‘The man doctor will see you now’

I love Woman’s Hour. It’s a super program, full of thoughtful, passionate women talking about things that actually matter. I admit that there is sometimes an almost audible grinding of gears as they segue from (say) an interview about women being stoned to death in Iran for adultery to (say) an earnest discussion of whether the maxi dress is back, but otherwise this is good radio. Today, however, the phrase ‘women politicians’ issued from the speaker and I can’t let that go.

‘Woman’ is a noun. ‘Women’ is a noun. Nouns. Not adjectives. NOUNS. The adjectival form is, strictly speaking, ‘womanly’ and I’d pay good money to hear someone refer to, I don’t know, Theresa May, as a ‘womanly politician’ (‘she’s womanly, by which I mean it’s legitimate for us to talk about her shoes rather than her policies’). We should not be saying or writing ‘women doctors, ‘women politicians’ or ‘woman presidential candidate’, but ‘doctors’, ‘politicians’ and ‘Hillary Clinton’, because in none of those cases is the gender of the person concerned remotely relevant to what they are doing (even in Hillary Clinton’s case, this is true: she may be remarkable in part for what she is doing for women and the way we are perceived, but she would still be a remarkable politician if she were male, especially with regard to her work on Chinese stoves, of all things).[1] Therefore the word ‘woman’ is not only grammatically dubious but redundant. If one is speaking or writing about a situation in which gender is relevant (e.g. a discussion of whether ladies will be allowed to become bishops in the Church of England, or whether all the excellent women should simply splinter off and form our own church, leaving the sexist rump to arrange their own Goddamn flowers), then one should say ‘female bishops’.

As with so much in grammar, it’s largely a matter of opinion as to whether it’s acceptable to use ‘woman’ as what we call an apposite noun i.e. a noun that is used to modify, identify or explain another noun. The argument goes that, firstly, using ‘woman’ as an adjective (‘woman bishop’) changes the modified noun (‘bishop’) more than using ‘female’ would, and therefore the ‘woman-ness’ of the bishop in question is emphasised. Secondly, ‘woman’ only ever denotes adult female[2] humans, whereas ‘female’ could refer to anything from a whale to a statue, and therefore using ‘woman’ is more respectful.

I think both these arguments are nonsense. Firstly, I think that emphasising the gender of the bishop (or the doctor, or the pilot, or whatever) is simply a way of folding sexism into the grammar, as one might fold an unnecessary flavouring into an otherwise pleasant cake. It’s a way of saying, ‘hark at me! A woman pilot! A pilot who is also a woman! HOW CAN THIS BE?’ See, for example, the splendid old-fashioned chauvinism of She’ll Never Get Off The Ground by Robert J. Serling,[3] a novel that makes its intentions clear in the subtitle: A novel about a woman airline pilot …?![4]. The awkwardness of the language (and no-one can tell me that ‘woman airline pilot’ trips off the tongue) echoes the awkwardness that we are supposed to feel about the whole concept (see also ‘midhusband’ and ‘male nurse’). Secondly, I suppose it might be argued that being referred to as ‘female’ is degrading because the same word could equally be applied to a cow wandering vacantly round a field, a spider with half her mate sticking out of her mouth or a dog that’s licking itself, and so it can, and I don’t think that matters at all. What does matter is that ‘female’ cannot be used to denote something intended for use by females e.g. ‘female toilet’. This implies that the toilet itself has gender, which of course it doesn’t. The toilet is not female, any more than a skirt or a bra or a tampon is female; toilets, skirts, bras and tampons are, mostly, for the use of females.[5] I suspect that this horrible phrase is used to avoid the knotty question of how to punctuate the possessive plural (Ladies’ Toilet, the toilet for ladies). If you don’t know how to punctuate a possessive plural, wouldn’t it be better to ask someone with a basic education how to do it, rather than choose a different word to misuse as a workaround? Females objecting to being called ‘female’ is so stupid that I almost can’t be bothered to refute it. ‘Female’ is a perfectly good word. It’s not remotely offensive (or, if it is, it’s a lot less offensive when applied to a woman that it is when applied to a toilet).

Consider French grammar for a moment. David Sedaris says the following:

Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine. Forced by the grammar to take a stand one way or the other, hermaphrodite is male, and indecisiveness female … I was told that if something is unpleasant, it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache and Rollerblade.[6]

The word elles refers to a group of women. The word ils refers to a group of men. Ils also refers to a mixed group, made up of equal numbers of men and women. It can refer to a mixed group in which women predominate and a group in which they don’t. This tiny word ils can, in fact, denote a group made up almost entirely of women, provided that the group also contains a man. Or a male baby. Or a male dog. In other words, the masculinity of a single panting dachshund (even a comparatively effeminate one) in that group, a group which could contain thousands of women, trumps the existence of every single woman there. The same applies in Spanish (and no doubt many other languages that I’m not familiar with). This, it seems to me, is highly objectionable and should be challenged (and changed). Grammar changes all the time, usually for the worse through sloppy usage. It can, therefore, change for the better if enough people decide that it should. This is a battle worth fighting: women objecting to being described as ‘female’, I would argue, is not.[7]

We should seek equality in all things, including grammar. One does not say ‘the man bishops today decided that, actually, some of them would quite like to arrange their own flowers’, any more than one might say ‘the cabinet is made up primarily of man politicians’ or ‘the man doctor will see you now’. We say simply ‘the bishops’, ‘of politicians’ and ‘the doctor’, because we all assume (as does the grammar) that the gender of these people does not need to be stated. This should be on the grounds of irrelevance, but actually, of course, it doesn’t need to be stated because we know what their gender is already: they are all men. This is the default position of both society and the English language: the word ‘man’ would be removed from ‘man doctor’ on the same grounds of redundancy as I suggested above. So the uncomfortable compromise we have reached is to say ‘doctors’ to denote male doctors, and ‘women doctors’ to denote something freakish.[9] This contradicts the basic purpose of grammar, which is to remove ambiguity of meaning from language. ‘Woman doctor’ is anti-grammar: it introduces ambiguity in the meaning. Does it refer to a woman who is also a doctor, a doctor who primarily treats conditions found only in women (as one might say ‘bone doctor’ or similar), or perhaps some kind of weird hybrid of a woman and a doctor, using ‘woman doctor’ as one might use ‘witch doctor’? ‘Doctor’, however, is clear; and ‘female doctor’, in a situation where the gender of the doctor matters, is clear; and ‘man doctor’ is just silly.[10]


[1] Notice how her opponents can’t stop reminding you that she’s a woman. Why is that important? Because political leaders are men, Indira Ghandi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Mary McAleese, Aung San Suu Kyî, Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama and Nicola Sturgeon notwithstanding, we assume. I should also point out that strong female politicians are now such a commonplace that, while I admit I checked a couple of spellings, I didn’t have any trouble in coming up with this list off the top of my head. Rather than attack Clinton’s policies, her opponents attack what they consider to be her weak spot (her gender), and they do it in a way that would be beneath a group of sexist teenagers, most recently with badges that read ‘KFC Hillary Special: two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing’. What can one say about a group of people so profoundly childish, other than ‘FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T VOTE THESE PEOPLE INTO PUBLIC OFFICE!’?

[2] Did you see what I did there?

[3] Mr. Serling is also the author of The President’s Plane is Missing, which was presumably being flown by a woman who wanted to stop off on the way to Washington to purchase a pair of tights and some lipstick. It appears at number 13 in a diverting list of terrible book titles, which also includes the ‘Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories’ at number 25, a title that has grammatical problems all of its own in the dangling modifier is-it-being-used-as-a-noun-or-an-adjective? confusion created by the placement of the word ‘Lesbian’. Are these stories about horses for lesbians, stories about horses and lesbians, or stories about lesbian horses? (‘Strangely Brown Beauty’s nostrils flared. She certainly hadn’t expected to be entered at Aintree’).

[4] The incredulous suspension points and interrobang (compound question mark/exclamation mark) also won Most Insulting Use of Punctuation 1967.

[5] One sees this on Ebay every day: ‘Woman’s dress, size 16’ says the heading. As opposed to …?

[6] And Professor John Raven. A role model for small, as yet un-heteronormatived/gender-role’d children if ever I saw one.

[7] He’s quite right: the French word for vagina (le vagin) is masculine, despite a. coming from a feminine Latin root and b. OH COME ON. David Sedaris (2000), ‘Make That a Double’, from Me Talk Pretty One Day (London, Abacus), p. 188.

[8] You can read more about the woman/female debate in the New York Times. Or just use an adjective as an adjective and a noun as a noun and stop pissing me off.

[9] Thereby reinforcing the idea that a woman attempting to also be a doctor is something to be exclaimed over.

[10] I hope we can all enjoy the clash of stereotypes here: a man can be a doctor, but if he’s unwell he doesn’t have to go and consult a doctor until parts of his body start turning black and withering away.

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