I’ve got a problem with “woman.”
Have you ever noticed how much people say “like” or “um?” When you start listening for those accursed words, they seem far louder than any others. For me, “woman” is like that. Yet “woman” is far more pernicious than “like” or “um.” I can’t un-hear “woman.” Its use makes me angry. But, I’m not ready to un-hear, I want to reclaim. There’s nothing wrong with “woman” in and of itself. “Woman” is fine when it’s the subject of a clause, or an object of a verb, or even the object of a preposition. But when I see “woman” qualifying a noun, my blood boils. Need some examples?
“Henrietta Johnston begins to work as a portrait artist in Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, making her the first known professional woman artist in America.”
Does anything strike you as odd? Out of place? Awkward? Sexist?
To many, this sentence might sound perfectly fine. But change the subject of the sentence to a man, and it sounds ridiculous.
“Henry Johnston begins to work as a portrait artist in Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, making him the first known professional man artist in America.”
Every bit of me resists the phrase “professional man artist” because “man” is a noun and nouns don’t qualify other nouns. I feel the exact same way about “professional woman artist.” On top of the appalling grammar, the phrase evokes a subtle form of sexism. You might be thinking that the adjectival use of woman is somehow rare. Unfortunately, “woman” is used as an adjective regularly. Start listening, you’ll hear “woman doctor,” “woman cop,” “woman lawyer” regularly.
It’s bad enough that many feel the need to qualify certain nouns (often professions) with a feminine adjective, that otherwise would not be given a masculine adjective: “Female cop caught on video demanding N100 bribe arrested.” There is something infinitely worse about creating a grammatical exception for the same purpose. It says that whatever you’re describing as “woman,” is so anomalous that it needs its own rule. At this point, many of you may be rolling your eyes. You might think that with the wage gap, sexual violence in the military, or the treatment of women in developing nations, a small grammatical rule is far from a priority.
Language is learned. By using “woman” instead of “female,” you help to destroy a harmonious parallel: male and female. “Male” and “woman” institutionalizes inequality in the very way we communicate. The subtlety of “woman” is exactly what gives it power. When a child learns the language, they are unconsciously learning sexism. I hope I’ve ruined “woman” for you, I hope every time you hear “woman doctor” you’ll realize the utter stupidity of that phrase. I want to make you conscious of your language. So people of all genders, let’s reclaim “female.”