There is a strong difference in meaning between the nounification (a made-up word) of “females” versus “women.” It’s rare for women, especially educated women, to refer to themselves as “females” because they understand the negative connotations. There’s a difference in the phrase, “Look at that woman,” versus, “Look at that female.” Female what?
Everyday language is something our society tends to overlook, simply because we don’t really think about it. It’s an aspect of our society that isn’t determined by legislation, for example.
“Female” is offensive because it defines women solely by their anatomy — it reduces women to the sex only, without any reference to their humanity, which is what “women” suggests. With “female,” people immediately think of any animal that has evolved for reproduction, namely by having a vagina and a womb, among other physical traits. But with “women,” on the other hand, people think of persons, we think of humans. “Female” is degrading because it reduces our humanity to an animalistic marker.
“Women” acknowledges our humanity.
For example, using “Third World countries” used to be an acceptable phrase, but then political scientists recently realized that it was an offensive term because of its negative connotations. Now “lesser developed nations” is used. These terms change within academia by academics and eventually catch on by the larger public.
In this history of womankind, our humanity has been reduced to our reproductive/sexual “destinies” and “purposes.” However, in the 20th century, the world slowly began seeing women apart from their female characteristics, apart from their roles as mothers, sex objects, wives. The simple change in a word can change a person’s humanity. What a wonderful thing language is! “Women” encompasses intellect, purpose, identity, etc. Calling women “females” reduces them to merely their function, and functionalism is a bogus theory anyway.
Really, the only way I see our society changing its perspective on gender biases is through educated women. Eighteenth century French philosopher Poulain De La Barre (who was a former priest, feminist and a man) once quipped, “Everything that has been written by men about women should be viewed with suspicion because they are both judge and party.” Within the academy lies the marketplace of ideas. Educated women learn how to think, and they learn how to be sensitive to and cautious of all information they seek and of all information that is thrown at them.
The more educated a person becomes, the more aware the person becomes of the injustices within the interstices of our society. An educated person has a wider palette of knowledge, extending to a variety of disciplines. The art world, for example, is composed mainly of highly educated people. With this brings an awareness of, say, the Guerrilla Girls. Without the Guerrilla Girls, those within the art world would have remained ignorant of facts like “Less than five percent of the artists in the Modern Art sections (of the Met) are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.” This was then brought to the greater public by the educated Guerrilla Girls. When people go to museums, they mainly focus on the art, not the gender biases within the institution. Without participating in the academy, people wouldn’t be aware of the fact that the amount of women in philosophy rank lower than the physical sciences.
The reason why educated women are really the only ones who can change these disturbing facts is that they have the greatest incentive. These numbers have been worse throughout history, with men dominating most fields. Not much awareness occurred until women became more educated. Uneducated women and girls really only see pseudo-feminists like Beyoncé (who calls women “bitches” and focuses only on sexual self-expression) as the authority on women’s plight because they’re present in their everyday. The issues that the media perpetuate are a surface-level problem that everyone is pretty much already aware of but can’t do much about because the money is just too good.
The way to actually mold our collective mindset is to go through the pipes and air vents of society, i.e., our language and institutions. Understanding that offensive terms, like “female” as a noun for a woman, become offensive through heightened awareness and education.
Educated women are finally entering and are influencing the intellectual veins of society. Because they are becoming participants in the formal and informal institutions of our society, they simply cannot ignore the injustices occurring in places like museums or our own government, like men have been doing for centuries, because their incentives to reach self-actualization and equality with men are ultimately self-serving. Such injustices hinder a woman’s ability to reach her full potential as a person.
And so educated women are changing these injustices along the way. By starting small with the informal institution of language and the formal institution of the workplace or art museums, educated women are the no-longer silent voices behind our society’s gender biases. Women don’t have to picket outside the Supreme Court Building anymore or march outside the Capitol. They can be inside these buildings with college degrees and their egalitarian call of duty.
Opinion editor Alley Jordan is a senior political science and classics major.