Episode 137: September 23, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today's show will cover the difference between the words woman and female.
First we had Nancy Pelosi taking over as Speaker of the House, then Hillary Clinton running for president, and now we have Sarah Palin as the Republican vice presidential nominee. So the question is rising again—Is Sarah Palin the first female Republican vice presidential nominee or the first woman Republican vice presidential nominee?
Before I answer the question, I want to address a related issue, which is that sometimes it's sexist to point out someone's sex because doing so implies that they aren't in their proper role. For example, saying someone is a male nurse or a female doctor wrongly implies that it's so unusual for men to be nurses or women to be doctors that you have to make a big deal out of it. But, given that Sarah Palin actually is the first woman to ever be the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party and because it's a unique part of the story I don't think it's sexist to point out she's a woman. In some cases, it is the story.
“Woman” as an Adjective
So then, what is the best way to talk about Sarah Palin being a woman? The words woman and man are primarily nouns, and to say someone is a woman nominee is placing woman in an adjective position. I checked four different dictionaries, and two don't include woman as an adjective (1, 2), one does (3), and the fourth said that when woman is used in the adjective position it's actually an appositive noun (4), in other words, a noun acting as an adjective. So the dictionaries don't give us a clear, definitive answer.
Testing the validity of the sentence by seeing how it sounds to substitute the word man for woman seems like a good way to see if the sentence makes sense. To me it sounds terribly awkward to say someone is the first man nominee. I imagine most of you would say He's the first male nominee, if the need arose. So, even though some sources say it's grammatically correct to use woman as an adjective, my opinion is that you should say Sarah Palin is the first female Republican vice presidential nominee.
With a perfectly acceptable adjective like female available, I don't see any reason to push woman into the role.
“Female” as a Noun
Now on the flip side, Liz from Austin, Texas, called in to say her pet peeve is when people refer to women as females, for example, when someone says, “I was chatting to some females.” To her, that sounds very scientific and awkward.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage notes that esteemed authors in the 1800s used female in this way. And these authors were women.
Jane Austen used the phrase "the females of the family" in Pride and Prejudice, for example, and Emily Brontë wrote "It opened into the house, where the females were already astir" in Wuthering Heights.
Yet even back in those times other people complained that using female in this way was demeaning (5), and I agree with Liz that it doesn't sound right today. Merriam-Webster's goes on to say that the neutral use of Austen and Brontë has faded away and the most common use of the word female now as a noun is to refer to lower animals. For example, if you were studying apes, you could say something like, “The females formed a small group to defend against the attackers,” (6).
It's my recommendation that you use female as a noun only when you are speaking about animals or writing scientifically. When you are talking about female humans, the favored nouns are woman and women. Likewise, when you're talking about male humans, the favored nouns are man and men.
“Girl” Versus “Woman”
Finally, over the last couple of years I've taken some flak for calling myself Grammar Girl instead of Grammar Woman. People have complained that Grammar Girl sounds like it is belittling me or that I'm too old to be considered a girl. What I have to say to those people is that I like the alliteration of Grammar Girl, and a true feminist would let me call myself anything I want. My mother raised me to believe I could be anything I wanted to be, and I want to be Grammar Girl.