“Woman President” v. “Female President”

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Ann’s post yesterday of the Daily Show clip “Is the U.S. Ready for a Woman President?” reminded me of a pet peeve of mine – the use of “woman” as an adjective. It always seemed to me that when people said “woman president” or “woman athlete” or “woman professor,” the implication was that without the adjective, “man” was assumed.

If you have to use a sex-identifying adjective for comparison purposes, “female” doesn’t bother me the same way. Why not? Because there’s “male” as an analog. If you’re comparing numbers of athletes, you could say “female athlete” or “male athlete,” but you wouldn’t say “man athlete,” just as much as you wouldn’t say “man president” or “man professor.” Since “man” isn’t used that way, “woman” is being used in a special way indicating that “man” is the assumed norm and “woman” is a deviation. That may be descriptively accurate in some cases (obviously so with president (in this country)), but it also carries a derogatory normative element.

William Safire of the New York Times covered this issue in the Times Magazine earlier this year. His conclusion: “Both words can function as nouns, but female, unlike woman, can also be an adjective.” However, he quotes Deborah Tannen explaining why she uses “female” instead of “woman”:

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.

Given her career built around essentialism, I didn’t realize Tannen was a feminist, but regarldess, I don’t agree with her. Rather, I think the other linguist Safire interviewed, Robin Lakoff from Berkeley, has it right:

[It] 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’). 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.

Smart words from a smart [no sex-identifying adjective needed] professor.

– David S. Cohen

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