The Timaru Herald
Is saying ‘female’ a sexist use of language?
Aweek ago, I was talking with someone who is a medical expert by profession. Towards the end of the conversation, he asked, ‘‘Is it sexist to say ‘female’ instead of ‘woman’?’’ Like most things related to sociolinguistics, my answer began, ‘‘Well, that depends.’’
You see, this particular question is one that I had already looked into as a matter of personal academic curiosity. Having completed my university and postgraduate education in the United States, I cringed when I noticed the frequency with which I was hearing Kiwis say ‘‘females’’ when talking about women.
In a number of places (North America included), it is almost a dirty word to refer to a woman as a ‘‘female’’. The discomfort with this term comes from the robust social science and humanities research hubs in these locations which have been heavily involved with debates on feminism, critical scholarship, and equal rights movements.
So, what does social science and humanities research have to say about ‘‘female’’? First, ‘‘female’’ refers to a biological status of a species at birth, while ‘‘woman’’ refers to a recognised gender role in society. Many gender studies scholars, such as Judith Butler, and language and gender scholars, such as Kira Hall, have examined the ways in which people ‘‘perform’’ (or not) the gender(s) expected of them in societal contexts. In brief, if someone is born biologically ‘‘female’’, she still uses language and social cues every day that mark her as a woman in society.
This distinction between biological sex and social gender is important for a great many people, including those who were born one sex but identify as another gender, those born intersex, and those who identify as a third or no gender.
As many cultures around the world have recognised (including indigenous cultures such as Ma¯ ori and Native American, Pasifika cultures such as Samoan, and places such as India and Thailand), when gender is an important part of someone’s identity, they display this identity through their language.
This is done every day through word choice, intonation, speed of talk, hesitation time, and other such features. People are so good at showing their chosen identity that it is unlikely most people even notice (which also means they’re meeting societal expectations!).
Additionally, sociolinguists such as Robin Lakoff have explained that the distinction between the biological term ‘‘female’’ and the social term ‘‘woman’’ means that to call someone a ‘‘female’’ can carry clinical undertones and have a dehumanising effect. As she has frequently pointed out, any species can be ‘‘female’’, but only a human can be a ‘‘woman’’.
However, as alluded to at the beginning, this is not the end of the story. While the arguments laid out above are important, they are also arguments largely founded and put forward by those in the privileged positions of academia. Sociolinguists are aware of the importance of not dictating what people ‘‘should’’ do, instead observing what it is people actually do.
If we were to shout from the ivory tower that some people speak ‘‘right’’ and some people speak ‘‘wrong’’, we would very often find ourselves privileging the language of those already privileged. Many communities do use the term ‘‘female’’ regularly to refer to women. It is not an intentional slight. It is an established item of vocabulary that marks one as a member of a community that uses this term. Therefore, it is not wrong.
So, is it sexist to use ‘‘female’’ to refer to a woman? Well, that depends.
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