Why do anti-feminists use "female" rather than "woman"?
September 12, 2014 11:19 AM   Subscribe

Anti-feminists seem to often use the word "female" in the noun form, in places where people would ordinarily just use "women." (I don't want to spend a lot of time hunting up evidence of this, but here are some examples. There's also this and this.) I'm curious to know how/why this became a thing -- for example, I've wondered if it has something to do with military or police usage, because those are the only places I've previously noticed women being referred to as females. Does anybody know?
posted by Susan PG to Writing & Language (46 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I suspect it's because it's subtly dehumanizing. "Female" as a noun instead of an adjective is usually used to refer to female nonhuman animals.
posted by BrashTech at 11:22 AM on September 12, 2014 [56 favorites]

Seconding BrashTech, except that I wouldn't really call it subtle.
posted by celtalitha at 11:32 AM on September 12, 2014 [31 favorites]

Yes, there was an askme comment somewhere from someone who worked with domestic violence victims and abusers, and they said that nearly all of the abusers referred to their victims as females, not women. (Still trying to find the comment.)
posted by Melismata at 11:34 AM on September 12, 2014 [9 favorites]

I strongly associate it with the Pick Up Artist community and have generally assumed it's wormed its way mainstream(ish) from there.
posted by jaguar at 11:34 AM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

And I think the Pick-Up Artist emphasis on evolutionary psychology is where the dehumanizing language is coming in, as a way to emphasize biology over humanity. Scientists would discuss "female chimps," or whatever, not "women chimps."
posted by jaguar at 11:36 AM on September 12, 2014 [19 favorites]

Nthing BrashTech. Plus -- other overtones:
1. "Female" is always a category in very explicit opposition to "male," foregrounding the gender binary of us vs. them. "The female of the species" is other to the norm.
2. Because of the biological implications, it sounds vaguely "official." It performs a kind of authority as if superior to the vernacular. It's like exiting a vehicle instead of getting out of a car.
posted by third rail at 11:40 AM on September 12, 2014 [19 favorites]

My theory is that they borrowed it from the Ferengi, since that's the term the Ferengi use to refer to women. If you watch Star Trek and hear a Ferengi call a woman "female" you can really hear how it is meant to dehumanize (de[whatever race]ize?) the subject.

Ferengi women were referred to as "females". They were barred from most aspects of society, such as not being allowed to earn profit, or to travel. They were not even allowed to wear clothes and were expected to be undressed at all times. Etc.

Also, if you accept this theory then you will forever hear MRAs as talking like Ferengi in your head, which is amazing.
posted by gatorae at 11:40 AM on September 12, 2014 [112 favorites]

Isn't also a state census category? I've heard sociologists use the term. And I remember finding it shocking that sociologists used the term, precisely because I mostly associate its use with the masculinist movement.
posted by Milau at 11:41 AM on September 12, 2014

I think this is something that used to be considered normal, and the social norms around it are changing. Not unlike the changes in the 60s that made terms like "girl reporter" seem sexist where they'd been considered normal before.

But I also think that there is some there there, in that I definitely hear it more in politically charged contexts lately, and it is noticeable. The first connection, to me, is that it's very specifically used by military and the police. As such, it feels fascist and dehumanizing. I'm not sure if anti-feminists are specifically using it for those reasons, if feminists have been more aware of it for those reasons, or what. But I've noticed a trend toward clinical or over-abstract forms of usage by people who are right-of-center over the last few years, for sure.
posted by Sara C. at 11:41 AM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think it comes from the bullshit psuedo-science approach a lot of PUA types use to sound like they are being sciency and realistic and not completely full of shit when they are generalizing women. For example, "females are just biologically hard-wired to desire a mate that will help them to survive, because evolution". Etc, etc.

When they say "women" the misogyny is more clear. When they say "females" they get to put on their little lab coats and play pretend scientist.
posted by windbox at 11:42 AM on September 12, 2014 [41 favorites]

I've also suspected an undercurrent of mockery in this...a sort of idiotically hyper-corrective response to the idea that women don't like being referred to as "chicks" or "ladies" or the like.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 11:42 AM on September 12, 2014 [12 favorites]

When I was a freshman in college almost all of us (in a women's college) referred to women as "females" in our first papers until we were taught not to because it's dehumanizing. I agree with Sara C. that it used to be a more normal thing, and now people are realizing that it's not so great. Like terms that used to be normal to refer to people of color.
posted by bleep at 11:44 AM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

*That is to say that some people are realizing it's not so great, other people are realizing it suits their needs.
posted by bleep at 11:45 AM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I interpret a combination of things, mostly coming from it seeming a more clinical term, which ties into alienation and also plays into feelings of being objective and distanced and impartial and studying and science. Also the word is less familiar - in the the sense of like not being on a first-name terms with someone, when saying "woman" is more familiar, like first-names.
I wasn't aware of gatorae's point (that Ferengi do this on Star Trek), but that hits many of the same points, and wouldn't surprise me if it was part of it.
I think it's usually more of an "othering" rather than (intended) to be dehumanizing.
posted by anonymisc at 11:46 AM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

This might be a side issue to the noun form you're talking about, but I feel like in the adjectival or appositive form, some people's use of the word female is also a backlash against others who are pushing for use of the word woman as an adjective (e.g., "the first woman vice-presidential nominee"). Some would say using "woman" as a modifier is overly politically correct, since you wouldn't say "the first man whatever."

I disagree with Grammar Girl's take on this, and have pushed to use "woman" as the modifier of choice at my publication. I don't think it matters that you wouldn't say "a male whatever," since to me, the point is that men are perceived as the default, and yes, using "woman" as a modifier instead of "female" is sort of a corrective effort, an attempt to correct the perception or portrayal of women as less than human or other than the norm.

See also.
posted by limeonaire at 11:47 AM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I always hear it in my head in that pseudo-chivalrous nerd-speak. Like, "when there are females at the gaming table, I always address them as 'milady'." It's distancing and has hints of science-talk; someone above mentioned the evolutionary psychology element, too.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:47 AM on September 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

When I was learning French, I was taught that the French "femelle" is used only to refer to female non-human animals, and is considered insulting if used for humans instead of "femme" (woman). Here's a thread at wordreference.com* discussing female vs woman in various languages that confirms my memory. I was in high school then (a long, long time ago), but in my mind I transferred that sense of "female" as derogatory to English as well and have always noticed when people use it. While I have no data I subjectively believe that use of "female" as a noun when referring to women has increased a lot in the last 10 years or so in the US particularly by sexist buffoons. I consider it dehumanizing.

*As a side note, I propose that all right-thinking humans adopt the terminology discussed in this thread of "she-person" for woman and "he-person" for men because that would be hilarious and awesome.
posted by medusa at 11:54 AM on September 12, 2014 [16 favorites]

I think of this usage in the context of police speaking as well.
posted by umbú at 11:54 AM on September 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

Agreeing with everyone upthread -- there's also the "you are worthless except as a means of reproduction" (substitute the ruder terms for yourself) implication by using the biological descriptor.
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:02 PM on September 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

Objectification, under the guise of including both "girls" (minors) and "women" (adults), as well as turning a sociological argument into a biological argument.
posted by theraflu at 12:16 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Based purely on how I hear it in my head, it's a dehumanizing/objectifying phrasing.

I compare it to "suspect is a young black male, possibly armed, who was seen running from the scene."

It makes the subject more clinical. This is not a person, this is a female. This is not a person, this is a young black male. Etc.
posted by phunniemee at 12:17 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's a word that's "correct," so anti-feminists can claim that people who object are "looking to take offense," but it's different enough to signal the speaker's in-group-ness. Much like how the various terms for African-Americans get co-opted by racists into slurs, if women collectively decided that "female" was the new word they wanted to use, the anti-feminists would quickly switch to something else.
posted by Etrigan at 12:26 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, you see this in military / police / fire service usage, for some reason. And not just to refer to patients or subjects; it's the "female" and "male" bunkrooms, not the "women's" and "men's" bunkrooms.

I think it's a sort of ass-covering hypercorrection. Like they are trying to get as far away as possible from anything that might possibly be regarded as slang, or has any sort of social baggage associated with it. (Of course, that's naive, since 'female' has social baggage attached to it too, but the intent seems to be for an intentionally clinical term.)

IMO it's a very cargo-cult thing. People do it because other people do it and it sounds Official, and you don't want to be the only person doing something different, not really because they've put any great amount of thought into it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:26 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Came in to say something similar to medusa - using "femelle" to describe a woman in French is super insulting. It's not quite the case in English, but generally one only hears it in polite company as an adjective (female teacher, for instance) and not as a noun.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:26 PM on September 12, 2014

The phrase "educated females" has a somewhat curious graph in Google Ngrams. People interested in historical usages might look at some of the results from the peak period near 1840, but of course the modern usage and its implications do not depend on the past.

Google Ngrams

There's no special reason for using the word educated. I just wanted to find a phrase that often refers to humans, and thought of it first.

[small phrasing edit]
posted by tykky at 12:33 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I found my young black criminal defense clients from the hood often refer to women as "females" ... And these guys wouldn't know PUA material if it hit em in the head. "hey mane let's go holler at some females" was a typical sort of context. I always thought it was just a sort of viral linguistic quirk.

another thing that may factor in ... these days it's very unclear whether to use "woman" or "girl" for a certain age of female person. I mean, for certain adult women "girl" just seems more fitting and appropriate but it gets pushback culturally. (sometimes, one suspects, from the same women who refer to 25 year old men as "boy," but whatever ...). maybe some people use female to avoid stepping on any toes.
posted by jayder at 12:40 PM on September 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

To my ear, female/male is a description of an aspect of a physical entity, which makes sense from a biological or law enforcement standpoint, whereas man/woman is more of a description of a human person.
posted by mikeh at 12:56 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hear it as a grab for rhetorical credibility - as if the word lends a phony authority/objectivity, same kind of reason why police use that kind of term.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:06 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Females" for "women" is a pet peeve, so I can tell you I've absolutely noticed this happening more and more. My mother has done it occasionally. I think it's infiltrated our culture at least in part from adoption of police jargon. It's like when I watch The People's Court and hear people describing fights as "altercations."
posted by vegartanipla at 1:11 PM on September 12, 2014

I see it as a desperate attempt to use neutral language when there are known land mines everywhere.
posted by amtho at 1:15 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Quick note - OP is asking specifically about anti-feminists who use the word, not about other contexts where people might use it.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:20 PM on September 12, 2014

I see it as creating an "other" out of women, but also as an attempt to sound credible by using a big word. My non-scientific observation has been that people who call women "females" also say "myself" instead of "I" or "me" and may more frequently say "utilize" instead of "use".
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 1:29 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine does this all the time in casual conversation and she's a paramedic. So add the medical fields to military, police, and firefighting.

(I realize that the OP is asking about anti-feminists, but if large sectors of society do this in day-to-day speech that's probably at least part of the reason why anti-feminists do it.)
posted by XMLicious at 1:53 PM on September 12, 2014

It's reminiscent of Republicans referring to "the Democrat Party" instead of "the Democratic Party."

Calling someone something other than what they want to be called is simultaneously insulting, condescending, provocative, and controlling.
posted by alms at 1:56 PM on September 12, 2014 [24 favorites]

Female/male is a biological descriptor, but carries no age or marital status information. That's why it gets used by officialdom and science; it simplifies information.

Apart from the cargo-cult users, few appreciate being reduced to database tags.
posted by bonehead at 2:00 PM on September 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

They're uncomfortable saying "women."

Not that this is limited to anti-feminists; see also the many AskMes where women describe themselves as "girls" or even "young girls."
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:33 PM on September 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

As many have noted in this thread, 'female' is the word of choice among scientists, police, medical professionals & the military. These professionals are purposely dehumanizing as a way of emotionally distancing themselves in order to do a job, but when laypersons imitate them, it is not always or entirely for this reason.

I would suggest that by "saying what a professional says", the imitator may also be seeking to 'borrow' the authority of a professional.

Just last week, I was speaking to someone who described "two girls, uh I mean females" to me. He knew that in our professional context 'girls' was too casual a word, and in searching his mental thesaurus for the most impressive word he knew, he hyper-corrected.

Unlike anti feminists and PUAs, I know this man had no malicious intent. I suspect he wasn't particularly educated or well read, though. I believe his motives in saying female are shared by many anti feminists: both desire to appear knowledgeable and authoritative in the course of making an argument.
posted by lesli212 at 3:24 PM on September 12, 2014 [8 favorites]

Aren't they just flipping the common use of "male" as an insult, e.g. "male chauvinist pig"? Yes, I know that's an adjectival rather than nounal usage, but still — the word "male" is often used in a context where you're supposed to read it in a somewhat contemptuous or dismissive tone. And most people don't consciously pay attention to parts of speech — they just think "gee, I've been hearing that word a lot." So they pick up on the idea that feminist commentary often involves the word "male." And they think: well, if that's OK for feminists to do with men, then hey, I can do the same with women.
posted by John Cohen at 5:12 PM on September 12, 2014

It's reminiscent of Republicans referring to "the Democrat Party" instead of "the Democratic Party."

Calling someone something other than what they want to be called is simultaneously insulting, condescending, provocative, and controlling.

It also asserts your power to define the other group's identity, and disempowers them from creating their own identity. It's a dominance thing.
posted by alms at 6:06 PM on September 12, 2014 [11 favorites]

Aren't they just flipping the common use of "male" as an insult, e.g. "male chauvinist pig"?

The first two examples the OP provides are of the mold you describe, John Cohen: "male privilege → female privilege", "male predator → female predator", but I definitely have encountered this more generally, where someone nearly always uses "female" in place of "woman" or any other synonym. From someone who's kinda sketchy anyway it makes them sound creepy and othering and objectifying, so it fits MRAs and PUAs and other anti-feminist and misogynist types like a glove; when I first got to know my friend the paramedic it was a bit disturbing until I got used to it and hung out with her at work to see some of her coworkers doing it too, and saw that in their case it was bleed-through from the professional register.
posted by XMLicious at 6:14 PM on September 12, 2014

And I mean to say, with anti-feminist and misogynist types the reason it fits well is because it is objectifying and othering, and is probably used intentionally because of that. It's probably an updated version of an attitude that in earlier days would have been expressed though synecdoche by representing a woman via her hair color or some other trait: the blonde, the brunette, the skirt, (the Negress, the Jewess...)
posted by XMLicious at 6:27 PM on September 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

Nthing that it is a way of dehumanising women.

"Female" and "male" are sometimes used in news writing (particularly when reporting crime or natural disaster) when the ages of the people in question haven't been confirmed. The usual advice is that people under 18 are referred to as girls, boys or children, while people over 18 are referred to as men, women or adults. If you're talking about a group of people of mixed age, or you don't know how old a person is, you can use "male" or "female" to avoid inaccuracy. Police reports and court documents often say things like "A male person is wanted for questioning..." and often that kind of language gets reproduced in news writing because no further details are available.

But yeah, using "female" to refer to a specific person you know is a woman seems to be a way of distancing oneself from that woman's humanity - and perhaps from her adulthood, too. If you say someone is " a female", you don't have to implicitly acknowledge that she is an adult with agency in the world. She could just as easily be a girl. Or, you know...not human at all.
posted by embrangled at 7:43 PM on September 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. We need to keep this to direct answers to the question, please, and not make it a general discussion or sharing opinions. As a reminder, this is the question: "Anti-feminists seem to often use the word 'female' in the noun form, in places where people would ordinarily just use 'women.' ... I'm curious to know how/why this became a thing." Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 12:05 AM on September 13, 2014

This is a great example of the shifting use of the term "female" in 2014.

On the one hand, none of the participants in this situation are MRAs or pickup artists, and the writer (a woman, and not anti-feminist) doesn't make a distinction between women/females. And at least one person quoted in the article uses "females" in a pro-woman context. On the other hand, putting the word "females" in CBS' mouth definitely tars the network with a sexist brush. The allegation would read a little differently if a CBS exec had supposedly said they were not considering women at this time.
posted by Sara C. at 12:21 PM on September 13, 2014

I think I recall a regular feature in an Australian women's magazine called "Mere Males". This would be going back at least twenty years or so, but I suppose it may still be running. It contained little Readers' Digest-type anecdotes of a passive-aggressive sort, allegedly supplied by readers, in which their husbands (referred to as "M.M.", for "Mere Male") had done something stupid or disappointing. I don't know whether the term was being used in reaction to a similar use of the word "female", or whether they each proceded from the same deprecatory understanding.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:16 PM on September 13, 2014

HA! Found the comment here. It's a question about identifying creepy behavior in people after meeting them via online dating sites.
posted by Melismata at 12:15 PM on September 26, 2014

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