He Keeps Calling Us ‘Females’

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst for The Chronicle

By Ms. Mentor 

Question (from "Elsie"): I am on a high-level university commission to study the status of ("X"). One commission member, "Bob," persists in referring to me and the other two women on the commission as "females." And not just us: Students and staff members of our type are also "females" in his eyes. Sometimes it’s ludicrous, but often it’s annoying. Should I say something, Ms. Mentor? Or are you OK with being called "a female"?

Answer: Ms. Mentor is not "OK with being called ‘a female.’" She is a sage, and so are you — or you would not be on the commission. She agrees that there’s something disrespectful about being called "a female." It feels agricultural. She wonders if she should check her udders.

Most likely Elsie’s colleague doesn’t realize what he’s doing. "Never attribute to malice what may just be incompetence" is a good slogan for our barbarous age. Many academics get into the habit of not listening to themselves, because they’ve heard their own lectures so many times before. Or they may be multithinking, which — like multitasking — is less efficient than concentrating on a single task.

Elsie’s colleague may also be the kind of man — there are some — who shies away from the word "woman." Maybe as a youngster he heard it growled, low in the gut the way blues singers do, "Woe — man." (She done left him. She done him wrong with her wicked Jezebel ways.) Maybe Bob got the idea that the word "woman" is intimate or sexy, and not what serious professional people say on the job.

Ms. Mentor is, this time, clearly trendy in her advice. In October 2014, Buzzfeed wrote the very helpful, "6 Reasons You Should Stop Referring to Women as ‘Females’ Right Now." Jezebel took up the cause with a similar post in 2015, and then last summer, the blogger Grammar Girl raised the issue again, explaining the proper usage of "females" versus "women." Apparently this is an issue that requires continuing vigilance.

There is also a lot of hiding from the word "woman" nowadays, Ms. Mentor notes. Someone in publishing seems to have decided that girls — but not women — are more enticing to book buyers. Recent best-sellers have included The Girl on the Train, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Gone Girl, and more. "Girls" in these sagas often wind up as victims, psychopaths, and/or dead. "Girl" used to mean a prepuberty person — but now it seems to mean a grown woman who is either unusually vulnerable or unusually evil.

"Gal" is sometimes used, informally. Ms. Mentor thinks of cowboys or maybe "dudes." It’s not a term for professors, scholars, and administrators in higher education. Save it for the rodeo.

"But what about ‘lady’?" asked "Allen," a courtly gentleman who added, "Isn’t that more polite and respectful?"

No, not quite, says Ms. Mentor. "Lady" is a controlling term — one that traditionally requires the person to whom that label is attached to have a soft voice, a vulnerable demeanor, a reliance on the judgments of others. Academic women are no longer expected to cross their legs in a certain way, or wear hats and gloves, or pour tea. A "lady" isn’t expected to be forthright about, say, politics — or even sports, the universal male language.

Mother Mary Jones, the legendary labor organizer and a hero for all women who persist, said that "God Almighty made the women, but the Rockefeller gang of thieves created the ladies. Whatever your fight, don’t be ladylike."

Nor should you, of course, accept being called any of the other crude terms for your gender. In some social circles, "bitch" is now a term of praise, a recognition of a powerful, outspoken woman. Ms. Mentor doesn’t mind that, and — yes — her readers do sometimes apply that term to her august self. She can cope.

But "bitch" doesn’t belong in an academic setting. Nor do the cruder words that we all know. (Ms. Mentor will have a rare fit of ladylikeness, and pass over those words in silence.)

But how can Elsie get her colleague to use the simple, accurate word, "woman"?

  • She can interrupt and correct him: "Bob, I’m a woman. It’s OK to say ‘woman.’" Most likely some critic at the committee table will tell Elsie she is being "trivial." Someone may even mansplain to tell her she’s derailing an important discussion.
  • She can send a note to the meeting chair. "Would you remind the committee that we are ‘women,’ not females? It’s awkward to be described as a mammal." That might work better, in that it’s a little bit humorous — like the late Christopher Hitchens’ insistence on referring to people as "mammals" in his last books.
  • Or Elsie might confront Bob with a little aw-shucks humor, "Bob, I’m sorry, but when you say ‘female,’ I don’t have a mental image of grown women. I think of how songs would be different with that word: ‘You make me feel like a natural female’ or ‘Oh, Oh, pretty female.’ It might be better to use the word ‘woman.’"

Ms. Mentor knows there’ll be objections to Elsie saying, "I’m sorry." Women do apologize too much — and are often expected to apologize even when they’re not at fault. But "never apologize, never explain" does not always work for women, thrust up against social expectations. Ms. Mentor suggests thinking of "I’m sorry" as a diversionary trick — a conversational strategy like clearing one’s throat or having a coughing fit during a very boring pontification. It saves time.

So does nudging Bob to change his words ("I think ‘woman’ is more collegial") rather than confronting him ("Watch your mouth, Piggy"). "I think" works better than "you should." "You" always sounds like an accusation.

Elsie’s goal, after all, isn’t to smite Bob (or at least she hasn’t said so). She just wants him to change his language to acknowledge the maturity and wisdom of women on the committee. Calling his colleagues by their true and noble category — "women" — recognizes their dignity and their perspicacity.

Ms. Mentor is always OK with that.

Question: I’m new to the South, so I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that our new university president is referred to as "a good old boy." Should I be wary?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor, as is her seasonal wont, is gearing up for her annual Ackies — the column (or two) on academic novels for summer reading.

She invites nominations, author and title, especially of new or newish books. Ms. Mentor is not a snob, and in the past has reviewed works by the likes of Aristophanes and Jane Smiley, as well as Taboo: Professor Wants Me Pregnant, by one Lauren Fremont. Please send nominations by mid-April.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. Predictions and maledictions are welcome. Ms. Mentor regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are scrambled, and anonymity is guaranteed. Your problem may be unique — or not.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is Ms.Mentor@chronicle.com.

c Emily Toth.


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