the female-woman divide: “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, symbolize the U.S. (which is metonymically Uncle Sam and not Aunt Samantha, after all) and make it harder to conceive of, and hence vote for, a woman in that role.”
There’s a stopper for politicians seeking to curry favor with the distaff decider and female activist long known as the woman voter. But here’s a development above politics that is breathtaking in its cultural contradiction: feminists everywhere have begun to turn on the word female. What’s next?
Womanism as a black womens social/economic/political justice movement(s) exists both in the US and in Africa. Alice Walker defines womanism in In Search of Our Mother's Gardens and Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi defines African womanism (developed simultaneously with Walker's and distinct from it) in Signs in 1985.
On language. From the OED womanism, n.
Add: b. spec. that of a kind advocated by some writers, esp. Black woman writers, and characterized by an emphasis on celebrating the contribution of women to society as a whole; Black feminism. Cf. *WOMANIST n. (and a.) 2.