In another Words column from the Boston Globe, the question of female versus woman arose when Christa Kelleher, research director at UMass Boston’s Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy, e-mailed to ask which word went with politicians. Was it okay to say woman senator or female senator (or both)?
The column brings up an interesting point and that is female as a noun is fine in contemporary language, but the adjective has come by a negative connotation and is avoided by most people these days. So when we say female senator, it’s using female the noun, not the adjective. Nouns can pull double duty as adjectives, like cat food, bubble wrap etc.
The idea that there might be a difference between female and woman, reminds me of the difference between sex and gender. I learned in freshmen year, there’s a huge difference between those two words. But is there a huge difference between female and woman? I don’t think so, other than the rules of a noun and an adjective in terms of their use. I looked up female in the Oxford English Dictionary (Hofstra has a subscription) and a lot of the definitions somehow included female. The same went for woman (which is also a verb but not an adjective) but it didn’t seem as many definitions had female included.
As the article points out, the idea that we distinguish between man senators and woman senators (or at least highlight the ones that are female with a woman/female label in front of Senator) doesn’t transfer over to judges. Maybe because we don’t usually elect judges. We want to applaud ourselves for electing a diverse candidate. (Black President anyone?) And in the end, there isn’t a distinction between a female senator and a woman senator, as both words are proper English. So why bother even saying woman/female senator then?