I’ve spent quite a bit of the last few days crossing out the word “females” and writing “women” in its place. More time than seems reasonable, certainly. I’ve been marking, so this crossing out is part of my job, but it has called my attention to just how often I see “females” used when the writer means “women”. I’m not particularly criticising my students: I don’t think they do it more than another random group, when adjusted for demographic factors such as age, class and average knowledge of John Donne’s early poetry. I think it’s a much wider issue, and not just pedantry about words.
For a start, it’s disrespectful (and may, of course, be inaccurate, since not all people who identify as women are female.) It may not be intended as such, but calling women “females” is substituting an adjective for a noun. Female what? It turns a person into an attribute, their individual self replaced by a general category. If that sounds like I’m reading too much into grammar, consider how careful we are not to do to this other groups of people whose members include women. You don’t hear most people talking about “a Chinese”, or “a black”, or “a disabled”. Or if you do, you can guess the views of the person using those terms towards the people they’re talking about. They don’t see them as individuals worthy of consideration. They’re lumping them all together, as if “they’re all the same”. It’s verbal shorthand for thinking of someone as a person second, and the category you’ve put them into first. Given the care we take not to accept this sort of language in other forms, it’s astonishing how frequently you see “females” in various forms of writing.
In most cases don’t think this slur is intentional, but the comparison should bring us up short. Does it, in fact, reflect the way we write and speak about women? Is there an assumption in a lot of the media, fiction and scholarly writing we consume that the most pertinent feature of a woman is her gender? That this will somehow explain or determine features of her personality, making assumptions that we wouldn’t make about a man? Actually, “females” is a pretty clear pointer to the way too much of our culture thinks about women: that we can see them as people only after we have labelled and categorised them as female.
I was talking about this to my fellow blogger Siân, speculating that perhaps it appears so frequently because the writer wants to add a spurious air of “scientific” authority to their statements. As she pointed out, this merely takes us further into troubling images of women: they are so often pictured as the object of knowledge rather than the knowing subject. They’re talked about as if they are a topic to be investigated, described as “mysterious”. The very suggestion that women are “mysterious” pre-supposes that the person being faced with this enigma is a man. In my experience the men most likely to go on about how “you can’t tell what a female is thinking” are the least likely to have tried asking her. Again, the very grammar of that complaint assumes that the “you” is male: it is men who discover, probe and explain. Women are framed as the object of their inquiry.
So we don’t need to talk about “females”. This term betrays the assumptions behind Nuts magazine, behind endless jokes about “women drivers” and the prejudices female students face in Maths and Computer Science departments. It puts women “over there”, as something strange and depersonalized and faintly threatening. Seeing more “women” in essays might be a tiny step in the long and much-needed progress to seeing more of them in boardrooms, in Parliament and on the syllabus.