To gender or not to gender? (Thoughts prompted by the death of Zaha Hadid)

Last week, after Zaha Hadid’s death was announced, someone I know posted on Facebook: ‘It’s annoying that the coverage keeps referring to her as “the world’s most prominent female architect”. Why not “one of the world’s most prominent architects?”’

Most people who responded agreed that it was sexist to put Hadid into a subcategory of ‘female architects’ rather than acknowledging her status as one of the leading figures in contemporary architecture, period. But one person dissented, arguing that since it’s still harder for women to succeed in most professions, drawing attention to Hadid’s sex underlined rather than detracting from her achievements. This commenter also felt that highlighting women’s successes explicitly was important, because it helped to inspire other women and girls.

‘To gender or not to gender’ is a question that has also divided feminist linguists. Robin Lakoff, author of the influential early text Language and Woman’s Place, is among those who have argued that using gender-marked language has a profoundly negative effect. In 2007 she explained to William Safire (who wrote the New York Times’s language column until his death in 2009),

The use of either woman or female with terms such as ‘president, speaker, doctor, professor’ 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’).

She went on:

Every time we say ‘woman president’, we reinforce the 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.

What Safire had actually asked her about was an old grammatical shibboleth. Pedants insist that referring to someone as a ‘woman architect/ doctor/professor’ is ungrammatical, because a noun can only be premodified by an adjective, not another noun. In their view, therefore, it should be ‘female architect/doctor/professor’. This, incidentally, is bullshit. Countless everyday English expressions are constructed on the ‘noun + noun’ model: for instance, ‘apple tree’, ‘dog collar’, ‘garden shed’ and ‘wedding ring’. Adjectives can fill the same slot, but there’s no law reserving it for their exclusive use. In any case, Lakoff derailed the ‘woman v female’ debate by declaring that the right answer was ‘neither’. Women should just be called by the same word we use for men.

But the pedants obviously didn’t get that memo: last year, when Hillary Clinton announced the start of her campaign, there was a new outbreak of handwringing about whether she should be referred to (in the event she’s elected) as a ‘woman president’ or a ‘female president’. On one side we had the usual objection that ‘woman’ is ungrammatical, while on the other we had people saying that ‘female’ was disrespectful—more appropriate for describing livestock than the leader of the free world.

What no one seemed to be asking was Lakoff’s question, why the president’s sex needs to be specified at all. True, if Clinton wins in November there will be a ton of ‘America elects its first ____ president’ stories, and someone will have to decide what to fill the blank with. But after that, we can surely just refer to her as ‘the President’. It’s not as if people are going to confuse her with all the other serving presidents of the US. Or even with her husband, a former US president. We’re talking about a nation that elected two presidents named George Bush: they ought to be able to manage without constant reminders that Hillary is the female President Clinton.

But what about the idea that there is value in drawing attention to the achievements of women as women? Some feminist linguists do favour using gender-marked language to make women’s presence in the world more visible. Even if you accept Lakoff’s argument that  referring to ‘a woman X’ rather than just ‘an X’ reinforces the perception that ‘Xs’ are prototypically men, there are reasons to doubt whether using unmarked terms does much to shift that perception. Research suggests that gender- neutral occupational labels are still typically interpreted as referring to men where the role they denote is culturally stereotyped as male (e.g. ‘lorry driver’ or ‘firefighter’). Replacing gender-specific terms with generic/inclusive ones seems not to override people’s real-world understanding of the relationship between gender and occupational status.

My own view (as usual) is that there isn’t a single, simple linguistic solution to this problem. It’s a decision I think you have to make case by case, because so much depends on the specifics of the context. And the effect will also depend on how any gender-marking is done, using what specific label.For instance, there are contexts in which I would refer to someone as ‘a woman writer’ (as well as contexts where I would simply call them ‘a writer’). But there are no contexts in which I would use the term ‘authoress’, because that word does not just convey that the writer is a woman, it also implies that her work is trivial and inferior.

The baggage that has become attached to certain words in the course of their history of being used is relevant to the great ‘woman v. female’ debate. In his column on the subject, William Safire expressed surprise and disappointment that feminists now seemed to prefer ‘woman’ to ‘female’ and ‘gender’ to ‘sex’. He put this down to a growing cultural squeamishness, describing those who have ‘turned against’ biological terms as ‘faint-hearted sociological euphemists’. Readers who know more about feminist theory than Safire did will be aware that the ‘sex/gender’ question is complicated. But in the case of ‘woman/female’ there are more straightforward reasons for preferring ‘woman’ to ‘female’–and they have little to do with squeamishness about biology.

‘Female’ is not just interchangeable with ‘woman’, as you immediately realize when you look at a corpus (a large collection of authentic examples). My own quick-and-dirty search of the 100 million-word British National Corpus turned up a crop of ‘female’ examples like these:

1. My poor Clemence was as helpless a female as you’d find in a long day’s march
2. ‘Stupid, crazy female’, was all he said as he set about bandaging it.
3. A call yesterday involved giving the chatty female at the other end one’s address.

These are typical examples of the use of ‘female’ as a noun, and they all involve a male speaker making a disparaging judgment on the individual he’s referring to. The judgments would remain disparaging if you substituted ‘woman’ for ‘female’, but to my mind they would be less unequivocally contemptuous. Whereas ‘woman’ can feature in positive as well as negative judgments, it’s hard to think of any context in which the noun ‘female’ is used to praise its referent: no one would say, for instance, ‘my late grandmother was an absolutely marvellous female’.

Does the contempt conveyed by the noun ‘female’ have anything to do with its being, as Safire suggests, more biological than sociological? In the examples I’ve just quoted there isn’t any explicit reference to biology, but in some cases the term does seem to have been chosen to foreground the issue of biological sex difference, and the motive for this may be overtly anti-feminist.

Here, for instance, is what a Texas businesswoman named Cheryl Rios posted on Facebook after Hillary Clinton announced that she was running for president:

A female shouldn’t be president. …with the hormones we have there is no way we should be able to start a war. Yes I run my own business and I love it and I am great at it BUT that is not the same as being the president, that should be left to a man, a good, strong, honorable man.

When challenged she stood by her comment, saying: ‘The president of the United States, to me, should be a man, and not a female’.

What’s striking here is the way Rios uses the non-parallel terms ‘a female’ and ‘a man’ (rather than contrasting ‘a female’ with ‘a male’ or ‘a woman’ with ‘a man’). The consistency with which she does it suggests it isn’t just a random accident. It may not be a fully conscious choice, but she has evidently chosen her words to mirror her general proposition that women, unlike men, are in thrall to their biology, and are consequently unfit to hold the highest office.

There’s nothing ‘faint-hearted’ about objecting to the label ‘female’ when it’s used in this way and for this purpose. But that doesn’t mean we have to object to all uses of it for all purposes: as always with language, it’s horses for courses. For instance, it doesn’t bother me when I read in a scientific paper that the researchers ‘recruited a balanced sample of male and female subjects’. In a discussion of sex I’d be more likely to refer to ‘the female orgasm’ than ‘the woman’s orgasm’. Conversely I’d be more likely to say ‘women’s underwear’ than ‘female underwear’ (and don’t even get me started on ‘Female Toilet’: when it comes to that phrase I am, unashamedly, a pedant. Sex is a characteristic of toilet users, not toilets themselves.)

But this discussion of the merits of competing terms does not resolve the larger question of whether it’s desirable to use any kind of gender-marking in references to women like Hillary Clinton and Zaha Hadid. Hadid herself had a view on this (one which, interestingly, seems to have changed over time). She’s been quoted as saying:

I used to not like being called a ‘woman architect’: I’m an architect, not just a woman architect. Guys used to tap me on the head and say, ‘You are okay for a girl.’ But I see the incredible amount of need from other women for reassurance that it could be done, so I don’t mind that at all.

It’s not hard to understand why successful women in heavily male-dominated fields so often say, ‘I don’t want to be judged as a woman, I want to be judged on my merits as an astronaut/conductor/ mathematician’. But the reality is that women can’t avoid being judged as women; whatever we say or do, we can’t make the world treat our sex as an irrelevance or a minor detail. And maybe we shouldn’t want it to be treated in that way. Another thing Zaha Hadid said on this subject was:

People ask, ‘what’s it like to be a woman architect?’ I say ‘I don’t know, I’ve not been a man’.

As this answer implies, sex and gender shape every individual’s life-experience: the difference between men and women isn’t that men aren’t affected by their maleness, it’s only that they are rarely asked to ponder its effects. Women, by contrast, are endlessly required to explain how their femaleness influences everything they do.

If Hadid herself declined to play this game, others were happy to play it for her, both during her life and after her death. Here, for instance, is what Bust (an online magazine that bills itself as ‘a cheeky celebration of all things female’) had to say last week:

The world became a little less whimsical today with the loss of Zaha Hadid. The Queen of Curve, who was widely regarded as the most famous living female architect in the world, passed away today at the age of 65.

It’s hard to imagine that future obituaries of male ‘starchitects’ like Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano will use words like ‘whimsical’. I chose to mention these two because they designed (among other things) the somewhat whimsical Pompidou Centre in Paris–while Hadid designed (among other things) the not-so-whimsical Maggie’s Cancer Care Centre in Kircaldy. As you’ll see from the illustration, this example of her work demonstrates her skill with straight lines and sharp angles. Nevertheless, she’s ‘The Queen of Curve’. Oddly enough, when men design curved structures, like Norman Foster’s dome over the Reichstag in Berlin, that isn’t seized on as their unique signature, nor do people routinely compare the buildings to female body parts.

‘To gender or not to gender’ remains a tricky question. In language as in life, what we need is a middle way. Women should not be defined entirely by their sex; but nor should we have to disclaim it entirely to be given whatever credit our contributions to the world deserve.

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