Two Decembers ago, in 2015, I got into a discussion with a friend of mine and the creator of NPM, Isaac Schlueter, on Twitter and learned that calling humans with two X chromosomes “female” is bad. Since then, I’ve read a good amount of articles and comments on the subject, and I have to say: The problem with the word “female” makes no sense to me at all. Furthermore, the idea that women want to reclaim words such as “slut” and “bitch” but refuse to do the same with “female” makes even less sense to me than the problem with the word itself.
I’ve read many articles on the subject of “female” being off-limits and many comments sections in which women get aggravated when men use the word “female”, and the offense seems to stem from the idea that men use the word as a pejorative when discussing women – that men use “female”, instead of “woman”, in order to strip women of their humanity.
Everything I’ve read about the problem with the word “female”, however, seems to be missing the point. The focus has been placed on the word being a pejorative, but that’s not the real issue here. It’s not the word; it’s the intent. If the intention behind the use of the word is, in fact, to strip women of their humanity and to insult them, then absolutely it is rude. But the same would apply for any word used to insult women.
When I was around 12, I remember being with a friend and using the words “car” and “van” to describe a group of kids who had been incredibly rude to us. My friend and I used those two words, which no one would think to use as pejoratives, to insult the kids who had insulted us (among ourselves; we were not speaking to the kids who had insulted us). It was a usage only my friend and I in that one instance would understand. It wasn’t about which words we used, it was about what our intent was behind using those words.
Considering the scientific term for a creature with two X chromosomes is “female”, the same is true for that word. Not every instance of the word will be a pejorative, although there most definitely are instances where it is used that way. But to have a problem with a scientific word because some people use it as a pejorative is ridiculous. Side note: I also don’t understand why “penis” and “vagina” are somehow dirty words either, considering they are the scientific words for those body parts, in the same way “heart” and “brain” are scientific words.
Honestly, though, the fact that not all instances of the word “female” are pejoratives is not my main point in reclaiming this word. My main problem with the idea that “female” is a pejorative is the fact that women allow men to dictate which words are and aren’t pejoratives, and which words we call ourselves.
The majority of articles and comments sections I’ve read on this topic come from feminist websites. Feminist websites which promote feminist ideas and discuss how women should be independent and not let men dictate their lives. Yet these same feminists let men dictate which words women can and cannot call themselves by allowing some men’s usage of the word “female” as a pejorative define whether it is acceptable to call women “female”.
Women have taken it upon themselves to reclaim such words a “slut”, “bitch”, and “bossy”, yet are not willing to fight for the scientific term for what we are. I do not care about taking three insults and trying to claim they are not insults. I do care about women letting some men who take a scientific term and make it an insult define my own usage of the term.
Yes, some men do use the word “female” as an pejorative, and those men should be called out for their sexist behavior (which extends far beyond using the word “female” to describe women), but because some men use “female” as a pejorative doesn’t mean all women should accept that “female” is a pejorative.
This article is not directed at the men who use “female” as a pejorative, this article is directed at the women who allow some men’s usage of the word to define all women’s usage of the word. We, as women, should not allow some men to define what we think, what we say, and how we use the scientific term to describe ourselves.
So this is me, a female, reclaiming the word “female”, because I am female and I will not let some men define whether or not I use a word.
- Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu, October 8, 2014, “6 Reasons You Should Stop Referring To Women As ‘Females’ Right Now”, Buzzfeed.
- Kara Brown, February 5, 2015, “The Problem With Calling Women ‘Females'”, Jezebel.
- Jay Newton-Small, April 19, 2016, “Why We Need to Reclaim the Word ‘Female'”, Time.