I’ve been having an interesting discussion on Twitter about the use of ‘female’ vs ‘woman’.

I finally decided that 140 characters at a time was just not enough space to describe what I’m trying to say.

First, some background. NASA posted a short bit about 4 woman astronauts. I replied to them ‘why not female astronauts – you wouldn’t say man astronauts.’

That got some, shall we say, interesting responses. The knee jerk ones from folks that have an agenda that I pushed a button for. And a couple of thoughtful ones.

What I’m expanding on here is a discussion with @aspiringcat. A thoughtful discussion, a person with definite feelings that knows how to discuss without ranting. She pointed me to a site that talks about the use of the words ‘female’ and ‘woman’:¬†Daily Writing Tips – female or woman¬†which has a discussion on the usage.

The comments from folks are split about 50/50 with the usual smattering of folks just spouting off.

I thanked @aspiringcat for the link and said that it just didn’t sound right – if you substitute ‘man’ for ‘woman’ and it doesn’t make sense then it isn’t correct.

She had a couple of responses, one of which was ‘Some things are more important than prescriptive grammar. The main point is: at times it’s better to sound stupid rather than rude’

So I said ‘So what if I don’t talk stupid and others think it’s rude? Should I talk stupid so others don’t think it’s rude? Just asking.’

To me, saying things that don’t sound correct – and, grammatically are not correct, to avoid conflict with some part of the audience just doesn’t make sense.

If, in fact, I posted something on Twitter about ‘female woodworkers’ there’s a portion of the audience that is going to take offense because I’m being derogatory. Even when I’m not. I won’t even mention gender if it’s not relevant.

If I said something along the lines of ‘You should see the finials that Cindy Drozda, the female woodturner, makes you’d be amazed’ then the audience should take offense. In this case the use of the word ‘female’ is derogatory. In my mind the use of the word ‘woman’ would be just as derogatory. There’s no need for a gender qualification in that statement. (By the way, Cindy Drozda is an amazing woodturner – take a moment or three and look her up if you don’t already know of her work.)

The problem with being politically correct (and I see this as an aspect of political correctness) is that you’re already assuming things about your audience. You’ve already been prejudicial towards them. You’ve decided that they are going to take offense at the proper use of the language and must be sheltered.

Do I recognize that the term female has been used in a derogatory manner in that past? And sometimes today as well? Yes. Do I feel the results of that use? No – I’ve never been female. As @aspiringcat said ‘I guess one point is it sounds wrong to you because you aren’t a woman and haven’t experienced “female” used derogatorily.’ And she’s correct. I have not.

She goes on to say ‘ Insistence on a sort of linguistic purity should not inhibit people’s ability to communicate effectively & without unintended harm’

My response is that I can’t speak without someone thinking they’re being harmed. In some respects you could say that I’m being ‘harmed’ when the use of the word ‘woman’ is used when ‘female’ is more appropriate.

In the context of the original posting from @NASA does anyone think that they would have used the word female as derogatory? I don’t think so. They used a different gender specific word. Did they even need a gender specific word? The picture of the 4 astronauts would have plainly shown they were female and they would have just been classified as astronauts.

What more is needed?

Still, I thank @aspiringcat for a thoughtful, reasoned discussion of the issue. It’s one we still disagree on but it did provide things to ponder.